REVIEW: BLUE CHIPS 7000 By Action Bronson

“I like making full plates,” Action Bronson said of his music in a recent No Jumper interview and as a longtime fan of the anomalous MC, I can say that Bronson’s been making full plates for listeners since Bon Appetit…Bitch, back in 2011.  While it’s clear that Bronson is in a whole other stratosphere than he was back when I first saw the “Imported Goods” video (you’ll notice, for one, that his sound is no longer primarily in the boom-bap realm), the man continues to provide his own unique stew of artistry, replete with trademark absurdism and obscure references touching on everything from ’80s action flicks to fine cuisine to bodybuilders.

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ALBUM REVIEW: FLOWER BOY By Tyler The Creator

How does one go about dropping a major rap album in the crater left by Jay-Z’s recent master-work, 4:44? If you’re Tyler The Creator, you drop a whole other animal entirely, but one that’s similarly brief (at 46 minutes), but with a lot to unpack. Flower Boy is Tyler The Creator’s fourth album and, just to get right to it, a project that will probably mark a pivotal moment in his career, as it’s sure to have people checking for him who weren’t before.

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Review: Droptopwop x Gucci Mane & Metro Boomin’

It’s been years since I’ve actively checked for a Gucci Mane record. To be clear, I’m not one of those rap critics who dismiss Southern rap – quite the opposite, actually. Gucci Mane’s career snd importance to the culture is criminally overlooked in my opinion – partly because of his own output, though. The problem with Gucci Mane is that for every good record he’s ever put out, there are hundreds that should have never left the studio. Gucci Mane is certainly talented and witty when he wants to be, but stretching that too thin while trying to remain relevant through taking the kitchen sink approach to mixtape output only results in an MC being consistently overlooked when the time comes to give credit where it’s due.

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Review: Rather You Than Me :: Rick Ross

Let’s be clear – Rick Ross can rap. However, he also rarely sheds the immovable heel persona he’s known for, so it’s difficult to see the glint of talent shining amidst the corner he’s painted himself into creatively. But the man can definitely rap when he puts his mind to it. On Rather You Than Me, Rick Ross delivers exactly what’s expected of him in the way of big, blustering records to ride around to alongside a few soulful, more luxurious tracks so as not to confuse an album for a mixtape. The heel persona slips away on certain records, revealing a more thoughtful, vulnerable mafioso than we’re used to hearing from.

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[Album Review] Views :: Drake

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Drake Stans spent the better part of last year trying to convince the hip hop community that writing one’s own rhymes is unimportant in the wake of their mans’ beef with Meek Mill. In my opinion, Meek played himself by thinking that people who are fans of Drake’s would care about writing rhymes – not to mention the fact that Drake was no wizard in terms of penning rewindable bars in the first place, ghostwriter or not. This is the guy who makes music for guys who go through their girlfriends’ phones when they’re not looking and girls whose rap knowledge doesn’t go any farther back than 2010 or so. To be clear – rhymes matter, as does writing them, and Drake’s latest album is a perfect example of why.

I have a lot of fun cracking wise about Drake and his fans, but the truth is I’m always listening for a rapper to surprise me. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surprises on Drake’s latest LP, even for people who were looking forward to this thing with bated breath. Views dropped on the heels of me first hearing “Summer Sixteen” not long ago, a record I was surprised to find that I actually liked…probably due to the rapping being at the forefront. Unfortunately, this song doesn’t appear on the album.

“Hotline Bling” is an undeniable jam. It’s textbook in-my-feels Drake, but it isn’t directly derivative of anything else, which is refreshing for a Drake record. Plus, he isn’t really trying to sing on it, just rapping kind of melodically. I think it’s fortunate for Drake that his “era” is one known as the a la carte era of music consumption, where most music fans don’t even remember a time when they had to sit down and listen to most albums front to back and really spend time with them vs. putting their favorite jams on shuffle or just playing only what you want to hear at a given moment. Drake’s nasally, studio-doctored vocals on every single track can be insufferable at times, but I don’t think that’s as much of an issue now as it would have been at a time when really sitting with an album was the norm.

I particularly enjoyed the song “Grammys”, though for reasons that have nothing to do with Drake himself. I find it hilarious that guest Future manages to completely wash Drake on a song where your mans boldly declares “top five, no debating” followed by “topfivetopfivetopfive“, as if he’s trying to hypnotize the listener into agreeing with that ludicrous statement (top five Canadian rappers, I’ll give you…partially because I can’t think of five at the moment). Not even close, homeboy. But this is one record I can definitely see not tomahawk dunking into the recycle bin as soon as I’m done with this review. Infinite soul daps to whoever manages to chef me up a Future-only version (funny thing about this entire paragraph is that I’m not even a Future fan).

