Category Archives: Music

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: The Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs”

It’s no great revelation that the American suburb, that realm of domesticity created by the white flight of the 1950s and 60s, can be a dehumanizing place filled with tedium and pain behind a facade of a happy middle-class lifestyle. In fact, the topic has been something of a pet point of reflection in pop culture for couple decades at least, from Mad Men to Revolutionary Road to The Ice Storm and American Beauty.

And so it’s inevitable that some commentators will scoff at The Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, The Suburbs, for treading well-worn ground. But pop music, for the most part, has never been about the necessity of the high concept, has it? It’s not like the love song or the breakup song or songs about war being bad are going away any time soon. These songs are all about feelings. And The Suburbs is possibly the best example of an album really capturing a feeling since The Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral.

What’s really amazing about the Arcade Fire’s three albums is how much of a piece they feel, like each one is a different novel in a series or season in a serialized TV show like “The Wire.” They even seem to follow the same characters around as they move through the ends of their childhood (Funeral), the  anger over empty culture and political corruption that comes with college and early adulthood (Neon Bible), and now the crushing boredom and ennui that comes with having settled down and learned to “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock” as Regine Chassagne so beautifully sings in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

Maybe the first thing any of us learn in a playwriting class or a fiction-writing course is never to make your characters bored, since bored characters generally lead to a bored audience. But The Arcade Fire figures out how to thread the needle here. These songs about suburbanites who start “wars” over music just to feel something and have something to do are drenched with nostalgia. Every song on this album feels instantly familiar, not so much in that they’re derivative, but just because they feel like something a teenage older brother might have pumped out of his  truck’s tape deck as he cruised around the culdesac, albeit with a lot more orchestration. And given that your older brother was into Red Rider and Bruce Springsteen rather than Megadeth and Metallica.

Some of the songs on “The Suburbs” are shockingly catchy — I find myself humming “Rococo” and “City With No Children” on the reg — despite the fact that their lyrics are about as sad as they can be (it’s the old sad-lyrics-happy-music formula perfected on The Clash’s “Train in Vain” all those years ago). And the songs you don’t find yourself humming you won’t help but find beautiful. It’s as enjoyable an experience you can have hearing someone’s regrets about lost time and lost youth.

You think: It’ll probably be the album of the year.

Documenting a Live MF Doom: Evil Genius? Or Just Plain Evil?

MF Doom

Being that hip hop originated not in the studio, but in a live party atmosphere, it’s sort of sad that most live hip hop sucks nowadays. With the exception of a few acts that have distinguished themselves over the years (Outkast, Kanye West, a cadre of underground acts that cut their teeth on the live show), most live rap shows amount to a terrible sounding and unjustly, yet mercifully, short experience simply not worth the time and/or the money. Yet in a fledgling music industry, where sales of albums simply aren’t where they used to be, the live show remains most artists’ main source of income. It’s a chance to build a stronger fanbase, to sell tons of merchandise, and to get a semblance of a steady paycheck; all on top of the fact that performance, in some form or fashion, rests at the core of all musical creativity. You make music for others to hear, the most direct means to do so is a face-to-face live performance. You are a musician, therefore, you perform.

With this much riding on the live performance, you’d like to think that even the most terrible of rap live acts at least have every intention to put on a good show. Even from the more cynical, disinterested artists, we as fans at the very least demand the facade of concern or desire of wanting their respective live show to be decent. I mean, surely no rap act in his or her right mind would want to put on a flat out BAD show, right?

MF Doom would probably disagree with you. While being a heralded beatmaker and prolific rap artist with a legion of faithful, dedicated fans, MF Doom is a terrible live act for a myriad reasons. For one, he is known to show up late to his live shows; that is, if he bothers to show up at all. His shows have often fallen into “less than half hour” group, at times going so short as ten minute sets as the headliner. He’s been known to lip sync at rap shows, or even stranger, simply mime rapping motions without opening his mouth. For those keeping track at home, all of these make Doom a TERRIBLE live performer.

But perhaps the strangest element of a modern MF Doom show is the growing list of concerts and events where MF Doom sends an imposter, or a “Doomposter,” to perform his songs. As Doom’s live act involves wearing a metal mask while delivering his mumbly, mush-mouthed delivery style, it’s not unfathomable to think that a Doomposter could sort of pull off Doom’s songs; but the recent spate of blatant Doomposters has caused many industry experts as well as fans to speculate that perhaps the real MF Doom has not performed for something close to 4-5 years.

When asked to respond to this controversy, Doom simply stated:

“Everything that we do is villain style,” he explained. “Everybody has the right to get it or not get it. Once I throw it out, it’s there for interpretation. It might’ve seemed like it didn’t go well, but how do we know that wasn’t just pre-orchestrated so that we’re talking about it now? I tell you one thing: People are asking more now for live shows and I’m charging more, so it must’ve worked somewhere.”

And the question has to be asked, is he just another bad live rap act, or is he the best live rap act that none of us could possibly understand?

MF Doom, aka Daniel Dumile, emerged in the rap scene as a member of the seminal rap group KMD. Having debuted on the classic 3rd Bass song “The Gas Face,” Dumile went on to record two albums with KMD under the moniker of Zev Love X, releasing the now classic album Black Bastards, an album that became as rare as it was essential for its controversial cover art.

