Tyler, The Creator: Flower Boy review – still with boyish charm Tyler matures on this beautiful poignant coming out record

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Less than a week after Tyler, The Creator announced his fourth studio album Flower Boy (promoted as Scum Fuck Flower Boy) it was leaked. Shortly after there was a lot of online discussion and speculation about his sexuality with many suggesting that he was gay and citing lyrics from the tracks “Foreword”, “Garden Shed”, and “I Ain’t Got Time!” This was equally met with immediate distrust and scorn, some from long-time fans dismissing these lyrics as simply provocative as his lyrics on previous albums and some LGBT and ally music critics condemning them as “queer-baiting” and a lie. I’m not going to speculate about Tyler’s sexuality in this review but it is clear from evidence over the years that Tyler, The Creator is definitely not straight. He has yet to address the rumours and I don’t think he should. Like Frank Ocean (who is featured twice on the album) who came out just over five years ago in a letter posted on Tumblr, it seems Tyler is refusing to label his sexuality. People still speculate over whether Frank Ocean is gay, bi and he’s often labelled as queer but Frank has never explicitly labelled himself as any of these. It is only clear that he isn’t straight but other than that unless he says what he identifies as we can only speculate. In the still on-going discussions and speculations about Tyler’s sexuality I rarely saw anyone consider if he might be bisexual or identify as something else or is still figuring things out. In an interview with Larry King three years ago Tyler said “I hate people who’s not comfortable with themselves” when King prompted “do you think we’ll ever have an openly gay rap artist?” Tyler responded “why does that shit matter, why do we care.” Three years later, if we’re to take the lyrics on this album at face value, and we should, these words are much more revealing. Flower Boy is by far Tyler, The Creator’s best project yet. It’s his most honest and earnest, beautifully self-produced with his most poignant and best written lyrics ever.

Before getting into the review it’s important to provide a little context on Tyler’s background. It has been seven years since L.A. rap collective, Odd Future, first broke out into mainstream popularity. Formed in 2007 by leader, Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (abbreviated to OFWGKTA) were the most exciting thing in hip-hop and music at the time. They were a bunch of teenagers saying extremely vulgar, distasteful and controversial shit on record, jokingly advocating kids to “kill people, burn shit, fuck school” and inspiring suburban white kids and weirdo black kids across the States and the world. Although I wasn’t following blogs at the time, I was keenly aware of how demonised they were in the blogosphere and by the media. Odd Future were no Wu-Tang Clan, they weren’t a bunch of hardcore gangsters from the cold, gritty streets of New York City, they were a bunch of weirdo black skater kids from L.A. who had nothing else to do. I remember when the video for “Yonkers” came out, I was 14 in secondary school and I remember all of sudden hearing about this video where a black guy eats a cockroach. I think I took a while to watch it because as a shy, anxious kid it sounded scary to me but I did watch it a little later. Odd Future was’t big in my British secondary school but I remembered that soon after a few people in my year started wearing Odd Future merch and talking about Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. I’ve liked Tyler since then, I find him really funny, his music has been pretty good and he was really creative, producing most of his own music, cover art, fashion, TV shows and directing his own music videos. He was also half-Nigerian and as a full Nigerian I feel a kinship with anyone of Nigerian heritage 🇳🇬. But I preferred Earl Sweatshirt as a rapper, technically Earl was and still is better rapper, and Frank Ocean was a much better singer though I didn’t judge Tyler on his singing. I’ve liked all of Tyler’s music though Cherry Bomb was slightly disappointing but I hadn’t been blown away until Flower Boy really impressed me.

First thing to say is that Flower Boy is immaculately well-produced. It was entirely self-produced by Tyler and shows his growth as a producer and his influences including Pharell Williams who appears on the album and has appeared on his other albums and Kanye West who was featured on the Cherry Bomb track “Smuckers.”  The first track “Foreword” has a ticking sound throughout and features guest vocals from English singer, Rex Orange County. Tyler also shows his eclectic taste in music sampling “Spoon (Sonic Youth Remix)”, a remix by American noise/alternative-rock band Sonic Youth of the song “Spoon” by German krautrock band Can. The lyrics are also revealing: “shout out to the girls that I lead on / For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm /And trying their hardest to keep my head on straight” clearly suggests he isn’t straight I mean how ambiguous could those lines be. The dismissal of Tyler’s coming out is not surprising but has been really disgusting. It’s unsurprising because Tyler has made some homophobic remarks in the past and while those deserved to be criticised it is ridiculous that people cannot see how honest he’s being on this album. Tyler doesn’t (hardly) pitches his voice lower or use an alter ego on this album, he is wholly himself. He is just Tyler Okonma. While, those remarks in the past should still be condemned but they can be seen as a kind of self-hatred. The demonisation of Odd Future especially Tyler is really revealing because it represents the demonisation of black boys. Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were two young black boys who were shot by police because they looked older than their age and were seen as more intimidating. Tyler, The Creator was a tall, lanky and edgy teenager with an overactive imagination and a deep voice but effectively harmless yet he was demonised by the press because he was black and therefore seen as intimidating. As Moonlight so poignantly showed, hyper-masculinity is often used as a protective armour by queer black boys and men.

