Roundtable: Big GRRRL Small World

Easy J: One night I was listening to The Local Current MPR station in Nicole’s basement in Moorhead (not euphemism) and an aggressive hip-hop song with unique sound caught my attention. The song was “GRRRL Anthem” by GRRRL PRTY. The track has a swagger I had not heard from a female hip-hop act since Missy Elliott, and to be honest this felt a lot more genuine to me. I later learned that Lizzo was the front (wo)man of the group. Since then I have really appreciated her solo work which culminated in me purchasing Big GRRRL Small world without having really listened to it, something I NEVER do. (I also won a pair of tickets to Bluesfest from Mother’s that day.) The stoner who was working seemed excited when I set it on the counter. He told me that their vinyl dealer in Minneapolis sold them a ton of copies of BGSW telling them it would sell really well. I had purchased the first one a week after they got them in. More on that Later.

Image result for Lizzo Big Grrrl small world vinyl

I love the album. It has quickly become one of my go to records to put on in almost any situation. It’s best quality is how easy it is to listen to. It sounds great in the background when I have people over playing games, but BGSW is also a rewarding headphone listen. Lizzo’s vocal work is varied and generally high quality, she can sing soulful hooks or burn you down with her quick clear lyrics. Speaking of Lyrics, I don’t think the text is outstanding but each track comes across as honest to me.

The beats are good on some tracks great on others. To me “En Love and “My Skin” are the best tracks. My favorite moment on the album is in the hook of “En Love.” The unsustainable build after a bunch of airy beautiful singing straight into a simple, unique, and particularly filthy section is so rewarding in a house music sort of way. It doesn’t feel cheap like a base drop in hip-hop can. I feel like I earned it. She varies the way that moment it used making it feel earned each time it comes around. “My skin” feels like the mission statement of the album. As a skinny (if a bit flabby) white male it could be hard to appreciate message, and I can’t help but feel like I’m not the target audience. It is such an empowering song. Lizzo just wants us to love ourselves.

She doesn’t curse. I didn’t even notice until she told me so. This is a wholesome album. I didn’t think it was, but exluding a masterbation reference, it is really clean. That is admirable. I don’t know if I would have that kind of self control if I was a rapper. I would just want to talk about titties on my lap and that sort of thing. Is it weird that I want kids to listen to this? Like, they should play this in middle school lunchrooms or something.

So in the record store I was surprised that I had bought the first copy. I knew Lizzo was kind of a big deal in the Twin Cites music scene so I thought a lot of people in Moorhead/Fargo would have wanted her new album. When BGSM was released Lizzo appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and performed “Ain’t I.” I though this would be her big break. It wasn’t. While the album achieved relative success it did not make Lizzo a household name. None of my coworkers are familiar with Lizzo or her work. These are people who listen to some pretty hip shit. They ain’t top 40 slaves, these folks are woke. What does this album need to be great? Is it the music’s fault? Is it Lizzo’s fault? Is it our fault? I don’t know.

Anti-Label: I like the middle school reference J. Lizzo is someone I feel like people should latch onto. In a society that is clamoring for more strong female figures than ever before, Lizzo seems like an ideal fit. Sexy voice, solid lyrical prowess, good repertoire, etc. Plus for me, she has the “Prince” effect. Anyone from Minnesota to me is instantly special because they are “one of us”. I picked this up from Dan Cole, The Common Man, a few years ago and it is so true. We Minnesotans love our fellow kin.

Anyways, Lizzo bangs on this album. She has social awareness and relevance, good beats, and some absolute bangers. In the kindest way possible, I wonder if she gets passed over for vain reasons? Cause she is one of the most talented female rappers in the scene today.

One final comment on the profanity note you made, that is crazy. I never even noticed. I don’t even react to profanity in Hip Hop anymore and I guess I just assumed there was. If I was a rapper, I’d be dropping more profanity than a drunken Chipz n’ Queso song.

Connor: I really love this album, and I’ve listened to it over a dozen times since it came out. It really hits me in all the right spots. But more than anything, I love how good the album is. Not in the “wow, this is a well-made album” way, though it is. I mean good in the dungeons and dragons cosmic alignment sort of way.

