Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar review – the genre-bending Scottish band deliver their best album yet

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Young Fathers are impossible to categorise. They’re a pop group. An indie band. A punk band. An alternative band. A hip-hop group. They’re African. They’re Scottish. They’re accessible. They’re experimental. Young Fathers are truly one of the music unique bands to come from the UK in a while and one of the most exciting bands right now in music period. Young Fathers were formed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2008 by Alloysious Massaquoi (of Liberian descent), Kayus Bankole (of Nigerian descent) and Graham ‘G’ Hastings. They released a pair of mixtapes Tape One and Tape Two more rooted in alternative hip-hop than anything they’ve done since but also with elements of punk and reggae. I first discovered them in 2015 after their second album White Men Are Black Men Too had just been released. The provocative title caught my eye and I listened to it once or twice enjoying it but not being blown away. I proceeded to listen to their 2014 Mercury Prize-winning debut album Dead which I really enjoyed as well but again didn’t return to often. In January 2017 I returned to their discography and completely fell in love with their music. With the release of Cocoa Sugar, they’ve become one of my new favourite bands.

I became reacquainted with Young Fathers at the perfect time. It had been two years since they released their second album and while I wish I had more time to spend with their music at least the wait for new music was shorter. They only released one single in 2017 “Only God Knows” for the T2: Trainspotting’s soundtrack but I anticipated new music and how glad I was to be right. The first single from this album “Lord” absolutely captivated me and in the context of the album sounds even more amazing. In the middle of the track list, it begins with the sound of heavy vibration before it transitions into a mellow piano chord and vocals singing “Lord, don’t pay me no mind / Lord, if you choose a time / Lord, don’t pay me no mind.” The gospel-influenced lyrics didn’t surprise me as “Only God Knows” similarly had gospel-influenced lyrics. The track perfectly captures the beauty of Young Fathers. It is both incredibly moving and powerful yet simultaneously unsettling and dark. The synths and reverbs reinforce their choirboy vocals and the combination of gospel lyrics and electronic production is just one of the things that make the band so unique. It is completely overwhelming.

Cocoa Sugar is an album full of experimentation like their previous albums but some of the elements which were enhanced in their previous albums are stripped back, simplified and minimalised. It is still by now means a completely accessible album. There is no mainstream chart-topping pop hit but songs like the opener “See How” and “In My View” show they’re capable of simplifying their sound without sacrificing their uniqueness. “See How” at only two minutes is a beautiful introduction to the album. The production is full of strange sounding synths but the vocals are very sweet and poignant. The repeated lines “see how it goes” give the song an uplifting tempo. The album delves deeper into the weird with “Fee Fi.” The percussion and the vocal chanting give it a tribal sound. While it’s difficult to parse the meaning of a lot of Young Father’s lyrics they’re undeniably beautifully written. The standout track on the album, however, is the infectious earworm “In My View.” Perhaps the most straight-forward and accessible song they’ve ever written with the potential to be a minor indie hit, however, it still carries their signature idiosyncrasies. The production still has a slightly haunting feel to it, there’s a drone in the background but the vocals are incredibly pleasant. The hook is also very catchy “In my view, nothing’s ever given away / I believe to advance that you must pay” their boyish vocals are so charming I could easily imagine them in a doo-wop group or as choir boys in a gospel choir.

There’s so much soul and passion in their vocals and the way they sing. Throughout all of Young Father’s albums, their passionate vocals and beautifully written lyrics remain their strength. The inventiveness and innovative production only enhance the strength of their vocals. While their singing isn’t pitch-perfect, there’s a desperation and an earnestness to their singing that captivates you. “Turn” begins with the line “I’ve always been this way / All my days” while this isn’t so abstract like a lot of their lyrics it’s open to interpretation. On “Tremolo” the repeated refrain “tremolo my soul” is sung with so much emotion that you can’t help but be moved. Another reason Young Fathers are such a unique group is how well all three members sing and harmonise together. “Wow” has a pulsating rhythm, heavy percussion and synths, the track builds up with so much momentum as vocals repeat “giving me what I need.” On “Border Girl”, the production and the additional background vocals make it sound like Demon Days-era Gorillaz. It’s also the most political track on the album without being explicitly so. Its title and the lyrics referring to the wave of xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments around the world.

Another highlight on the album is “Holy Ghost.” Like “Lord” its title suggests a religious theme but the vocals sound totally different to that track. It’s full of unique vocal experimentation, the singing is raspy and desperate with some rapping to add to the energy. The lines “I got the Holy Ghost fire in me / As in hell, you can call it blasphemy” also carry so much meaning however you may interpret them. “Wire” is a very brief post-punk influenced track, frenetic and impactful in its brief length. “Toy” is another high energy track backed by an upbeat high tempo, clapping, unique vocal inflexions and more rapping. The album closes out by returning to a slightly more accessible sound. An organ chord and rattling drum rolls back the infectiously sweet and earnest vocals as they sing “I’m picking you and you’ / Cause that’s all that seems to matter to me lately.” It’s as romantic as they’ve ever gotten. On Cocoa Sugar, Young Fathers prove they’re one of the most exciting bands today. They simplified their sound without sacrificing what makes them unique showing their ability to transcend genres and make powerful music which is subtly political.