Flower Boy is chock-full of beautiful guest singer spots. Frank Ocean croons on the chorus of “Where This Flower Blooms”, “I ride to California / These frog oval goggles.” Tyler also delivers some clever, important lines “Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I’ll do it too / Look, I smell like Chanel” makes some references to Frank Ocean. Frank Ocean dyed his hair for the promo of Blonde, Frank has embraced who he is and helped other queer black kids be who they are and “Chanel” refers to a single Frank Ocean released earlier this year alluding to bisexuality or the fluidity of his masculinity and femininity. “See You Again” is a highlight in an album full of highlights. Tyler does some singing on the chorus and while it isn’t great it’s really endearing and Kali Uchis delivers some killer vocals. “Can I get a kiss? / And can you make it last forever? / I said I’m ’bout to go to war / And I don’t know if I’ma see you again.” The album is just full of so many beautiful catchy vocals which I haven’t been able to stop singing since. Despite being alternatively titled Scum Fuck Flower Boy the only indications we get of “scum fuck” are “Who Day Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time!” Tyler just revealed that he wanted to give ScHoolboy Q a verse on “Who Dat Boy” but he totally bodies this beat. The beat is such a banger it’s ridiculous, the horror movie synths, the build-up and the way Tyler and A$ap Rocky flow on this beat works so damn well.

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“I Ain’t Got Time!” is not as hard but the chorus is really infectious “I ain’t got time for these niggas / Better throw a watch at the boy” and the one of the lines which has had many speculating about his sexuality “Next line will have ’em like “Woah” / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”

Throughout the album Tyler proves he is equally a great rapper and producer. His voice and flow perfectly match the jazzy, funky smooth beats extremely well. On “Pothole” he enlists Jaden Smith for the chorus and Smith is another carefree black boy who flouts conventional models of black masculinity – as weird as he might be. “Garden Shed” is a stand out track, perhaps the most revealing and one of the most beautifully produced tracks I’ve heard all year. It begins with some smooth guitar riffs, synths, jazzy drums and Estelle comes in with beautifully sung vocals (Estelle is low-key underrated). The title of the track likely serves a metaphor for the metaphorical closet non-straight people come out of. “Garden shed, garden shed, garden shed, garden shed / For the garden
That is where I was hidin’ / That was real love I was in / Ain’t no reason to pretend,” although these lyrics use imagery and are poetic it is pretty unambiguous what they could be referring to. More unambiguous lines: “Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase / Thought it’d be like the phrase; “poof,” gone / But, it’s still goin’ on.” What a way to do it and I applaud Tyler for his courage and am really happy for him. “Boredom” is a smooth jam about being bored and really speaks to me in this long boring summer where I expected to do much more. It features a lot of sweet guest vocals from Anna of the North, Corinne Bailey Rae & Rex Orange County. “911 / Mr. Lonely” is a two-part track, the first track is a smooth jazz-funk track with guest vocals from Steve Lacy, who was also featured on Kendrick Lamar’s “PRIDE.”, and Frank Ocean again.

Flower Boy never drops in quality throughout but it does drop seeds on “Droppin’ Seeds”, Lil Wayne’s verse in his idiosyncratic delivery sounds perfect on Tyler’s idiosyncratic jazzy production. “November” is a track with a really good drum loop and some bells, Tyler reminisces about the past using “November” as a metaphor for a time he misses “Take me back to November / Take me back to November / Hawaiian shirts in the winter, cold water, cold water.” The track switches up at one point before going right back into the drum loop and it just shows how well produced this entire album is. The only noticeable time Tyler does change his pitch on this album is on “Glitter” but for a totally different effect. He pitches his voice up and down on and it is a love song where he sings. I’ve listened to this album quite a few times and assumed it was another guest vocal but it appears not. The album ends with a funky instrumental which samples baby noises showcasing his producing chops. With this final track he doesn’t need to make a grand statement he’s already made them throughout the album. Flower Boy shows Tyler, The Creator fully maturing as an artist but still having his boyish charm. It is an extraordinarily well-produced album full of excellent guest vocals, honest, poignant lyrics and really gives the world its first true glimpse into Tyler Okonma. Indeed, a world of glitter and flowers.

 

JAY-Z: 4:44 review – Hov swaps hubris for humility and vulnerability on this brilliant confessional record

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I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of JAY-Z. One of the biggest reasons for this is that his music is currently only available online on TIDAL and for purchase on the iTunes store and my primary way of listening to music is streaming on Spotify. However, I’ve listened to JAY-Z songs over the years I’ve been listening to hip-hop because well he’s JAY-Z. He’s one of the most well-known figures not just in hip-hop but in pop culture in general. I mean even my dad who doesn’t listen to much music used to listen to JAY-Z. He is one of the best-selling musicians of all time and Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album and The Blueprint are regarded as among the best hip-hop albums ever. I’ve listened to songs from all three albums but I doubt I’ve listened to any of them in full. I loved his collaboration album with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, in 2011, I think this was the year I started to listening to music properly and not just watching music videos on MTV. So in 2013 when Magna Carta Holy Grail was released I was excited, I remember downloading the leak and then listening a couple of times and not again. It was not a bad album, just utterly mediocre and not what I expected from a legend such as JAY-Z. When I heard the rumours that JAY-Z was working on a new album a couple of months ago I anticipated it I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised but ready to be disappointed again. I can confidently say that 4:44 did not disappoint.

