CAN I KICK IT? JANELLE MONÁE DIRTY COMPUTER

Janelle Monáe’s newest album, Dirty Computer, sounds like liberation. Above all, for herself, the self-declared pansexual black woman that has starred in hit big-budget movies and made news at award shows. It’s been ten years since she started making music, so this latest project exudes a confidence and even a level of happiness that seems to have been amassed during that time, finally reaching a point of lush pop eruption. Dirty Computer can and should be seen as a statement piece, but it’s also a fun experience to which fans won’t help but be able to dance. Monáe sounds freer here than she has up to this point in her music.

The “emotion picture” that accompanies the album is nearly 50 minutes of social commentary, which would have conventional wisdom suggest that this album would be dark and deeply emotional, something more akin to Frank Ocean’s last album. The video depicts a surveillance state where queer people and people of color are hunted down for noncompliance. Police stop them while they drive and beat them and arrest them at their own parties. But Monáe’s love for her musical influences is far stronger than the nods her director makes. Keith Haring, David Bowie, and Prince ooze out this album like playful sexuality in the “Make Me Feel” video. The entire thing is gleeful and youthful in the traditional sense. The songwriting is precise, even if it isn’t always perfect. The reckless and joyful “Screwed” is a refreshing embodiment of the devil-may-care nihilism occasionally experienced by minorities (in the case of the Dirty Computer emotion picture, queer people of color living in a surveillance state). Whatever one’s personal views are of the current state of affairs in the world and the plight of others, it’s difficult to not feel the funk and technical prowess of such an impressive bassline on an album that already bows to George Clinton and Chic.

It is difficult to separate Dirty Computer from the larger narrative of resistance across the arts today. This album is certainly a personal one, probably Monáe’s most personal record to date, but there is an inherent distancing that takes place while listening to this album. With songs largely speaking to “we” and “us” (i.e., very specific minorities) instead of  “I” (i.e., Monáe), even when that “we” includes the “I,”it’s hard for the audience en masse to completely relate with the auteur. This all-encompassing “we” is part of Monáe’s goal, however. “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,” Monáe told Rolling Stone. “This album is for you. Be proud.”

Not everyone will necessarily feel as much empathy for the social plight of the likes of Janelle Monáe, but one of Dirty Computer‘s strengths is that you don’t have to. There is much here to enjoy musically. Her Prince acolyte status is often accompanied by songwriting that crafts choruses that could slide into Taylor Swift songs, a feat that will surely provide the album with widespread likeability. Even individuals who don’t appreciate artistic agendas or socio-political aggrandization can enjoy listening to this album, which makes puts Monáe in a different artist class than many of her peers.

CAN I KICK IT? J. COLE RELEASES KOD

There is a sort of mystique that surrounds J. Cole that seems present in few other hip-hop artists. He is not quite considered the rhyme titan that is Kendrick Lamar or the hit juggernaut that is Drake, and yet he is revered by fellow musicians, hip-hop veterans, and fans alike as something of a torchbearer and a standard for other artists. To be sure, his level of creative control and independence is something more artists should strive for, especially considering that the rap game has traditionally been one of money and respect. He has accomplished much on his own that far too many artists of similar creative prowess and rhyme talent have not, so there is something to be said about Cole’s ability to navigate the musical landscape of our time on his own. However, with that much freedom and with the flashes that he has shown at times as a wordsmith, it’s hard to hear an album like KOD and not be slightly disappointed.

Yes, the title track of J. Cole’s new album broke records for the most number of streams on the first day of its release. Yes, plenty of buzz has accompanied the release of this album and plenty of praise has been heaped upon it by other musical acts, and it certainly isn’t without merit. However, there are times when Cole reverts to shallow materialism or hook repetition which leave the listener feeling unsatisfied. Take “ATM” for example, where Jermaine begins the track by rapping “Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it” six times before half-yelling, “I know that it’s difficult/I’m stackin’ this paper, it’s sort of habitual/I blow the residual/And f****n” yo b***h like its part of my ritual.” Those aren’t exactly the lyrics of a man who has built a career on humble brags and apparent wokeness.