“U With Me?” jacks DMX’s “How’s It Goin’ Down” word for word in parts, which I’m not mad at. Tributes can work. What’s weird is when I consider that the majority of Drake’s fans would probably be traumatized for weeks if they actually listened to It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, the album the original record was on. We don’t even need to mention the fact that last I checked, Dark Man X isn’t particularly fond of Drake. I bet he’s gonna spend whatever check he’s owed for the sample with a smile on his face, though. Hopefully he didn’t try to do DMX like he did Rappin’ 4Tay a while back.

I really wish people would stop trying to force posthumous Pimp C verses onto Drake records. Even though Bun B’s given Drake a permanent pass, those in the know also recall that it was Bun B who approved the UGK feature on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'”, while Pimp C dragged his feet purposely and finally ended up doing it, but only at Bun’s behest. If C thought “Big Pimpin'” was too pop-sounding, I can only imagine what he would have had to say about appearing anywhere on this album, let alone what he would have to say about Drake himself. This collaboration seems (and literally was) forced. This brings us to the patois-tinged “Controlla” where, for the umpteenth time, Drake adopts another region’s sound in an attempt to be all things to all people without ever giving us a feel for “the 6” as a foundation for his experimentation. As you may know, Views was originally titled Views From The 6, which is a reference to his hometown, Toronto. As Canada’s golden child, one might think Drake would take the chance at establishing a signature sound for his part of the world aside from the mopey robot sound adopted by cronies like The Weeknd and Partynextdoor. None of this homogeneous material gives me any feel whatsoever for the energy of the region, unless everyone up there sounds like drowning robots with hella personal issues to tell you about. No shots.

“Child’s Play” is easily the most childish record rap has heard since Smedium Sean’s “IDFWU”. Played-out, ignorant references to “actin’ lightskin” and trite Love & Hip-Hop fare really set the bar pretty low here. Due to the apropos title of the song, one can only hope Drake’s being tongue-in-cheek, but even in that case, the record could have remained on the cutting room floor. “Too Good” finds Drake alongside Rihanna, where even her bleating manages to outshine his tired vocals. The biggest flaw in Drake’s repertoire throughout the course of his career aside from absolutely vapid content is his insistence on singing. Call me crazy, but when I want singing, I listen to people who actually can, not rappers who play at it.

Ultimately, this is an okay album on the surface, but once you get to the lyrics, you’re bound to be disappointed…that’s if you’re an oddball like me and expect rappers to actually be good at rapping and even singers to be good at singing (imagine that). This is where the more irrational Drake fans must stand apart from fans of the craft itself. Views would be an amazing instrumental album, but the vocals and raps tend to drag it all down, like pearls before swine. Drake consistently manages to slap together some absolutely abysmal Carter 4-level metaphors and punchlines (“toying with it like Happy Meal” or the infamous “Chain-ing Tatum” line) throughout the album, giving credence to the idea that fans need to stop trying to shoehorn the rapper into discussions about top-tier MCs. He simply isn’t one. Hitmaker? Sure, but that’s a separate conversation and depends solely on what you think that title is worth in the long run, especially in a time where the lowest common denominator rap records tend to reign supreme. I see Drake as an entertainer – not a particularly compelling one, to me – but a successful one, nonetheless, for what that’s worth. People are entertained for the moment and I guess that’s what’s important in music for the time being, but I doubt if anyone will still be discussing this record next year or in the years to come. Either way, Views will bang throughout the summer or at least half of it for party-goers and anyone with a sound system to show off. At the end of the day, though, who knows? Maybe fans will start to reconsider their belief that rhymes don’t matter anymore and start demanding better quality from their idols. A critic can dream.

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[Album Review] Always Strive And Prosper :: A$AP Ferg

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I slept soundly on A$AP Ferg until some time last year when I heard the “Work” remix, featuring French Montana, Trinidad James, Schoolboy Q and fellow A$AP cohort Rocky. The energy on that record alone inspired me to pick up 2013’s Trap Lord out of curiosity (and by pick up, I mean “save” on Spotify) and I was pleasantly surprised. I slept on Ferg before this point mostly because of the disdain I have for the music of A$AP Rocky, front-runner of the A$AP crew. Something about this guy in little-sister braids calling himself “pretty” on songs that I couldn’t quite rock to. Nevertheless, Ferg brought something different to the table on Trap Lord and later records like the hilarious “Doe-Active”, which indicated an ambition beyond what his friend was offering musically.