A lot has been made of 4:44. Some have seen it as a response to Beyoncé’s seminal album Lemonade which was released last year and in which she strongly implied that Jay-Z had cheated on her.  Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s relationship has been in the public eye since at least 2003 when Beyoncé released her debut solo single “Crazy in Love.” Many have also interpreted Solange’s infamous attack against JAY-Z in an elevator in 2014 as a response to his cheating. All of this has been speculation (though it seemed more than likely) until JAY-Z confirmed he did cheat on Beyoncé on the title track “4:44.” “4:44” begins with a sample of “Late Nights & Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams & The Affirmations. Williams sings “do I find it so hard / when I know in my heart / I’m letting you down every day”  reflecting how JAY-Z feels about cheating and letting down his wife and kids. JAY-Z begins the first verse with the line “Look, I apologize, often womanize /
took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes” clearly admitting his infidelity and taking his children for granted. The sample forms the chorus and No I.D.’s, who produced the entire album, production is simply amazing. The song and the entire album manages to use old soul samples while sounding fresh, modern and different. And JAY-Z’s flow on this song doesn’t miss a beat, he has a distinct voice which sounds effortless on the beat. It’s almost like he’s just talking or confessing but paired with the production it’s extremely effective. JAY-Z is brutally honest and vulnerable on the song “my heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes / and the mask goes away / and Santa Claus is fake.” With these lines JAY-Z likens himself to Santa Claus, a fictional figure which parents tell their children exists but are really just themselves pretending.

Some critics and people have described 4:44 as the first grown rap album and others have made comparisons to Nas’ 2012 album Life Is Good. It’s easy to see why. Hip-hop is still a relatively young major genre unlike rock which has been around since the 50s and 60s, hip-hop came around in the late 70s and did not become popular or commercial until the late 80s and early 90s. Therefore, a lot of well known rappers in the “golden age”, many of whom started young, are only in their 40s such as Nas, DMX, Ice Cube, Eminem and the recently deceased Prodigy. Biggie and Tupac, the martyrs of hip-hop, would only be 45 and 46 respectively today. At 47, JAY-Z is definitely considered an “old head.” The debate about the state of hip-hop has been going on for a while now. Nas made an album called Hip Hop is Dead in 2006. In 2017, the truth is hip-hop is a better place than it has ever been. In a recent study by Nielsen, hip-hop/R&B combined was the most consumed genre in the United States for the first time ever. Hip-hop shapes pop culture more than any other genre today and JAY-Z has been a big part of its cultural status. JAY-Z started out as a drug dealer and is now worth $810 million just behind P Diddy as the second-richest hip hop artist. He’s a businessman and is friends with the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. JAY-Z has inspired a lot of rappers including the current most important rapper Kendrick Lamar and although his influence has gone unnoticed in recent years it’s still huge and he proves it on this album. On “Family Feud” for example, JAY-Z examines his status and role as a father in his family and as a father figure in hip-hop. The track is backed by beautiful Beyoncé vocals and great production from No I.D. He sends shots but in a friendly way with the lines “all this old talk left me confused / you’d rather be old rich me or new you?” referencing the “old head” debate as well as bragging in his typical Hov persona. As well as that, the line “and old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new / like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh” commenting on his contemporaries judging young rappers such as Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert for their unique fashion choices whilst ignoring the fact the Tupac and other rappers also dressed in a not so hyper-masculine way.

On the brilliant album opener, “Kill Jay-Z”, JAY-Z talks about killing his ego. He says “fuck JAY-Z, I mean, you shot your own brother / how can we know if we can trust JAY-Z?” referring to the incident when he was 12 when he shot his crack-addicted brother. By talking about killing his ego JAY-Z shows that he is self-aware of the danger of being too egotistical, he expresses his doubt and vulnerability by rapping in the third person and talking about the things he’s done. And his wordplay and imagery is extremely sharp, for example the lines “let go your ego over your right shoulder / your left is sayin’, “Finish your breakfast!” / you egged Solange on” refers to his song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, his inner conscience, the Eggo waffle brand and the term “egged on”. “The Story of O.J.” is a highlight on the album. The production is soulful and No I.D. brilliantly reworks a sample of Nina Simone singing “Four Women” which was about the effects of slavery on black women. Nina Simone sings “Skin is, skin, is / Skin black, my skin is black / my, black, my skin is yellow” which is repeated throughout the song. JAY-Z talks about a lot of different issues such as slavery, financial responsibility, black ownership, capitalism and commercialism on this single track. The chorus “light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga / rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga / still nigga, still nigga” is straightforward and effective in highlighting the sad truth that no matter your status, your wealth, your position if you’re black you’re still just a “nigga” in America. Despite his wealth and status JAY-Z will be treated as inferior by a racist and by the racist institutions that are still upheld in America he’s still a nigga. The interlude before the first verse perfectly sums it in one sarcastic line “O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” followed by a long pause then “…okay.”

JAY-Z listening to this song then hearing that O.J. will be released from parole later this year.

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Another highlight is the delightful “Smile” which has possibly my favourite beat on the entire album and a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” He talks about his mother coming out as a lesbian and how he feels about that: “mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian.” The song ends with monologue from his mother, Gloria Carter, “living in the shadow / can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?” It is an important revelation because homosexuality and other LGBT identities are topics which aren’t talked about as much in black communities especially among the older generation. As well as feature spots from his mother and wife, the two most important black women in his life, JAY-Z also gets help from Frank Ocean on the chorus of “Caught Their Eyes” and Damian Marley on “Bam.” “Bam” also samples “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy which Kanye West, close friend and now possible rival, also sampled on “Famous” on The Life of Pablo. On “Moonlight” JAY-Z references the snafu at this year’s Academy Awards when La La Land was falsely announced as the best winner before Moonlight was correctly identified as the true winner: “Y’all stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon’ lose.” It was a bittersweet moment and served as a metaphor for black joy overcoming impossible obstacles but still not allowed to express happiness fully. At 37 minutes and 10 tracks, 4:44 is an album full of highlights. There isn’t a single bad track on it. JAY-Z has a great flow and wordplay throughout the album, the production is incredibly soulful, the vocals match the beats perfectly and the lyrics are well-written exploring a wide variety of issues which should be discussed more often. It’s yet another example of black masculinity being expressed through vulnerability and I hope this becomes the norm. By killing his ego JAY-Z has produced a brutally honest and vulnerable record, his status and legacy still intact.

