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.
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.
Here are four promo videos for undun, the upcoming album from The Roots. Watch them in order. They go by pretty quick, and the music is predictably great. There’s an official playlist on Youtube if that’s your thing.
They’re all pretty good, right? I like all of them a whole lot. But “Sleep” is the joint that has my favorite image in the set of four. It’s actually more than an image, I figure. It’s a sequence. It runs from 0:20 to 0:54, more or less, and focuses on the hooded figure that kills Redford Stephens in the first video. There isn’t a lot of action, or any action, really. The most that happens is an old lady walks by and the killer shifts his head as she does. Another man twitches as he dies and people walk past him.
What I really love about this sequence is the bit where Hoodie is looking out over the city. A common thing in movies and books is someone looking out over a city and claiming it for his own. He sees nothing but potential, or something to be violated. A city is something to be conquered and devastated. It’s something that’s full of potential, something you want. You need to have it. Possessing it is a sign of success. When your supervillain, or criminal mastermind, or Tony Montana, or whoever looks out over a city and raises a glass, he’s doing that because he’s looking at his future. L’chaim.
I don’t get that feeling here. Hoodie is looking out at the projects. His future is where he is right here, right now. That’s no future. That’s depressing. Instead of bettering his life, or winning, Hoodie’s best hope is treading water. Here’s your tomorrow, kid, the same as your yesterday. There’s a nihilism lurking in that image if you look close enough, and the black hood gives him the appearance of a Grim Reaper. “The world is mine, but who wants it?”
I like the way the shot of Hoodie on the church steps looks, too. The church is old, and a bit weather-beaten, but it looks strong. It’s weather-beaten because it’s lasted some time, right? And Hoodie is sitting there at the foot of the church, outside its walls, like a black mark. Apart from salvation, but close enough to taste it.
It’s… I dunno, that shot really, really works for me. The closed doors, the empty street, and that lone figure sitting right there. When the lady walks by, she looks at him and then quickly looks away after she takes him in. It’s that thing people do when they don’t want to deal with whatever’s at hand. They do it with homeless people, harassers, crazy people, whatever. We all do it. If you aren’t looking, it isn’t real.
This guy in black… I just realized, but he’s probably a literal manifestation of death, right? He kills the subject of undun, he’s close to the church, he’s faceless, and the way he watches the old lady go by is predatory.
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.
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 coversongs 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.)
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the thirteenth. I’ve had The Roots on my mind ever since their album undun was announced. I thought it would be interesting to try and take a look at where my relationship with the music of The Roots began. (This is an interesting exercise in avoiding typing “The Roots’s” as much as possible.)
I first became conscious of The Roots around the time “You Got Me” dropped. 1998? 1999? Thinking back, I figure it was because my mom was heavy into Erykah Badu and liked the song, which was the lead single from Things Fall Apart. I thought that song was really good, because I also secretly liked Badu at the time, too. The video had a great concept at a point in time I remember as being pretty creatively bankrupt. You were either Hype Williams or jocking him. I think Little X might have been going then, I don’t remember. (After googling: He was active, and the video for “Neck Uv Da Woodz” shows a pretty okay sense of style with that Russian text, but he hadn’t yet reached the heights of Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass.” And man, I forgot how much Andre ran wild over “Neck Uv Da Woodz.” And in the “Shake It Fast” video, the girl with the Evil cropped tee? Yowza, no wonder I loved this video as a kid.) But the video, with the twist at the end and haunting imagery, made a melancholy song even more melancholy. It turned the song into the flip side of “Renee” by the Lost Boyz, only the guy dies at the end.
I started paying attention after that. I don’t remember if I got Things Fall Apart on tape or if we just spun the single for a while. I eventually got the album, and at some point, I saw the video for “The Next Movement.” (For some reason, every time I refer to this song, I call it “Adrenaline,” which is totally wrong. I didn’t even write the name right on here until I youtubed up the video.) Regardless, the video for “The Next Movement” was good. Great, even. I’d watch Rap City when I came home after school, and I feel like they gave it a lot of spins.