I was fully onboard when I stumbled upon the Complex City Cypher where Ferg appeared alongside RATKING’s Wiki and one of my favorite current rappers, Your Old Droog, with jazz musician Christian Scott and band providing the musical backdrop. Ferg’s compelling verse from the cypher eventually ended up on “Beautiful People” on Always Strive And Prosper, which was much to my disappointment, one of few bright spots on the album.

“Strive” is easily the worst song on the album by far and (because I don’t usually lend my ear to things I think will be horrible) probably the worst thing I’ve heard all year. While I didn’t have high hopes for a Missy Elliott feature, her input ended up being the only salvageable part of the song for me. Ferg’s hook sounds like a rather dry imitation of dance-pop music one would expect to hear from someone not quite old enough to recall when dance and house and hip-hop used to get equal burn on the same urban radio stations. This sounded like Barbie Girl 2016. I’ll be looking forward to a remix at some point of “Swipe Life”, which unfortunately squanders a Rick Ross feature on a song with a weak concept and chorus, but a hard-hitting beat and decent input from Rozay.

The very busy “Uzi Gang” was my first introduction to the recently popular Lil Uzi Vert and I’m not surprised to be saying I won’t be looking for further material from him (the Internets tend to suck at recommending rappers). Big Sean appears on “World Is Mine”, yet again dropping the same middle-school-notebook bars that young rap fans seem inexplicably impressed with since his debut. Needless to say, that song was also a dud. I wanted to enjoy “New Level”, but Future’s guest appearance seemed like a throwaway, as if Ferg could have easily saved his imprint some cash and just paid Future’s vocal stunt double, Desiigner, instead. Oh, and “I Love You” featuring Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign was a dose of guy-with-nosering music I didn’t need in my life.

On the bright side, “Let It Bang”, an ode to wild but troubled uncles, is a song I can’t get enough of and really should have been the standard the rest of the album was held to throughout its production, seeing as how this song was released as a single relatively early on. This was a topic I can relate to personally due to losing two uncles over the past couple of years. Schoolboy Q manages to redeem himself for me after what I felt was an underwhelming last album (Oxymoron) and other recent records like “Groovy Tony” indicate he’s on an improvement streak. “Psycho” worked perfectly as an intro of sorts to “Let It Bang”, discussing the life of Ferg’s Uncle Psycho in an honest but endearing way, while Uncle Psycho himself has some dialogue that bleeds over onto the next track. The dreamy production serves well as a precursor to the energy on “Bang”.

Ferg has displayed the Drunken Master musicality and off-kilter melodic tendencies of an ODB before, but lacks the unbridled creativity to pull off the same chaos here. Ferg at times has the ferocity of a young Busta Rhymes, but seems to shy away from showing and proving that beneath all that energy he can also rhyme well, as Busta often did. Always Strive And Prosper is, to me, a botched attempt at trying to reign in some of the wildness that made Trap Lord so interesting. Even the random, seemingly freestyled loosie he dropped days before the album’s release would have been better than some of the finished records he chose for this album. Ultimately, due to the rather simple palates of many new rap fans, Ferg definitely stands to prosper from the blatantly commercial leanings of this album, but I don’t see where he’s striving to be recognized as an improving MC or one who stands out from his decidedly less creative contemporaries who don’t have the same potential I witnessed on Trap Lord.

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Not A Picasso Or A Neruda: A Review Of Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’

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It appears that Tidal is becoming the new bastion of exclusivity for out-of-touch musicians who don’t understand the needs and habits of today’s social-media-savvy music consumers. To date, The Life Of Pablo has been pirated over 500,000 times. The online feeding frenzy that occurred over the course of the album’s release weekend makes one consider what would have happened had Twitter been around for the Napster or Limewire eras. And to think the piracy would have probably been halved at minimum had West simply released the album for access on Spotify and Apple Music/iTunes. While the app rose to number one on the app store, probably in response to West’s behest of his fans to download it for exclusive access, I’d be interested to see how many people stick around for the laughable subscription fee for the problematic app, which has never held a candle to its competitors in the way of functionality from day one, yet lauds exclusivity as its main draw.