 

 

Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory review – keen observations on the perceptions of artists over experimental electronic production

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Vince Staples is one of the most talented and fascinating figures in hip-hop today. Over the past three years, Staples has been prolific releasing a new project every single year. The brilliant Hell Can Wait EP in 2014, his Def Jam debut, his debut album Summertime ’06 in 2015 and last year summer’s Prima Donna EP which was accompanied by a 10-minute long short film. All three projects were outstanding, polished and focused with great production and Staples’ breathless flow as he documented the hellish environment he grew up in North Long Beach, Los Angeles as a former Crip member. In three short years, he has always been in the conversation around hip-hop culture as a prominent subject for blogs and magazines who want his opinion on everything. Last year, he made dozens of short videos in which he shared his opinion on anything and everything. He did so many of these videos that I couldn’t imagine him enjoying them but I enjoyed his clever wit and watched every single one of these I could find. It’s no surprise why everyone wants his opinion on things, he is a very intelligent, funny and quick-witted individual with obscure pop culture references all delivered in a dead-pan tone that you can never tell if he’s being serious or tongue-in-cheek. Over the past few months Staples began to appear as a feature on several electronic and EDM tracks collaborating with artists such as Flume, Clams Casino and GTA. He also appeared on the track “Ascension”, the first track from the latest Gorillaz album, Humanz. It shouldn’t have been that much of surprise then that Big Fish Theory is full of experimental electronic production.

Electronic music is such a broad genre that it would be foolish to call the production on Big Fish Theory simply “electronic”. There are so many sub-genres many I’ve never heard of or listened to. But I am of course familiar with techno, house and UK garage which are some of the genres I can most identify on this album. Techno is the most prominent influence on the album specifically Detroit Techno and I noticed some House influence in the pop hooks but I can’t tell the difference between different sub-genres of House so you’ll have to forgive my ignorance. UK garage is the most interesting sound to me though because it’s the last thing I would have imagined Vince Staples rapping on but there it is on the first track on the album “Crabs in a Bucket.”

“Crabs in a Bucket” builds up with an eerie atmosphere, electronic synths and some high-pitched vocals. Staples’ vocals come in and there’s thumping bass as Staples frantically raps in his effortless flow. The bass gradually becomes more warped and frenetic and Kilo Kish sings in her sweet voice on the outro. If you’re not familiar with UK garage, it’s a genre of electronic music originating in the early 90s in the UK which often features a distinctive 4/4 percussive rhythm and pitch-shifted vocal samples. If you’re curious enough to listen to any though you might not see the influence on “Crabs in a Bucket” but if you listen to Burial it will be crystal clear. Burial’s version of UK garage in the 2000s was much darker than that it’s 90s predecessor it’s often called “future garage.” Co-produced by Zack Sekoff, who produced four tracks on the album, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, it’s a very good homage to the genre which developed grime. Although, Big Fish Theory, is much less lyrical than Summertime ’06 and also much shorter at only 36 minutes, Staples comes through with great flow and insightful lyrics. “Crabs in a Bucket” is an idiom which refers to an individualistic mentality which ensures that no one succeeds. The lines “need white women at the shows unconscious / If not that then topless, earned all this” possibly refers to hyper-masculinity in hip-hop and juxtaposes the white women who consume hip-hop which is mostly made by black men and the long history of white women’s festishation of black men. The lines “nails in the black man’s hands and feet / put him on a cross so we put him on a chain” suggests Staples is comparing the mass incarceration of black men to the crucifixion of Christ.

The second track on the album is “Big Fish” which was released as the second single. It’s a bass heavy club-banger produced by Christian Rich (Kehinde and Taiwo Hassan) featuring a catchy chorus from Juicy J. It’s the one of the most accessible tracks on the album and could easily be on the radio unlike most of the tracks on the album. On this song Staples reflects on his modest success financially and how he’s made it out of the dire situation he was in: “it’s funny I was going crazy not too long ago.” Watch any interview with Vince Staples and you’ll know that he cares about being financially stable because money is the most important thing where he comes from and in most places in the world and it can get you out of where you come from where someone like Vince might been killed by another black person or the police. “Alyssa Interlude” samples an Amy Winehouse interview. Staples was influenced by the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy making Prima Donna, he saw how badly she was treated by the press and her family when she became famous. The inclusion of the sample points to the perception of artists but on the outro Staples sings “Raindrops on my windowsill / longing for your nature’s feel” reminiscing about someone he once knew and loved, this is overlayed with a beautiful Temptations sample. Produced by GTA, “Love Can Be…” is such a catchy track. Damon Albarn sings on the intro and Kilo Kish’s vocals sound purposeful robotic and her flow is so smooth. Staples’ flow is reliably smooth but his cadence is so quirky perhaps mimicking Kendrick Lamar’s on “Alright” “tell the world I want my Uchies / dodge the groupies, them don’t move me.” Also the Ray J vocals are an inspired choice (interesting parallel Burial also sampled Ray J on his track “Archangel”).

