undun is out, Back to Love is coming soon

December 6th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

undun, by The Roots, drops today. I bought it before I went to work just so I could have it to listen to today. You can stream it for free on NPR, but personally, it’s an album worth owning. It’s four dollars on Amazon right now, which is a steal. It was eight when I bought it this morning, but I don’t regret it at all.

I wrote a little about undun here and here. There’s an iPad app that includes all of the music videos and a lot more promo besides. There are interviews with people who knew Redford Stephens, lyrics, a few photos… it’s good stuff. It’s a great way to do promo, really. It’s something that adds to the experience.

Now that undun is out, what’s next? Well, next week, Anthony Hamilton, basically my favorite soul sanger, releases his sixth album, Back to Love. Great title, right? You can stream it on NPR, too. “Pray For Me” knocked me out of my chair the first time I heard it. Saddest joint he’s done since “Comin’ From Where I’m From,” easy.

Here’s the video for “Woo”:

I think this album’ll be a good chaser for undun. I’m probably gonna buy the deluxe edition of Back to Love for the bonus tracks.

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on strong songs [Betty Wright & The Roots – Betty Wright: The Movie]

November 21st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fourteenth. I’ve still got The Roots on the brain, and this time Betty Wright is along for the ride. I’m trying to think through what makes a good R&B song and ended up talking about The-Dream’s album 1977, too.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots

I feel like R&B, or soul, or whatever you call it, is one of those genres that’s timeless when perfectly executed. Nas’s Illmatic is insanely good, but it’s also distinctly 1994. You need Reagan in order to get an Illmatic. But good R&B? Aretha, Redding, Mayfield, and them? It sounds like every day. I really like R&B, though I don’t listen to near enough of it. I’m still sort of weirded out by cursing in R&B, honestly. Those cats from the ’60s and ’70s at least had ill metaphors, you know? Maybe I’m stupid and just never listened to it, but I didn’t know that “Me & Mrs Jones” was about sleeping with somebody else’s wife until my uncle told me. I was in my twenties.

Anyway, someone on Twitter, I think Duncan, mentioned that Terius Nash, bka The-Dream, had released a free album, 1977. Nash is a pretty good songwriter (“Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” were inescapable for a very good reason), though I dunno how successful his solo efforts have been. He’s got good chemistry with Fabolous (“Shawty Is A 10” is just aight, but I really get down with “Throw It In the Bag”). Fab has worked with basically R&B singer ever, and is the rapper most likely to make a full length album with a singer, Best of Both Worlds-style. I always put The-Dream, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and a few of these other singing dudes in the same box. Maybe that’s unfair, I dunno.

1977 isn’t a bad album. It’s got Big Sean on there, which is basically an instant L (and real talk America, we need to bully him until his regular behind quits rapping and goes away), but The-Dream knows how to spin a song. The beat selection is a bit on the okay side of things. It sounds like a modern R&B album, for good or for ill. Actually, that’s probably for ill. There’s nothing here to distinguish this album from everything else that’s out there. The-Dream isn’t as good a singer as some of his contemporaries (I’d rate Chris Brown above him), he’s not as stylish (Ne-Yo at least has that Harlem Renaissance/wears a fedora and vest thing going on), and he’s not as much of a try-hard as Trey Songz.

The surprise, and I guess why I didn’t really take to the album like I was expecting, is that so much of it is concerned with simping. It seems like every other song is about how a lady done him wrong and now he’s an alcoholic. “You used to be so sweet, but now you act bitter/ And just so I don’t hear that shit, I drown my liver in this liquor” off “Used To Be” almost made me turn the album off. The other songs are about how jiggy he is, how much champagne he can drink, and how many women he’s run through. None of that’s new–that’s basically the state of black music in 2011 I guess–but it makes the album feel sorta weird.

It’s like he’s trying too hard. Maybe it’s because his voice isn’t in the same register as the dudes I like the most (Mayfield, Redding, Withers, Hayes, etc), but I’m not really buying it. He’s higher and lighter, but not like distinctively high, like Prince. He’s in this weird mid-range where he sounds as generic as possible. The best word for 1977 is “soft.” He’s going to sing about how a chick drove him to snort coke and somehow that’s an okay thing to sing about with a swagger like you’re a player.