Black Bastards

Shortly before the release of Black Bastards, Dumile’s brother, fellow group member and younger brother DJ Subrocwas killed in a car accident, causing the demise of the group and Dumile’s retreat from the music industry for the next few years, during which Dumile reportedly fell into a deep depression. Sometime around 1999, Dumile resurrected his rap career behind a metal Dr. Doom mask, and began making music again, releasing the seminal underground album Operation: Doomsday. A legend was born.

As recently as 2004, Doom was performing 45+ minute sets, fetching high performance fees and drawing huge crowds. In 2005, Doom released Live from Planet X, a forty minute continuous blast of 15 songs, displaying Doom’s prowess and ferocity on stage. At the time of Planet X‘s release, Doom had begun collaborating with the best of the independent music scene (Madlib, Danger Mouse, a rumored project with Ghostface Killah was on the horizon). A cult had grown around Dumile in a way that no one could have predicted, all for the right reasons: the music was dope, and the theater of the music was even better.

Shortly after that, the Doomposters started showing up, shows were canceled, a growing sense that Doom was having his fun with the public was first received with tongue-in-cheek humor, but was soon replaced with a growing anger by his fans. In 2007 at the world famous Rock the Bells tour, side by side with the modern day legends of rap, Doom sent out a blatant Doomposter, causing a crowd chant of “bullshit!” from the crowd.

NYMag’s Vulture blog’s Amos Barshad recently reported that MF Doom was planning to release a new album on September 14 titled Expektoration. Barshad raises the obvious question: is this going to be a live album of the actual MF DOOM, or is this going to be a continuation of Doom’s recent spate of flouting public expectations for his live show?

The thesis isn’t surprising, but maybe we are all missing the point. To look at it in a few other ways, one could argue that Doom’s live show is, while objectively terrible, a fascinating conceptualization of his persona and his musical legacy. As Doom stated in his response above, he is a villain; and presumably, the most villainous thing he could do would be to cheat people out of their money. It’s gotten to the point now, almost six years running, where people are finally starting to question the wisdom of even going to live MF Doom shows. SIX YEARS of being consistently snookered by this guy, and people are only now questioning whether it’s time to give up on the efficiacy of the MF Doom live show, while he laughs all the way to the bank.

In another light, Doom’s framing of modern hip hop is fascinating, if not cynical. Modern hip hop is a studio monster, one comprised of punch-ins, over-production and overdubs, with a live show that’s both restrictively shackled to the studio blueprint of a song, while also completely devoid of any chance for interpretive embellishment by means of delivery to the public. Put it another way, you go to a live show because you want to hear a song that sounds like the song; and yet, just hearing the song in the exact same way is inherently unsatisfying because it’s a live show. Whereas rock bands can switch up tempos, add in guitar solos or fill-ins, the hip hop live show blueprint is married to a beat that on some level, has to sound identical to what you’re used to, while also married to a vocal track that the live emcee can try, but will never mimic in all of its studio glory. Somewhere in MF Doom’s strange theory may be the only exciting way to interpret hip hop in a live setting: to simply raise a middle finger to all the expectations and try to deliver a show that at the very least creates an intense emotional reaction, even if it’s one of betrayal and hatred. At the very least, you can’t say that it isn’t interesting.

Barshad poses this simple question: “Are we overanalyzing this because it’s Doom?” Probably. But the fact that we’re even analyzing live hip hop, by all accounts a mostly unexciting cultural element, while theorizing about the worth of performance content versus performance art delivery is a worthy conversation for such a troubled, confusing, and at times, maddeningly genius rap artist like Dumile. Is it enough to get me to plunk down the cash to see a live show, even if I know that it might last 10 minutes with an imposter miming around on stage to a laptop simply playing Doom’s songs?

Honestly? Yeah, it might be.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Pitchfork Festival Retrospecticus

This week, since there weren’t really any albums coming out I felt compelled to review (none I could stream, anyway), I figured I’d take a look back at the shows I saw weekend before last at the Pitchfork Music Festival here in my newly adopted home city of Chicago.

FRIDAY

The first set I saw on the sweltering first day of the festival, fresh from ditching work a couple hours early, was former Def Jux label head El-P, who started out a little rough — the first song, “Smithereens (Stop Crying)” was fuzzy from sound problems that plagued the festival all weekend.

My great view of the artist the guy behind me called “ELP.”

El Producto recovered nicely, however, when he went into probably the best song from his solo debut Fantastic Damage, “Deep Space 9mm.” The crowd really got more involved at that point and the show took off from there, even weathering an extended instrumental jam where El-P worked a drum machine (it was pretty awesome, in fact).

Up next were dance-punk-noise rockers Liars, who seemed to be aiming to live up to the “noise” portion of their genre more than any other. They were screechy and headache-inducing, so I headed over to the comedy stage to sit under some shade and catch a bit of Hannibal Buress‘ set. Like all the comedians who performed Friday — the only day, thankfully, Pitchfork opted to have a comedy stage — Buress had to compete with the loud band on the other side of the park, but he made the best of it, telling jokes about his Brooklyn neighborhood and the handlebar-mustachioed dudes that live there.

I left Buress’ set early to catch Robyn‘s 50 minutes or so of jamming on stage A, and it was pure, fun dance-pop bliss from the get-go.

My less-great view of a great singer who opted to wear leather shoulder pads in 95 degree heat.

From her opening song, “Fembot” (a song I am now in love with), Robyn had the audience eating right out of her hand. She blew through a string of hits and had an seemingly infinite supply of energy, despite the heat and her insistence that she had just gotten off the plane from Sweden. She closed “Dancing on My Own,” the first single off her new album Body Talk Pt. 1, with the classic “making out with myself” gag.

