Noname-Telefone: Album Review

Noname is a Chicago based rapper who has been slowly amassing a following on the back of her feature verses and singles.  Her association with Chance the Rapper and his whole crew comes through quite clearly in her moody, jazz-induced sound, but where Chance finds prowess in confidence, Noname remains dedicated to introspective subtlety.  On her first full-length mixtape, Noname delivers 10 solid tracks that showcase a lot of potential.  Her flows display a technical prowess with various features and beats allowing for a sense of contrast. Stand-out tracks come here and there with catchy hooks allowing for a lot or replay value.  The album speaks mostly about Noname’s own experiences but she also provides analysis of the state of her community and the rest of the United States.  Perhaps the project could be a bit more expansive and offer more confidence, but it is clear that Noname has created a sound and personality all her own.

“Yesterday” serves as a perfect introduction to the project.  Gospel-tinged keyboard sounds emerge from silence with Noname’s words touching on various topics without delving too deep into any individual subject matter.  The first lines speak about the unfulfilling nature of money, Noname instead electing to dream of her happy grandmother living comfortably: “and I know the money don’t really make me whole…dreams of granny in mansion and happy/The little things I need to save my soul.”  Later Noname suggests that her grandmother has passed away: “Fill the lining in the pine box/my granny fill the time slot.”  The purpose of the song is clearly to pay homage to Noname’s grandmother, however, rather than spending the entire song discussing this woman, Noname alludes to death and nostalgia throughout the song while also playing with somber undertones sonically.  For example, earlier in the song Noname mentions the loss of “Brother Mike,” who was an important community leader to many members of the Chicago hip-hop scene: “Me missing brother Mike, like something heavy.”  This helps to foster cohesion in the lyricism, while avoiding a bluntly stated theme, which adds a bit more complexity to the song.

The first dance-able single comes with “Diddy Bop.”  Noname’s words come at much faster pace over a more pronounced instrumental melody, with Cam O’bi providing the infectious hook.  Again, nostalgia comes into the equation, O’bi remembering childhood moments of growing up and dreaming about changing the world: “This sound like growing out my clothes/With stars in my pocket/dreaming ‘bout making my hood glow.”  “Reality Check” provides fantastic introspection.  Noname wonders about the freedom she has versus the freedom that was not given to her family in past generations due to slavery and feels guilty that she is struggling to put out her rap album: “my granny really was a slave for this/All your uncompleted similes and pages ripped/You know they whipped us niggas/How you afraid to rap it.”  Although Noname’s rap is relatively dark, the chorus contrasts her guilt suggesting that people have power deep inside of them, the struggle is found in releasing this power: “Don’t fear the light/That dwells deep within/You are powerful/Beyond what you imagine/Just let your light glow.”  The song provides an important message for young people.  Even though it is easy to look back to the problems that people (especially black people) faced in the past, there is still validity to the struggle and finding your way artistically is possible if release yourself from your insecurities.

Although the project is quite mellow overall, Noname’s flow helps to push the sound rhythmically.  Oftentimes, rappers who dwell in slower tempos fail to provide any linear movement, resulting in mumbling.  Noname certainly doesn’t overexert her voice, but her lightly articulated words roll off the tongue with ease.  The instrumentals operate in a similar fashion.  Even on the album’s most memorable single, “Diddy Bop,” the drums articulate a quick groove, but remain relatively laid back in terms of volume.  This blissful subtlety helps define Noname’s sound, making for a much different experience than some of the over the top rappers who have been making strides this year.

Initially, I was a bit tuned off by the project sonically and I still think there is a bit of immaturity.  The instrumental pallet is generally very bright which sometimes gives a slightly campy feel to the experience.  For example, the vocal pops at the beginning of “Sunny Duet” come across as excessively bubbly and optimistic.  Perhaps a heavier kick drum or bass line would give the song more impact.  Yet again, this is a unique quality in Noname.  If her music was a bit darker she could end up in the same category as say Kweku Collins or Earl Sweatshirt.

Telefone is certainly a solid project.  Noname has established her style and presented a couple very memorable songs.  Occasionally, the project becomes a bit campy and immature, but I anticipate that Noname’s immaturity will be ironed out as she develops further into her career.