I’ve got to say I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid that made “UltraLight Beam” bearable to most early reviewers of the album. West’s affected vocals on the song just made me think of how much better this trick works for singers like Sampha or James Blake who have actual chops to back up the digital tampering. Unfortunately, actual singers The Dream and Kelly Price still don’t add much to the song. I’m not a huge fan of Chance The Rapper, but his spoken word contribution was really the only thing worth revisiting to me on this record. I’m not sure what Young Thug contributed specifically to “Highlights” given the mess of auto-tuned vocals, but Kanye’s raps on the record, a cheaply-constructed slaw of TMZ-heavy non-content, make what would normally be a mildly decent, mindless jig into a super-petty vent session for the Kanye Kardashian-Jenner persona we’d all been hoping would never rear its ugly head. It’s non-content like this that was bound to occur once we became aware of the likes of Kylie Jenner being allowed to hang in the studio (“Kylie Was Here”). It’s just hard to believe that any hip-hop classics are being made with Jenners in the studio and “Highlights” is the perfect example of that conflict of interest.

“Famous”, a high point on the album, is textbook Kanye in that he mars what could be an amazing song with typical Kanye ugliness, taking a jab at the fact that he, in his own way, made Taylor Swift famous. This may be true, but that bit of pettiness is unnecessary, as the arrangement of the record itself says more for Kanye the artist than he ever could. The Sister Nancy “Bam Bam” sample is expertly included and the new and improved Rihanna, fresh off of the game-changing ANTI (she’s never sounded better), shows up to lend an assist on the hook. “FML” featuring The Weeknd has moments of greatness blemished by moments of “Kanye, for fuck’s sake, let the singer do the singing”. However, on “Waves”, I was wishing for sweet death the moment Chris Brown’s breathy intrusion surfaced on the record, sounding like Express For Men store soundtrack fodder. TheLifeOfPablo

I think enough time has passed where some of us can openly admit that Yeezus wasn’t so much of a pushing of boundaries as it was a Kanye West vanity project. The only people really blown away by that effort were Stans, hypebeasts, and people who had never heard of Hudson Mohawke or Daft Punk before. The anti-establishment rantings weren’t really believable coming from ensconced within the Kardashian-Jenner publicity machine, just like the claim of “greatest artist ever” is starting to come off more hollow the more West leans on this claim as opposed to actually putting out the high art he dares you to say he’s not putting out. Thankfully, TLOP is light years beyond Yeezus production-wise. It’s the rhymes and other glaring blemishes that make the album lukewarm.

In terms of guest appearances, West seemed to have gone the route of the upstart rapper with the dream debut album budget. Though some might argue that he’s taking the time capsule approach to album curation or, as Nina Simone would say, reflecting the times, I think the approach speaks more to West’s well-documented hubris than anything else. He’d rather be a god among freshmen than to risk mediocrity among his fellow varsity. It’s disappointing in a sense that an artist with the influence and resources to rekindle some of what the culture has lost over the years chooses to stoop to the level of pandering to new rap fans instead of building a bridge between the old and new by taking some risks of inclusion. However, it’s obvious that Kanye West is also the kind of artist at this point in time who would rather take a new, younger artist under the wing than be forced to bow his head to a rap legend of his caliber or greater.

I don’t want the old Kanye, although this will be the retort at the tip of every Stan’s tongue throughout reading this review. I don’t want the old Kanye so much as I want the current Kanye to be an improved, evolved version of the old Kanye as opposed to an uber-pretentious, fever-dream version of him. All change or weirdness is not evolution. In a climate where veteran rappers are encouraged to pander to the kids or fall completely off the map, Kanye has managed to become more childish with each incarnation, eschewing the idea of maturing in his music or public persona with each album. This works for the current era of loyalty to whatever’s hot for the moment, but doesn’t do much for the breadth of Kanye’s legacy as an artist.

The Life Of Pablo isn’t an excellent album, but it certainly has its bright spots. However, it seems like critics have lowered the standard for great to include albums with weak points that they are even willing to point out themselves. TLOP is a hodge-podge of different ideas that don’t ultimately come together to form the masterpiece people have come to expect from Kanye, but I think Stan culture will continue to encourage disjointed projects like this to ooze out of Kanye’s attention factory for a long time. West has announced a subsequent summer release for this year, the results of which may provide the other solid joints we didn’t get on TLOP and just drive home the fact that quantity over quality is the order of the day. In a nutshell, The Life Of Pablo would have made an excellent instrumental album, but we all know Kanye isn’t the kind to let his work speak for itself. He’s gonna run his mouth too…which I think gets in the way of the all-time great entertainment he’s constantly telling us he’s capable of.

