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.

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I’ve got zero problems with ‘Coloring Book,’ big fella

I’ll be honest: I’ve listened to Coloring Book the least of any of the albums we’ve covered here so far. I never gave the album the time it was due when it came out last year, partly because a lot of music came out last year and it was kind of an off year for me and rap. The biggest thing was that I was a little hesitant about what Chance’s next project might bring.

The problem was that Acid Rap already sort of seemed like the perfect Chance album to me. It’s so good that I knew I would be disappointed if Chano just dropped an Acid Rap II, but I would also be disappointed if he’d released something that was too far off from its vibes.

I listened to Surf exactly once, and I liked it, but I’ve returned to none of it other than “Sunday Candy,” and even though that song is a classic, I wasn’t sure I wanted a Chance mixtape that took that song as its jumping off point.

I also have a pretty difficult time unreservedly loving anything that scans as too “Christian” in a positive, non-conflicted way. I could get on board with Kanye’s love-hate redemption thing on The Life of Pablo, but a full-on gospel rap record flush in the glow of new fatherhood didn’t sound like something I would be able to get into.

So I sort of avoided this album for awhile.

And when I did eventually listen to it I really had a hard time coming to terms with some of the choices on it, even though it was one of the most universally loved albums of last year, and a big, joyful, very accessible piece of work on top of that. The problem wasn’t that they were poor choices, the problem was that they were cutting edge choices, and I had a hard time letting go of the old Chance.

A really good case study is “No Problem”. I was initially weirded out by its production. The hook line is slathered in auto-tune, and it kind of made me queasy at first, and the pitch-shifted, chopped-up gospel chorus that forms the meat of the beat seemed kind of nonsensical to me, too. But with repeat listens, “No Problem” has become my go -to track on the album.

(My favorite part of the entire album might be Ha Ha Davis, the voice that says “You don’t want zero problems, big fella” at the start of “No Problem”.)

Another example is the joyously sub-verbal stuff that pops up on the first two tracks, first when Kanye says “This is the” and then follows it up with what sounds to me like a bunch of weird grunts (which Genius transcribes as “bom bom bom / bom bom bom / bom bom bom). And there’s Chance’s laughter in the hook on “No Problem”. Both are little touches that annoyed me at first and prevented me from getting into the album, but now I recognize both as touches that add to the sense of joyous abandon that characterizes much of the album. I came around to them. It could be musical Stockholme syndrome, or it could be me genuinely coming to understand what Chance and co. were going for.

Either way, I came around to those early tracks, and I got through the album and got to a point where I could appreciate the new Chance on his own terms.

The album ends strong for me with “Finish Line/Drown”and “Blessings”. One or both of them has some nice live drums, and when they showed up that’s kind of when I knew I would be able to get on the album’s level. Live instrumentation is not essential to good rap music (sometimes it even gets in the way), but when you’re friends with as many monster players as Chance is via The Social Experiment, it seems a little criminal not to make use of that on your record. (Yes, there’s a lot of brass all over the album, but if you’re really that into layered trumpet harmonies then you’re a bigger nerd than I am.)

One thing that’s nice about Chance is that he doesn’t do one type of track. He’s got a good vocabulary of different kinds of rap archetypes, and that means that he can do these genre-exercise type songs where he mixes it up with other MCs who are associated with widely different sounds in the hip-hop universe, and he can pull it off. Sometimes those songs are standouts, and sometimes they’re just welcome diverse padding in his tracklists (like “Fuck You Tahm Bout” on #10Day). “No Problem” actually kind of feels like a softer sequel to “Fuck You Tahm Bout”: it’s chorus is tough talk delivered with a shit-eating grin. “Mixtape” tries on mumbly Atlanta trap. “All Night”is modest little club banger (with more Ha Ha Davis). They all contribute to the album’s free-wheeling mood, without making it feel disjointed

Verdict: I guess I would say that this album is Pocket, because it’s defined by groove even though there aren’t a lot of hard-hitting beats, organic or otherwise. To be honest it doesn’t fit easily into Spencer’s rating/good song classification system (which I have adopted for all of my reviews here, with the addition of Wack, for things that are simply bad). You could also say that Chance’s rapping Shreds, in a way.