-Donovan Burtan

Noname is a great rapper hope to see a more expansive/mature project in the future but the lyricism is there. 7/10

 

Frank Ocean-Blonde: Album Review

We could talk all day about the build-up to Blonde.  In my review of Endless, I mentioned the monumental task that Ocean had in front of him after releasing his near-instant classic Channel Orange.  Even though I was quite impressed by the haphazard brilliance of Frank’s precursor album, the idea of what the real deal would finally sound like still carried a certain tension.  Would he finally be able to stand in front of the world and deliver his next chapter or would he fall into the category of artists doomed to be reduced to their first album for the rest of time.  Let’s just say that the first beat of the album breathes an immediate sigh of relief.  “Nikes” is a perfect Frank Ocean song.  The slightly nostalgic beat emerges with wholehearted optimism.  Then Ocean returns gloriously his voice climbing up to high note.  The choice for the electronic vocal effect is perfect, hiding his new-found confidence for the first couple minutes of the song leading into the moment when Frank finally pulls off his mask fully re-entering the world as his unadulterated self.  Perhaps the album has some relatively lacking hooks, perhaps it over-emphasizes melancholy moodiness, but the return of Frank Ocean is certainly a spectacular feat.

“Ivy” follows with a much different sound.  Here, Ocean dabbles in power pop; a powerful rock melody soars over chugging guitars as nostalgic lyrics spill straightforward angst about young love: “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me.”  Guitar becomes a bit of a re-occurring theme on the record, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood adding an instrumental flare into the Frank Ocean lexicon.  “Pink+White” continues the momentum with a floating piano melody complementing another glorious baritone melody.  The song ends in a big way.  Sweeping vocals enter the space, replacing the bubbly playfulness of the beginning of the song with a much more impactful final blow. On “Solo,” Ocean seemingly draws from the classic country playbook; his intervallic vocal melody is accompanied solely by wobbling organ with optimism bleeding from every corner.  The chorus here shows a lot of maturity in Frank.  Although he has never been afraid to carry a melody alone, the belted high notes in this song showcase him at his most ambitious to date.

After pondering general coming of age, summer ideas on “Skyline, To,” Ocean creates his next massive moment on “Self Control.”  A song about the end of a summer relationship, “Self Control” begins simply, laid back beach vibes provided by the playful guitar part.  As the song progresses, the tone becomes a bit more somber leading into the ending.  A longing guitar solo looms before Ocean comes to the terms with the end of the relationship in question: “I, I, I, know you gotta leave take down some summertime.”  A chorus of Franks belt these words the wall of sound amassing an astounding emotional impact.  The second half of the record features a few more bits and pieces of ideas with more long form brilliance coming together on “White Ferrari” and “Seigfried,” before ending in ambiance with “Futura Free.”

Blonde wholly commits itself to Frank himself. Even when features come into question, Frank’s voice and personality dominate.  This is most obvious for the Kendrick Lamar feature on “Skyline, To” where Lamar is simply used to re-iterate some of the lines from the vocal melody, but in other locations features enter the space without distracting from Ocean’s work.  On “Self Control” Yung Lean and Austin Feinstein add phrases into each chorus only to further the impact of Frank’s words.  “Solo (Reprise)” is essentially an extended Andre 3000 verse, but the flow of the song fits into the album easily, ironing over the transition from the laid back beat of “Nights” to the intense distortion of “Pretty Sweet”.

In the same way that the album shifts attention to certain features without fully removing the spotlight from Ocean himself, the album also lifts ideas from classic artists to offer brief tributes.  This strategy comes into place on “Seigfried,” where Ocean lifts a vocal line from Elliot Smith, whom he credits in his art zine “Boys Don’t Cry.”  For the most part, Ocean just offers beautiful melodic work on the song, but he takes a break from his own styling to repeat the lyrics and melody from Smith’s “a fond farewell:” “this is not my life/it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.”  On Endless, Frank took influence from an Isley Brother song and extended his reach into various other sounds.  Here he shows just how embedded into his soul these influences can get.

Blonde is a big album and it’s easily a contender for the album of the year.  Frank Ocean has returned without any sense of disappointment.  A new-found maturity comes through as Ocean advances the art of belting one’s heart out, with songwriting genius adding more weight to every uttered word.  Perhaps the slimmest lack of contrast is present and perhaps Ocean spends a bit too much time on 1-2 minute songs, but this record is just about as good as it gets.