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[Album Review] Darkest Before Dawn :: Pusha T

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I’ve never sympathized with the critics of Pusha T who seem to yearn for him to write about something other than the drug trade.  I suppose that’s because I’ve never been fond of the approach some rappers take where you can sense the blueprint of every song on an album (“this one’s for the ladies”, “this one’s for the radio”).  We’ve also got more emo rappers running around than one can shake a stick at, so I don’t mind the contrast in the present day.  That being said, King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, the surprise precursor to the anticipated King Push finds Pusha Ton in a slightly more reflective space, setting the pistol and the Pyrex aside for a few bars to give us some political views and other more thoughtful fare.  Don’t get me wrong, though – the bravado we appreciate from Pusha T is still there.

Lyrically, though I don’t think G.O.O.D. Music will ever give us the hard-hitting, street-sweeping bars we used to get from Re-Up Gang-era Pusha T, the prowess is still unquestionable.  The best thing about Pusha T is that he’s never felt the need to dumb his skill level down to assuage the pop leanings of today’s younger rap audiences.  Unfortunately, it’s the underlying production where I find the album’s most tragic flaws.  While there aren’t any outright bad songs on DBD, there’s a sleekness to the album as a whole that left me wanting more – a slipperiness that kept some songs from truly sticking to the ribs.

Beanie Sigel is in top form with the gritty drug talk on “Keep Dealing”: “C.O.D., niggas never had to front me jawns / I’m weighing bricks on the scale they put the lunchmeat on”.   Unfortunately, some of the other guests on the album don’t contribute much.  Re-Up Gang cohort and personal favorite Ab Liva pops up on “Got ‘Em Covered”, a quirky, busy Timbaland creation which grows tiresome before you can even get to Liva’s verse, which seemed too short.  Timbaland does infinitely better on the moody “Untouchable”, where a vocal loop from Biggie adds weight to one of the better performances on the album.

The-Dream unnecessarily appears on two songs, sounding oddly like the artists his style of R&B paved the way for (namely, Future, who I would have actually preferred if we’re comparing evils).  While The-Dream obviously has greater vocal chops than Future, who can tell when said vocals are covered in layers of artificial assistance?  It tends to sap the soul right out of a song.  Similarly, the latest product of the “sing like a depressed robot” trend of R&B, Kehlani, appears on “Retribution” sounding as generic as ever.  I’ll be glad when this vocal trend is over, but it’s too bad that otherwise good songs on this particular album had to fall victim to it.  Hey, at least Chris Brown was kind enough to sit this one out as a guest.  Luckily, Push wisely tapped Jill Scott to channel Nina Simone for “Sunshine”, where Pusha compares the funds being spent on metal detectors for inner city schools vs. the same funds being spent on laptops for “the county kids”.  This song is where the album truly shines, where the sung vocals actually add to the song as opposed to just serving as a break between verses.  Also, it’s where Pusha proves there’s a conscience and a consciousness beneath all of the drug lingo.

Ultimately, the quality is there both in production and mic skills to set this album atop the list of better projects of 2015, even though this year was rather lackluster to me in terms of rap music.  The lack of competition, however, takes nothing away from Pusha T’s latest effort.  While Kanye’s fascination with electronic music is all too prevalent on this album for my taste, Pusha manages to keep it hip-hop in terms of his attention to hard-hitting punchlines and effortless wordplay while his contemporaries dabble in singing and therapist-couch raps.  While I could have used a lot more boom-bap to speak to my inner African drum circle, I can say that Darkest Before Dawn is a very “now” album without me having to totally ignore vapid, uninspired lyrics just to have something to drive around to.  Hopefully, King Push provides a little something more for the culture in terms of sound, but this project was billed as a prelude, so I’m hoping that it’s only a fraction of what’s to come as opposed to more of the same.

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The Mr. Wonderful Review

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One of the most selfish things we music fans do in an age of selfish music consumption is look on disapprovingly as an act we discovered at its inception gains more mainstream attention and inevitably changes to accommodate that attention. I admit to being one of those critics who will praise a band’s first album and then complain about how later efforts became “over-produced” and lack the grit and hunger of the debut. Admittedly, I’ve held a fear in my heart for the moment Action Bronson would “go mainstream” for some time now. Starting with his heavy output in 2011 (The Program EP, Dr. Lecter, Well Done, and Bon Appetit…Bitch), Bronson has brought a flavor to the game that had not been seen before, despite casual listeners feeling inclined to compare him vocally to Ghostface Killah. Despite some questionable creative decisions, I’m happy to say that Mr. Wonderful manages to appropriately represent the artist as he’s grown musically without compromising much for the approval of mainstream listeners.