“745” is a certified banger produced by Jimmy Edgar, it features heavy bass and rattling hi-hats. The lines “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs / All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss / All my life I want waves at my front door” are again reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” It is followed by “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” an interlude which features Vince singing mournful, the track ends with a gunshot transitioning into the highlight of the album “Yeah Right” (more parallels to Kendrick Lamar – “BLOOD.” ends with gunshot transitioning seamlessly into the banger “DNA.”). Yeah Right features KENDRICK FUCKING LAMAR. There are many comparisons to be made between Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. They’re two of the most critically acclaimed rappers today, they’re both from poor crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and they’re both super fucking talented. “Yeah Right” is a dream come true, two of my favourite rappers currently (Kendrick Lamar is a GOAT easily but Staples is not quite a GOAT yet but he’s a strong contender)  collaborating for the first time on a banger of a track. The last time this happened was…well last year – Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on “Really Doe.” But boy does this deliver. The hook by Staples is so catchy repeating “boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right” over and over again.

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He talks about materialism in hip-hop “Is your house big? Is your car nice? / Is your girl fine? Fuck her all night?” then there’s a bridge by Kućka until Kendrick comes in and takes over the track it’s his now. And he absolutely snaps on his verse, switching up his flow and cadence multiple times. “Popular demand, I understand my name is only for conversation” he knows he’s great and he proves it again and again. Co-produced by SOPHIE, a PC music collaborator and Flume it’s a highlight on an album full of highlights.

“Homage” has some of the craziest production on an album full of insanely good experimental electronic production. Staples puts on a braggadocios persona and pays homage to Rick Ross on the chorus “these niggas won’t hold me back” and to A$ap Ferg on the last verse “I’m on a new level.” Also on the last verse Staples says “I’m out in Bristol, bro from the ends got a pistol” I know Staples has listened to Portishead (a trip-hop group from Bristol) and I’ve never heard an American rapper use the word “ends” in this way so perhaps Staples has picked up some UK slang and is paying homage to it or maybe it just rhymes. “SAMO”‘s title pays homage to the iconic black American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat who like Amy Winehouse died at the “cursed” age of 27 and was also an artist who was pimped and treated poorly. The word “SAMO” means same old shit alluding to the mundane nihilistic gang lifestyle he once lived. Party People uses the old trick of having an upbeat instrumental but with deceptively depressing lyrics. The chorus is lighthearted “Party people, yeah / Party people I like to see you dance” and I can easily hear this at a early morning uni student rave but the rest of the lyrics are quite depressing highlighted by the line “how I’m supposed to have a good time / when death and destruction’s all I see?”.

The album concludes with “Bagbak” and “Rain Come Down.” “Bagbak” was the first single released in promotion of the album, the beat produced by Ray Brady sounds the most like what I think Detroit techno sounds like though I’m not very familiar with the genre. It’s futuristic but industrial and on this track Staples delivers his most explicit political lyrics on the album with lines like “prison system broken, racial war commotion / until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’ / we need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office.” In an interview with LA Weekly Staples said “we making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism” he later said he was trolling telling white people about black culture but I think he’s right. This is afro-futurism at least Staples’ interpretation of afro-futurism whether he intended to or not. He took the sounds of Detroit and other metropolitan cities and crafted a unique forward-thinking vision of the world we’re living in. The final track “Rain Come Down” is slightly more subtly political “I’m the blood on the leaves, I’m the nose on the Sphinx / Where I’m from we don’t go to police” referring to the issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting African-Americans. The track also features some vocals from Ty Dolla $ign on the chorus. Big Fish Theory is a short but powerful album featuring unique experimental electronic production, witty and insightful lyrics, minimal but effective features and a very strong concept. It joins Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Sampha’s Process as three great albums from three great black artists which explore to some extent how black men deal with pressure and anxiety.

Sampha: Process review – finally in the spotlight an introverted artist bears his soul on his fears and anxieties

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I’ve been a fan of Sampha since 2013 when I first heard him featured on most tracks on SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album. I was absolutely captivated by his soulful singing voice, it was one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard. But I didn’t know who Sampha was. For some time I assumed he was behind the SBTRKT project before discovering it was Aaron Jerome. From 2013 until this year I heard Sampha featured on a number of tracks including Drake’s “Too Much” (which he sampled from a Sampha song from his 2013 EP Dual), Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” If I had bothered to look into his music I wouldn’t have found much though, before Process, his debut album, Sampha had only released two solo projects: 2010’s Sundanza and 2013’s DualSundanza is hard to find because it’s not on any digital platforms and Dual is a brief 17 minute EP. Still had I discovered Dual earlier it could have tided me over while I awaited the debut album of an artist I loved but didn’t really know. This is partly due to Sampha himself. Sampha Sissay was born in Morden, South London to Sierra Leonean parents who came to the United Kingdom in the 1980s. His introduction to music came from learning to play on the piano at his parents’ home in Morden and listening to records given to him by his older siblings. In the few video interviews there are of Sampha he comes across as a very quiet, shy introverted person but someone who is a very talented and cares a lot about music. As someone who was very shy but has now broken out of their shell and is still a generally reserved and introverted person I relate to Sampha a lot. Sampha doesn’t give everything about himself away on Process but he’s brutally honest and it’s so beautiful but absolutely heart-wrenching at times.