The video’s got a lot of flavor. It’s clever and funny, thanks to the gimmick of the band moving in space every time the showgirls close the curtains. and interesting enough to be worth watching. The part where they open the curtains too soon and you can see the production guys setting up–that’s good. It also does a great job of getting across exactly what the band is about. It’s live instruments, an emcee, and good tunes. Neo-soul swagger before it was properly termed neo-soul, even.
One thing that’s nice about The Roots is how well put-together their albums are. I didn’t feel particularly compared to seek out Ja Rule after his guest verse on “Can I Get A…” In fact, word around school was that he was Tupac’s cousin or DMX’s brother or something, so who cared? But on Things Fall Apart, I wanted more. More Eve, more Badu, more Common, more Jazzy Jeff… It’s all because The Roots are perfectionists. That may be an unfair term. It’s more that they care so much about what they do that they don’t bother phoning it in. If you’re on a Roots album, you don’t get to come wack. You black out or you go home.
Beanie Sigel was on “Adrenaline,” which might be the track that stands out the most on the album for me right now. It’s an essential part of The Roots’ catalog. I love the way the music warps around the words. I like hearing Malik B on tracks. Dice Raw’s first five bars go hard, and his last three are the perfect capstone.
Beans, though. Man. I remember reading in the liner notes that Beanie Mac’s verse (I think ?uest called it his “and ‘em” flow? maybe “and them”) was originally fifty bars long and that Jay-Z signed him after hearing him freestyle once. There’s probably some exaggeration in there, but listening to this verse, I can tell why Jay was so hot on him. This verse is heat rocks. It’s half Beans shouting out people he knows and half telling you exactly what type of dude he is. For a debut verse, this is a pretty fantastic effort. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if Beans had stayed Roots-affiliated rather than signing to the Roc. He probably would’ve quit much sooner than he did, actually, which means no Freeway, which is wack.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of things I like I discovered via or alongside The Roots. It featured Eve and Beanie Sigel before they were really on. It was the first time I saw Jay Dee, later known as J Dilla, in the credits of an album. (By this point, I’d taken to obsessively reading liner notes to figure out who I needed to be listening to.) I spent a year or two on the Okayplayer boards a little later. Jill Scott’s named showed up in here, I think, and she was on the original version of “You Got Me.” Bilal is or was Roots-affiliated. I was introduced to Rahzel, who I thought was endlessly dope. I’m a sucker for beat boxers, and have been ever since Ready Rock C let the Fresh Prince play a game of Donkey Kong. I hadn’t heard Common before “Act Too (The Love Of My Life),” and this was one of the first times I heard Mos Def outside of Black Star. I think I maybe had that first Lyricist Lounge tape at the time, which Black Thought actually has a freestyle on. That timeline is a little fuzzy, and the narrative doesn’t really matter, anyway. At the time, though, Things Fall Apart was seismic. And that’s not even mentioning the black history implications of the title.
I was real surprised to see Jazzy Jeff on the album, honestly, because I’d assumed he retired. I don’t know if I’ve ever said so, but He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper is one of my most favorite albums ever. To find out that he was involved with something as ill as Things Fall Apart after I thought he was finished with rap was a real nice realization. Which is really the perfect summary of Things Fall Apart. It was a nice thing to experience, something undeniably ill dropped dead in the center of a somewhat fallow period for rap music (unless my memory is way off), and one of my favorite albums to this day. Part of that is hindsight, sure, but then I listen to that sublime stereo blend on “Double Trouble” and remember that Things Fall Apart is just a good album, no qualifiers needed.
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the twelfth, and is all about “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction” by The Roots. It’s a growly, mean little song that I love very much.