The album’s earlier tracks are more the Bronson one might expect, from “Brand New Car” (which borrows excellently from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar”) to “The Rising”, which features the ever-present Big Body Bes, who has the unique ability to crush your ego and build it up to unreasonable levels simultaneously with his eccentric rants. “Falconry” has Bronson and cohort Meyhem Lauren in rare form, with Bronson stating that “your ideas lack adobo” before Lauren declares he’s “New York before it turned into a bike lane”, no doubt commenting on the gentrification of New York City and its transformation into hipster central.

“Terry” is easily a standout on this album, along with the other singles like “Actin’ Crazy” and “Easy Rider”, which all seem to highlight the two qualities that make Bronson a top MC: his ability to paint an abstract picture and his ear for great production. It’s this that allows one to not only excuse songs like “A Light In The Addict” and “The Passage (Live From Prague)”, but even appreciate Bronson’s conviction about including them on the album. While it all may come off like a hodgepodge at first, the common thread here seems to me to be musicality. Bronson appreciates music to the point he doesn’t mind it obscuring or completely replacing his rapping at times. Songs like “Only In America” solidify my theory that Mr. Wonderful is the kind of album that will appeal to rap fans who also like Whitesnake and Phil Collins. The robust electric guitar on this record takes you right back to the 1980s, an era Bronson seems quite fond of if you recall he and Party Supplies’ concoction “Contemporary Man”.

The flaws on this album, however, sit in the middle of the album like a malignant tumor, just waiting for an excision from your otherwise palatable tracklist. Starting with “Thug Love Story 2017 The Musical”, which is an interlude, Bronson allots two minutes and twenty seconds to allowing what appears to be some random person on the street to sing (badly) which leads into Bronson himself singing badly on the next song. “City Boy Blues”. While musically solid, “City Boy Blues” has Bronson overdoing his faux-crooning (which, to date, is mildly amusing everywhere except here), leaving the listener hoping for a sixteen bars that never comes. It’s the kind of song that probably sounded great in Bronson’s head but has the avid listener wishing the track had been replaced by something better, like the recent “Big League Chew” with Alchemist. The other stinker is “Baby Blue”, an obvious Mark Ronson product by the plodding piano and old-time vibe. Given the artists we’ve seen Bronson collaborate with, Chance the Rapper is also an odd choice for a guest feature, leaving one to think his addition was something the label was probably excited about, hoping for some attention from fans that wouldn’t normally pick up the album. Needless to say, it wasn’t an interesting collaborative effort and again, the money could have been better used on the guest artist and the slot could have been filled by a better record. These forays into subject matter and romance pale in comparison to earlier concept tracks like the stellar “Hookers At The Point”.

Mr. Wonderful is a bizarre album, to say the least. To me, it resonates as an experiment in sound, mixing very new-sounding, “out there” backdrops with a very comfortable 90’s-era flow. While I appreciate the boom-bap Action floats effortlessly over on older records like “Get Off The PP” or “Imported Goods”, he’s also got an impeccable ear for off-the-beaten-path tunes provided to him by the likes of Alchemist, Party Supplies, Statik Selektah, and Mark Ronson. Where else in rap are you going to hear an arbitrary Chuck Knoblauch reference on top of a track that sounds like a tranquil gondola ride (“Terry”)? This album isn’t for everyone and by no means is it without its fumbles, but this is the kind of evolution artists should be looking at musically because artists should be making music that’s true to them and not so much what will appeal to everyone. Action Bronson continues to be in his own lane in rap and that’s to be applauded within a music industry that’s focused on taking minimal risks.

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Front-Free’s 2014 Year In Music

Happy New Year to readers new and old.  This was a good year for music on the low.  For folks with taste, it looked horrible on the mainstream side of things, but if you’re to any degree proactive about finding good music on your own, you know some dope projects dropped this year that you won’t catch on the Grammy nominee list or on the radio.  Here’s to hoping you find something here you didn’t get a chance to check out and are able to hop on iTunes or Spotify and show some love.

This isn’t a list that appears in any particular order or that says what everyone should have been listening to.  It’s a list that describes, out of what I heard this year, what moved me specifically.