‘Awaken, My Love!’: Track-by-Track

I wanna make up for some lost time, so I’m keepin’ this one TIGHT. Just going to write a little about each track on the album.

I’m actually just learning some of the track names from Wikipedia now because for some reason there’s a fucking hand over the tracklist on the CD case:

img_0327
Why?

Which brings me to mention that, yes, my wi-fi is shitty enough that I did resort to buying this thing on CD. They sell it at Target! I bought it and two other notable 2016 albums, playing a little catch-up on the year just past.

That brings me to the first giant digression of this review. Here’s the most controversial ranking you’ll ever see:

Austin Gerth’s recent Target CD purchases, ranked:

1) The 1975’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

2) Beyoncé’s Lemonade

3) Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!

*(To be fair, if I were to list them by which album had the highest peaks, I would probably go with Bey, 1975, Gambino. Really hard to compete with “Formation,” “Freedom,” and “Hold Up,” the three genuine all-timers on Lemonade.)

TIIIIIGHHTTT. Back to the album:

“Me and Your Mama”

It’s a standout, and a solid introduction to the album. It’s probably the album’s best homage to depressed, political, explosively rocking soul that was being put out by Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone in 1970 and 1971. To its credit, the intro and the little synth doodle that blooms over the ending allow this track to stand on its own instead of being defined by its clear influences. This song also introduces us to one of the album’s most important points: that Donald Glover is a monstrously talented vocalist.

“Have Some Love”

Weakest track on this whole shit. On my first straight-through listen, this song filled me with a looming sense of dread. In order to explain why, I have to clue you into a personal bias I’ve realized I have: When it comes to harmonies, I am a Beach Boys guy through and through. I like my harmonies clean and tight. (Just like this track-by-track review, amirite?) I am not so much a loosey goosey, crowd-shouted harmonies type of guy. That means that some of the undeniably classic funk and soul of the late ‘60s and ‘70s that Awaken, My Love! draws from has an extra hurdle to get over with me: I either have to dissociate myself from my personal taste in order to give it its due critical consideration, or the song has to be so good, or use that vocal element so effectively, that it transcends my usual reaction against it.

So the first strike against “Have Some Love,” right out the gate, is those massed vocals, like an extended family with varying degrees of individual vocal talent all singing together (ugh! so positive!). These vocals are especially disappointing, given that “Me and Your Mama” had already proven one of Gambino’s greatest assets (his singing) to a degree never before heard (by me) in his music.

But wait: I have an even bigger problem with this song: It’s mediocre. And not only is it mediocre, but it’s a mediocre song with a VERY SPECIFIC sonic reference point. “Have Some Love” is a mediocre and obvious ripoff of “Can You Get to That,” by Funkadelic.

The proof is in the funky pudding, my friends:

Not only is “Can You Get To That” an absolute, Stone Cold Steve Austin motherfucking funk classic, it’s a classic that features those aforementioned crowd-shouted vocals, the ones I don’t usually like that well. But it is, in fact, one of those also aforementioned, benighted few songs that transcend my bias against such vocals—I love it. It’s a great song. “Have Some Love” is not.

Why don’t we go a little deeper with that Funkadelic comparison? Not only is “Have Some Love” a clear poor man’s version of “Can You Get To That,” it also actually occupies THE SAME SPOT in the tracklisting as “Can You Get To That” does on Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain. Both songs occupy the second slot on their albums.

And put on your tin foil hats, folks, because here’s the cover art of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain:

funkadelicmaggotbrain

Look familiar?

“Boogieman”

“Boogieman” features more of those gospel-y group vocals, but they only really annoy me for the first verse. When I went from “Have Some Love” into that first verse on my first listen through the album, I was really feeling like this whole record had taken a complete nosedive. But “Boogieman” picks up after that verse for me, and the album pulls itself out of the breach. The pre-chorus (the part where the drums drop out for a little while before the chorus) is sublime. It makes up for everything. The group vocals return here and there, but they don’t bother me anymore. The sun rises, and the rest of the album is pretty solid.