Which brings me, in a weirdly roundabout way, to Betty Wright’s new album, Betty Wright: The Movie. Wright is from my grandmother’s generation, and I’m not over-familiar with her. If you’d said her name before a couple weeks ago, I would’ve had where I know her from on the tip of my tongue. I heard that The Roots co-produced her new record, though, and The Roots have rarely done me wrong, so I bought it without even hearing a sample track. Why not, right?

1977 is soft. Betty Wright: The Movie is hard. She deals with similar subject matter, from heartbreak to having a good time to a remarkably chaste song about doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, but there’s a… a presence? Is that the best word for it? There’s a strength and depth to her voice that makes her songs sound and feel a lot better than Nash’s. She doesn’t simp like he does. She draws strength from her wounds, fictional or otherwise, and pours that out on the track.

The album opens with what’s basically a statement of intent in “Old Songs.” There’s a two-and-a-half-bar rap in there (“I must admit, your beats got phatter/ but add subject matter on subjects that matter… ’cause it matters, yeah it matters”), but for the most part, it’s about how old songs were stronger than current fare. It’s nostalgic, but she up-ends that nostalgia by shouting out modern artists who do “the strong songs.” It’s not the age that matters, it’s the content. She lists a lot of modern folks, The-Dream and Ne-Yo included, but exhorts them to listen to and learn from the old cats, too.

The rest of the album follows on from “Old Songs.” This is… the best phrase for it is grown folks music. It’s the kind of R&B that your parents or grandfolks wouldn’t mind listening to. It’s very wholesome, and several songs are about growing up, basically. The chorus to “Real Woman” goes “get yourself a real woman so you can be a real man,” and is flipped at the end to “be a real woman, then you can get a real man.” It’s kind of like love advice handed out by your grandmother, and that’s a little strange, but it works. She’s been around, right? Experience counts for a lot.

I think my favorite bit on the album might come on “In the Middle of the Game (Don’t Change the Play),” where she exhorts the audience to keep trying at love. It’s a bunch of suggestions for men and women to keep their relationship going, but it’s delivered with a grin and a sense of humor. “Make sure there’s gas in the car/ give her money to go to the spa/ and she’ll never forget who you are/ in fact, you’ll be a su-per-star/ When his friends are watching sports in the den/ get in the kitchen, hook him up something/ and even if you can’t cook nothin’/ have a little takeout brought in! (owww!)” There’s something sweet about this. It’s just about being into someone and doing things for them, and them doing the same for you.

Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne show up for a couple of guest spots. They’re shockingly clean, which is sort of weird in a way, but they both deliver pretty good verses. Weezy’s the standout here, though I feel like his metaphor gets muddled partway through (“You gotta pay the price, just keep the receipt,” really though?). Regardless, “Grapes on a Vine” is strong song, and sort of a rock meets soul number about sticking by your people and enduring. (Wright hits the highest note ever at the end of Wayne’s verse, too.)

My other favorite moment is probably all of “Tonight Again,” which Wright opens with a warning to put the kids to bed. It’s a love song, or rather, a making love song. The song begins, “Light up a candle, we got business to handle” and then it’s off to the races. And I mean, let’s be real here: most of the music I listen to is explicit. Beyond explicit, probably. Danny Brown’s “I Will” is basically off-puttingly earnest and honest about oral sex. In contrast, Wright’s restrained romance on “Tonight Again” is fantastic. There aren’t a lot of limits on what you can say in a love song these days, but Wright sticks to the old school style of doing these songs. It’s all hints and promises delivered with a wink. You know exact what she’s talking about, but she doesn’t have to be as blunt as R Kelly or The-Dream or whoever. The hint is enough. It’s sexy on its own. It’s on that grown & sexy level. “A little knowledge that you can’t get from college/ Lessons that you learned from me, not from the university.”

Grown folks music, right? This is R&B for the thirty-plus set, people who might wanna settle down. Fireplace and house shoes music. Mortgage music.