I’ve told Alex before that if I was asked by a student, especially a girl, what music I would recommend to them, it would be Big GRRRL Small World. Lizzo isn’t singing about partying and drugs; no hedonism really at all. She isn’t a raging narcissist, and she isn’t singing about how she’s desperate for sex (though she’s open about sexuality). Instead, she’s singing about what race means to her, she’s rapping about loving her own large, brown body. She’s also way more erudite than most rappers I know of. “Ain’t I” not only pitches reparations, but is a direct reference to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman”.

But I think, to go back to Jason’s question about why Lizzo hasn’t blown up yet, I recommend Lizzo for the same reason she probably hasn’t gotten big yet. A few months back I was listening to the song “Batches and Cookies” from the album before Big GRRRL… and I was trying to use a website to read the lyrics to help me understand an unclear line. On the first website I tried using, a usually high quality website, the lyrics were listed:

“Look at me, I listen to Lizzo. I think I’m better than everyone else. Hey, why don’t you go fuck yourself” (I paraphrased).

And I think that’s really indicative of what people think about Lizzo. I think there’s a real barrier to entry, between the lyrical content and the sound of some of her songs especially the slower and more reflective ones, that can be hard to overcome. Is that a problem with the listener, or with Lizzo?

In any case, I can groove hard to Big GRRRL Small World, in particular “Ride” which has a super funky bass line and a cool, “I just need to chill” message.

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Roundtable: Marquee Moon

Connor: For Christmas, I received a telescope, and I’ve been trying my hand at space photography with limited success. Thing is, it can take an hour to get a few decent shots, so I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to listen to music. One night, I tried out Spotify’s “Classic Punk” playlist. As often happens with Spotify curated playlists, it was 1/3 juvenile dribble, 1/3 ads, and 1/3 awesome stuff. Part of that last third was the title track for Television’s Marquee Moon, which I thought was one of the best songs I’d heard in a long time.

The album isn’t perfect: the vocals can be weak at times and a couple of the songs, like “Venus” and “Torn Curtain” feel a bit underwhelming, and “Marquee Moon” overshadows the rest of the album in terms of quality and length (its one fourth of the album).That said, I think if “Marquee Moon” had been released separately, Marquee Moon would still be a great sounding album. The rhythms are snappy but not overbearing, the lyrics are wistful and clever, and the guitar-work is just rad. Then, when you add the title track back in, which seriously blows my mind every time I hear it, you’re adding great to great. I seriously love this album.

Verdict: 1/1 lightning striking itself, would listen to again.

Alright guys, I’ve had my chance. Now come dump all over this thing I love! Is it too maudlin? Are the parts incoherent? Does the album lack something you’d want or expect from a more modern record?

Gerthquake: Connor, I was extremely excited when you picked this album, as I’ve alluded to in the group Facebook message we use to run this biz. There were three big reasons for my excitement: 1) I already knew this album front to back, meaning I didn’t even need to listen to it if I didn’t want to (I did anyway.) 2) I really like this album. 3) I was profoundly surprised by your choice, and indeed surprised you’d even heard of the album, much less enjoyed it, so I felt like I learned something about you (or at least about your musical taste) just by the fact that you’d picked it.

I also really like that you came across the title track on the “Classic Punk” playlist. I just looked that playlist up, and I’m sure that among that crowd “Marquee Moon” must have stuck out like a sore thumb on a hand with no other fingers. Television are *technically* one of the founding American punk rock bands. They don’t fit the stereotypical sound of “punk” as it’s been codified through decades of bands imitating each other, though. Their punk-ness has more to do with their time and place, and the bands they played with; they didn’t write two chord songs about sniffing glue, but they did literally help build the stage at CBGB in New York, which was the main venue the first American punk bands played at. (As a sidenote, I would gladly read your explanations of which songs you consider “juvenile dribble” and which are “awesome stuff” from that playlist.)

Anyway, I’m not going to dump on this thing that you love because I also love it. I agree with the broad strokes of your assessment: “rad” is the correct word for the guitar work; Tom Verlaine’s voice is pretty annoying sometimes. Honestly I think a lot of his best moments as a vocalist are the spots where he throws in spoken interjections: the “I ain’t waitin’, uh uh” part in “Marquee Moon” right before the first guitar solo, and the spots in “Prove It” where he says “just the facts” and “this case is closed.”