The production is much more minimal than his last project here, mostly to keep the focus on Cole’s rapping. That’s not a bad decision in and of itself, but the rhymes often seem reduced also. On “Motiv8,” the chorus literally consists of the following:

Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (mo-)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), moti-get money
Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (mo-)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), moti-get money

This kind of songwriting shows up all over KOD though, and at 12 tracks long minus an interlude and intro, that doesn’t leave as much room for rhyme writing or storytelling, which have traditionally been part of what has endeared him to fans. Listening to J. Cole usually involves listening to strong doses of absolutist arguments, but the anti-addiction arguments filling up KOD are simple, obvious, and often self-righteous. The sentiment might be more powerful if it wasn’t so in-your-face, but the album cover itself states that this album is meant to discourage the kind of addictive behavior that is spawned from the use of social media, drugs, or a trap lifestyle. In the end, the album comes off like a step-father telling his wife’s teenaged kids that they should do something because he said so.

Judging by the populous’ reaction to the album, however, fans seem not to mind this kind of chorus writing. Some may even prefer it as it makes songs easy to remember and perhaps easier to vibe out to, which seems like a great concern to a newer generation of hip-hop fans. Indeed, there are a few songs here that can be considered bangers to many. Coming from an artist that exudes a lack of concern for radio play or trendiness, however, KOD comes off too simple and lackluster.

CAN I KICK IT? CARDI B DEBUTS WITH INVASION OF PRIVACY

After dropping one of the biggest and most unexpectedly successful songs of 2017 in “Bodak Yellow” and a few mixtapes, Cardi B released her official debut Invasion of Privacy. What’s even more unexpected is that it might be the best album whose tracks you’ll hear on FM radio that’s been released this year. Against whatever the odds and expectations were from doubters, naysayers, haters, or just head-scratchers that were puzzled by her meteoric rise to fame, Cardi B has catapulted herself into the upper echelon of contemporary rappers. God bless the American dream.

Perhaps Belcalis Almanzar’s career path is not, in fact, strange for 2017/2018. Cardi’s former type of workplace has been a not-so-secret meeting place for hip-hop artists for decades now, and the ubiquity of social media platforms has produced stars in all facets of consumable media. Indeed, as Ivan Ego stated in Pixar’s Ratatouille, “A great [artist] can come from anywhere.” What remains surprising, especially to this critic, is the now-apparent difference between the talent of Cardi B and others artists that might have recently made waves in the hip-hop genre. Not only does Invasion of Privacy prove that she is an emcee that can hold her own weight on a track featuring big name artists, but that her songwriting and even singing chops are better than many contemporary hip-hop artists whose careers and notoriety began long before hers.

From the title track (silly concept for the hook and title aside), Cardi B makes it known that her success is not a fluke and this album is going to prove it like a punch from Adonis Creed into Ricky Conlan’s mouth. The production is not just lush, but Cardi takes unexpected risks with her sound from track to track that pay off immensely. The opener is dark, epic, and eerie, lining up opponents and laying them down with louboutins to the throat. Her voice makes all of her braggadocio interesting, making every line sound like a snap. Because of this, even the simplest of her lines seem interesting.

Of course, the tracks are that much stronger when she inserts humor and cleverness into her lines. Often is the case that she finds a complex idea and presents in a simple way that the current generation of hip-hop fans can not only consume but recite at the top of their lungs. On “She Bad,” she raps, “Write a verse while I twerk, I wear Off-White at church/Prolly make the preacher sweat/Read the Bible, Jesus wept.”