It’s not all love songs. “Go!,” the second bonus track, is about bouncing up out of abusive relationships and getting your life back on track. It’s not really what I expected to hear on an R&B album, and it’s nine minutes and forty seconds are time well spent. It’s sad and mournful and pragmatic. I think it was this track that really unlocked the album for me. 1977 is full of simpery. A lady dumps him and he uses it as an excuse to feel bad for himself in-between songs about how cool he is. Betty Wright: The Movie takes that bad feeling and uses it as motivation. Your husband beats you? You leave. It’s heartbreaking and sad, but abuse isn’t a secret worth keeping, so you leave. The difference in approach, and granted the subject matter in this specific instance are apples and oranges, is tremendous. “Such a big big man/ Why you gotta beat up on me?/ Just lets me know you ain’t the man you sposed to be.”

That way of processing emotion runs through to the rest of her songs, too. If you love somebody? Then keep trying. If you don’t love someone? Leave. If you never seem to meet a real woman, make sure that you’re a real man. If you feel bad about a friend, reach out a hand. It feels motherly, in a way, like an R&B album that’s about nurturing and doing better, not just being in love.

I think that’s what makes good R&B. It’s not about being sad or being in love. It’s about the process, or the feeling, behind it. That has to shine through. Sort of a, “Anyone can say he loves you, but it takes a man to really mean it” sort of thing. Wright sings like she means it. “You and Me, Leroy” is the last official track on the album and it’s deadly. It turns “stand by your man” subject matter into “We’re in this together, and as long as that’s true, we’re gonna be okay.” It goes.

It helps that The Roots are her backing band on this album. Some songs feel more live than others, complete with count-ins and mid-song direction, but it all sounds very full. “Look Around (Be A Man)” has a little Zapp flavor, “Hollywould” has a bit of that ’80s throb (like Drive), and I swear “So Long, So Wrong” feels like The Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC.” Betty Wright: The Movie is a soulful and funky record.

Betty Wright: The Movie actually puts me in mind of their John Legend collabo Wake Up! (there’s a really nice iTunes-only live version, too). Those were cover songs from the ’60s and ’70s, which actually provides some interesting connective tissue between the two albums. If Wake Up! was proving that specific things from the past are still relevant to the present, then Betty Wright: The Movie proves that past methods still work, too. I would’ve vastly preferred Black Thought drop a couple verses on the album than Snoop or Weezy, but that’s whatever. (Wright also vamps a lot less than John Legend does.)

Wright and The Roots are a good combo, sonically and thematically. The Roots have been together for a couple decades now, and they’re in a place where they can afford to do rap songs that aren’t just traditional rap songs. They still have songs where they can show off or whatever, but their more recent albums have been attempts to… I don’t want to say transcend, because that’s condescending, but “get past it” is as close as I can get. Black Thought’s 40, which practically makes him an elder statesman in rap. They’re going for meatier concepts and subject matter. They’re aiming for timelessness.

(You know has that timeless feel, too? Anthony Hamilton. Dude might well be my favorite R&B sanger. More on that later, maybe.)

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“new york is killing me”

July 7th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the eighth, which I thought would be about the different ways people make songs about places, but instead changes tracks partway through. C’est la vie.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes

I took a trip back home in May, and a near-lethal dose of melancholy and shattered nostalgia left me thinking about how we relate to places, whether literally or figuratively. Where’s home? Where’s far? Is it a state of mind or familiar wallpaper? The usual rigmarole.

Listen to this while you read.

I listen to a lot of music that’s based around being from somewhere. Ages ago, Havoc of Mobb Deep said “Fuck where you’re at kid, it’s where you’re from/ ’cause where I’m from niggas pack nothing but the big guns/ Around my way, niggas don’t got no remorse for out of towners/Come through fronting and get stuffed with the 3 pounder.” The message is plain: where I’m from made me who I am, and all loud mouth foreigners need to remain strangers for their own sake. Where you’re from is part of your identity, right? That’s why there was inter-borough beef in NYC rap, and then bi-coastal beef, and then Andre said “The south got something to say” and bam, the Dirty South began vocally demanding attention.

There’s a couple different ways to make songs about places, near as I can tell. You can do the literal thing, where you explain what the place is all about, who lives there, or why people should care. The other option is to make a song about what it’s like to be from somewhere. You’ve got to put your soul on wax for that one, I think.