Process begins with “Plastic 100°C”, produced by Rodaidh McDonald and Sampha. Process is full of sounds I’ve never heard before and the opening track introduces this musical palette to the listener. The track begins with a sample of Neil Armstrong saying “I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun.” This line conveys the feeling that Sampha feels by releasing this album he’s been in the background for so long but now he’s taking a huge step by putting himself in the spotlight but not quite fully plunging into it. Sampha’s voice is soft yet intense you can feel his desperation but he’s almost reluctant to share it. The chorus “it’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here” is just the one of many examples of evocative imagery Sampha will use on this album to describe the feeling of anxiety so perfectly. Here he describes the pressure and anxiety of this stage in his career as hot and that he’s melting because he’s made of out plastic not strong enough to withstand the heat of the music industry and fame. The line “oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah, I didn’t really know what that lump was, my luck” captures this anxiety perfectly by referring to a lump. The lump is both metaphorical and physical. You might feel the sensation of a lump in your throat if you’re nervous as well that the line also refers to when Sampha did actually discover a lump in his throat in 2011, a physical manifestation of his anxiety. Sampha’s father passed away when Sampha was 9 years old, his brother also suffered a severe stroke and then his mother, after having been diagnosed with cancer in 2010, died in 2015. This fear of illness and death is something I relate to even though it hasn’t affected me or anyone close to me personally I struggle with it everyday. I fear every day that either of my parents will fall ill or die and I can’t imagine what I would do and or how I would cope. I fear that something bad will happen to any of my siblings and I fear that I could die at any time. It’s a horrible feeling one that I have to distract myself with things so I don’t dwell on it but it’s one that never goes away and often resurfaces late at night and when I’m away from home.

I know grief is an inevitable feeling and I will eventually lose someone close to me and that’s a very frightening thought. But through Sampha coping and processing his grief on Process I know this album will help me cope and process my grief in the future. The album’s most emotional moment comes at “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” It’s a stripped back piano ballad as Sampha reflects on his musical upbringing and the memory of his recently deceased mother. It’s very very emotionally affecting I almost tear up every time I listen to it. The line “no one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home / You would show me I had something some people call a soul” ugh 😭. The song “Blood on Me” is a heart-racing frantic “banger” as Sampha describes the feelings of fear and anxiety as things which chase and haunt him: “I swear they smell the blood on me
I hear them coming for me.” His voice sounds more desperate than it did on “Plastic 100°C”, the breathing sounds make you imagine he’s literally running away from his fears and anxieties on the song. The production on this song is incredible, the tinny drums and the heavy bass as the song builds and builds until it climaxes. The song works incredibly well when you’re actually running if you’re feeling stressed out run with this song and imagine you’re escaping from your fears and anxieties it feels very cathartic. “Kora Sings” also has incredible production featuring a kora, a West African instrument, it has a very unique sound and combined with the drums on the song, it’s simply beautiful. The entire album is indescribably beautiful. The production, the use of percussion, the piano, it’s extremely well produced.  Another example is “Take Me Inside” which starts off as another low-key ballad as Sampha’s soft voice croons away but then in come the electronic sounds and synthesisers as which build very quickly and then fade away.

“Reverse Faults” like “Blood on Me” is another banger. It feels weird to call any song on this album a banger because the lyrics are so very personal, emotional and reflective but songs like the two aforementioned just have an incredible breakdown and lyrics you want to scream out loud. The song goes from a mellow synthy instrumental into a more explosive electronic instrumental and Sampha sings “took the brake pads out the car and I flew” the lyrics just evoke the feeling of freedom. “Under” is another song which has beautifully evocative imagery to describe the feelings Sampha is experiencing “I’m somewhere in open sea yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah I’m gasping for air.” The production on this song to me sounds like the most like a James Blake song, the drums and bass have the feel of a James Blake song but the vocal performance is more expressive than any James Blake song. The vocal performances throughout this album are just incredibly expressive Sampha has so much range and so much emotion is felt in the way he sings the lyrics. “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses” are no exception. On “Timmy’s Prayer” Sampha cries out “I wish that I listened when I was in prison now I’m just a visitor I came to the gates but you turned me away you asked me what am I waiting for
I’m waiting ’cause I fucked up, ooh” here Sampha describes how he’s lost meaning in his life now both of his parents are gone and he’s questioning himself and God. Co-written by Kanye West, “Timmy’s Prayer” contains the same emotional honesty of Kanye at his best and that line is the one time Sampha swears on the album showing just how desperate he’s gotten. “Incomplete Kisses” is a melancholic, beautiful track with a piano and electronic sounds, the song builds up to an emotional climax which makes you reminisce about those moments where things were left unrealised. The final song “What Shouldn’t I Be?” is perhaps the most lowkey song on the album as Sampha quietly reflects on his past connections, his home, his family he concludes the album by saying “It’s not all about me (What shouldn’t I be?).” It’s an ambivalent end but one that suggests though he’s looking back and reconnecting with people in his life but he also has a better sense of himself as well. I’m so glad that Sampha has decided to put himself out there more because Process is a really impressive debut album and my second favourite album of the year so far. Like DAMN., my favourite album of the year so far, Process shows a black man who is not afraid to show that he’s vulnerable and that he also fears and has anxieties like everyone. I hope more artists like Sampha and Kendrick Lamar continue to do the same.

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. review – still powerful but smaller in scope DAMN. looks inward and finds a boundary-pushing artist fearful and anxious

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I’ve been a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar since I first heard Section.80 in 2011 and was blown away not only by his technical rapping skills but also his artistic vision. When Kendrick released Good Kid, M.A.A.D City in 2012 I thought “there is no way he can top this.” It was an incredible album. A conceptual album which told the story of the now legendary rapper and artist, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth growing up in the notorious city of Compton, California. On the record Kendrick told touching personal anecdotes of a life we’ve seen depicted in films such as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society and heard about in the gangsta rap of the late 80s and early 90s from hip-hop artists such as N.W.A., Ice Cube and 2pac – the latter of which is Kendrick’s biggest influence. The album was very critically and commercially successful earning Kendrick five Grammy Award nominations and giving him the worldwide fame and recognition he deserved. The world eagerly (and anxiously) awaited what he would do next but no one could have predicted it would be 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Although, it was still a concept album as his past two albums had been Butterfly was radically different in sound from anything Kendrick had released before. The album drew its sonic influences largely from the dance-able politically charged jazz and funk of the 70s such as The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Fela Kuti and George Clinton, the latter of which was featured on the opening track “Wesley’s Theory.” The album was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, it earned Kendrick 11 Grammy Award nominations (five of which he won!) and one of its singles “Alright” became the protest anthem for Black Lives Matter marches across the globe.