“75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” off Rising Down by The Roots is pretty incredible. It’s the peak of the album, I think. There’s a couple of bars that run through my head on a weekly basis, at the barest minimum:
I’m in the field with a shield and a spear, nigga
I’m in your girl with her heels in the air, nigga
It’s catchy. It’s that sorta snap where you pause and go “Ohhhhhhh!” The beat even drops as Thought kicks it, like it’s paying homage. (I at least mouth it every time I hear it, and I only realized this tonight on listen 15 or 20 of this song.) It’s a headshot when it comes to rap braggadocio, basically. I like how Thought emphasizes a couple of negative stereotypes or slurs and takes control of them. It sort of inverts their purpose. A spearchucker, in this context, isn’t a way to denigrate an entire continent and a people as being primitive savages. It’s a threat. It starts with him being outside with a shield and a spear. It ends with a spear through the chest. Get it? And as far as your girl goes… he’s doing what you can’t.
(There’s another aspect to these lines that’s harder to draw, but still there, however gossamer. “In the field” puts me in mind of slave times, and the shield and spear sounds like a black fantasy of a slave rebellion. The next line is interesting in that context, too.)
Thought’s a smart dude. He’s top five, dead or alive, and in the running for GOAT. Over the past twenty years, he’s dominated every other emcee that was dumb enough to hire him for a feature. Common, Big Pun, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, whoever. Thought comes in and does work and just bodies the track basically every time. He doesn’t really do wicked tongue twisters like Big Pun used to, but he more than makes up for it with an undeniable flow, like a rap juggernaut. His connections, wordplay, and flow are all crazy on point. It’s disgusting, really. He understands how to ride a track a lot better than his peers and he’s creative enough that I can’t really put him into any box other than “definitively ill.”
“75 Bars” is a good example of why. It’s three minutes and change long, and mixed so that Thought’s voice sounds raw and less mastered than usual. There’s no hook or gimmick. It’s just raw spitting. It’s a rapper doing what rappers do best. There’s not much that’s conscious on this song. It’s about how Thought is better than you at everything and the fact that he’s about his money.
The beat sounds sparse, like it’s just ?uestlove on drums, but there’s a pulsing melody that breaks in and out of the track as Thought goes off. It gives the track this weird feel. It’s not exactly what I think a song sounds like. It’s stripped down, like a demo, but not so stripped down that it’s just a guy kicking rhymes over an instrumental. It’s something in-between, something lo-fi but fully realized.
The first thing you’ll notice about “75 Bars” is how he uses “nigga” as punctuation. I think it’s real interesting, even if I’ve probably heard songs that use it more often than this one does. It’s emphasized here, and hammered into your head over and over. Even if you say nigga this and nigga that every single day, this song is gonna make you pause. It pulls the word from a basic part of speech, something you ignore or say unconsciously, into something you notice. And because you notice it, you start to pay attention. And since you’re paying attention, you’re stuck off Thought’s realness.
Other rappers use “nigga” or “fuck” as a cheap attention-getter or emphasis. Sprinkle them over a track and watch people get hype. I’m thinking of joints like Ludacris’s “Get the Fuck Back” right here, with it’s chorus of “Fuck that! Get the FUCK back! Luda make your skull crack” or Lil Jon’s “Knockin Heads Off” and “Don’t-like-them-niggas/Can’t-stand-that-bitch.” You want to sing along to that because it’s so aggressive. It’s like Waka Flocka’s music. The loud, dirty nature of it makes you want to yell it, and maybe a BAOW BAOW BAOW to go along with it.
The way Thought uses “nigga” here is different. It’s not just an outburst or lazy (but effective) rhyme scheme. Every single instance makes perfect sense in a sentence. Like this here: “Niggas make dead niggas and hate black niggas/ Brown niggas, high yellow niggas, and them red niggas.” It’s redundant, sure, but it sounds great on the track. The rapid-fire repetition worms its way into your head. “Niggas bleed just like us” doesn’t have that same power. It’s just a hook. OutKast’s “?” doesn’t, either. It’s too short. They don’t have that same power because they aren’t onslaughts of “niggas.” The only song I can think of that really stands up to it is Goodie MOb’s “The Experience,” which starts off “I thought you said you was the G-O-D, sound like another nigger to me!” “75 Bars” starts out immediately transgressive before desensitizing you. When he stops ending bars with “nigga” maybe 1/4 of the way through, you’re surprised, but already hooked.