It’s not an accomplishment in and of itself to become more pithy with every release, but Almanzar is becoming a complete emcee before the world’s eyes. Her flows are tightening up and she’s started employing word association as clever as mixtape Lil Wayne (“I came here to ball, is you nuts?”). Add those to an impressive expanding range (including R&B diva-level vocal prowess), and the Bronx has itself its best artists in quite a few years. She covers quite a bit of ground lyrically and sonically, dressing down bummy boyfriends, considering her journey from pissy elevators to walking red carpets in designer gowns, becoming vulnerable when listeners least expect it, and rallying twerkers everywhere to spontaneously dance for temporal gains. On “Best Life,” featuring Chance the Rapper, she rehashes early career controversies and remixes an iconic Tupac poem, flipping it into an origin story. “I been broke my whole life, I have no clue what to do with these racks.” She raps with the transparency of someone who has shared her most intimate life details with strangers on the internet, but all of it is amalgamating into something that looks like the specialized Instagram feed of Canon®.

Cardi B said in a tweet-answering fest for GQ that she wasn’t trying to be the next queen of rap, that she just wanted to make music she liked and make a lot of money. It may be hard to supplant the popularity or reach the same levels of success as the likes of Nicki Minaj, but barring a sophomore slump, Cardi might find her name in that conversation soon.

CAN I KICK IT? CZARFACE MEETS MEETS METAL FACE

Czarface has never been shy, apologetic, or cryptic about their mission as a hip-hop group: saving the genre they love most. At least, that’s what Inspectah Deck told HipHopDX in 2013. Along with his compatriots 7L and Esoteric, Deck’s unwavering nostalgia for the good-old-days of this kind of music has led them to become Czarface, a collective superhero avatar. His mission is one that seems to be found among an increasing number of old school rap enthusiasts and hip-hop heads that bemoan the current state of the culture they hold near and dear to their hearts. Whether or not most people agree with that sentiment, they can’t accuse Czarface of not trying: they’ve released three full-length albums in the last five years. While these projects have in no wise been groundbreaking, they have provided a steady diet of fun for listeners seeking for low-stakes fun hip-hop full of dusty samples, silly skits, and densely-packed rhymes. But as one of the skits on Czarface Meets Metal Face reminds us, every hero needs a villain. And wouldn’t you know it, they enlisted the talents of the most famous hip-hop villain of them all.

No one is more qualified than MF DOOM (the ‘MF’ is apparently back) to fill a collaborative role on a Czarface project. It’s been a while since this much output has been heard by the doctor, a man who was once the living embodiment of the synergy of hip-hop and comic book culture, but that’s understandable considering how the last decade of his life has treated him (he lived in London after being denied entrance into the U.S.A. and his teenage son passed away last year). Perhaps it is due to these factors that he has often sounded bored or lethargic on his guest appearances, even slurring his words at times. His work with artists like Ghostface, Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, Cannibal Ox, and even PRhyme signify a certain level of prolificacy, but it’s almost as if he was searching for someone or something to completely draw out his inner villain.

While Czarface does manage to coax out a significant amount of energy from DOOM, it doesn’t seem to be quite the group to fully engage him. There are tracks like “Nautical Depth,” which see a sprightly DOOM delivering lyrics that show flashes of his once razor-sharpness (“No friendly warfare, this ain’t wrestling/There’s nothing staged over here, you’re trippin’, mescaline”). Even tracks like “Captain Crunch” sound quintessentially DOOM-ish, maybe from his Danger Doom days. Unfortunately, the majority of the album doesn’t see him laying down top-tier stanzas. “Forever People” is clearly meant to be a skills showcase, but none of its verses are outstanding: DOOM is solid but not stupendous, Esoteric lays down more references than solid punchlines, and Inspectah Deck’s verse, while dynamic, feels too basic (“I stay woke like seven cups of coffee”). On “Don’t Spoil It,” Deck stuffs his bars with references to classic rap albums, but the track feels more like a gimmick than clever or original. And Esoteric often sounds like he is attempting a JAY-Z impersonation, though a passable one to be sure. Lines like “My interest, fly Benzes,” certainly don’t help.