Two years on from Butterfly and Kendrick Lamar has released DAMN., his fourth (third major) studio album. The album received very little build-up in promotion, Kendrick was already one of the biggest rappers in the game only really competing with Drake. On  March 23, 2017 he released The Heart Part 4, the latest in his series of hard-hitting songs which asserted his dominance as the king of hip-hop. On March 30, 2017 he released “HUMBLE.along with an amazing music video, a braggadocious banger produced by Mike Will Made It. But I have to admit when I first heard “HUMBLE.”, I was a little worried that Kendrick would be going too broad and commercial with this album. I knew I would love it regardless because I’m a shameless Kendrick stan but I was still a little anxious. To Pimp a Butterfly had become my favourite album of all time (yes I really mean it) that album changed my life and opened my mind, made me alert, angry, sad yet hopeful. I also wanted more of the jazz and funk and more of the spoken word and poetry. But Kendrick never does the same thing twice. He’s always pushing himself to new creative directions and that’s what makes him one of the most important and talented artists alive. I shouldn’t have doubted at all, after two weeks of listening almost constantly I can say confidently that DAMN. is an exceptional album.

DAMN. opens with “BLOOD.”, it has some haunting vocals from Bēkon, who appears throughout the album. He sings “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?” and this line recurs throughout the album and forms the premise of the album. The meaning I got from this line is that we all have the innate traits of wickedness and weakness inside of us that motivate us to do things and guide our emotions. And will it be wickedness or weakness which cause our ultimate demise, we the listener are encouraged to decide. Whether Kendrick is talking about all of humanity or black people specifically is ambiguous. Like the poem in Butterfly, this line makes the listener think deeper about the album’s themes however unlike the poem we don’t get an interview with 2pac at the end of the album explaining what it means. While, Butterfly was a really complex, intricate album which explored big socio-political themes and there’s a lot which can still be learnt from it, DAMN. albeit smaller in scope is an even more complex and perplexing album because it’s themes are more personal and internal, it’s lyrics often cryptic and ambiguous.  Two years on from Butterfly, there are finer details of the album I still discover or hear afresh even after countless listens but I’ve got a good grasp on the album, with DAMN. I suspect it will take even longer. After two weeks there’s no way I will be able to unpack all the themes and meanings in DAMN. but I will try my best to touch on some of them. On “BLOOD.” Kendrick tells the story of how he was shot by a blind woman perhaps representing Lady Justice, a personification of justice. This I argue may suggest the betrayal of the criminal justice system against African-Americans as the track ends with a sample from FOX News reporters quoting Kendrick’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET awards: “Lamar stated his views on police brutality with that line in the song, quote: “and we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho’…” which leads into “DNA.”.

OMG, OMG, OMG “DNA.”!!!

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DAMN, K-Dot you straight snapped on this one!! Kung Fu Kenny fly kicked this beat in the head. This is bombbbbb!! 🔥🔥🔥💯💯💯 Who got you mad, huh? 🤔 Sorry I had to do that haha. But DAMN indeed. This track produced by Mike WiLL Made-It is an absolute scorcher and Kendrick repeats the line “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” He deems himself as loyal and celebrates the African genetics in his blood, the royalty of black people as he did on I” on Butterfly. He viciously attacks FOX news reporter, Geraldo Rivera on the bridge, a sample of Rivera saying “this is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” before launching into a fiery second verse in a rapid fire machine-gun flow “tell me somethin’ you motherfuckers can’t tell me nothin’.” It is absolutely jaw-dropping.

“YAH.” is a chill track as Kendrick raps in a slow cadence and has some Jamaican sounding background vocals. He again attacks Fox news directly calling them out “somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition” however the lines that follow are more interesting. “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout a religion / I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo.” Throughout the album Kendrick is struggling with his faith, Kendrick is a Christian and his faith in God has been explored on his previous albums but on DAMN. Kendrick is struggling to believe in God because he’s suffering so much. It doesn’t mean he’s not religious anymore but as someone who was religious but lost faith as I started to question it I completely understand why he feels like this. I don’t think Kendrick is denouncing religion or his black identity but his black identity has been attacked so he feels like identifying with the Israelites and his faith in God is shaken because he is struggling with so much fear and anxiety. Kendrick showed that he was conflicted and struggled with the temptations of fame especially on black artists in the music industry on Butterfly. On DAMN. Kendrick really reflects on the stress, fear and anxiety which he feels because the world is looking up to him as a (black) messiah.