I will go to bat for “Venus” and “Torn Curtain,” although I agree they’re not the best songs on the album. “Venus” is really elevated for me by its guitar solo section, which transports the whole song to a more beautiful, jazzier dimension. I also like the “did you feel low?” “Not at all” “HUH!?” call-and response vocals. “Torn Curtain” is probably my least favorite song on the album, but I think it serves its purpose, closing things out on an appropriately spooky note.

It might seem a little obvious above to say “Venus” is redeemed by its guitar solo. Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar albums ever made. Every song has a guitar solo, and every song gets kicked up a notch when the solo hits. The best song on the album is the one that has two guitar solos. The guitar solos are individually credited on the CD, but you actually don’t need those credits to suss out who’s playing what: Tom Verlaine takes the long, weird, thin guitar solos, and Richard Lloyd takes the concise ones that feel like little songs of their own–you can hear the contrast clearly on “Marquee Moon” itself, where Lloyd’s solos is this 30 second outburst, and then Verlaine’s is several minutes long and kind of goes nowhere but stills feels satisfying. Lloyd’s solos have a fatter tone because he would memorize his solos and then record two takes on top of each other; the effect is clearest on his solo on “Elevation;” Verlaine, on the other hand, was too improvisatory to doubletrack his solos. It’s not just the solos that make the album, though: Marquee Moon has endured for 40 years because the way Verlaine and Lloyd wrote little interlocking clean guitar parts was really distinctive in the musical context of the ’70s.

I would argue that Marquee Moon is also one of the greatest cool intro albums of all time. The title track may in fact have the coolest intro ever. Very few bands write even one intro on that level in their career, but Television sandwiches it between the also incredible intros of “Friction” and “Elevation,” on the same album. The intros  of “See No Evil,” “Guiding Light,” and “Prove It” are second tier but still pretty cool. “Torn Curtain’s” intro is simple but very effective at setting the mood (listen to that fucking drum roll!) The intro of “Friction” in particular is really interesting to me because I think it illustrates, musically, the way Television were distinctively of their time while also being really strange and unique among ’70s bands: The first moments of the song actually bear a really strong resemblance to the beginning of the Eagles song “Back in the Fast Lane,” which is about as ’70s as it gets, but then the beat drops, and with it comes that totally alien, menacing guitar riff (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to the song again and you will); no one else was writing stuff that sounded like that, man.

Revisiting this album has given me a slightly greater appreciation of its lyrics, which I always thought were mostly pseudo-poetic nonsense that became sort of compelling because they were sung by a really fucked-up, weird voice. And I still think that’s basically what they are, but, I don’t know, I just like that more now. I really dig the chorus of “Prove It,” where Verlaine seems to take on the role of a film noir detective pondering his line of work as a Sisyphian metaphor: “This case, this case I been workin’ on so long,” he sings, wearily. The case is life itself, man. The part in “Marquee Moon” where the Cadillac pulls out of the graveyard and then immediately pulls back into the graveyard is still stupid, though.

If you Google Marquee Moon and read about it before you listen to it, you’re going to come into it with a lot of “classic album” baggage, so as a guy who was acutely aware of its reputation (as the 129th greatest album ever made according to Rolling Stone) going into my first listen, I am excited to see what you all think of it going in with (I assume) little knowledge of that shit (unless you’re reading this before you listen to it.) It’s interesting to hear stuff that’s acclaimed and influential with beginner’s ears, and just form your own opinion on it.

Verdict: Shreds, and Verlaine wails in a literal sense, but is not, actually, a good singer from a technical standpoint.

Connor: That’s some good insight, Gerth, I didn’t know pretty much any of that. And you’re right, the guitar solos are flippin’ rad. Regarding the playlist in question, an example of what I would consider “juvenile dribble” would be “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (I deleted my link because yours contributes more to the discussion and I don’t want two). To be fair, the guitar work is actually pretty good. But the lyrics and vocal quality make me use one of my precious Spotify skips when it comes on.