Top 10 favourite albums of 2017

2017 has been a very eventful year for music. Kendrick Lamar continued his dominance of the rap game releasing another critically acclaimed and commercially successful album, DAMN., and taking the charts by storm. Drake released a “playlist” called More Life which introduced the world to UK rap legend Giggs and further confused those with his ever changing accent. UK actor and comedian, Michael Dapaah in character as Big Shaq became one of the biggest memes of 2017 and released the biggest UK rap song ever “Man’s Not Hot” after the success of his viral Fire in the Booth freestyle with Charlie Sloth. Sampha finally released his debut album Process, which won the Mercury Prize, and captured the world with his beautiful soulful voice. SZA, Syd, Kelela, Daniel Caesar, Brent Faiyaz and more released some of the smoothest alternative R&B albums in a while. JAY-Z got everyone talking when he admitted he cheated on Beyonce (stupid) and released some of his best music in a while and some incredible music videos. And throughout the year, there was so much amazing black British music. J Hus, Stormzy, Skepta, Dave, Little Simz, Krept & Konan, MoStack, Giggs, AJ Tracey, Kojey Radical, Wiley, Not3s, Nadia Rose, Chip, 67, Kojo Funds and more all released amazing projects and songs this year. So let’s get into it. These are my top 10 favourite albums released in 2017 from favourite to slightly less favourite.

10.

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Moses Sumney — Aromanticism

One might be tempted to label Moses Sumney as an R&B or alternative R&B artist because he’s a black singer but he’s much more similar to an Elliot Smith than say Chris Brown. On his debut album Aromanticism, Sumney softly coos in his falsetto about loneliness and isolation backed by ambient and indie folk instrumentation. Think Dirty Projectors or Arca. His voice is often a quiet whisper a perfect vessel for delivering his beautifully written poetic lyrics. Sumney joins other current soulful black singers like Sampha and Benjamin Clementine who are creating some of the most unique music melding the genres of electronic, indie, soul, baroque, folk and R&B music in a distinctly black style.

9.

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LCD Soundsystem — American Dream

In February 2011 LCD Soundsystem disbanded and it was made official following a large farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. The farewell concert was chronicled in the documentary film Shut Up and Play the Hits. So it came as surprise when in January 2016 the band announced their reunion and a day later their fourth studio album American Dream. LCD Soundsystem return without a hitch with American Dream, still sounding like quintessential LCD but with some bells and whistles. They return with their distinct dance-punk and new wave sound but updated and refreshed for 2017. Frontman James Murphy muses on the current turbulent political climate with his unique brand of lyricism. It’s a great return to form and shows that no one does dance-punk/rock better than LCD Soundsystem but nice try Arcade Fire.

8.

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Slowdive — Slowdive

Legendary English shoegazing and dream pop band reunited in 2017 for the first time in 22 years since the release of their last album Pygmalion in 1995. Along with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive are regarded as one of the best and most influential dream pop and shoegazing bands ever. Their latest, self-titled, album after more than two decades proves why they’re so critically acclaimed. When an album is self-titled it sets very high expectations and Slowdive definitely exceeded them on this album. They sound as dreamy as ever but their new songs are even more vibrant and fresh, the wash of guitars and reverb entrancing you in bittersweet memories and nostalgia.

7.

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Jay-Z — 4:44

After the disappointments that were Magna Carta Holy Grail and The Blueprint 3 Jay-Z is back to prove why he’s still considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jay-Z, I got into hip-hop when I was around 13/14 so the first Jay-Z album I remember coming out and listening to was Magna Carta Holy Grail which massively disappointed me. I always preferred Nas and Biggie to Jay. 4:44 is Hov going back to basics, leaving behind the braggadocio and ego and being more vulnerable and honest than he’s ever been. The album is brief and the production is stripped back solely handled by long-time collaborator, No I.D. and Jay-Z himself. The album succeeds immensely with tracks like “The Story of O.J.” being among the best this year.

6.

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SZA — Ctrl

SZA’s debut album could have come a few years earlier but because of issues with her confidence and lack of control it didn’t. But it came this year which was the perfect time because this has been SZA’s year. Almost every black woman I know has loved SZA’s album and related to it in some way. As the sole female member of indepedent hip-hop label TDE, which has produced some of the biggest artists in hip-hop including Kendrick Lamar, she’s an odd fit. But like most members of TDE she’s incredibly talented. The production on Ctrl is very smooth and reminiscent of 90s neo-soul yet simultaneously contemporary and unique. The album also has an indie spirit with dreamy guitar riffs such as the one on “Drew Barrymore” the anthem for misfit girls everywhere. Her voice is expressive and her lyrics are poignant as they are relatable for weird, awkward black girls.