This is fully explored on the track “FEEL.”, one of the most emotional tracks on the album. Thundercat’s bass and the production on this song gives the lyrics all the emotional power they needs. Like “U” on Butterfly, Kendrick is crying for help on “FEEL.” “I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em. But who the fuck prayin’ for me?” this line hits hard because it shows just how vulnerable he is despite being seen by the world as a messiah. He is brutally honest on this track, listing all the ways he feels vulnerable. The line “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was. The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin'” while there isn’t an interview with 2pac on this album Kendrick clearly still has 2pac in mind. On DAMN., Kendrick goes back and forth between bangers, poppy tracks and emotional tracks. Almost every track has a counterpart, “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.”, “LOVE.” and “LUST.”, “FEAR.” and “GOD..” “ELEMENT.” comes before “FEEL.” but is tonally very different. On “ELEMENT.”, co-produced by James Blake, Kendrick boastfully raps “If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I’ma make it look sexy”, it’s a really catchy hook. On “LOYALTY. FEAT. RIHANNA.”, “LOVE. FEAT. ZACARI.” and “GOD.”, three of the most commercial sounding songs on the album Kendrick proves that he can make pop songs as well as rap better than anyone in the game. With DAMN.‘s already stellar commercial and critical success he’s proved himself right. Although these are the weakest tracks on the album, there are still enjoyable songs with great production.

“PRIDE.” and “LUST.” has some of the most interesting production on the album. “PRIDE.”  is co-produced by 18-year old The Internet (the band) bassist, Steve Lacy. “PRIDE.”‘s watery guitar make it sound like an lo-fi indie rock song (Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens collab anyone?) and frequent collaborator, Anna Wise’s sweet vocals on the hook are welcome. On “LUST.” co-produced by Canadian jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD, Kendrick raps in a soft smooth cadence and flow reminiscent of OutKast’s Andre 3000. Kendrick raps “I need some water” this could have the metaphorically meaning of needing some water for his thirst (lust) or it could also mean water representing spiritual cleansing and baptism.

As well as “DNA.” the two other standouts on DAMN. are “XXX. FEAT. U2” (I know) and “FEAR.” “XXX.” begins with Bono singing “America, God bless you if it’s good to you /  America, please take my hand / Can you help me underst-” and DJ Kid Capri’s recurring tag “New Kung Fu Kenny.” The production on this track is ridiculously great! Co-produced by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, DJ Dahi, Sounwave & Mike WiLL Made-It, the song has so many different parts and layers. It begins with Kendrick rapping in a sinister cadence almost sounding like 21 Savage with a bass-heavy beat and scratching, then he switches into a more aggressive voice and police sirens become part of the beat. “I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap / Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!” / Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward” these few lines shows the violence and aggression that Kendrick lived in his youth but on this track he almost threatens it because America has disappointed him and he would be forced to resort to violence.  This track and these lines also reflect on black-on-black violence , Kendrick has come under fire before for talking about black people respecting ourselves but I think this is often misunderstood. What Kendrick is talking about is self-love and community and in his community black people kill each other because of a system that has failed them. The second verse finds Kendrick talking explicitly about America, the line “America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does” perfectly sums it up and Bono’s outro is honestly beautiful.

“FEAR.” is possibly my favourite track on the entire album. It is also the longest track at 7 minutes. It samples 70s soul/funk group 24-Carat Black’s song “Poverty’s Paradise” and is produced by The Alchemist, it sounds more than any song on DAMN. like Butterfly. It begins with a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl who gives some advice and quotes scripture “Deuteronomy 28:28 says, “The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.” The bridge from Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr. has the lines “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle” which perfect describes how Kendrick has felt throughout this album. The entire track perfectly encapsulates the themes and emotions explored on the album. The second verse is truly incredible. Kendrick shows so much vulnerability and it’s seriously affecting. Like he did on “FEEL.” Kendrick repeats a phrase at the beginning of several lines “I’ll prolly die anonymous / I’ll prolly die with promises / I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house.” With the line “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges” Kendrick raps about his fear of dying from police brutality, a serious issue in the United States disproportionately affecting African-Americans. The line “I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17” hits really hard because it’s just so depressing Kendrick thinks he will die just because he’s a young black male because as statistics show the leading cause of death for black males between ages 15-19 was homicide (45.3%) in the United States.  As a young black man living in the United Kingdom who was once 17, I’ve felt (sometimes still feel) the same way, though police brutality is much less on an issue here statistics show that a disproportionate number of those who die in or following police custody following the use of force are from black and minority ethnic communities. And as a nervous young black boy who had recently moved to the country I was very fearful for my life during the first few years of secondary school. I thought I’d die before I made it to 20 and now I’m 20 I’m fearful I’ll die before 30. That’s why this line affects me so much. In the third verse Kendrick then raps about how he felt when he was 27 and “at 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged / How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city” this was after releasing To Pimp a Butterfly and the spotlight being on him and Compton. In the fourth verse, Kendrick raps about how he feels now “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ creativity” and at his current age of 29 Kendrick feels fear even more because as 2pac said in the interview on “Mortal Man” on Butterfly “once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a [black] man.” The track ends with another voicemail from his cousin Carl and he talks about how “Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians, are the true children of Israel” and “until we come back to these laws, statutes, and commandments, and do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us.” This statement has proved to be controversial online and I’m not going to unpack it but it isn’t clear it’s something Kendrick agrees with but it’s definitely something he’s thought about.

Finally, the last track on DAMN. is “DUCKWORTH.” which tells the riveting tale of how Kendrick’s father “Ducky” narrowly escaped death because he offered Anthony “Top Dawg”, the co-president of TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) Kendrick’s label, free chicken and two extra biscuits. It’s an incredible well told story with great production from 9th Wonder, the beat switch is great and the vocal samples give it a really satisfying concluding feel. The last lines encapsulates the premise of wickedness and weakness “whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky / Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” It was weakness that meant Anthony spared Ducky’s life and wickedness would have meant Kendrick would grow up without a father and likely die in a homicide. I’m grateful that Anthony offered Ducky free chicken and biscuits because it allowed me a young black man from England to relate to the music of another black man from America, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, the greatest rapper of all time.

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