Back across the park, Michael Showalter, a comedian I will always love dearly because of his involvement in “The State” and “Stella,” was bombing miserably. I came over to the stage about 15 minutes into his disastrous set, just as he was finishing up some ill-advised DJing and launching into vanilla jokes about soccer. Right around the time someone in the audience suggested he do Doug from “The State” it was totally clear the show was off the rails and he pulled the plug on it. Even so, he got in some jokes that made me laugh, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Because Showalter’s set was voluntarily cut short, I got to catch the tail end of Broken Social Scene’s set, which was impressive as always. I didn’t much care for their last record, but they still put on a damn good show.

Modest Mouse closed out the night with a setlist full of deep cuts that appealed (mostly) to the Pitchfork audience. They played “Dramamine,” “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” and “Gravity Rides Everything,” but only one song from their most recent album (guitarist Johnny Marr was nowhere to be found, by the way) and no “Float On” whatsoever. Most of the crowd didn’t seem to care, but one girl behind me did shout, “Just play the damn song so I can go home!”

Issac Brock seemed pretty surly, as if that’s any surprise. The only real stage banter was a silly story about biting into a glow stick. The playing was sloppy at times, but it was ultimately a satisfying show for people who prefer the band’s rough edges. And I do.

SATURDAY

Pitchfork’s second day was seemingly hotter than the first, so I opted to miss out on Free Energy’s 1 p.m. set and showed up instead just in time to see Raekwon take the stage a little after 4.

Not my Wu symbol, but I did throw a few up.

The sound problems that wounded El-P’s set nearly murdered Raekwon’s as the first 20 minutes or so simply consisted of the DJ trying to get his equipment to work right, yelling something to the crowd about whether they bought Enter the Wu-Tang, then going back to fiddling. Eventually The Chef was able to come out and do some Wu-Tang classic like “C.R.E.A.M.” and even “Triumph,” as well as some songs off of his newest, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, but sound mishaps seeped into a few songs, urging Raekwon to ask the crowd to raise their hands if “this is pissin’ you off. It’s pissin’ me off.”

The set rebounded right at the end, though, when Raekwon brought out a group of four kids who did breakdancing for the last three songs or so. Those kids were awesome, and they seemed to bring an energy to the stage that had been lacking somewhat. The finish was very strong.

Up next was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I’ve never been a huge fan — I don’t hate them, I’ve just never paid them much attention. It sounded good enough.

Wolf Parade took the stage next, and the Montreal rockers kept things going nicely for their full near-hour set. They played lots of high-energy songs from all three of their albums (“Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” from their debut sounds extra good live), trading off vocals between guitarist Dan Boeckner and keyboard player Spencer Krug, who really was hammering away on those keys. The only low point was their overlong closer, “Kissing the Beehive,” which is a great, epic album track but probably too much for a festival set.

Animal Collective member Panda Bear was up next, and his unfocused, meandering set was the snooze of the festival. I love Animal Collective’s records, and Panda Bear’s solo album wasn’t bad, but they are just not acts worth seeing live.

Everyone was jolted awake pretty quickly, though, when LCD Soundsystem came on next and opened up huge with “Us V. Them.”

Not pictured: Giant disco ball.

It was an amazing show. As good as when I saw Daft Punk play at Lollapalooza in 2007 right after an LCD set. Not only was everyone singing along to the chorus of “All My Friends,” an industrious group had brought sparklers along to hold up as the song crescendoed. Throughout the set, everyone was dancing. It was impossible not to.

And then James Murphy and crew finished out the set with “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” perhaps an odd choice as a closer at a Chicago festival, but it was undeniable, especially once Murphy broke out into “Empire State of Mind” before bringing it all to the big finish.

Man.

SUNDAY

I didn’t have tickets for this day, and it’s probably for the best because a quick but heavy rain shower followed by blistering heat made it humid just to even stay in my apartment. I watched some of the shows online, though, and St. Vincent seemed to do pretty well to have so many downtempo songs in her catalog. Major Lazer was nuts. And Big Boi killed it. He brought out those breakdancing kids again, did a bunch of old OutKast songs (only his verses), rocked his new material and asked the women in the audience to show their boobs.

I’m almost sorry I didn’t brave the heat for that. Almost.

Where The Street Ends: The Rap Stylings of Childish Gambino

Don Glover

At the age of 26, Donald Glover’s résumé reads like that of a lifetime achievement award: former writer for NBC’s 30 Rock, ensemble cast-member of NBC’s surging Community, award-winning stand-up comedian, sketch comedy writer and performer with the internet sensation Derrick Comedy, and writer and star of the same group’s feature length theatrical release, Mystery Team. And yet, maybe his most impressive feat is the fact that amidst all these projects, Glover still found time to regularly make music under the alias Childish Gambino, releasing a series of underground mix tapes that received an almost perplexed reaction from fans of Glover’s comedy and rap fans alike. Was the rapper’s squeaky, hyperactive delivery and chest-thumpin’ hip hop bravado for real, or just some elaborate joke that he was playing on all of us?