5.

Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory

After the critical acclaim of his debut album Summertime ’06 Vince Staples could have easily played it safe with his sophomore album and repeated the success. However, Vince does the opposite on Big Fish TheoryBig Fish Theory is one of the most unique hip-hop albums in recent years and as experimental as a relatively mainstream hip-hop artist gets. Of course Vince is not going to be topping charts any time soon but with his infamous interviews and hilarious Twitter account he’s increasingly popular. Big Fish Theory is a very unique album, it’s production is totally electronic there isn’t a single beat I could call traditional hip-hop. The album has a mix of different electronic genres including UK garage, house, techno and EDM. Vince flows incredibly well on these unconventional beats and enlists Kendrick Lamar on “Yeah Right” one of the best bangers of the year.

4.

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Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy

Flower Boy also known as Scum Fuck Flower Boy is I wanted Tyler to make after Cherry Bomb. While Cherry Bomb wasn’t a bad album, Tyler’s experimentation with production meant it was often a difficult listen and he didn’t always pull it off. But he showed glimpses of the greatness that appears on Flower Boy. When Flower Boy leaked it started a lot of speculations about Tyler’s sexuality referring to some not so subtle lyrics on the album. Tyler has still not confirmed these rumours despite some who point to tweets he’s made in the past. The thing about Tyler is that no one takes him seriously because he’s sometimes too much of a joker. But I think Tyler wants us to take him seriously  on Flower Boy and let the music speak for itself because he doesn’t use the persona of Wolf Haley on this album it’s just Tyler Okonma. And Tyler Okonma is very talented. Flower Boy has some of the most beautiful production, soulful singing and honest poignant lyrics on any album this year. It’s been great watching Tyler grow into a mature artist and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

3.

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J Hus — Common Sense

2017 has been an incredible year for black British music as I mentioned in my introduction and J Hus’ Common Sense is a stand out. J Hus has been making massive waves since he broke out in 2015 and it’s great to see that he’s been able to turn that talent into a great album. Common Sense is the perfect encapsulation of young black Britain in 2017, it captures the mad raves, the dance-hall and afrobeats hall parties, the roads; the essence of young black British African and Caribbean life. The production on Common Sense (most of which is handled by JAE5) is fantastic, from the jazzy title track “Common Sense” to a grime rave banger “Clartin” and UK garage tunes like “Plottin.” J Hus is undeniably one of the most talented artists in the UK and I’m so excited to see what he does next.

2.

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Sampha — Process

I’m so glad to have another black British artist not just in my top 10 but in the top 3. Not to go on about it but it really has been an incredible for black British music. In any other year, Process could be my number one but a certain someone had to release another masterpiece. But what an incredible album Process is and well worth the wait. Sampha has caught people’s attention since appearing throughout SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album in 2011 stunning everyone with his angelic soulful voice. I’ve seen Sampha live and honestly he sounds even more incredible live like that’s even possible. By having literally one of the most beautiful voices ever Process could have had average production and I would have loved listening to it. Thankfully that’s not the case as the production is also great handled by Sampha himself and Rodaidh McDonald. It’s production is electronic similar to James Blake but it’s also very soulful. He bares his soul on this album singing about his anxiety, fear, loneliness and grief. A standout track is the piano ballad “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” dedicated to his late mother it’s the most emotional, touching song in an album full of heartwarming moments.

1.

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Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

And it’s no surprise that my number one album of 2017 is a Kendrick Lamar album. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Kendrick Stan but this pick is only slightly biased because I genuinely think DAMN. is the best album of 2017. It had some fierce competition and I’ve had Process over it a few times but in the end I think I made the best decision. No other album in 2017 affected me as much as DAMN. After To Pimp a Butterfly which is my favourite album ever I eagerly anticipated what Kendrick would do next. I don’t think  he will ever top To Pimp a Butterfly, at least for me but he came pretty DAMN. close. On DAMN. whose concept I still haven’t fully begun to unpack yet, Kendrick goes internal examining his now messianic status, his fears and anxieties and the state of the world we’re living in with excellent results. “FEAR.” the album’s centrepiece is one of the best Kendrick Lamar songs ever, a 7-minute epic detailing his life from the age of 7 to now. “HUMBLE.” proves that he’s capable of making of chart-topping bangers without sacrificing lyricism. On “DNA.” he goes in on his critics and does lyrical acrobatics. The album is full of highlights and while there are some more poppy songs like “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” Kendrick continues to prove that he’s the greatest active living hip-hop artist. After To Pimp a Butterfly was released there was not doubt Kendrick Lamar was one of the greatest rappers of all time (and my personal number one) there’s no absolutely reason why anyone should think otherwise after DAMN.