I don’t know if I’m doing a good job of explaining why this song is so ill. It’s the nigga thing, sure. Thought flips it so often that it can’t help but be attractive. But really, it’s just Thought’s skill. He’s kicking fast raps, so fast that his pregnant pauses are barely a breath long, and the pace never lets up. The song’s a sprint, and once he gets his hooks into you, you’re along for the ride. It starts out with studio commentary and then cuts out immediately after Thought’s last bar. There’s no frills. There’s no nonsense.
There’s the opposite of nonsense, really. It’s dense. He’s packed his bars with content. Every single line kicks like a mule. The last fistful of bars:
My hustle is long, my muscle is strong
My man, put the paper in the duffle, I’m gone
Y’all still a light year from the level I’m on
Just a pawn stepping right into the head of the storm
You been warned, I will blow y’all niggas and disintegrate
I’m a rebel, renegade, must stay paid
Every line has a point. They’re complete statements. With a few exceptions, you don’t need the lines before and after to make sense of it. Thought’s rapping like he’s running out of time and trying to throw as many punches as he can. Over the course of his seventy-five bars, he stacks threat on crack on snap like the world’s fastest game of Jenga. It’s a style showcase. It’s not pointless like Canibus’s “100 Bars,” the point of which was Canibus telling you how dope he is. It’s about Thought showing you. He gives you the evidence and then you get to recognize.
You don’t need the lines before and after it, but when you include them, the song gets crazier. It builds a picture of Black Thought. Maybe that’s the reconstruction in the title, I don’t know. You get his rap persona, and you realize that he can really spit.
I love this video of Mos Def freaking out and kicking almost all of “75 Bars” and thought just being stunned and comparing ?uestlove/Black Thought to Lennon/McCartney. I feel like I’m doing a crap job of explaining why this song goes so hard, but Mos’s reaction here is like validation. Songs like “75 Bars” are the 16-panel grid of rapping. They’re a marathon, an iron man competition.
As a rap fan, this is what I live for. It’s everything that can be wonderful about rap, from an ill song to an emcee flipping something common into something extraordinary and back again. Hearing somebody completely black out on a track never gets old. This isn’t an accidental or calculated (but still ill, to be fair) blacking out like Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” It’s Kool G Rap on “Fast Life” putting the fear of God into Nas, UGK on “Big Pimpin’,” Andre 3000 on that “Throw Some Ds” remix or “Walk It Out,” Ghost’s verse on “Impossible,” or Big Daddy Kane on “A Day At the Races.” It’s somebody doing something incredible, and sounding effortless while they do it. It’s a welcome pummeling. It’s the type of song you gotta rewind when you first hear it.
There’s a new album from The Roots coming out 12/6, undun. The first single for it is on Amazon, now. It’s “Make My” and features Big K.R.I.T., an ill producer/emcee out of Mississippi. I just found out his Return of 4eva got chopped and screwed while digging up his website. I don’t usually buy singles, and I didn’t buy this one, but I listened to the stream a few times. Unsurprisingly, I dig it. The Roots have been one of those groups I’ve liked since I was a kid. Ever since Things Fall Apart.
undun is an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999). Through the use of emotives and Redford’s internal dialogues the album seeks to illustrate the intersection of free will and prescribed destiny as it plays out ‘on the corner’. Utilizing a reverse narrative arc, the album begins as the listener finds Redford disoriented–postmortem–and attempting to make sense of his former life. As he moves through its pivotal moments he begins to deconstruct all that has led to his (and our own) coming undun.