Enter Cul De Sac, Glover’s first full length album released last month, in the form of a free download. And joke’s on us: it’s pretty damn good for a number of reasons. Do yourself a favor and skip straight to track 7, “Let Me Dope You,” if only to hear the opening line, in which Gambino snarls: “Welcome to the Cul De Sac, this is where the street ends,” and you’d have a better idea of the place Childish Gambino represents in the fabric of modern day hip hop. And while some may say that the songs on Cul De Sac may not even be hip hop in the most traditional sense, there’s no question it’s an exciting peek into what may be the future of the below-the-surface rap scene that sits between the clutches of the synthed-out klaxons of the mainstream club hits and the shackles of underground and independent hip hop still lost in a decade-old musical reverie.

Don Glover's Cul de Sac

Why is Cul De Sac not exactly rap? A song like “Do Ya Like” is closer to some weird acid-hop track, more akin to a sort of modern Morcheeba; a niche genre that’s been woefully forgotten in today’s DJ compositional culture so taken with house/dancehall/dubstep aesthetic (not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily). Gambino sings over the organs and faint drum beat, drowned out in echoes, seamlessly moving in between singing and rapping. It’s a stunning feat of musical awareness that Glover manages to recreate multiple times on the album, creating songs that you label as rap, notwithstanding the fact that they do everything possible to eschew predictable rap tendencies. Listen to Gambino as he raps over a gorgeous piano riff in the album’s opener, “Difference,” or the neo-soul “So Fly,” that manages to end as if it were straight from a Shins song; this is an album that strives to do something more than simply indulge some rap-star delusion that Glover had in between casting calls and writing sessions.

There are some genuinely beautiful moments on this album, originating from a musical sensibility flavored by alt-indie influences that Glover obviously loves. Listen to “These Girls” (featuring, of all acts, the comedic duo of Garfunkel and Oates) and tell me you can’t hear that fitting right in with any number of indie bands you’ve heard about on Pitchfork. And yet, Cul De Sac is, at most times, a distinctly rap album. The swelling strings on “Hero” sound like the best kind of Bad Boy track, while songs like “I Be On That” and “Let Me Dope You” are straight riffs on Young Jeezy, aggro-Southern rap styles. The chorus alone from “You Know Me” could be the best hook on any number of Dirty South rappers’ albums, and yet Glover pulls it off in a way that is all his own.

Perhaps the most astounding feat of Cul De Sac is how much it manages to avoid sounding completely derivative, while being consistently familiar. Part of it occurs due to Glover’s skills as a spirited and creative rapper; his over-excited delivery and clever punch lines would be enough to keep your attention on even the most familiar beats. But, it’s almost as if Glover is so informed on the music he’s seeking to emulate, that he’s become a master at each of them, twisting it in small, subtle ways. The familiar elements register in your brain on a visceral level, but the logical part begins to delve into the content and realizes there’s something different and, more importantly, worth listening to there.

The closing track, “The Last,” expresses Glover’s philosophy in succinct fashion:

Other rappers try to go and get over
You want that hood shit? Best to go and call Hova
I was a good kid, backpack on my shoulder
98 test score, in my Thundercats folder.

Amazingly, Glover’s unapologetic refusal to act like other rappers makes the times he attempts to sound like other rappers sound … well, original. And sure, there will be people who will try to detract from his accomplishment, saying that this album isn’t like the hip hop they’re used to hearing. The left-of-center space that a growing contingent of rappers are trying to fill, somewhere between the club hits of the radio and the monotonous drone from the underground, is becoming a fascinating place, full of skaters and hipsters, people who have an undying love to hip hop, but have grown up in a culture where music is ubiquitous to the extent that everyone will listen to almost everything. And in a week where we saw rising rap star Kid Cudi’s new single “Erase Me” drop on the scene sounding like some weird Weezer, pop-core ode, it’s becoming harder to see where rap ends and other genres begin. Some may bemoan that phenomenon, but I remain excited for the future. If only because as much as I love hip hop, I don’t always want to listen to only rap. Donald Glover is probably the same way, and it seems that he’s comfortable with letting us know it while being pretty damn great at saying it too.

P.S. I’ve been thinking about Don Glover and Childish Gambino so much that I made a song about him, called “Don Glover 4 Spider-man.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty”

I’m not gonna lie. It’s my professional opinion that OutKast has been the most important, influential and beautifully brilliant act in hip-hop, and maybe even all of music, for the past dozen years or so. It’s hard for me to overstate what Big Boi and Andre 3000 have contributed to American culture in that time.

Which is my roundabout way of saying that I expect a lot from them.

Their last proper album as a duo, 2006′s soundtrack to their movie Idlewild, was a pretty colossal disappointment. It’s got some gems (“Mighty O” might be OutKast’s most underappreciated single, and “Morris Brown” is just awesome), but it gets bogged down pretty badly in the not-terribly-interesting plot and characters of a mediocre movie seemingly made to show off Andre’s acting talent.

Their previous album, 2003′s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was an interesting experiment — basically two solo albums in which each member made a couple guest appearances on the other’s record.

I’m not one of those OutKast fans that likes to say either Andre or Big Boi is the better performer of the two. I see that as an unnecessary comparison, since they blend so well together, kind of like rap’s chocolate and peanut butter. But I unapologetically think Speakerboxxx is better than The Love Below, in part because it is a sonic continuation of what the duo had done before on their best albums, Aquemeni and Stankonia, rather than a left turn into trying to be Prince. (For the record, I still think The Love Below is pretty damn good on its own merits.)

In its way, Big Boi’s newest record, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (one serious mouthful of a title), though it comes seven years later, feels a lot like Speakerboxxx 2. And I mean that in the best possible way. It builds on that previous album in an organic way, where you can hear the growth in sound and ideas but it remains very grounded in the infinitely appealing OutKast style of years past.