Nervous Conditions review: Almost 30 years later this seminal novel is just as relevant and important as it was upon release

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It’s been almost 30 years since the novel Nervous Conditions was published in 1988. Written by Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, it was her third novel and to date is one of only four novels the author has published (a sequel to Nervous Conditions was published in 2006). Set in late 1960s and 70s Rhodesia, an unrecognised state from 1965 to 1979, now Zimbabwe, the novel is especially relevant considering the recent events. The recent coup of the national party, Zanu PF and the forced resignation of revolutionary turned dictator, Robert Mugabe who ruled the country for 37 years prompt a look back at this novel. The interesting thing about the novel is not it is not overtly political. Set in the 60s and 70s this was before Zimbabwe began independent from British rule and before Mugabe became president. The novel follows its protagonist, a little girl named Tambudzai, as she navigates the oppressive patriarchal domination in her home. After her older brother, Nhamo, dies Tambu is sent to the missionary school, where Nhamo studied, away from home with her wealthy middle-class uncle Babamukuru and his family. She finds it difficult to assimilate into the culture of the missionary school and is alienated from the white British missionaries and their children who speak Shona rather than English. Her cousin, Nyasha, after arriving back in Rhodesia from England where she had spent a significant portion of her childhood struggles to fit back into the oppressive patriarchal landscape of Rhodesia. The novel highlights the way in which assimilation is not necessarily a positive thing but can be a difficult and traumatic experience. It also points to the way women experience assimilation might be different from men. Both female characters experience this change in very different ways. The politics of the novel is not explicit or overt but is represented in the mental states of the characters and what colonialism has done to the natives of the countries it’s affected. It’s certainly not the first but is an important representation of African feminism and the struggles which black (especially African) women go through. The novel however does not wallow in despair it’s certainly dark at times but it’s ultimately uplifting and recommended reading for everyone especially young black girls.

Nathan For You season 4 finale review: a beautifully poignant portrayal of regret and loss

Two weeks ago on November 9th 2017 the season finale of the fourth season of Nathan For You aired. The feature length episode (an hour and 24 minutes) had been hyped by the promotional material for the series and expectations were high after the spectacular season finale for the third season. If you’ve never seen an episode of Nathan For You the premise might sound insane but it totally works. It is a docu-reality comedy series co-created by comedian Nathan Fielder and airs on Comedy Central. The premise is Fielder plays an off-kilter slightly exaggerated version of himself who tries to use his business background and life experiences to help struggling companies and people. He frequently offers them outlandish and ridiculous strategies and despite the reluctance of the business owners they often go through it. The lines between reality and fiction are tricky. None of the contributors and business owners are actors but Fielder and his team have an eye for finding the weirdest, most interesting and sometimes delusional people.  He also has a large production team who are able to orchestrate and are able to put the ridiculous plans into action. Despite not being scripted the series often gets into the most extreme and farcical situations imaginable.

In a season two episode titled “Souvenir Shop / E.L.A.I.F.F.” Nathan helps a Hollywood souvenir shop and during the episode meets a Bill Gates impersonator. The season four finale begins by looking back to when Nathan and a so-called Bill Gates impersonator, Bill Heath, recorded commentary for a DVD release. Bill comes to their office regularly to drop gifts and chat with the team. But he is preoccupied by a long-lost love, a woman named Frances Gaddy who he regrets not marrying. As a lonely 78 year old he doesn’t have much in his life and still clings on to the glory days of playing (American) football in high school. Nathan decides to take on the mission of finding Frances. It’s an ambitious task as there are over 600, 000 women in the U.S. named Frances and she’s likely to have a different surname if she married, nevertheless Nathan goes through with it. Throughout the four seasons of this show Nathan has gone through a lot of ambitious tasks and while this might not be overall the most difficult one it’s the most emotionally-affecting one making this the best episode of Nathan For You ever. Nathan and Bill go back his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Frances went to another high school to Bill, in a town called Dumas a couple of hours from Little Rock. They have difficult gaining access to the school but as usual Nathan comes up with a ridiculous plan which somehow works. Nathan and his team pretend they’re shooting a sequel to the 2012 film Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, called Mud 2: Never Clean. They find a random extra in the background of the film and gain access to Dumas High School. This is all so they can find a yearbook with a picture of Frances and use it as a lead to find her.