-Donovan Burtan

Frank. 9/10

Frank Ocean-Endless: Album Review

Frank Ocean put himself in a tough place.  Opening a career with a 17 track album, complete with massive standout tracks, catchy singles, and front to back appeal gave his listeners a long list of expectations for the follow-up.  This combined with a four-year waiting period that left fans at their wit’s end, meant that Ocean had to defy the possibilities of the typical album to achieve greatness.  With Endless, Ocean began his attempt at destroying the album cycle.  Two weekends after the announced release date of his new album, Ocean released a visual album with 18 tracks.  Operating as a prelude to the more refined Blonde, which would be released two days later, Endless emphasizes effortless, natural songwriting, each song sounding like an off-the-cuff melodic exploration.  Perhaps the title alludes to the overall flow of the piece.  Although Ocean has individual song titles, the album operates better in its cohesive state, a seemingly endless melodic development guiding our ears throughout with mild aesthetic changes adding to the over-arching thematic development.

Beginning with lush synthesizers and a mysterious computerized voice reading words about an apple device, the album immediately captures the mysteriousness of the presented video.  Sleek black and white dominate the visual offering a perfect representation of the raw, unfinished nature of the sonic space.  Soon after the non-specific opening, Ocean enters into a glorious falsetto effort, covering the song “At Your Best (You Are Love)” by the Isley Brothers.  This song showcases Frank at his most exposed with tiny, aquatic keyboards accompanying his soaring voice.  Next we are reminded of Ocean’s ability to make simple lyrical phrases sound effortlessly beautiful as his overlapping vocals speak about a tight living situation: “duplex in New Orleans east… my four cousins stay with me.” Non-descript vocals bubble on “Mine” before Ocean raps casually over a looming beat on “U-N-I-T-Y.”  The end of “U-N-I-T-Y,” shifts tone a bit to give us the first taste of Frank’s raw, high-pitched vocal talents.  Slightly strained words soar making for a breath-taking emotional impact.

The middle of the album is composed of quick-hitting explorations into unfinished melodies; “Comme des Garçons” floats around in a slight latin tinge, “Wither” places Frank’s slightly manipulated voice alongside some lightly strummed guitars, and “In Here Somewhere” brings beats and keyboards into play accompanied by an even more buried vocal effort.  The song structures shift back to more full-length efforts by “Rushes.”  Here, a full-fledged gospel song emerges from the subtle beginning, Ocean showcasing a different approach to the stripped back guitar and vocal approach of his more incomplete tunes.  “Rushes To” presents another juxtaposition, capturing the latin spirit of “Comme des Garçons,” but giving Ocean room to belt his heart out by the end.  The last bit of the piece playfully stretches on with Ocean sharing a few lines on “Higgs” before the return of the computerized voice from the beginning of the album, which rides out on various dance beats.

Besides the overall unrefined nature of the album, Ocean offers an emphasis on process.  The Isley Brothers cover that kicks off the album obtains a classic soul sound.  Almost nothing is added to the vocal work, the melody being the main focus of the song.  As the project moves forward, Ocean continuously draws inspiration from this melody and time period, but the addition of more and more modern sounds slowly push the songwriting to modern day.  This displays a mastery of taking influence.  One of the aspects of Channel Orange that made it so appealing was the combination of different sounds.  It is interesting to hear an up close and personal take on Ocean’s techniques for modernizing genres that he holds dear.

Endless is not an outgoing project; Ocean remains subdued within the sonic space throughout.  Therefore, the fact that the work is able to maintain intriguing contrast throughout is a true testament to both Ocean’s songwriting talent and his uncanny ability to achieve a personal feel with his vocal delivery.  His voice has this naturalness to it that inspires close listening no matter what he has to say, even if everything said falls within the same relative sonic location.  Perhaps this is why he struggles with songwriting.  When blessed with a gift that automatically entertains, artists often rely too heavily on it.  Ocean recognizes that his voice is powerful, but the neo-soul idiom requires more in order to push boundaries.  It is clear that countless hours have been spent considering instrumentation, development, production, and everything that goes into the impact of a piece of music.  Endless itself does not necessarily encompass all of this in each song, as the whole process of songwriting is pondered throughout, but the subtle changes that accompany the beautiful nature of Frank’s voice push his natural talent to glorious emotional heights.