You can hear it on the album’s first two tracks, the croony “Feel Me (Intro)” and the hard-hitting “Daddy Fat Sax.” (Big Boi could probably have titled every track on here one of his nicknames and had a few left to spare.) They’re both clearly OutKast tunes but neither one feels stale, either. And that’s basically the MO for the remainder of the record, though some experiments (the sour rock of “Follow Us” and Jamie Foxx’s flimsy R&B hook on “Hustle Blood”) don’t work out as well as others (the incredible sonic assault that is “General Patton,” the earworm “Shine Blockas,” the throbbing “Shutterbugg”).

But even the unevenness of the album — the good songs are so good that it’s hard to not skip over the other tracks to get to them — is classic OutKast. Hum “B.O.B.” Now hum “Toilet Tisha.” Exactly.

The only thing keeping Sir Lucious Left Foot from being the great new OutKast album it could be is the huge, gaping Andre 3000-shaped hole in it. He’s completely absent from it save for some spacey production on the track “You Ain’t No DJ,” though it’s no fault of his own. A record label change led to complications that ended up with the two tracks Andre did appear on being left off the record (they’re widely available online).

But I can only imagine what it would be like if Andre had done some verses on the songs that are on here. Thinking of a possible Andre verse on “General Patton” kind of makes my brain melt a little. Dear Internet, someone insert a Dre verse from another song into that one. You’ll be doing the world a favor.

You thought: It’s going to be a steady spin for at least a couple months.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Why We Watch Drake

Having never seen Degrassi, I don’t know much about Drake, a/k/a Aubrey Graham’s history in portraying Jimmy Brooks on the popular Canadian teenage drama. But there’s no question it represents a weird hip hop origin story. Even more unexpected wasn’t so much the fact that Drake had aspirations to be a rapper; it’s not like that was an unheard of phenomenon in the world of celebrities. The surprising result was that Drake was actually…well, he was really good. So good, he piqued the interest of Lil Wayne, signed a deal, and went on to rap alongside some of the best in the game (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, et al.). It wasn’t long before the unexpected rap star was being touted as the next big thing, all leading up to the release his official debut LP, Thank Me Later, which was released almost one month ago.

Well, surprise! Thank Me Later isn’t very good, at least in my opinion. The listless and redundant-sounding songs seem to fade in and out of each other, many of which eschew well-crafted hooks for auto-tuned wailings or rambling, overly long choruses over the sparse and mostly unexciting sonic landscapes. In between these hooks, Drake seems to fill in the gaps with his brand of stuttered, moderately off-beat flow, cramming in words to fit rhymes or strike a punchline or lyric that reeks of over-exertion in the attempt to seem “lyrical,” while still being street enough to appeal to the masses.

There’s no question that Graham’s voice is striking in a smooth, warm, and strong manner; and in a way, his earnestness comes across as real and sincere, at times almost making up for the missteps that plague the album as a whole. His commitment, however on or off target it might be, is displayed to great effect in tracks like “Fireworks,” one of the few songs that works with its slow, ambient beat and reflective lyrics. It’s the kind of song that would have worked best as a closing bow, an earned moment after an album that took you somewhere; only Drake chooses to use it as the table setter for the whole effort, further showing how much the album, and maybe Drake, strives to be something that it isn’t. It isn’t 808s and Heartbreaks, as much as songs like “The Resistance” and “Karaoke” wish to exemplify the concept. And it isn’t Tha Carter IV, as much as songs like “Up All Night” or “Fancy” may want to play off the best side of flossy, dumbed down rap. But hey, “Over” is a pretty awesome track, I’ll give it that much.

So the album wasn’t my cup of tea (as I’ll show later, plenty of people loved it, so it’s not like my opinion is definitive). But I’m more interested in what Drake’s initial effort represents: a mainstream “pop-rap” album created by a self-proclaimed “hip hop head — an unreconstructed backpack rapper’” who grew up on Tribe Called Quest and touts his favorite emcee as Phonte, of indie darlings group Little Brother.

Generally, a “backpacker” is a term from the ’80s and early ’90s used to describe NYC urban culture kids who wore backpacks to hold their spray paint cans and other tagging paraphernalia. Sometime in the late ’90s with the rise of the underground movement, it came to be used as a term describing any hip hop fan who only listened to underground hip hop, exemplified by the early fans of acts like Company Flow, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, and the like. Sometime towards the end of the decade, the term began to take a derogatory nature, used to describe fans who ONLY listened to indie acts, refusing to even acknowledge the popular existence of rap; many of whom were white suburbanite kids who grew up during hip hop’s boom in the 1990s.

Drake’s musical pedigree unquestionably falls into this era, born in 1986 and spending his formative years in a period when indie rap was peaking during a time when rap music was always in the popular spotlight. Regarding the racial aspects of the backpacker aesthetic, Drake grew up a half-black/half-Jewish kid, splitting time between two cities: one, Toronto, a city whose underground rap scene developed its own brand of flossy yet lyrically gifted and indie-approved acts like Choclair, Saukrates and Kardinall Offishall, exploded during the same era (Choclair, Saukrates); and two, Memphis, one of the main scenes that helped to formulate the Southern rap blueprint giving way to the Southern rap boom that his eventual benefactor, Lil Wayne, was very much a large part.