“Zombies”

This song, like “Boogieman,” is kind of goofy, but I think it works better than “Boogieman”. A big part of that for me is Donald Glover’s return to lead vocals. SIDENOTE: There’s also a thinkpiece to be written about this album’s zombie and boogieman lyrics and imagery (the cover’s like a deliberate, glam, Afrofuturist zombie version of the Maggot Brain cover above), and the Civil Rights allegory I know some people read into the movie Night of the Living Dead. But I’m going to listen to tracks six through eight again instead of writing that thinkpiece.

“Riot”

This song brings the album almost back to “Me and Your Mama” quality levels. It’s not quite as well put together a song, but it’s really short so it gets a pass. (SIDENOTE: the members of Funkadelic are actually credited as songwriters on this one, FYI, because they’re sampled in the groove.) What makes this track for me is the incredible, Prince-like scream Don G. deploys throughout.

“Redbone”

The Prince comparisons for this one make sense, but to be honest I don’t really think they do justice to just what a good little song this is. Like just listen to the thing, we don’t need to play spot-the-influence.  Just enjoy it, and if you ever run into Donald Glover, give him a hearty slap on the back and say, “Donny, man, that ‘Redbone’ song? That’s a keeper. Good song, Donny.” It also launches us into the album’s second half, which features much more falsetto, and is all the better for it, in this writer’s opinion. Also love the little melody played by the weird, bloopy synth alongside the glockenspiel. Really fortifies the groove on this thing.

“California”

A Story: I recently formed a band with an old friend, a new friend, and a couple of strangers who are now also friends. At our first exploratory jam session, we all took a break to sit on the porch and shoot the shit. The other fellows passed a joint around, and the conversation eventually turned to a debate of this song’s merits. This was before I’d heard the full album. “California” has been almost unanimously singled out by critics as the red-headed stepchild of this record. There are some goofy, “weird” songs on here, but this one is the one that doesn’t fit in with the prevailing ‘70s funk vibe, the one that doesn’t, at first listen, make any damn sense at all. During our porch discussion of this song, our vocalist, Chelanga, expressed enthusiasm for it: he liked its fun, lighthearted nature, and its unorthodox arrangement (with the pan flute, etc). For him it was a funky little feel good jam; I think he said he’d listened to it several times that day. Eric, one of our guitarists, was more skeptical: he thought it was too weird, and it stuck out too much from the rest of the album. The biggest sticking point was the vocal style. But then we listened to the song, to settle things, and the positives started to pile up. We all warmed to it a little, even as we criticized parts of it, marveled at the inscrutable decisions that had gone into it. It’s a weird one, but it’s catchy. It obviously doesn’t want to be taken seriously, so why take it seriously?

I had a hard time dealing with the incomprehensible accent on the vocals on this one, but with time, they’ve won me over. I now actually think this album could use one or two more random-ass songs that sound like a drunk Jamaican Steve Urkel doing karaoke over Jimmy Buffet outtakes.

“Terrified”

The weird, slow-mo DJ Mustard-sounding beat with a half-hearted Curtis Mayfield impression on top that this song opens with really gets me, especially the little moments when the singing lapses into dazed speech for part of a line. And then the drums come in with the perfect fill, and we get a few minutes of a tasty groove with some sweet harmonies. I like the part where DG seductively says he wants to eat the listener alive, and then says “Please don’t find me rude, but I don’t eat fast food,” and totally sells it even though in anyone else’s hands that would be a really, really stupid line.

“Baby Boy”

This thing has more incredible falsetto and really just serves to continue the absurdly deep bench of good songs tucked in the second half of the album’s run time. I also dig the echo-laden jellyfish documentary soundtrack-sounding synths that creep in here and there on this one during the chorus. Just kidding: those synths are actually guitars!!

“The Night Me and Your Mama Met”

This song is an instrumental tune in 6/8 time with some guitar shredding on it. Funkadelic also have an instrumental tune in 6/8 time with some guitar shredding on it, but the two do not need to be compared.

“Stand Tall”

This song strikes me as a cross between two musicians: Shuggie Otis and Marvin Gaye. Shuggie Otis wrote one famous song called “Strawberry Letter 23,” which you all really should listen to because it’s wonderful and you will like it. Marvin Gaye is Marvin Gaye. Unlike “Have Some Love,” this song works really well with its influences, and it closes the album out on a high note. Glover’s vocals on this are great, and I like the little touch of Auto-Tune on that one random vocal phrase.