Gerthquake: I mostly agree with you on that Suicidal Tendencies song, but for what it’s worth it does have a pretty great video:

 

Easy J: Hey guys, it was neat to read both of you gushing over an album you both really love. My favorite song was not the title track, which is a bad sign. Here is the deal: I can’t do the vocals, I just can’t do it. I am just not into his voice. I am really bummed about it because the instrumentation, particularly the guitar work, is really good. The 2 guitar lines often dance as well as violin lines in classical music, that’s pretty neat.The rhythm section is never intrusive and  lot of the tracks have a neat sound. Back to my favorite track, I really liked “Guiding Light” honestly mostly because the vocals seem less in the way compared to every other track on the album. I would prefer the record if it was all instrumentals, I really can’t do it, I’m sorry.

There are so many people in the world who can at least kind of sing, maybe pick one of those people to sing in a band, just sayin. 9/20  17/20 guitar work

Connor (Just passing through to remove one of the “Institutionalized” links):  I’d agree that the vocal are the least good. I don’t know if I’d prefer not having them, but that’s an interesting idea.

Roundtable: Ka’s ‘Honor Killed the Samurai’

Gerthquake: Yooooooo. Welcome to our first roundtable. Let’s get started. Don’t call it a comeback.

So for this week I selected Ka’s Honor Killed the Samurai, which came out last year, in the summer I think. I picked it as a topic of discussion partly because I think it’s a pretty good album, and partly because I felt like it sat at the intersection of two interests many of us share as a group: rap and kung-fu films.

True to its name, Honor Killed the Samurai is samurai-themed. But in this case the samurai is Ka, a mild-mannered rapper/full-time firefighter (seriously, look it up) who lives in NYC’s Brownsville neighborhood. The warrior life of the samurai is a metaphor for the struggle of getting ahead in the hardscrabble of city life under adverse circumstances, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process itself, as shown by the intermittent narrations about samurais stopping on the war path to compose poetry.

But also: Fuck metaphors. At the end of the day I wouldn’t like this album if it didn’t have bars. Ka is a good rapper. He’s not super-showy, though — his voice never really rises above a pretty intense mumble. I think he handles the lion’s share of his production himself, and that’s where I think this thing really shines. The beats here are barely beats at all, just a foggy soup of samples and sound effects. There aren’t really any bad songs, but there aren’t a ton of obvious standouts other than the first and last tracks; it’s a short album, and it sustains a mood instead of climaxing. The drums are extremely  spare, but they’re also really effective, in this writer’s opinion. I love the muted cymbal hits that cut through the mix on “Conflicted,” which starts the album off really strong. (The terrifying bass/stringed instrument sound that starts the song off also never fails to blow me away.) It’s lonely music: I got into Ka in the dead of winter on early morning drives for work, before sunrise, the temp hovering around zero, fingers numbing on the steering wheel.

Verdict: Pocket, despite the lack of conventional drums.

So what do you other cats think of this album? Do you like the beats? Does Ka’s grim intensity convince you or lapse into melodrama? Does the weird narration enhance the mood or weird you out? Overall, does it get you right in the 36 chambers, or does it make you want to commit seppuku?

Connor: Your comparison between this album and a kung-fu movie is apt, Gerth, for more reasons than just the obvious “Guys, I’m totally like these super awesome romanticized warriors”. I’ve seen countless martial arts action films from emerging Asian film markets, and the one thing I can say about the genre is that they tend to lack in spectacle compared to our average blockbusters, but have good fundamentals: quality narratives and stylistic fights. In Honor Killed the Samurai, I think we see the rap album equivalent. There’s something so deconstructed, so raw, about the album; it doesn’t feel like so many of the other rap albums that came out last year. None of the pop-y flavor that saturates the radios and party-mixes, and none of more funky or hip-hop flavor that a purist might be looking for. Even the spoken word nature of the album separates it from other subdued raps, like the “Real Friends”-“Wolves” middle section of Pablo which comes to mind. Even Kanye at his most melancholy is more busy than Ka ever is.