All the elements were there for Drake to develop into what he eventually became: an artist with a strong sense of commercial awareness, coupled with a social and self-conscious mindstate. He was both anchored by a dedication to rap’s roots, while also somewhat standing apart from the insular community of rap’s urban culture due to his location, privileged youth, and racial identity. In a way, it makes complete sense for Drake’s Thank Me Later to sound as it does: confused, flickering from club banger to somber, introspective navel-gazing; an effort to create something new, but still shackled to a musical sensibility that rests in the footsteps of those before, sometimes veering into mimickry.

There’s a lot of hate out there for Drake’s new album. Hell, there’s a lot of hate out there for Drake, period; whether it’s the fact that the dude from Degrassi is now rappin’ with Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, or the infamous Blackberry “freestyle” that had Drake reading lyrics off his phone while rhyming at Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show, or from close-minded rap fans who believe that a rapper has to fit a certain mold to be considered true to the game.

And sure, some of the criticism is warranted, but most of it is misdirected negativity rooted in an anachronistic view to what rap music is inevitably going to become. I can’t help but be fascinated by what Drake represents for the future: already christened as one of the avatars of the post-gangster modern emcee image, Drake seems more concerned with creating pop music steeped in rap’s sensibilties; and as much as Thank Me Later may sound like a normal rap album, the place it comes from and the current landscape of popular rap music makes me wonder if this is not so much an album that fails to be a good rap album, but rather strives to be something that’s one step beyond rap, as flawed an effort it might be. You can’t say that Drake didn’t try to create something different with this album; and in an age where pop rap arguably sounds…well, tired, Drake deserves some respect for creating pop music that isn’t simply another obnoxious, forgettable, hook-heavy, mindless rap single about guns, hoes and booze. And just because I don’t like itdoesn’t mean Thank Me Later isn’t getting a lot of love out there either. The LP sold 447K in its first week, and entered Billboard as the number one album on the R&B/HipHop and Rap albums chart. Since then, the album has been certified gold, and has been favorably reviewed by critics at major media sites like The AV Club, Paste Magazine, Village Voice, Spin and Vibe.

Most telling in Drake’s current place in the music scene is the surprisingly positive review Thank Me Later received from Pitchfork, an indie music site notoriously fickle about the hip hop acts it favors. There, Ryan Dombol gave the record a stellar 8.4 rating, praising it with a particularly interesting statement:

As much as rap is built on artful navel-gazing, it’s also founded in struggle. And just as Drake’s dramatically exposed selfishness is unique to hip-hop, so are his adversities. He grew up in an affluent Toronto suburb and was graced with everything but a functional pair of parents, who split when he was three. Like Kanye West before him, Drake vies for superstardom while embracing his non-drug-dealing, non-violent, non-dire history– one that connects with most rap fans in a completely reasonable way.

The backpackers of Drake’s era carried mixtapes and music collections with them everywhere they went, clutching on to these musical artifacts as if their lives depended on it. Now, we live in an age where music is disposable, lost in a cloud marked in mp3s on our laptops and ipods. Music, hip hop in particular, is increasingly antiseptic, even cold or cynical in a way that many of its current fans, having grown up in the ’90s, may not connect with in the way that more personable acts (like A Tribe Called Quest and the like, one of Drake’s major influences) used to be. And there’s something earnest, relatable, and well … real, in Drake’s music, as pop as it may be. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t keep us at an arm’s length, and is unapologetic in making music so influenced by its predecessors to the point where its derivativeness is earnest rather than sinister; so lost in its own sense of personal reflection and misguided drive that we, in our ever-increasingly voyeuristic society, are compelled to watch and engage with.

Say what you will about Thank Me Later; Lord knows I don’t have that much praise to say about it. But I know that I’m willing to give Drake another chance before writing him off as another flossy, boring popular rap industry creation (paging Mims?). He may not make the greatest rap album ever, but I truly believe he’s going to make something special by the time he’s done. It might not be rap as we have known it, but it may be the rap we come to know as we, the casual fans and the backpackers, stride into the future together, intrinsically linked whether we like it or not.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: The Roots, “How I Got Over”

The Roots have never put out a bad album. Obviously, some are better than others — 1999′s Things Fall Apart is regarded as the standard-bearer and 2004′s The Tipping Point was something of a low point — but few hip-hop acts have managed The Roots’ longevity at all, let alone their stunning consistency.

Conversely, The Roots also haven’t managed to attain the crossover appeal other much less worthy hip-hop acts have managed with relative ease. How I Got Over, the band’s ninth full-length studio album, finally holds that potential in light of the increased visibility ?uestlove, Black Thought and the group have attained through nightly appearances as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It’s doing well. It debuted around number 7 on Amazon, just behind two of the rappers who have attained that crossover appeal I mentioned: Eminem and Drake.

This album is a good one, maybe the best in their discography, for new listeners to jump on with, partially because it documents the band crawling out of the pretty deep, dark hole of anger of their previous two albums. Those records, Game Theory and Rising Down, are excellent in their own right, but their moody subject matter (on the former, ennui about the war in Iraq, and on the latter, racial tension) made the records something of an intellectual exercise once you got past the booming drums and catchy hooks of initial listens. As Andre 3000 might say, they presented a stack of questions with no answers.