Verdict: “Have Some Love” is Wack, but almost everything else Wails.

Otis

I: The Title Track

Living in a houseboat is just one of those goals of mine that I probably won’t ever get to accomplish. Listening to “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is probably the closest I’ll ever come.

It’s one of the greatest songs of all time, right? Like if you don’t like it, you’re probably a pretty uptight and non-joyful person. What would be the point of disliking such a simple, joyful song? Nobody’s going to think you’re cool for not liking “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. They’re just going to think there’s something sort of broken inside you, and they’ll feel pity that you are unable to appreciate such a simple pleasure. It’s for everybody, from fans of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” to fans of Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards”. (I’m a fan of both, so maybe they’re bad examples.)

It reminds me a little bit of one of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s top shelf tracks, and I don’t just mean sonically, although there is a slight resemblance. What I really mean is, doesn’t it kind of feel like John Fogerty didn’t write “Proud Mary”? It feels more like “Proud Mary” always existed, and Fogerty tapped into the geist and discovered it, or it was born with the United States, and dictated to him in a dream by the ghost of Mark Twain, or something. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is just about on that level.

It’s also just one of the towering achievements of ’60s music, one of the (legitimate) reasons the decade still looms so large in music history. It sits up there with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and “Okee from Muskogee” in terms of its significance as a cultural shorthand for its time period. And it’s innovative too: by merging folk-rock and soul, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” basically invents Bill Withers’ whole career.

Any time someone writes about The Dock of the Bay (the album), they tend to focus on the context of the its release, how “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was supposed to be the starting point for a new phase of Otis Redding’s career. It was a great, forward-thinking song, but its merger of hippie-friendly folk and soul was also potentially a very fertile marketing strategy to expand Redding’s audience; following his famous 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, dude was making serious inroads with the acid rock crowd. And although “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” might not seem super psychedelic on the surface, a lot of the psychedelic rock of the time had roots in the folk-rock boom of 1965-66. (For example, see how quickly The Byrds went from Bob Dylan covers to the drug references and John Coltrane-aping guitar solo of “Eight Miles High,” or the fact that members of The Grateful Dead had roots in jug bands and bluegrass.) And even as Redding looks back to the sounds of a couple years before, the laid back vibes and acoustic rhythm guitar on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” also anticipate the pastoral shift in countercultural tastes that would occur around 1970 when Crosby, Stills and Nash blew up and brought the singer-songwriters of the ’70s with them. It also helps that “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is set in San Fransisco, which was hippie (and houseboat) central.

The coup-de-grace for Redding should have been The Dock of the Bay (the album), which, had he not died, likely would have traveled further down the chill folk-soul road its title track paved, and turned Redding into a pan-demographic star.

II: The Rest of the Stuff

Shit.

I didn’t want to waste that many words on context, but I think it’s important to note that The Dock of the Bay (the album), as it was released, isn’t the tonally unified thing it could have been; instead, it’s a collection of odds-and-ends compiled by Steve Cropper, Redding’s guitarist and often songwriting partner. The songs date back as far as 1965, I think. So it opens with the absolute cutting edge and then goes backward. In a fashion that’s more early ’60s than late ’60s, The Dock of the Bay is an album that anchors one dynamite single with some other material that was lying around from other sessions; everything after “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is just extra. But the album is still regarded as a classic because Cropper was pretty discerning in the stuff he added to the tracklist. It was stuff that deserved release on a full-length, and stuff that showed different sides of Otis Redding well.

So how do I feel the rest of the tracklist? For me, the main draw here is the drums. I can’t confirm because Wikipedia doesn’t offer detailed personnel information on the album, but I’m fairly certain most of the drums on the album are played by Al Jackson, Jr., who was the drummer for Stax Records’ house band Booker T. and the MGs, and who is also, it should be noted, a fucking gem in the recorded history of the drum set. (Aside: Jackson also supplied the deeeeeep backbeats on most of the songs on Al Green’s 1972 album I’m Still In Love With You, which is possibly my favorite album to practice along to.)