While this episode is about Bill’s desire to find Frances and declare his love for her, it contains some surprisingly vulnerable moments from Nathan. It’s difficult to tell where the real Nathan begins and the persona ends but they seem close as Nathan comes across as a naturally shy and awkward individual in interviews. When he finds out that Bill wasn’t the best boyfriend to Frances, Nathan hires an escort to see how he treats women. Bill refuses to talk to the escort but since Nathan has already paid for the services he goes on a number of dates with the escort. Although it’s difficult to tell the escort seems to like him. The episode concludes with Nathan and Bill finding Frances through a newspaper clipping and looking her up on Facebook. They discover that Frances is married but Bill still wants to go see her in person. Nathan sets up rehearsals with an actress who looks somewhat like Frances so Bill can practise what he’s going to say. When they drive up to where Frances lives Bill is so nervous after all the anticipation he calls her and decides not to see her in person after realising she’s happy in her marriage. In the end, Bill asks Nathan how to get into contact with the actress and when they meet it seems she genuinely likes him. This feature-length episode is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. It’s a sad but honest and poignant portrayal of regret and how we as humans want to be loved. Nathan For You has been renewed for a fifth season but this is likely to be the best episode the show’s ever done.

J Hus O2 Brixton Academy review: the Stratford rapper celebrated his London homecoming with extravagance

J Hus has had an incredible year and as 2017 starts to round off he’s topped it off with an incredible first headline show at the O2 Brixton Academy in Brixton, South London. At the end of last week, it was announced that “Form 696” was being scrapped after newly elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan had called for a review of the form’s use earlier this year. Since 2005 promoters and licensees have been asked to complete a “Form 696” as a risk assessment for hosting music events with DJs and MCs. Many in the grime and UK rap scene have accused the form of being a racist way to target black youth. It’s no coincidence that the form was introduced in 2005 just after grime music began to break into the mainstream. And grime music is primarily produced by black artists and at least in 2005 its main consumers were black. 12 years later, the grime scene is healthy after a resurgence in 2014. With perfect timing comes J Hus who just had an extravagant and successful first headline show in London. J Hus is a truly unique artist who is very difficult to categorise. Though there is some grime influence very little of his music can be classified as grime at all. He sounds like no one else. His music is a cocktail of UK afrobeats, dancehall, trap, UK garage, grime and hip-hop. He began his musical career in 2015 and after a series of freestyles released the infectious hit single “”Lean & Bop.” Earlier this year, he released Common Sense, the Mercury-nominated album which is one of the best albums to come out of the UK in a while and a future classic. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the sound of Black Britain. Stratford born and raised with a Gambian mother, his influences are as Black British as they are by their origin in West Africa, the Caribbean and the diaspora.

I was particularly excited for this show, J Hus being one of my favourite artists and having booked my tickets several months ago I eagerly anticipated the gig. To my disappointment, in my excitement in buying tickets I must have accidentally bought the wrong tickets which meant I was in the “circle” the balcony in the venue. Despite not being able to be in the moshpits which are some of the best parts of seeing live music, I was still excited to see the show. The supporting acts were Young T and Bugsey, NSG and DC and while they all brought energy to the eager young crowd they couldn’t match up to the legendary show J Hus was about to put on. On stage, there were four Mercedes-Benzs and a giant rotating fisherman’s hat (in reference to the song “Fisherman”). The fisherman’s hat rotated to reveal a full live band and J Hus came out and performed the title track “Common Sense.” Audience members were given a plastic band which I didn’t think much of until J Hus performed “Closed Doors” and simultaneously everyone’s bands lit up in fluorescent blue. On stage was a large screen which had visuals related to each song, the lights flashed and flames flew on stage (literally lit) making it a visually stunning show. When he began to perform “Mash Up”, MoStack the featured artist came on the stage to perform his verse. Krept and Konan then came on to perform MoStack’s track “Liar Liar (Remix)” which also featured J Hus. And as if the audience could not be embarrassed with enough riches later Dave come on to perform his track “Samantha” featuring J Hus. I wish I didn’t have to imagine what it was like to be in those moshpits but they looked incredible. I was just glad to be there. When he performed the track “Clartin” he encouraged the biggest moshpits and from what I saw they were mad. He ended the show with his biggest hit yet, “Did You See.” And what an apt song, he left myself and the 5000 plus crowd marvelling at what he’d just done.

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.