“At this point in our career we’d like for our work to have a unifying theme, and an experiential quality. We’ve been intentionally making our albums shorter in length so that they can be experienced as a continuous work. The music is band-oriented with an eye on the moody cinematic. As a DJ, I am the King of playlists, but I don’t want our albums to feel like a playlist or a mixtape for that matter. We want to tell stories that work within the album format and we want the stories to be nuanced and useful to people. Undun is the story of this kid who becomes criminal, but he wasn’t born criminal. He’s not the nouveau exotic primitive bug-eyed gunrunner like Tupac’s character Bishop in Juice… he’s actually thoughtful and is neither victim nor hero. Just some kid who begins to order his world in a way that makes the most sense to him at a given moment… At the end of the day… isn’t that what we all do?”
That sounds good, right? Fate vs free will, getting by however you can, being trapped in an inescapable cycle… all of that stuff is right on target for me. I like how The Roots explore a specific theme over the course of their albums, too. Their last record, How I Got Over, was a raspy struggle album. It felt a lot like a gospel album. It was about survival, really. It was about what we have to do to survive (“Hustla”: “They say life’s a bitch, but it’s one life to live/I want my baby where that cake and the icing is/Out of them crisis-es, off of them vices-es”) and what living in the world is like. “Dear God 2.0″ is practically a wail, yeah? “Uh huh, they said he’s busy, hold the line please/ Call me crazy, I thought maybe he could mind read” is pretty sad. It’s not a downer album, though. The record’s about triumph, though, “How I Got Over.” It’s just showing you how.
Wake Up! proved that the issues of yesterday still matter today. It’s an album of covers of political songs from the ’60s and ’70s, with John Legend on vocals. I’d heard a lot of these before. Maybe half, I’m not sure. But what killed me about this one was that it all seemed so on point for today. “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is as great an anti-war anthem as any other song. Legend vamps a bit much for me on this record, but he’s overall quality. The songwriting is very strong, too, which helps a lot.
Rising Down was a blast of rage, “America, this is what you made me” battle raps and mean mugs. It was like they were getting their licks in now that George W Bush was on his way out, and the result was a tense, mean album. I don’t think it really hit a pop sound until the last song on the album, “Rising Up.”“Get Busy” is raw rappity-rapping, with a mean buzz, twang, and sharp drumming getting the point across. (Sidebar: I can’t tell you how much I love that “It’s like WEB DuBois meets Heavy D and the Boyz” line Dice Raw kicks. And Peedi Crakk’s whole verse.)
Killer Mike has this thing on the intro to I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II that I like a lot. He says “We don’t have fans, we only have supporters… and I say we have supporters because it takes a lot to dig in your pocket or dig in your purse and break bread with fifteen or twenty dollars and buy a record. I believe when you buy a record you should leave that record with something more than a bullshit experience.” I completely agree, and that describes the MO of The Roots pretty well, too. There’s meat on their albums. They aren’t just collections of songs. They’re something way deeper than that. There’s a point beyond “it just sounded good,” which is already a good reason to make an album.
Here’s the video for “Make My.” It’s pretty good. Really looking forward to this album.
-Shadow of the DAMNED trailer is heat rocks. Suda51 is dope, Shinji Mikami is pretty straight, and Akira Yamaoka is cool, so I’m basically on-board day one, and I don’t even really care about video games any more.
-Did anybody else look at that Shadowland: Blood on the Streets book the other week? I flipped through it, got to like page four and was like “nope.” Why?
Yeah, naw, I’m good man. You go on and take that somewhere else.
-Shadowland: Daughters of the Dragon is similarly wack. Look at the soft batch of an action scene in this preview. Everything about it is a turn-off–the way they just hop off the motorcycles, the stiff art, the absurd fight in a truck that is also a shapechanging warehouse, whatever whatever. Gross.
-I’ve been paying more and more attention to fight choreo in comics. It’s such a basic thing, and I’m growing increasingly certain that getting it wrong is absolutely ridiculous. It’s one-two-three-four–first this, then this, then this, and then this. A lot of superhero artists tend to do it the other way, pinup-pinup-pose-pinup, instead, and it looks like crap every time. It’s sequential art, right? Then it follows that the images we see should be in sequence, rather than a loose collection of images where people are maybe kinda sorta fighting/dancing. This is like drawing cross-eyed people or one leg noticeably longer than the other. C’mon, son. Do better.
