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.
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:
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well this was a kick to the head. Childish Gambino, my own namesake, is nothing if not inventive. But Awaken, My Love!, his third album, takes those few Gambino signatures and tosses them in the trash. Normally boisterous and spitting lyrics he knows are clever, Awaken, My Love! can best be described with two words I’ve never used to describe Donald Glover: chill and funky. Chill and funky is also how I describe so much of my favorite music, which bodes well for this review. Yet I find myself asking a question we Childish Gambino fans are so used to asking: “Why don’t I like this more?”
I’ve always liked Childish, he’s smart, artistic, funny as hell and hecka good-looking. Regardless of the actual quality of his raps, they were distinct in a landscape full of same-sounding rappers. While those rappers were writing poetry to read aloud, Childish was writing in his diary: it was shitty, and embarrassing to share with others, but oh so cathartic.
I think that’s what isn’t clicking for me with Awaken, My Love!. It sounds great and there is seriously just so much funk to bop to, I love the outro to “Zombie” in particular, but its missing the angst and aggressive lyricism that made it feel like Gambino just… gets me. (Call it guilty pleasure, but one of the best things about Camp was that I refused to recommend it and only listen with other people to it if I already knew they liked it.) Awaken, My Love! lacks that same unabashed Childish personality, for the first half of the album you would be forgiven for missing that Childish is singing on it at all, especially if you are used to him yelling out puns about oreos. Instead he peeks out from behind the instrumentals to croon a line, then recedes.
There is little doubt that Awaken, My Love! is Gambino’s best album to date, it just sounds so groovy and mellow and has some of the best autotune use I’ve heard in years. It is also an experiment, a break from classic ‘bino as I’ve already talked about. And all experimental phases have missteps (I’m looking at you, “California” and “Terrified”- get outta here!). We can only pray that Glover learns the right lessons. Give us this quality sound with the old Childish Gambino soul.
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.)
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”