 

Barber Shop Chronicles review – a razor-sharp exploration of black masculinity across the diaspora

I’m not a big fan of theatre. At least I wasn’t until I went to see Barber Shop Chronicles with my Nigerian parents at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds last Saturday. Before going to see this play, I had only ever been to see two other plays in my life. A production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was about 11 in primary school and a production of The Crucible during sixth form (both of these times at the West Yorkshire Playhouse). I enjoyed seeing these plays but I was always much more interested in films and television than theatre. I learnt about Barber Shop Chronicles after attending a poetry event called An Evening with an Immigrant while at university several months ago. It was a one-man spoken-word poetry show performed by Nigerian spoken-word artist, poet and playwright, Inua Ellams. I was very moved by his story: he was born in Jos, Nigeria but his family fled Nigeria to the UK when they faced persecution. He arrived in London when he was 12 years old but because of their uncertain legal immigration status his family moved to Ireland for 3 years before he could move back to London. Even today after 20 years of living in the UK and Ireland, Ellams still has to renew his passport every three years and Theresa May’s tory government is threatening to pass a bill which might make it even more difficult. If you want to read more about the ridiculous immigration system in the UK I would recommend Omolade’s blog post on her situation. I relate to both Ellams’ and Omolade’s situations in many ways but I’m so lucky in that I got my British citizenship in 2013 after seven years of living in the UK. In just under two weeks it will have been 11 years since I moved to the UK with my mum and my younger siblings to meet my dad and for us to start our new life in the UK. I will write more about my early experiences here in other blog posts but for now I want to talk about Barber Shop Chronicles!

The barber shop is the place of conversation and to convene for black men. I’ve experienced it all my life and it’s the one of the many fascinating things about black people that I’ve noticed. Saying that makes it sound like I’m not black when I am, I’m black and proud but black people are so multi-faceted and unique, we’re both envied and hated all over the world but let’s not get into that. To prepare to see this play I went for this ritual I had done many times before but this time I was made myself aware of the conversations going on around me. I walked into a black barber shop in a primarily South Asian and black working-class area of Leeds called Harehills. I didn’t have to wait long because the shop wasn’t very busy (it was a Thursday evening) and I sat down within 5 minutes of entering the shop.  I was called up to the chair and a barber asked me what I wanted, I said fade on the sides and back and take [pointing to my hair] this much off the top. As I was getting my hair cut a black woman walked into the shop, she seemed pissed off complaining to the owner about her daughter getting into trouble. The shop was a black male barber shop so she wasn’t there for a hairdo and it didn’t look like she was waiting for someone. The owner indulged the woman who may have had some personal issues then later a guy with West African accent I can’t place entered the shop and spoken in pidgin English to the owner who was West Indian. My hair cut didn’t last long and it was 🔥 so I paid the barber and walked out feeling great. Two days later I was watching Barber Shop Chronicles with my Nigerian parents and the characters in the South London barber shop, Three Kings are discussing the use and merits of Pidgin English. A Nigerian character says, hundreds of languages only one unites us: Pidgin. The fact that a conversation which is immediately familiar to many black people was being shown to a predominately white audience was amazing to me as was the fact myself and my parents could see ourselves on stage was even more amazing.

Barber Shop Chronicles was actually inspired by an experience the writer, Inua Ellams had visiting a black barber shop in a Chapeltown (a primarily black working-class area) in Leeds so my experience was likely similar to his. Written by Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani, Barber Shop Chronicles is a stellar production which weaves several stories taking place in barber shops across Africa – Lagos, Accra, Harare, Johannesburg, Kampala – and (south) London. It was hilarious, relatable, touching, well-written, well-acted, well-directed and produced, just an all round incredible production. Before the play started the actors pretended to cut members’ of the audience’s hair, went around chatting to audience members while a DJ played afrobeats and afro bashment music. They all seemlessly transitioned into the beginning of the play as they crowded around to watch a football game. Each scene and location transitioned perfectly into another. The actors chanted, sung and danced each time the play transitioned into a new location. The set design was also extremely well done, authentic and strangely familiar.  When the actors transitioned from the South London barber shop to one in Lagos, I was transposed into forgotten childhood memories. My memories of Nigeria from birth until I moved when I was 9 are few, I have a few vivid ones such as my dad telling me he was moving to the UK when I was 7 but I can’t really sketch out a lot from my early childhood in Nigeria. That scene in Lagos triggered some of those repressed memories, I tried to vaguely remember my parents taking me to barber shops in Lagos and the set design seemed somewhat familiar. The dialogue was hilarious and authentic and the actors did an incredible job speaking a mixture of London English, various Pidgin English languages and other native languages such as Yoruba and Twi. It was really great to see my parents laugh and smile knowingly at the jokes about Nigeria and the use of Yoruba.

Although, the audience I saw it in was mostly white it was great to see a decent amount of other black people there as well especially considering Leeds is not nearly as diverse as London. The audience laughed throughout the play and I was so glad to see how much other black people enjoyed. I think we should support each other as much as we can especially in the arts. As well as being funny, Barber Shop Chronicles was really touching. It explored many difficult topics that aren’t discussed as much in black communities such as sexuality, identity and mental health. It showed black masculinity in all its complexities and different beautiful forms across different generations. Everyone involved did an absolutely amazing job. Barber Shop Chronicles is being performed for another run at the National Theatre from 29th of November 2017 to the 9th of January 2018. It is extremely popular so be sure to book tickets soon! https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/barber-shop-chronicles-performances. Also check out Inua Ellams’ website: inuaellams.com.

