Rap

Review: Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful

It will be difficult to find a rap album released this year as fun as Action Bronson’s major label debut, Mr. Wonderful–how can you not love a guy who looks like this and has the bravado to claim that he “took up a meeting at Paramount/typecast as a romantic lead”?  Bronson drops plenty of one-liners that are alternately hilarious and clever, and in contrast to the prevailing atmosphere in hip-hop today, he keeps the mood light.  His particular style may bring to mind Ghostface Killah, but Bronson’s focus is less on elaborate crime-based storylines and more on finding satisfaction in the simple pleasures, like a “plate [of] some melon and prosciutt’.”

He may have gained a certain level of notoriety from a series of mixtapes and various EPs that were underground hits, but Bronson realizes that Mr. Wonderful is an opportunity to introduce himself to a whole new audience.  This explains why most of the album is focused on establishing the basic mythos of “Action Bronson”, as best exemplified by the comparing his origins to the creation of the genetically-engineered dinosaurs of Jurassic Park in “Falconry”.  The album is not just tossed-off quips though, as there are several callbacks throughout–Bronson kicks off the album boasting that he’s got a brand new guitar/got a jazz guitar over a Billy Joel sample, and then said guitar provides the melody for “Terry”.  Sometimes the clues are more difficult to spot, but reveal themselves after a bit of digging–in the line before the Jurassic Park comparison on “Falconry”, Bronson tells us he’s “listenin’ to German guitar riffs, what a life” and then a few songs later, this obscure track provides the main sample for “Only In America”.

Bronson takes a risk with a conceptual trilogy that makes up the middle third of the album.  “City Boy Blues” is the most musically adventurous track on Mr. Wonderful, providing a refreshing change of pace, and “A Light In the Addict” provides a bridge between the trilogy and the rest of the album.  The highlight though is the conclusion, the spurned lover’s lament “Baby Blue”.  Mark Ronson does a great job emulating the style of usual Bronson collaborator Party Supplies with the easy jazz, bouncy piano, and soulful hooks, but it’s Chance the Rapper that steals the show with his guest verse.  Chance wishes for a series of hilariously precise misfortunes to befall his former ladyfriend that range in malevolence from relatively harmless to rather painful (“I hope the zipper on your jacket get stuck” to “I hope you get a paper cut on your tongue from a razor in a paper cup”), though he ends on a rather mature note in wishing her happiness.

Mr. Wonderful is not a great artistic triumph, but not all albums need to be.  Sometimes you need to kick back and have a little fun, but in a way that does not insult your intelligence, and Action Bronson fulfills that role perfectly.  The man even offers some great advice: “Opportunity be knockin’–gotta let a motherfucker in.”

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Review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar instantly launched himself into the ranks of the elite MCs with the release of his stellar album good kid, m.A.A.d. city, where he weaved with exceptional skill a complex narrative of a young man’s struggle to escape from all the various negative influences trying to entrap him.  good kid managed to avoid the primary problem that plagues most concept albums, as it never felt weighed down by the potential constraints of its central narrative; it was an album filled with hit singles (“Backseat Freestyle”, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” are just three of the record’s modern classics) that could be enjoyed on their own, but gained an additional weight when placed in context with the underlying story.   Kendrick’s technical skills as both a rapper and a writer ensured that there would be heavy anticipation for its follow-up, and for months fans and critics were on the edge of their seats with each revelation.

To be sure, To Pimp A Butterfly meets and possibly exceeds all these expectations.  It is more ambitious than its predecessor, moving from documenting a personal struggle to a more universal one, as Kendrick analyzes the trials and tribulations that face black people in America today.  The result is a denser, less accessible album than good kid, but represents a true artistic statement.  It might best be explained by using the old music critic cliche of the analogous connection to a completely unrelated artist: if good kid, m.A.A.d. city is Kendrick’s The Bends, then To Pimp a Butterfly represents his OK Computer.

The music on Butterfly is a heady and thrilling mix of numerous jazz, funk, and R&B influences, veering from one style to the next and capturing a gamut of emotions and moods.  Though Flying Lotus is only credited as a producer for one song, it seems as if the experience of their previous collaboration rubbed off on Kendrick, with the free mix of jazz and electronic elements dominating a significant portion of the record.  As the album progresses, the music shifts from a smoother, freer feel to a more deliberate beat, and provides an excellent counter to Kendrick’s growing anger. Spoken word passages also play a significant role, with Kendrick periodically adding lines to a poem that begins each time with “I remember you was conflicted”, and it creates an interesting effect of breaking the album into sections while also providing a connective tissue with narrative thrust.

Butterfly is an album that takes a lot of effort to unpack, but the effort is worth it; though it runs close to eighty minutes, it never feels like a chore to listen.  There are not a wealth of singles like good kid, with most of the tracks sounding better in context; “i” works as a single, but it sounds even better as a culmination of the album’s themes and as a response to “u”.  As a result, in the future I can see most people (including myself) throwing on the other album more often, but the times we do listen to Butterfly will still be appreciated.  After all, this is an album that ends with Kendrick “interviewing” Tupac, and it makes perfect sense that the legend finally has a true successor.

Catching Up On The Week (Mar. 27 Edition)

Some #longreads for those still in the throes of March Madness…

After a relative paucity of reading material in recent weeks, this week saw the publication of numerous worthwhile interviews and discussions.  For those who want insight into older music, there’s the Rhino interview with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and The Guardian behind the scenes look with The Strokes on the making of Is This It.  As for those who are looking ahead, there is Nate Mendel of the Foo Fighters talking with Consequence of Sound about his upcoming solo album as “Lieutenant” and Death Cab For Cutie revealing to Radio.com the background behind the making of their new album.

For those who are looking for more weightier fare, there is a roundtable discussion about the social context of works like the recent albums from D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar and a Vox op-ed about the prejudicial treatment of rappers and the double standard that is given to rap lyrics by legal authorities, co-authored by Killer Mike.

Finally, GQ has an extended profile of Adam Horovitz, providing a personal in-depth look at the man you probably know as Ad-Rock, as he transitions into his post-Beastie Boys life and looks back on his career.