PB #8: Earl Sweatshirt

Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt | I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

Earl Sweatshirt is, incredibly, the only relevant active rapper from Los Angeles hip hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. When OFWGKTA burst onto the scene in 2010, their combination of shock lyrics, juvenility, and dark production helped them ride on a huge wave of hype. Earl was the runt of the group: the rap prodigy, only 16 years old, whose flows and talent were unmatched within the collective. On his sophomore album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl finally fits into a specific sound, and it finally feels like he has weight within the world of hip hop.

On his debut LP Doris, Earl made the decision to essentially remove melodic hooks from his music. The result was a grimy, varied, complete hip hop record that touched on topics like adolescence, life in L.A., and issues within his family. It was one of my favorite albums of that year, and included “Hive”, an absolute stunner of a track which somehow contains more braggadocio than most Rae Sremmurd bangers.

I Don’t Like Shit is much more focused, and as a result, limited in scope. The album flies by at under 30 minutes, but those 30 minutes are as hard-hitting as a traditional rap record can get. On the first single, “Grief”, Earl wallows in his own sorrow and anger, allowing himself to indulge in his frustrations. He speaks on drug usage more than he has ever before (“Chasing dragons … scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop”). This is the legitimate moment of clarity for Earl; he’s more comfortable than he’s ever been. Earl sounds confident, angry, and abrasive on this record, and is more of a man than he ever was on albums like Bastard.

Later on, Earl enhances this idea as a confident young MC who’s found his place within the world of rap. “Mantra” has more boasts and flexing than any Earl song to date. Earl’s always been one to limit his guest spots, and I Don’t Like Shit is no different. New York rapper Dash bursts onto the scene on “Grown Ups”, creating interesting overlaps and back-and-forths between Earl and himself. Vince Staples, perhaps Earl’s closest associate, absolutely slays on album closer “Wool” (“Soon as I catch the vibe, tell ’em to fetch the hearse”), as we’ve come to expect. Earl produces the vast majority of his own music, and the beats help shape what Earl’s sound is. “Grief”‘s lurching drum scrapes and lo-fi chords compliment the lyrics, as most of the album does.

While some tracks are forgettable, and Na’kel’s guest verse is amateurish and hard to listen to, this is Earl Sweatshirt’s most focused effort yet. Despite being the son of a UCLA professor and African tribal leader, Earl just wants to make rap music. He does a pretty damn good job of it.

Score: 8/10

Five songs I’m listening to this week:

Earl Sweatshirt | “Wool” (feat. Vince Staples)

jamie xx | “Loud Places” (feat. Romy)

Sufjan Stevens | “Should Have Known Better”

Shura | “2Shy”

FKA twigs | “Glass & Patron”

PB #7: Kendrick Lamar

Album Review: Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp A Butterfly

Every n**** is a star.” These are the first sounds the listener hears, and the first words spoken on Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore LP To Pimp A Butterfly. This phrase, taken from blaxploitation artist Boris Gardiner, can be thought of as a thesis statement for this incredibly wide-ranging and versatile album. Kendrick Lamar has grown as a lyricist, as an intellectual, and as a celebrity. He is no longer a “good kid” in a “m.a.a.d city”. He’s a transcendent hip hop artist, and one that will be remembered as the greatest of his era.

The main themes inhabiting To Pimp A Butterfly involve an introspective look at Kendrick’s experiences as a budding celebrity. He wonders about his responsibilities, contradicts himself, and makes many definitive statements about the state of black life in the United States. While somebody could dismiss this as a simple “black power” album involving conscious rap saying things like “yeah! get the kids out of the ghetto! let’s all live in harmony!!” a la Lupe Fiasco, the topics Kendrick explores go far beyond this narrow view. As he spits on “Hood Politics”: “I don’t give a fuck about no politics in hip hop … ain’t nothing but a new flu of Democrips and Rebloodlicans”. It’s enlightening for the listener who may not have connections to traditionally black neighborhoods or communities; enlightening one who might complain about gentrification and police violence but is unsure exactly how or why these issues arise.

Kendrick was criticized by some last summer for his release of “i” (one of my favorite tracks of 2014), an Isley brother-sampling uplifting piece of pop rap. Many thought the bright guitars and relatable hook (“I love myself!”) were corny and a departure from his socially conscious trap-influenced debut, good kid, m.a.a.d cityThese critics’ fears should be put to rest on To Pimp A Butterfly. In fact, “i” has a direct counterpart on the album, “u”, which is perhaps Kendrick’s darkest track to date. Rarely can somebody make what’s really a simple love story sound so earth-shatteringly devastating. Halfway through the song, Kendrick switches to his “good kid” flow and forces his voice to crack and pop. He sounds crushed. You can practically hear the smack of his 40 ounce as he pauses to drink his sorrows away. Kendrick’s hardest-hitting work of his career appears on this record.