 

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.

‘Moonlight’ Review – beautifully poetic meditation on identity and self-love

This review contains minor spoilers. [This review was originally published elsewhere on March 6, 2017]

When I first saw the trailer for Moonlight many months ago last year I became entirely obsessed with it and desperately wanted to see the film. Throughout the months leading up to the UK release of the film I kept rewatching the trailer, it captivated me so much and I just knew the film would be unlike anything I had ever seen before. So when I first saw Moonlight three weeks ago I had very high expectations but I was at ease the moment the film began with Boris Gardiner’s 1973 reggae classic “Every Nigger is a Star”, also sampled on “Wesley’s Theory”, the opening track to Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. By the time the credits started rolling I was overwhelmed with emotions, my heart was beating very fast; it was the best cinematic experience I’ve ever had and will likely ever have. I was lucky enough to attend a Q & A after the film with some of the cast and crew, Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, Adele Romanski and James Laxton. I was grateful and in total awe of the talent that made such an artistic masterpiece.

This review comes three weeks after seeing the film because I’ve needed time to gather my thoughts on the film though I love it there’s a lot to talk about and there are many things I’m still trying to unpack. I have now seen Moonlight a second time and on a second viewing it was just as emotionally impactful as the first. This review also comes a full week after Moonlight won three Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture which it absolutely deserves. The press has already extensively covered the snafu which occurred just a week ago so I won’t go into it but the controversy surrounding the false announcement of La La Land as the winner before correctly giving the award to Moonlight has a particular resonance. Moonlight’s historic win is so important, it’s the first all-black cast and LGBT film to win Best Picture and the lowest budget film to win the award. It’s an incredible feat and I really hope its win is not overshadowed by the biggest mistake in the Academy’s history but hey we black people are used to having our struggles ignored and our victories undermined.

Moonlight is only the second feature film from 37 year-old director, Barry Jenkins. His first feature film was the delightful mumblecore romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy (2008) which was like a black Before Sunrise about two young black San Franciscans after a one night stand. It was a very small indie film made on a budget $15,000 practically peanuts compared to Moonlight’s still tiny $1.5 million. While it was a solid debut, it was still surprising that Jenkins could make a film like Moonlight 8 years later. It’s the kind of film that many will never achieve in their entire careers, it’s the film of a lifetime. Moonlight was adapted by Jenkins from a previously unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney’s play is a largely autobiographical story about a young black boy named Chiron growing up in Liberty City, Miami as he struggles with his sexuality and his identity. Although straight, Jenkins also grew up in the same neighbourhood as McCraney, went to the some of the same schools and also had a crack-addicted mother though the two never met growing up. It is told co-currently in three stages of his life: as a small pre-pubescent boy, as a lanky teenager and finally as a hyper-masculine young adult. Jenkins’ screenplay changes the complicated structure of the play to translate it to film instead using a triptych structure, the narrative is told in three chapters named after the nicknames Chiron is given at different times in his life: “i. Little”, “ii. Chiron” and “iii. Black.” Drawing influence from foreign directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien whose film Three Times was an influence on the narrative structure, Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai, Moonlight is an art film. As a lover of cinema and especially art cinema I was delighted to hear Barry Jenkins mention these filmmakers as influences especially Wong Kar-wai. There isn’t a whole lot of black cinema and black art films are even rarer so I was so happy to see another.

Moonlight also looks like an art film. The film opens with Afro-Cuban drug dealer, Juan (played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali who won best supporting actor for the role), pulling up in a classic late 80s Chevrolet. He is sporting a durag, gold watch and casual attire. At 6′ 2″ and with a deep smooth voice, Ali is a commanding screen presence. Laxton’s camera circles a drug addict and corner boy Juan approaches, constantly in motion it’s somewhat disorientating. The film is shot in CinemaScope and colour graded with a high contrast giving it a sharp distinct look different from the documentary-style look typical of social realist dramas. Running past Juan is a Chiron (Alex Hibbert) chased by bullies who yell homophobic slurs at him. The camera cuts to Chiron running through a field, the contrast of his dark brown skin, blue backpack and green grass is vivid as he runs from the bullies to hide in an abandoned corner. Despite its sensitive subject matter, Moonlight is not a social realist drama nor is it intended to be. It is a beautifully poetic meditation on identity and self-love. On paper, it appears it could be social realist drama, it’s set in a poor neighbourhood, there’s a drug dealer, a cracked addicted mother, an absent father and a bullied young black boy. But as Barry Jenkins has said stereotypes come from the outside so these are not stereotypes these are just people who really exist and are just as human and deserving to have their stories told truthfully. Moonlight doesn’t fetishise the struggle of living poor, black or gay it simply tells a personal but very relatable story. And because Moonlight is so gorgeously shot does not make it any less realistic in fact it makes it more realistic because it depicts the true beauty of the location and the people. Set and shot in Liberty City, Miami it’s an area of Miami which is not often depicted on screen but Moonlight shows how naturally beautiful the location is despite the struggle people live in.