How I Got Over doesn’t dumb down the content as some would suggest is the key to gaining mainstream appeal. Black Thought and a large cohort of guest emcees including former Little Brother member Phonte, Dice Raw and Peedi Peedi are just as astute and insightful with their rhymes as ever. The difference, rather, is in the mood. Opening tracks “Walk Alone,” “Dear God 2.0″ and “Radio Daze” continue the existential dread theme of previous albums, but the next track, “Now or Never” starts a thematic shift that plays through the rest of the album and is most deftly stated in the record’s title track. Yes, there is plenty of bad in the world. And there’s a lot you can’t change. But if you let your worries and your fears stop you from doing the good you can, you’ve done nothing. It’s a simple idea, but it’s stated beautifully, and something people probably need to hear right now.

If you’ve ever read the liner notes of a Roots album, you may have noticed that they number their songs sequentially from album to album (this record includes songs 143 to 156). It’s a little unusual, but it works perfectly for the band, as their body of work has been something of a 17-year-long stream of consciousness. They way their previous albums flow into this one, and the dour attitude of those records is essentially resolved with a new sense of purpose at the end of How I Got Over simply seems of a piece. Even the cover art depicts the arc — Game Theory displayed an ominous game of hangman, Rising Down a sinister and dark cartoon showing the perspective of racists scared of some black menace. The cover of How I Got Over shows a diverse group of silhouettes striding with purpose toward a light. And it’s hard to come away from this album not feeling similarly enlightened.

You thought: It’s going to stay on your iPod for a long time to come.

Self-Titled Eponymous: The Wackness and Creating the 2000s Hip Hop Aesthetic

The Wackness

If you’ve ever seen Jonathan Levine’s 2008 film The Wackness, it’s both comical and sorta sad how easy it is to create an aesthetic representative of the 1990s, at least in a hip hop sense. The coming of age story followed Luke, a marijuana dealer, as he spent the summer after graduating high school pursuing the girl of his dreams, dealing with his family’s financial troubles, and consulting with his psychiatrist/customer, Dr. Squires, about his growing depression and malaise towards his place in life.

Luke, like most NYC kids in those days, was also a huge hip hop head, and the movie’s depiction of the blistering heat of NY combined with Luke’s disenchantment used staple ’90s hip hop as the backdrop for Luke’s journey from isolated desperation to hopeful strength. And weirdly, the music used in the movie, from the emergence of Notorious B.I.G.’s defiant statement of desperation, Ready to Die, to Luke’s dormant idealism shining through in his touting of acts like The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, sorta makes sense. The journey of hip hop, coming off of the golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s, was one of triumphalism in its newfound commercial success, as much as it was a reaction to the reality of what that success would bring. You need look no further than 1997 to see the reality that the culture’s success had wrought, in the deaths of two greats and the ushering in of a new era that would change not only the public’s perception of hip hop in the popular sense, but also in the way that artists and industry professionals saw themselves.

Watching The Wackness (which in my personal opinion is a good and highly recommended, but undeniably flawed movie) made me think what the musical aesthetic of the 2000s would be, when we finally look back and see our culture for what it really was. Being that 2010 marks the end of the decade (semantic arguments about when the decade actually starts/stops aside), we must first examine where hip hop was when the decade actually began. I’ve spoken about the state of mainstream rap, but on the other side of the genre, the independent movement was coming into a more stable, and economically viable state with bigger, more powerful indie houses like Rhymesayers (1995), Rakwus (1996), Stones Throw (1996), and later Definitive Jux (1999) all coming into their own towards the end of the decade.

The most lasting result of hip hop’s commercial success was the clear delineation of indie vs. major label stylings, as the early 2000s brought the mp3 digital revolution, giving widespread access to all acts without the need for major label marketing or corporate-backed PR exposure. The early glut of independent acts that could consistently release a high-quality product was bolstered by the rise of the Internet, allowing smaller acts to find a wider audience; and more importantly, allowing smaller acts to earn a living based solely around touring and the development of indie scenes in almost every major or college city.

As the 2000s dawned, major labels were still pushing big event albums in pursuit of what was still a very emergent Billboard rap single hit. The early 2000s saw the release of Outkast’s Stankonia (2000), Jay-Z’s Blueprint (2001), Eminem’s The Eminem Show (2002), 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003), and Kanye West’s College Dropout (2004). Stepping away from the loop-sampled bedrock style production of the ’90s by acts like DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee, hip hop’s general aesthetic seeemed to be progressing in two directions those days: either the sped-up vocal sample over soulful funk tapestries made famous by Mr. West himself, but also 9th Wonder, Madlib, and Jay Dee; or the drum-machine heavy, bouncey style influenced mainly by the rise of the Southern rap movement that ushered in an era of crunk, Lil’ Jon, and the continued success of acts like Mannie Fresh, DJ Paul, Jermaine Dupri and other southern producers whose sound would become a premium in the years to come.

In the same way that the late ’80s/early ’90s hip hop culture documented its representative youth culture so accurately, the ’00s hip hop continued the tradition, but was now speaking on behalf of a completely changed youth fanbase. Having grown up with rap, many kids had foregone the drumkit or electric guitar in place of turntables and a vinyl colleciton. The rise of crate-digging DJs as a kind of withdrawn, isolated existence of DIY savants would come to influence wide-ranging acts from Jay-Z and Linkin Park to bands like Grizzly Bear or XX. The early ’00s saw the rise of DJs in a way that no one could have really predicted, with a new focus on vinyl preservation and treasuring hunting for the perfect jazz samples to not only use in live performance, but also to create complex, sample-heavy musical compositions in the vein of DJ Shadow, Madlib, or RJD2. It was unclear where hip hop’s general sound would eventually end up, with acts incorporating everything from Casio keyboards to live instrumentation; and there was something satisfying about seeing the artists who grew up on the building blocks of rap’s history to create a new pastiche of ambient, acid jazz influenced soundscapes, which would eventually become the basis for not only indie hip hop, but also non-rap indie acts in general.