My favorite drum moment on the album is the groove on “Let Me Come On Home,” where you’ve got this snare pounding on all four beats that sort of serves as an anchor for the band. It’s the kind of beat that got used on a lot of Motown songs too, but the Stax band (aka the MG’s) play with more grit. What I especially like about it is the way the drummer still wallops the two and the four way more than one and three (even though he’s hitting on all four), creating kind of an ambiguous feel to the beat.

The snap of the drum groove on “Tramp”is probably the only thing I really like about the song, which is otherwise a clear throwaway. “Tramp” and “The Huckle Buck” are both weird nonsense songs, but I have a lot more appreciation for “The Huckle Buck,” the way it degenerates into almost sub-verbal grunting.

“The Glory of Love” should be the weakest thing here: for the first minute and half of its brief runtime, it’s a bald-faced retread of “Try a Little Tenderness”. The drummer even mimics the two-bars early-entrance of the drums on “…Tenderness”. But then the song lurches into a weird, polyrhythmic groove and redeems itself completely, feeling more like a true sequel than a mere retread.

The only song I think comes close to the title track in quality of composition is “Don’t Mess With Cupid”; on the album’s other standouts it’s often Redding’s monster voice and personality, and the tight band, which elevate the material. “Don’t Mess With Cupid,” on the other hand, has a great hook and a nice little guitar intro. It’s a pop song.

To the credit of its compiler Cropper, I think the albums a whole plays better than the sum of its parts. It showcases and celebrates the facets Redding’s talent, and in that way even its flaws become endearing for the complete portrait of the man they help paint.

Verdict: Redding absolutely wails, and Jackson Jr. (I think) keeps the band in the pocket. Steve Cropper doesn’t really shred, but he is a great guitarist, and he supplies some tasty licks.

Why I Chose ‘Steve McQueen’

It took me a while to select an album for this week, even though I ultimately chose one of the first candidates I came up with.

I really wanted not to agonize over my choice, but I did anyway, partly because agonizing over choices is just how I roll, and partly because it was my first album pick for the group and therefore took on a sentimental significance to me.

Anyway, I agonized because a number of different album-picking strategies presented themselves to me:

  1. I could pick a personal favorite album of mine, possibly one that not many people know is a favorite of mine, thereby marking my first pick with a record that theoretically reveals something to you all about me.
  2. I could pick an album that’s a big deal right now. Something hip and current, something necessitating “hot takes”. (E.g. that new Childish album which I still haven’t listened to).
  3. I could just pick something I happened to be listening to lately, nonchalantly clueing you all into what I think is vibey right now. (Potential problem with this strategy: since the election I’ve been listening a lot to Washington, D.C. punk rock band/violent separatist political party The Nation of Ulysses, and even though they’re the greatest band in human history, I have a feeling they may not be y’all’s cuppa tea.)
  4. I could rack my brain for an album I dig that I think you would all find something in to dig yourselves.
  5. I could pick something I’ve never heard and want to listen to myself.

In the end, I chose an album that I thought might fit both strategies 1 and 4.

I first heard about Steve McQueen in like 2007 when I read a review of a reissue. I didn’t actually listen to it till sophomore year of college, though . I remember liking it the first time I listened to it, but it was on the second listen (while doing homework) that I think I was like holy shit. I still can’t fully explain what it is that draws me so strongly to the album. It’s not consciously clear to me what a lot of its songs are trying to communicate; I can really only describe the music’s mood in vague terms like “wistful” and “romantic” and “nostalgic”. It’s more like I can feel it in my bones.