Although Frank Ocean’s music can be considered minimalist due to the small amount of instruments and sounds in each song, his idea of releasing an album never comes without an immense amount of emotional weight.  This past weekend, Ocean emerged from the shadows to drop his next manifesto.  The first step was a B-sides album that gave an inside look into the process of songwriting and the dissection of influence.  Ocean’s vocals spill out blissfully throughout, his natural talent enough to conjure beauty, and his songwriting prowess offering just enough to create the contrast necessary for greatness.

-Donovan Burtan

Frank Ocean begins his return in a big way. 8/10

Steve Lehman-Sélébéyone: Album Review

S�l�b�yone album cover

Jazz and hip-hop coexist along similar planes, however, a fusion of the two often results in a tendency towards one particular aesthetic.  For The Roots, the soundscape certainly leans more towards hip-hop, with the jazz induced horn improvisations providing a throwback sound.  Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly falls under a similar category, despite the tune “For Free? (Interlude),” which places Lamar’s fierce flow alongside be-bop influenced quartet playing.  Robert Glasper and Christian Scott lean in the opposite direction.  Their records breathe improvisation, an occasional hip-hop beat or rap verse sneaking into the ensemble sound to achieve a sense of modernity.  On his new record Sélébéyone, Steve Lehman is nearly dead center.  His angular, modern-jazz melodies perfectly complement the jumping overtones of Gaston Bandimic’s flow with vivid production pulling from both idioms.  Rhythm also plays a big role in the album, each song encompassing different influences in the underlying bass line, challenging the soloists to exist outside of their typical comfort zone.

“Laamb” kicks of the album intensely; the ominous drones complement the vocal urgency with anxious piano arpeggiations adding to the menacing ensemble sound.   Slowly a beat emerges with both rappers presenting brief verses, before ceding the space to Lehman and Maciek Lasserre for a long-form sax duet.  The song serves very well as an open-ended introduction: none of the soloists completely expose themselves with the lyrics remaining relatively esoteric alongside subtle improvisational melodies.  “Are You in Peace?” carries a bit more weight.  Many layers of Lehman’s sax playing linger over the modern jazz groove with highly articulated meter changes adding to the impact of the vocal and instrumental solos.  Both rappers touch upon moving on in the world while staying committed to their roots.  HPrizm suggests that his career “Depend[s] on the pen” but he “still spray[s] an aerosol,” implying that he has made it as a rapper, but still uses graffiti on the streets.  Bandimic also talks about his community, first suggesting that they are on stage creating art: “we’re flourishing as God intended,” then reminding the world that they are still at war: “There is no peace and no love today, only war.”

The following tune, “AKAP,” provides a decline in sonic activity.  Bandimic simply shares words over an electronic beat to release some of the tension that has been amassed over the first two songs.  “Origine” essentially throws the listener back into the thick of things.  Another ominous synthesizer beginning leads into a heavy beat with verses from each rapper as well as high intensity improvisations from keyboard and saxophone.  Similar events occur on “Cognition” with a bit more time given to the instrumentals.  The back side of the record may stand out a bit less than the front, but “Dualism” provides a dramatic high point as HPrizm is left in ambience with eerie melodies courtesy of Lehman; “Bamba” then ends the album off on a high note, its seven minute length filled to the brim with fiery performances.

The fact that Lehman’s group have placed rap within an advanced rhythmic space is no small feat and it may be the driving force behind the album’s ability to speak as both a work of contemporary jazz and hip hop.  Syncopated underlying bass lines provide the listener with varying rhyme schemes as the rappers are forced out of their comfort zone.  The rhythmic conception is also not entirely comfortable to the more jazz experienced players.  From bass-driven, African rhythms to slight London grime-tinged electronic beats the album presents a variety of sounds with the soloists guiding each other throughout.  There truly is a trade-off taking place.  Another product of these varying rhythmic approaches is contrast.  Although the album is a bit lacking in memorable vocal hooks, Lehman and his ensemble achieve contrast with each tune presenting different rhythmic motives in different ways.  Just as the rhyme scheme is made more advanced by varying metric schemes, the melodic development is constantly being shifted as well, leaving the soundscape open for variation.