Fundamentals are worth their weight in Nippon steel, and Honor Killed the Samurai has great fundamentals. The beats are soft and evocative, and the lyrics succeed on both ear-feel and content. Right now, I’m listening to it for the fourth time, and as much as I appreciate it more than on first listen, I don’t expect to come back to it for a long time. I don’t think that means I didn’t like it: there are very few kung-fu movies I revisit regularly (Red Cliff; Hero; Crouching Tiger…; Enter the Dragon; and Drunken Master are the only exceptions I can think of). Maybe it just feels more valuable as a learning experience, a signpost to other albums and styles.

Preliminary verdict: 6.5/10 toast servings, “That Cold and Lonely” earns standout of the album for rad bells.

Alex: I’ve only listened to the first few songs but so far I’m kind of bored. I can’t understand much of what Ka is saying and he doesn’t show much range in volume or emotion. And the beats are a little too sparse for me. Like, I can’t tell where the beat is. The album reminds me of a watered-down Madvillainy but less focused and less bumpin’. I think I just need to listen to it more.

Gerthquake: Alex and Connor, your takes remind me that I 1) need to burn Madvillainy onto a CD so I can listen to it in my car, and 2) still need to watch all of the kung-fu movies (except Hero) you referenced by name, Connor. (I went on a Wu-Tang Clan kick during the fall, so it’s likely at this point that the number of rap albums that sample kung-fu movies I’ve listened to is higher than the number of actual kung-fu movies I’ve watched.)

Jason (East-J): Hey all. Sorry I’m a bit late to the party, I have had a pretty weird week. After noticing the obvious warrior metaphor (which I was surprised no one had ever put together before) I really liked the album my first time through. I usually don’t like albums at first but Honor Killed The Samurai flew by.   I listened primarily at work which I think was a good setting if it did make me a bit sleepy at times. Some of the repetitive beats really felt almost lullaby like which,  when paired with the whispering lyrics, were very calming. I tried to share this with Nicole while we were driving back from Indy and I found this is not really very good social music as I was forced constantly to choose between hearing the lyrics and interacting with my passenger. That I think is the core flaw for me. The beats are so sparse and repetitive that the value of the lyrics is inflated. If I am not paying attention or don’t really associate with the lyrical content there isn’t a ton left to hear. Also, I don’t know if “Chill-Hop” is a recognized genre, but if it is not, I just invented it and this album defines it.

I did like it but I don’t see myself listening to it again. Good once or twice but not a classic by any means. 13.5/20.

Connor: J, I think it’s interesting you characterized it as “chill-hop”. I’d almost say it was the opposite. I felt that the simple beats and quiet lyrics monopolized my attention, where for a chill album I’d like to be able to lean back and let it wash over me. When I tried to do that with Honor…I felt like I just stopped listening to it all. I don’t know, just my experience. Anyone agree or disagree?

Spencer: I would agree with you, Connor. This album was less Ka and more meh. I found him to be a less captivating version Earl Sweatshirt. Not to say he isnt talented, but I guess less polarizing than maybe I was expecting from a Gerth pick.

Coloring Book: AOTY

The reason I chose Coloring Book a while back is because this album defined 2016 for me. I graduated college in May, started a new career, most of my best friends moved away. Life was changing. Coloring Book came out at the right time for me because I was looking for something to latch on to. Chance’s lyrical prowess was fresh. Something that Kanye once offered, but has since lost. Chance offered an opportunity for me to rediscover my faith after 4 long years of questioning the meaning of it.

Coloring Book was the Album of the Year for me in 2016. And I thank him for that.

Stay Woke

This review is long past due, but here she goes.

The newest album from Childish Gambino is a risky, blast to the past, fun album. Donald Glover takes a step in a completely different direction from any of his previous, releasing a funky, groove-tastic project. I didn’t know that I wanted a Childish Gambino funk album until I heard Awaken, My Love! I will be the first to admit this album isn’t perfect (lookin’ at you “California”…), but there are some absolute bangers on here that deserve recognition.

“Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” are the crown jewels of this album, with Gambino at his rawest and most powerful. I love the feeling he puts into these songs and Falsetto singing on “Redbone” is next level.

“Zombies” is also a good song, if you are looking for highlights.

“California” is a shit show. Not even worth listening too.

Rating: 7.5/10

Favorite Song: Redbone

Favorite Lyric: “Stay woke.”