That isn’t to say Kendrick has completely ignored the lighter, more relaxed aspects of conscious hip hop. “For Free (Interlude)” sees Kendrick explore his newfound fame, practically ignoring flow as a saxophone plays wildly underneath him. He’s tired of buying shit for girls in an effort to sleep with them. “This dick ain’t free!” Later, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” immediately establishes itself as the definitive anti-flexing song, contrasting artists like Migos and Rae Sremmurd. Kendrick essentially scolds his peers for asking about bottle service and huge bags of weed in an attempt to impress, and he accuses them of sounding like the feds.

While the huge topical variety may be compelling in and of itself, it wouldn’t really have an impact without strong instrumentals and interesting production. Thankfully, Kendrick seems to have realized the success of his single with electro-jazz fusion producer Flying Lotus, “Never Catch Me”. Much of To Pimp A Butterfly‘s production takes cues from Flying Lotus. The entire album is supported by jazz artists; live saxophonists and pianists bring the album to life. In particular, virtuosic bassist Thundercat adds an absolute ton of beautiful, crisp bass that pulses perfectly to fit the mood. FlyLo himself shows up on the opener, “Wesley’s Theory”, which is one of the album’s highlights (a difficult task on such an excellent top-to-bottom record). Guest spots on the album aren’t wasted, either. The only well-known guest verse is Snoop Dogg on “Institutionalized”, yet his verse really acts more like a hook or chorus. Kendrick is the centerpiece, and he other rappers would only get in the way.

This isn’t good kid, m.a.a.d city. There aren’t any bangers here, no songs that will be quoted as catchphrases in the years to come. This is a thematically diverse, introspective, beautiful rap record that will be listened to and respected for years to come. I have no issues crowning it as the best hip hop album since Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; in fact, I have no problem naming this the definitive hip hop album of the last decade. Kendrick has crafted a masterpiece of an album, one that innovates and pays homage at the same time. In fact, Kendrick is probably the only artist today who could fabricate an interview with Tupac Shakur, put it on an album, and receive praise for it.

Score: 10/10

Five songs I’m listening to this week:

Kendrick Lamar | “Wesley’s Theory” (feat. Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Thundercat, and Dr. Dre)

Bleachers | “Entropy” (feat. Grimes)

Grimes | “REALiTi”

Action Bronson | “Baby Blue” (feat. Chance the Rapper)

CHVRCHES | “Dead Air”

PB #6

Artist of the Week: Ariana Grande

Miami vocalist Ariana Grande is the one truly interesting presence in mainstream pop music today. Her vocal range, strength, and clarity is completely unmatched, and it’s a legitimate treat to listen to her perform.

Grande started her music career on Broadway of all places, where she performed as Charlotte in 13. Then she was cast as Cat in Nickelodeon’s sitcom Victorious (which is legitimately funny; check it out. Not as funny as Drake & Josh though). It was clear she was a talent early on; she was by far the most popular character in Victorious, and her vocals were compared to Mariah Carey’s even back then.

Her debut album, Yours Truly, was decent, if unspectacular. The songs clearly exhibited her vocal prowess, but she wasn’t quite on the level of pop star necessary to get solid enough production to support those vocals. “The Way” was catchy, even if the guest verse from Mac Miller was cheesy. The one true highlight from that album was “Piano”, a Carey-esque pop tune that used 90s R&B harmonies in a wonderful way. “Piano” continues to be my favorite Grande track.

My Everything, Grande’s sophomore effort, established her as one of the few transcendent pop stars on mainstream radio. Smash hits like “Problem” and “Break Free” were soaring bangers with increased restraint, especially when compared to Grande’s earlier discography. “Love Me Harder” saw Grande join R&B singer/sex icon The Weeknd and helped distance Grande from her earlier, more family-friendly work. Finally, my favorite track on the record, “Why Try”, used vocals inspired by Imogen Heap to accentuate Grande’s heartbroken lyrics. My Everything is one of the strongest top-to-bottom pop albums of the past decade (even if it could use a few less guest rap verses).

The five sexiest songs on my phone

5. Autre Ne Veut | “Play By Play”

4. Ty Dolla $ign | “Or Nah” (feat. Wiz Khalifa and The Weeknd)

3. FKA twigs | “Two Weeks”

2. Rhye | “Open”

1. D’Angelo | “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”

Five songs I’m listening to this week

Tobias Jesso Jr. | “Without You”

Jack U | “Where Are U Now” (feat. Justin Bieber)

Leon Bridges | “Better Man”

Rich Homie Quan | “Have You Ever”

Carnage | “I Like Tuh” (feat. iLoveMakonnen)