Obviously Steve McQueen is a personal favorite of mine, but what did I see in it for all of you? Well, I figured Spencer was a fairly safe bet to like it: I thought he would dig its ’80s production aesthetic and Paddy McAloon’s blue-eyed soul vocals (ditto Jason on the latter). I thought Alex might be able to get on board with the drumming, especially on “Hallelujah” and “Moving the River” (Neil Conti is now a well-respected session drummer). I also feel like the album sits in kind of a nebulous middle ground between big, dumb ’80s pop and ’70s soft rock that would appeal to this section of The Crew generally. (Like it’s not explicitly influenced by ’70s soft rock, but it is rock and it is pretty soft.) And I’ve noticed that almost everything Connor listens to has really strong and often fairly complex melodies (which is weird considering his lack of musical training), so I thought that could win him over if none of the aforementioned characteristics did. Zach was the only person for whom I didn’t have an immediate argument that he would like the album, but I also don’t know a ton about his tastes outside the rap/R&B sphere. You can tell me whether any of these qualities struck any of you in the comments, or just make fun of me for inaccurate analyses.

I’ll also give my own little review, while I’m here: Although I’ve said already that Steve McQueen is one of my favorite albums to cross my ears in the last few years, it’s not perfect. I think it gets a little bogged down in the back half before finishing strong with “When the Angels”. The culprits for me are “Desire As” and “Blueberry Pies”; it’s not that they’re bad songs, they’re just more boring than the others. Both tracks have their place, but both are suitable for a way narrower set of moods than, say, “Moving the River”. I’ve even read reviews that say “Desire As” is the “masterpiece” of the album, and maybe if you’re in the right mood, and maybe a little bit emotionally compromised, I could see it being a spellbinding piece of music; but I rarely get into that sort of state. (Also I learned from Connor that the song includes the word “sylph,” which is another strike against it in my book.) What I really like about the album, first and foremost, is that it has fucking songs. Some of these things are just beautifully put together, and the way sections build into other sections, the way the songs ebb and flow, all the little details, it’s all so considered without feeling clinical or losing its sense of emotional commitment. Like listen to that build into the “Johnny Johnny” part of “Goodbye Lucille #1”: It’s the queasy upslope of of an emotional roller coaster. It’s one of my favorite moments of recorded music, ever. Even some of the big gestures on the album, the things that could come across as corny, feel earned because of the overall attention paid to the way things fit together: There’s the way the rhythm section locks in with the vocals for the line “Life’s not complete/till your heart’s skipped a beat”; there’s the way “Horsin’ Around” suddenly shifts into a weird, synthesized ’80s version of a swing tune (and Paddy McAloon legitimately starts to sound like Michael Bublé); and there’s the burning passion of the chorus on “When Love Breaks Down”. The highs on this thing are hella high.

Verdict: Prefab Sprout wails, and some of the grooves on Steve McQueen are deeper in the pocket the lint in your Levi’s.

Still Believe the Hype: How I Stopped Worrying and Boogied Down to “Life’s a Bitch”

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Already bought this fucker on CD so I can bump it in my 2004 Chevy Malibu. The cover art and typography has grown on me.

I.

I’m glad Alex picked Illmatic for our first album.

I’ve never really listened to Nas before, even though I’ve been aware of his and Illmatic’s reputation for years. My reasons for not listening have been nonsensical: I always thought Nas had kind of a stupid looking face, and I thought Illmatic‘s (iconic) cover art was boring and gave off a vibe that was way too this-is-a-rap-album (as if we couldn’t tell).

The 2003 book edition of Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, although deeply flawed, was maybe the single most influential book in my life between the ages of 13 and 18. Illmatic is album number 400 in that book, I think. It took me several years to go from dweeby classic rock boy to tentative hip-hop enthusiast, yet even once I did, taking Rolling Stone’s canon as my guide, Illmatic was not one of the rap albums from the list I found myself naturally drawn to. It wasn’t that I thought I would dislike it; there’s just so much music out there to try that sometimes the ways we decide whether to give something a shot or not are completely arbitrary.

Even as I grew familiar with Illmatic’s towering reputation over the years—as a perennial candidate for greatest hip-hop album of all time, as a standard by which any potential classic in the genre is measured, as basically the Great Gatsby of rap, I still neglected to actually listen to the thing. I was instead seduced by things like Action Bronson’s “raps about food” schtick, and Cam’Ron.