Lord Steppington :: Step Brothers

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I’m an Alchemist fan and will listen to almost any MC he sits down with.  However, with Step Brothers, Alc steps up as both a producer and an MC in his own right, matching wits with the very formidable likes of Evidence.  While Evidence clearly is the more seasoned of the two, Alc manages to not be completely eclipsed, injecting enough humor to make you forgive his stilted delivery.  The beats here are what boom-bap should sound like in 2014…true to the culture and original sound without coming off as dated.  Rare, obscure samples abound.  This is definitely a record that doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out.

Black Messiah :: D’Angelo & The Vanguard

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This is one album that made me glad I waited to put this very list out there.  I’m definitely not a person who thinks calling something classic on day one of its release is acceptable, but I’m also a person old enough to recall hearing classics for the first time and remembering how they made me feel.  Black Messiah is very much alive.  That’s major when you’re talking about current R&B, a genre that barely contains what D’Angelo has done here.  This album is organic and flies against the ultra-sleek, soulless alternative-R&B that’s been taking over the genre of late.  This is an album that reminds us of the standard we’re supposed to be expecting from soul music.  While it may not be accessible as his debut, or Voodoo for that matter, one must keep in mind that D’Angelo made those albums as a relatively new artist and wasn’t the elusive, near-mythical figure he is today in rhythm & blues.  Here, D’Angelo shows he has grown significantly since he was the guy who made “Sh★t, Damn, Motherf★cker” back in 1995 (which was a great song but obviously represents a much younger incarnation of the artist).  Messiah simply delivers.

Voices :: Phantogram

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Phantogram is the kind of act whose music could very well get lost in the sauce, considering the fact that their music is well-suited for climactic teen drama backdrops or copping over-priced coffee at your local indie cafe where almost everyone has earphones on listening to their own stuff anyway.  However, if you are fortunate enough to take a more dedicated listen, the duo known as Phantogram takes a painstaking approach to crafting what they call “street beat”, a decidedly edgy brand of atmospheric pop.  Don’t get too caught up in genre-labeling, though, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter come together to show that they’re a group who are students of music, with the sounds on Voices ranging from alternative to R&B but never being easy to pin down.  Songs are grandiose without feeling over-produced or cold.  Phantogram doesn’t come off as girly as, say, Haim, because the production has more of a backbone to it, which is Carter’s influence on the sound refusing to be drowned out by Barthel’s commanding vocals.

36 Seasons :: Ghostface Killah

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This album was the only thing that could have made up for the disappointment of the latest Wu-Tang Clan album.  The tracklist alone made any rap fan old enough to have facial hair damn near blow up, with guest features from the likes of Kool G Rap and AZ.  There’s something to be said about a major veteran MC deciding to reach out to fellow vets to get on tracks as opposed to getting a bunch of flash-in-the-pan upstarts who might get more attention for the project.  Invest in this.

Your Old Droog :: Your Old Droog

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It’s safe to say that Coney Island’s Your Old Droog shocked the hip-hop world this year when he revealed himself to be a young Ukrainian-American MC and not Nas, as some believed him to be.  The Nas comparisons were lost on me, however, as Nas’ music hasn’t excited me the way that Droog’s EP and subsequent full-length did in many, many years.  I also didn’t hear anything but a vague similarity between Droog’s voice and Nas’s.  The unique thing about Droog is that he seems to revel in the strange, as evidenced by his odd moniker (“Droog” being a Russian term for friend) and creative references.

Hood Billionaire :: Rick Ross

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A lot of people are probably surprised that this album made my list, but I’ve been a fan of Ross’ music since his first album…he just stopped moving me some time ago.  With Hood Billionaire, although there are some fumbles (all of them collaborations: Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly and K. Michelle, respectively), Ross manages to sell the caricature he’s made himself into with pure zeal and gusto.  Rick Ross thrives in the box he’s supposed to fit in, which is deliciously irresponsible declarations that grate on the nerves when you want something deeper, but are just right when you just want to wild out for the night.  Ross’ music makes you feel ten feet tall and, when we’re looking at appreciation of music, isn’t making you feel something what we should be looking for?

Barrel Brothers :: Skyzoo & Torae

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This is by far one of my favorite projects that dropped this year.  You can read my full review on Kevin Nottingham, but in a nutshell, this was a top shelf offering and shame on you for sleeping on this if you did.