At the same time, the youth generational culture was living in the mire of the Bush years not long removed from the tragedy of 9/11, still reeling from the delay of forming a cultural identity to deal with national tragedy. The general malaise of the ’90s gave way to a sort of motivated apathy, a pro-active need to simply do something, as meaningless as it may have seemed. As a result, many younger artists and producers simply set out to party. In a way, it was only appropriate that party music’s first big shot came out of the South, a region that was removed from the national spotlight of 2001′s tragedy and further unmoved by the coming economic crisis, as many of its areas remained economically depressed through the ’90s and into the ’00s.

What resulted was an aggressive, loud, and largely glossed-over version of the grittier, sloppier ’90s version of Southern rap, only this time helmed by artists who had cut their teeth on rap music that begged for more than just a banging beat and an easy hook. Gone were the lazy pop-funk samples or militaristic Bomb Squad-style beats restricted by what was already there on the record; in their place stood musicians who grew up in an age where everyone seemed to know how to play a musical instrument, backed by advances in musical technology that allowed the music to match the imagination.

It’s hard to know where all of it came to a head, resembling some form of musical identity. Maybe it was Jay-Z’s comeback in 2006, maybe it was Kanye’s collaboration with Jon Brion for Late Registration in 2005, the rise of acts like M.I.A. and the reggaeton/dancehall craze that took root in or about 2007. But towards the end of the decade, hip hop opened up to a bigger, broader sound. The Southern craze had died down to a large degree, leaving behind a non-regional, almost non-subgenre-specific style of hip hop further muddied by the mash-up craze that had taken the nation by storm. Here was a genre that was not only trying to party, but was making music in a hip hop aesthetic, only using non-hip hop elements, such as classic rock, soul, and modern day electronica.

Strangely, hip hop’s in kind of a reset mode as we head into 2010. The underground is still bubbling, but gone are the blow-up successes that marked the early decade with major crossover appeal. The mainstream is still bending to the whims of hip hop’s latest trend (no one can deny that the bulk of non-band based pop stars make music that is largely influenced, if not directly made by hip hop producers), but strangely missing from that music is the rapper. And unlike The Wackness, we can’t necessarily point to seminal releases like a Ready to Die that would evoke an entire aesthetic.

I do know that in my opinion, the most appropriate and timely addition to the 2000s canon is Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” It’s an anthemic stadium song, built upon a history steeped in hip hop tradition, elevated by a young, virtuosic artist whose sensibility is a callback to the old soul songs of yesteryear. It’s a song that’s best played at a party, not because you want to party to forget, but you want to celebrate to remember. And it’s a love letter to the city that suffered the most this decade in a way that affected all of us, as we all look to the future ready to have a good time, but this time, in a more exciting, and perhaps more meaningful way.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Devo, “Something for Everybody”

I don’t know what it is, but it seems like just about every time a band takes any sort of extended absence from studio work, there’s this weight hanging over their return album. Some burden of proof the band feels like it has to live up to. Some overwhelming need to prove relevance.

That seems to be especially true for Devo, a trailblazing band releasing its first album in 20 years. Unfortunately, Mark Mothersbaugh’s group seems to have mistaken a sad adherence to cliche and cultural reference from the last five years or so as relevance.

Something for Everybody is an apt title for Devo’s new record; the band seems, for maybe the first time in their careers, overeager to please. This is not the group of iconoclasts that released Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! 30-plus years ago for music nerds (and regular nerds) to buy. These clearlyare some guys who have mellowed with age and seem content putting out a record that sounds a whole lot like their previous material, but with a song of which the lyrics are dedicated entirely to the “Don’t tase me bro!” guy.

The cover of the album is a woman eating a variation on the band’s famous helmets from the “Whip It” video. It’s maybe an unintentional depiction of what the band has done. It’s eaten itself, and produced something that sounds unmistakably Devo-like in immediate sound, only with little of the personality that made Devo what it was.

You thought: It was pretty dire.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: The Black Keys, “Brothers”

I was a late comer to The Black Keys. I heard stuff for years and years about how The Rubber Factory was an amazing record or some show they played was so great. Hell, I even heard their stuff in all kinds of stuff I like (in particular the first episode of Eastbound and Down).

And boy, was I wrong not to listen to them. They really are a terrific band (a two-piece at that). But I was lucky enough to finally get into them with this record, the best of their career so far.

For the past decade or so, The Keys have done some really awesome blues-rock, with a little detour into Delta-tinged psychadelia with 2008′s Catch and Release, but Brothers adds a soulful element that really elevates the material beyond the White Stripes comparisons the duo has engendered since both bands’ debuts.

It’s kind of hard to describe what makes Brothers so good — one of the best albums of a year that’s already packed with great ones — other than to say once you’ve listened to it, you want to hear it again. And again. And again.

I’ve heard some complaints that this album’s biggest downfall is its length — and at 15 songs and 70 or so minutes, it is longer than most pop and rock albums of the last 15 years or so are — but when the material is as good as the first two singles, “Next Girl” and “Tighten Up,” and it really all is, it’s a pleasure to hear two such talented musicians take their time.

I think I’m going to listen to it again.

You thought: It’s probably the album to beat for your top spot this year.