It wasn’t just that I was stubborn. Nas’ whole steez struck me as too normal. He seemed like a guy who would be, at best, really good at rapping in sort of a meat-and-potatoes, conventional way. Nas has no point of view, no cool gimmick. He keeps it real. (Important sidenote: At this point I’m still basing this assessment entirely on Nas’ image, and on the way he gets talked about, rather than any experience of his music. But as evidence of the power image and critical discourse can hold, I submit that I stand by my whole knee-jerk, pre-listening assessment to Nas’ shit; all my assumptions are correct. It’s my reaction to Nas, now that I’ve heard him, that’s been less predictable.)

II.

Enough background, though, because that shit’s boring.

The first time I heard Nas was in the soundtrack to the 2014 movie Dope, which includes “The World Is Yours,” off Illmatic. I’m not exaggerating that much when I say that “The World Is Yours” is the best part of Dope. I hunted the song down online when I got home from the theater. When I found out it was a Nas song, I knew I should probably listen to Illmatic. But I still didn’t.

I finally listened to Illmatic last Sunday and it sorta blew my mind.

When you’re approaching an album that’s hyped as the best ever in its genre for the first time, you go in expecting that it might not be able to live up to the reputation.

Illmatic pretty much does, though. It’s neither overrated nor underrated. It’s one of the most “rated” albums I’ve ever heard. Is it the indisputable greatest rap album of all time? Eh… I don’t know. I don’t think that’s a question that has an answer.

In fact, I think one of the things that makes Illmatic so excellent—its brevity—could be seen as a strike against it in the “greatest rap album” debate. Because rap’s period of greatest popularity and cultural saturation coincided with the CD era in the ‘90s, there is a strong tradition of classic hip-hop albums being sprawling affairs, packed to the gills with skits, guest features, and posse cuts. The obvious downside for putting an album together that way is that a lot of hip-hop albums are padded with filler. But the upside is that really great rap albums are able to conjure whole worlds for the listener to get lost in over the course of many listens.

Illmatic, despite its considerable merits, doesn’t really do that.

What Illmatic does do, however, is impressive on its own terms.

My favorite track on the album is still the first one I heard, “The World Is Yours,” because “The World Is Yours” has an incredible beat. A lot of hip-hop production was still pretty spare in the mid-90s, but Pete Rock’s beat on “The World Is Yours” is lush as hell. And it’s catchy. The recurring chant of “Who’s world is this? It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine” is a whimsically perfect hook, and it’s possible to read it multiple ways: Is it a confident rhetorical question, or is the repetition a mark of insecurity?

When it comes to hip-hop, I tend to be more of a “beats first” listener. I don’t always appreciate pure rapping technique on first listen because my brain is a little too slow for the quickness of the language. (You’ll notice I’m not exactly talking a ton about lyrics here—for what it’s worth, I like what I’ve been picking up.) Some older rap tires me out by focusing too much on the lyrics and not giving me enough detail in the production to satisfy me. I worried that would be the case for Illmatic, but I was wrong.

“Life’s a Bitch” is another standout for me. AZ does a great job on his guest verse, but it’s the production once again that seals the deal for me: there’s a simple repeating chord change played on an electric piano laid over what sounds like a looped drone on a cheap synth, and the way the subtly snapping, propulsive drums push against the melodic stasis of those keyboard parts makes the song sound as if it’s being beamed in from a dream state. To toss the chorus “Life’s a bitch and then you die” into that sonic environment is a beautiful bit of contrast.

One of the things that makes Illmatic great is actually one of the things that I used as an excuse not to listen to it for years: it succeeds in a totally boring way. Nas is a brilliant meat-and-potatoes rapper. He keeps it real. The thing is, I didn’t realize how good that could be, how much I would actually want that type of greatness in my life, till I actually put the album on and listened to it straight through.

Illmatic lives up to the high expectations engendered by my years of hearing about it without hearing it because it encapsulates all of hip-hop’s essentials. It’s got a really good rapper rapping at the top of his game over a batch of consistently exciting beats sourced from a group of producers who are almost all now hip-hop legends. It does all this with ruthless efficiency.

A Tribe Called Quest crystallized the essential qualities of classic hip-hop with the title of their 1996 album Beats, Rhymes & Life. On Illmatic, Nas and his interlocutors do a pretty good job of embodying all three.

Verdict: Illmatic’s pretty pocket, and it slaps.

Favorite tracks: “The World Is Yours,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park),” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”