Though now that I write that out, those two things are the same thing, aren’t they? I’ve been mulling this piece over for a few days now, and was going to make that division the heart of the post. But nah, talking about a place has to involve what it’s like to be from that place, consciously or otherwise. Body language, word choice, even what you choose to describe and leave out all build a certain mental image, and it isn’t an unbiased one. I’d describe Georgia in terms I wouldn’t use for San Francisco, due to how I feel about the city and how I feel about back home.

This was going to be about music, not me. Switching gears.

The sound people choose to use when making songs about places is always interesting. “Amarillo,” off Gorillaz’ The Fall, is this slow, melancholy tune, with a rushing wind and hollow sound. It’s the music that plays when you’re driving alone down a highway in the dark, and the lyrics are about being alone and broken. It’s sad, and a very specific type of sad. I’ve never been to Amarillo, TX, but maybe that’s what life is like down there. I imagine that’s how Albarn felt, or maybe how it struck him, at least.

Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me”–I wrote something on this for Tucker a while back, here’s a quote:

“New York is Killing Me” is everything and nothing all at once. The beat is sparse, with a deep drum coming in over some rapid fire snaps and a brief acoustic guitar, but it’s incredible. Gil Scott-Heron is from an older tradition than rap, but tell me that this beat doesn’t sound like a descendent of The Neptunes’ sublime “Grindin.” Throw Gil Scott’s gravelly, aged voice on top of it and you’ve got something that sits in the blues range. And when the backing vocals come in for “Lord have mercy on me,” and you’re looking at gospel. The positively mournful “I need to be back home” toward the end? That’s soul. Add in the entire point of the song, which is that the city is an unfriendly, cruel place and sometimes you’ve gotta return to the country, and you’ve got a song that’s black history spread over the course of four minutes and thirty seconds.

This is a funked out blues song, like the story you tell about a break-up to your friends with a smile on your face. It’s been long enough to be a story you can tell at a party without it being a whole thing, but not quite long enough. It wavers, the smile does. That moan at the bottom of certain lines, the “I need to be back home,” all of that is regret. You’ve got to leave where you’re from because it’s the healthy thing to do.

I like the differences between Atmosphere’s “Los Angeles” and Tupac’s “To Live and Die In LA.” Slug’s vision of LA is a brief burst of sights and sounds. His “I love it” at the end is true, but it sounds a little hollow, like when people say they love a restaurant with a sandwich they like or something. He likes it, but he’s not afraid to mock it. Tupac’s feels different. He has the advantage of a smooth track on par with “Summertime in the LBC” (another good song about a city, and perfect for cookouts) backing him, and he takes you on a tour of LA and everything he loves and hates about the city. I sorta feel like there’s two LAs. I know a gang of people who hate LA, but the ones that live there seem to like it well enough. It’s one of my favorite places, and I try to visit at least once a year to see friends. Atmosphere’s “Los Angeles” seems like it’s about the LA that’s known for scandal and artifice, while Pac’s is more personal, like an insider dropping knowledge on someone new.

Black Star’s “Respiration” is theoretically about New York (BROOKLYN!) and Chicago, but it’s universal. It’s what I think of when I think of what cities are like. They’re claustrophobic and alive, and there’s no place better on Earth.

Big Boi’s “West Savannah” and Scarface’s “On My Block” fill the same niche in my head. Both of them hit you with rapid-fire details. “West Savannah” may be more biography than travelogue, but the picture it paints is vivid enough to create a picture of a young Antwan Andre Patton chilling on street corners as a kid. He breaks down the music, the spectacle, the gold teeth, even how folks drive their cars. Face’s “On My Block” hammers you with details over his three verses, and I like that he’s using the first person plural. It’s a song about a group of people, the people Scarface came up with and live in his city, instead of one person’s point of view. (Big Boi’s line “You might call us country, but we’s only Southern” is killer. There’s so much personality in that, both Big’s and the city’s, and really, Georgia’s.)

Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From” isn’t about a specific place, exactly, but it is about this nebulous idea of home. It’s a sad song about starting in last place, basically, and never managing to catch up. Like, the “where I’m from” that Hamilton is talking about has gravity, and that gravity is inescapable. His father bounced early, but haunts his life, get it? Home isn’t just four walls and a bed. It’s a period of time, or a foundation for the future.

Maybe I’m just talking out loud since what I thought was a good point deflated itself as soon as I crystalized it into words, but there’s something about songs about places and, more specifically, home that I can’t get out of my head.

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