Clear Lake Forest :: The Black Angels

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The Black Angels make the kind of music you expect to hear during a 1970’s period drama during a drug-use montage.  The drowsy vocals and plodding percussion on many of the songs seem to come from another time…in a good way.  This EP is nowhere near as good as their debut album, Directions To See A Ghost, but such is the case I find for rock bands that I enjoy.

Dominican Diner :: Timeless Truth

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It doesn’t take long listening to Timeless Truth for any fan of Queens rap to recognize the influences these two Corona/Flushing MCs take from The Beatnuts.  As a Beatnuts fan, I appreciate the fresh energy brought to the sound by two newer MCs, joining the likes of Meyhem Lauren and Action Bronson in ushering in a new era of Queens boom-bap.  Buy it here.

NehruvianDOOM :: MF Doom & Bishop Nehru

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DOOM doesn’t fail at what he does.  As king of his own novelty sub-genre, it seems like an unlikely pairing for him to reach out to a teenage wunderkind like Bishop Nehru for an entire project.  However, the youngster shines on his own, managing to impress without coming off as an over-reaching amateur over DOOM’s lavish productions.  While it’s clear that Nehru’s wet behind the ears, his fresh voice juxtaposed with DOOM’s at times weary, grizzled-vet delivery makes for some seamless chemistry.


Tough Love :: Jessie Ware

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From the moment I saw the video for “Running”, I was transfixed on Jessie Ware as an artist.   It seemed like I was getting a concoction of Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox, and Sade all wrapped up within the potential of one artist.  Once I heard her use a particularly menacing Big Pun vocal looped on the song “100%” (“..carving my initials on your forehead”), I was an instant fan.  Following behind the acclaimed debut Devotion, Ware shows the same top shelf musicality on this sophomore effort.  Ware reminds us that it’s okay to expect more out of pop music, adding a level of sophistication that’s mature without aging the sound.  This album feels…expensive.

Silk Pyramids :: Meyhem Lauren & Buckwild

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Artists like Meyhem Lauren are the punch in the face that rap needs in the era of hip-hop-themed reality dramas and Twitter beefs.  While his flow doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Lauren flourishes when it comes to being outlandish when it comes to describing his lifestyle or inserting gruff ad-libs here and there.

Furtive Movements :: Armand Hammer

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While it’s very dense, I’m the kind of person who enjoys that every now and then from a rap album.  Every rap song doesn’t need to be fully understandable from listen one.  Adding some complexity over some solid production is, to me, guaranteed replay value.

If There’s A Hell Below :: Black Milk

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I have to admit I’m almost ashamed I didn’t really check for Black Milk before this year.  I’m a stickler for names and his seemed to put a bad taste in my mouth, literally.  Quirks aside, I forced myself to check out some of his features and ultimately stumbled upon his latest album, If There’s A Hell Below.

The Living Daylights :: Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth

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Last but definitely not least, Willie The Kid’s project with producer Bronze Nazareth was a work of art, similar to last year’s Aquamarine.  This was slept on for no good reason.

The Sweet Spot Vol. 3: Higher :: Maiya Norton

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While it isn’t a mixtape, album, or EP, the third installment to DJ and music aficionado (and also fellow Howard Bison) Maiya Norton’s mix series deserves some recognition as one of the most moving projects I heard this year.  A self-described “old soul”, Maiya presents an amalgamation of 1970s funk, soul, and psychedelic jams that together create a soothing landscape that a person could get lost in.

Honorable Mentions

The following are albums I appreciated, but not as much as the ones above, for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless, they’re worth checking out and they all contributed something authentic to the year in music, hip-hop and otherwise.

Pinata :: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Cilvia Demo :: Isaiah Rashad

Pre Magnum Opus :: Tragedy Khadafi

Is This Art? :: Michael Christmas

RAP :: SHIRT

Mega Philosophy :: Cormega

Cadillactica :: Big K.R.I.T.

Directors Of Photography :: Dilated Peoples

Run The Jewels 2 :: Run The Jewels

As usual, many thanks to the readers who keep supporting the site, to everyone who bought merchandise and repped Front-Free in public, and to my friends and family.  Shout out to Ebony.com and Kevin Nottingham for published pieces I wrote this year outside of Front-Free and a special shout to UCLA’s Hip-Hop Congress for allowing me to sit on a panel based on one of those articles, discussing the effects of drugs on hip-hop culture with UCLA’s best and brightest.  It’s been a dope year for me personally and I have nothing but great expectations for 2015.  Let’s get it.

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