The album’s highlight comes on the most modern on all of the tracks “Phantoms,” where DOOM begins with a competent verse, Esoteric shows up with a bundle of energy, and Deck spits as furiously as he can. The real star of the song, and maybe the entire album, however, is Open Mic Eagle, who effortlessly raps circles around his hosts.

But it’s hard to knock this album as sounding too much like a period piece because that is so clearly the intention. The Czarface fanbase is select and specific, and the emcees have always spoken directly to that audience. It’s clear that they value familiarity more than progression. If someone was looking for a hip-hop album that sounded like it could have been released 10-15 years ago, Czarface Meets Metal Face might fit the bill. However, if that same person was looking for a reminder of Inspectah Deck or MF DOOM’s greatness, he or she would be better off sticking with the classics.

OUR FAVORITE TRACKS FROM EA SPORTS FIFA 18

It’s an often overlooked but very important part of any game really. The soundtrack has the ability to make or break even the best of Triple A titles and FIFA has long been a shining example of that. FIFA’s soundtracks have become so legendary that certain songs are now synonymous with specific iterations. Consequently the likes of Fat Boy Slim, LCD Soundsystem, Blur and even Chumbawamba are the direct soundtrack to countless memories. This year, FIFA 18 boasts a stout playlist from some of modern musics heavy hitters and even a few gems from icons. Here is our favorite tracks from EA Sports FIFA 18.

 

1. Mean Demeanor by Run The Jewels : Killer Mike and El-P give us more rapid-fire, no-nonesense bars from their ever beastly collab. Past FIFA titles rarely featured hip hop acts, especially from the states. On 18 that has changed and we like it.

 

2. Energy by Avelino ( feat. Stormzy & Skepta): Some more high energy hip-hop from three of the UK’s finest. Grime is exploding and has become synonymous with the game like never before. A prefect track to get fired up before slamming an opponent. 

 

3. Deadcrush by alt-J: The Boys from Leeds are masters of blending genre’s that shouldn’t really blend well. This track is an example of the aforementioned as Joe Newman’s quirky, folk vocals ease over jumping, industrial drums and synth.

 

4. Active by Sneakbo feat. Active: Earlier we spoke about the grime resurgence and it’s place within football, especially in the UK. This legendary link up features two of the industry’s long time torch bearers spitting bars, plain and simple.

 

5. Dagombas en Tamale by Residente: Residente has slayed many a track over the years with the mighty Calle 13. His rhythmic flow suits this frenetic track perfectly which serves to round out the Latin American vibes.

 

6. Dangerous by The xx: This a nice, refreshingly uptempo direction for the notoriously moody xx. This track adds a nice dose of dance beneath those trademark silky smooth vocals. Not every FIFA song needs to be a an “Eye of the Tiger” call to arms, this one proves it.

 

7. Heart Attack by Older feat De La Soul: A funky baseline and synth already give this cut a throwback vibe. Add verses from the all mighty De La Soul and you’ve got killer retro driven gold. More fun uplifting goodness for one of FIFA’s best soundtrack in recent years.

 

8. Something For Your M.I.N.D. by Superorganism: A microcosm of footy and FIFA this multinational eight piece band first made waves via Spotify where one of their songs caught Frank Oceans attention. Quirky, odd, unique and brilliant this a fitting cut is shining example of the broad versatility if FIFA’s sonic arsenal. 

 

9. Stay With Me by The Amazons: It’s a fact, the biggest and most entertaining league in the world is in England. Thus it makes sense to have a playlist full of British artists. The Amazons are your quintessential British rock band and ‘Stay With Me’ is a quintessential British rock song. Simple and undeniably great.

 

10. Get Lost by Washed Out: Finishing off the list we have a Stones Throw rookie but a Chillwave vet. Washed Out slays this synth driven dico/dance track with haunting vocals. The pulsating tempo breeds focus and adrenaline. Two things we all need when diving into a heated FIFA sesh.