One of the most breath-taking scenes in the film is where Juan takes Chiron swimming. It is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen. Nicholas Brittel’s classical score is incredibly moving, James Laxton’s camera bobs in the water in a close-up of Chiron swimming. Juan holds Chiron head just above the water symbolising a baptism. This scene is particularly poignant because of the stereotype of black people not being able to swim. This is some truth to this stereotype, 70% of African-American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. There is a long history behind it, African slaves were brought over on slave ships and many, many drowned so naturally there is an instinctive fear of drowning passed down through generations. Water represents so much in fiction: escape, freedom, sustenance, spirit. It is incredibly touching to see two beautiful black bodies being free in the water as Juan says “in the middle of the world.” After swimming, Juan talks honestly to Chiron and the dialogue is so incredibly well written that it’s some of the most uplifting lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s also the central message of the film as Juan says “at some point you gotta to decide for yourself who you want to be.” Although the film explores Chiron trying to understand his sexuality it’s more about Chiron trying to figure out who he is and tragically it’s not until the end of the film after he has radically transformed himself in the image of Juan that he begins to learn who he is. Juan is a father figure to Chiron whose real father is absent and Juan’s presence is missed when he disappears after the first chapter. Mahershala Ali’s performance is so subtle but incredibly powerful I felt so much love for a drug dealer because he wasn’t a stereotype he was a complex human character with emotions.

The second chapter follows an older Chiron (played with nervous energy by Ashton Sanders), as a lanky, awkward teenager. Ashton Sanders’ performance is perhaps the best of the three actors who play Chiron. The way he carries his body is so fragile and guarded, his shoulders are constantly hunched. It’s in this second act that we see Chiron’s relationship with his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) develop. Kevin appears to be comfortable with his sexuality and know who he is and in some ways he is further along his journey of self-discovery than Chiron but he doesn’t fully know who he is either. This all comes to a head in a pivotal scene. Chiron goes to the beach, sitting on the sand he feels the cool night breeze on his body. When Kevin comes to join him, they talk to each other and smoke a blunt. The dialogue is so natural and well written that it feels like a conversation taken directly from real life. A particular line however hits me hard, Chiron says “I cry so much sometimes I feel like imma just turn to drops.” I would call myself a sensitive person and as a teenager sometimes I felt so lonely I would just cry. To see black boys say this on screen is important because a new generation of black boys growing up can see that it’s okay to cry and be sensitive and express your emotions. Frank Ocean released an album last year called Blonde accompanied by a magazine titled Boys Don’t Cry, that phrase is something that has been said to all men of different races and backgrounds. However with black men in particular, it holds so much weight because we are expected to be hyper-masculine but at the same time we can’t be too intimidating or we’re seen as a threat to society. Although they had nothing to do with each other (though Barry Jenkins was listening to a chopped and screwed version of Blonde while writing it) Moonlight and Blonde explores similar topics such as black masculinity and identity and it’s no surprise a line in a song on Blonde goes “pretty fucking, underneath moonlight now.” I felt happy to see Chiron and Kevin share an intimate moment and allow themselves to be vulnerable because black men aren’t often allowed to be.

The final chapter shows who the world has forced the Chiron to become. Played with a quiet melancholy by Trevante Rhodes, Chiron has built himself in the image of Juan, his armour is his physically strong body, he wears gold fronts on his teeth and carries himself in what he thinks he has to be not who he really is. So when we see Chiron receive a call from Kevin (André Holland) we see who he really is. Kevin reminds him of his past which he has tried to forget but can never truly forget because it’s part of who he is. When Chiron meets up with Kevin at the restaurant he works at, we see the two men struggling to say what they really want to say or how they really feel. Kevin cooks a chef’s special for Chiron and it’s shot with so much love and care. The dialogue as the two men enjoy each other’s company is delightful, you can feel the onscreen chemistry between the actors. When they’re in the car on their way back to Kevin’s place, Kevin asks Chiron “who is you?” This question is the central message of the film to ask ourselves who we really are and to love ourselves. Chiron deflects the question by turning up the car speakers blasting a beautiful chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man.” Chiron doesn’t know who he is yet. In the quiet final moments of the film, two black men drink tea together. That’s something that’s never been seen before on screen but needs to be seen. Chiron admits that Kevin is the only man that’s ever touched him not just that but the only person. This lines hit hard because it shows how Chiron has not allowed himself to be loved. But there’s hope, in the final scene we see Chiron held by Kevin, he’s finally allowing himself to be loved and we should all do the same.