-That new John Legend & The Roots? Wake Up!? It’s a cover album and it’s fantastic. That eleven minute version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed”, one of my favorite Vietnam songs, goes hard. Legend divas it up some, but I’m digging it. It’s basically a tribute to the ’70s, and Legend does really well.
-Grant Morrison wrote the superhero comic Bible when he wrote Flex Mentallo. I can’t even imagine why someone wouldn’t like it or what it says about cape comics and superheroes themselves.
-My launch PS2 still works and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is still basically the illest game on the system. I’m playing it again after a break of a year and some change. I’m in Rise’s striptease dungeon, but I think that Kanji’s gay bath house takes the prize for greatest stage of all time.
Stuff I Read, Stuff You Should Buy
-I got a big box of books from Vertical, and I’ve made it through 7 Billion Needles (review coming here soon), and Chi’s Sweet Home1, 2, and 3. I’m currently reading The Crimson Labyrinth and I finished Parasite Eve late last week. They’re all good to great, which is astounding. I know I read a lot of Viz, and for good reason, but Vertical, Inc is pumping out some great stuff while nobody’s looking. Parasite Eve was deeply weird and I never thought I’d say this, but I definitely read a scene where mitochondria masturbated.
-Empowered 6, huh? How good was that book? Sistah Spooky is killing me over here.
The last album from The Roots was Rising Down. It was the release valve of living under eight years of Bush and the information overload and depression that came from suddenly having all the news you care to read at your beck and call. It was harsh music, with the closest thing to a round edge coming in the form of the Wale and Jill Scott-featured “Rising Down.” The standout track was “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction),” which featured Black Thought going in for three minutes straight on a spare ?uestlove drum track and a low, groaning musical accompaniment.
I’m not sure which bars are my favorite. “I’m in the field with a shield and a spear, nigga/ I’m in your girl with her heels in the air, nigga” is incredible, but Thought drops ten about three-fourths of the way through the song that pretty near knocked my socks off. “What’s your networking plan? You better look alive/ ’cause them niggas outside looking desperate again, nigga/ And the blunts and liquor killing our lungs and liver/ The asthmatic drug addict, I function with it/ I put a rapper in a hole where the dust will sit/ for spitting played out patterns that once was hitting/ I got news for you all, let me show you how to ball/ See the legendary fall? I ain’t heard of that/ Y’all niggas is off the wall like Aresnio Hall/ I’ma put you right back where the dirt is at.”
Their new joint is How I Got Over. The title really says it all: it’s about triumph over adversity. I’m on listen three or four at this point, and listen sixty or seventy of the lead single “How I Got Over,” and it’s a great record. The sequencing, the music, all of it sounds on point. Each song flows into the next, and they work together to build an album about getting over when times are hard, whether through hustling, prayer, or just living. It’s a strong album.
The guest appearances come from all-stars, too. Blu is a dope producer and artist out of Los Angeles, one of those guys who releases tunes so rarely that you get mad and think he disappeared, and then he comes back with something that goes hard and all is forgiven. Down to earth, interesting production, straightforward lyrics, Blu is basically that dude. Phonte from Little Brother is on a couple tracks, too, and he’s always entertaining. STS, aka Sugar Tongue Slim, and the always dope Peedi Crakk (Peedi Peedi so he can get on TV) make strong guest appearances, too. Roots staple Dice Raw has several verses, which is always nice to see. John Legend and Joanna Newsom are on the album for all you people who don’t like rappers but loooooove sangas.
Cop it. How I Got Over is pretty good. It’s down tempo, a little more laid back than Rising Down, and a little more, what, mature? Is it grown folks’ music? I’m not sure, but it’s good.
4thletter! is proudly powered by WordPress and a customized version of the "Neat!" theme.
All images, logos, and text is copyright its creator/publisher. All posts and comments are copyright their authors.