Sélébéyone comes together extremely well.  Not only do all of the soloists present well-constructed material, they successfully construct a fusion of idiom without over-emphasizing any individual player.  By displacing each other rhythmically, the players open a cultural dialogue in which style and delivery constantly oscillate, resulting in fresh sounds and musical conceptions.

-Donovan Burtan

Steve Lehman presents a fantastic example of jazz/hip-hop fusion. Perhaps the album could benefit from stand-out singles but the overall experience is fantastic. 8.5/10

Sean Hamilton-LOCI: Album Review

LOCI cover art

The drum set is not often placed front and center.  Although drummers should certainly never be discredited in terms of talent, in a band situation the most important quality of a drummer is often that they go unnoticeable, simply laying the foundation for the rest of the moving parts to operate properly.  Again, not an unimportant task, but certainly not an outwardly remarkable one. In a solo situation, drummers can only do so much to make their kit speak without sounding over-the-top or showy.  The solution for Sean Hamilton is contrasting his jazz-rooted solo drum chops with electronic drones, allowing for his new album LOCI to play around both in near silence as well as rhythmic chaos, never dwelling on one sound for too long.

Broken into eight tracks, but operating as a single opus, LOCI first introduces each side of the instrumental pallet with a two minute electronic build-up leading into a roughly two minute drum solo.  On track three, we find a middle ground with both sources of sound operating together.  Puffs of air come in varying intervals alternating between each side of the speaker before drums enter the picture to interact with them.  Hamilton spends more time building on this track than the initial two tracks, his timid snare drum work leading to larger rhythm motives, electronic white noise gaining traction to add to the chaos.  The middle of the project is almost devoid of all action; tracks four and five are kept at a volume level barely above silence.  Perhaps the project over-indulges in drone here, track five could easily be removed without ruining the whole experience and these 12-15 minutes make it a bit hard for the listener to maintain focus.  Luckily, the pace picks up a bit more on track six, where the drums make their re-appearance.  The album finishes off on a high note as texture is pushed to its very limit both on the drums and through the electronics.

One of the major accomplishments of the album is Hamilton’s ability to both blend his percussion and electronics together as well as place them in near juxtaposition.  On track seven, the lines between bubbling electronic sound effects and melodically driven drum phrasing are blurred seamlessly, making the soundscape very cohesive.  Other areas of the album emphasize contrast more, with huge swaths of space left entirely to a single sound device and other combinations of electronic and acoustic being a bit more divisive.  The possibilities are quite wide with this type of music as both sonic fields can yield a great deal of results.  For the most part, Hamilton successfully capitalizes on these abilities, sustaining unpredictability for the entire album.

On occasion, the project can lose its cohesion a bit, which may be a product of the lack of melody.  With all the aesthetic change that takes place, it would be a bit easier to make sense of it all through the use of motivic development and repetition.  Hamilton could probably increase this by adding a melodic voice to the playing situation or focusing more energy on how his drum phrasing develops.  Rather than constantly using all parts of the kit, it would be intriguing to here obsessive stints with one sound or one particular drum.  This does come in places, snare drum is the primary focus of the beginning of track three, but it could be emphasized a bit more.

LOCI comes together quite nicely.  As far as experimental, improvised music goes, Hamilton is clearly a master with the ability to truly express individuality.  By both showcasing his ability to fit within the modern drum idiom and the drone genre, Hamilton has put together a unique piece of music with a high level of development and contrast.  His next project may benefit from more motivic development and possibly the addition of a melodic voice, but the project works generally well from front to back.

-Donovan Burtan

Perhaps a bit too long at points but well-constructed and executed overall. 7/10

 

 

looking ahead.

Cashmere cover art

The Swet Shop Boys are a newfound international rap group consisting of Heems, Riz MC, and Redinho.  All members of the group are artists in their own right, however, the best preface for this single may be the career of Heems who is a part of Das Racist, a rap group that combines middle-eastern tonalities with their beats.  On the group’s first single, “T5” the subject is airport security and the racial undertones that follow it.

I anticipate covering Cashmere when it comes out on October 14th

Listen to the single via bandcamp

I got the chance to see Mick Jenkins do a pop-up show in Montreal recently and he really brought the house down.  His debut full-length LP is sure to inspire hard-hitting rhymes and beats with room for social awareness.  On “Spread Love,” Jenkins offers a rundown of his background, hard times and perseverance spilling over moody keyboards.

His new album The Healing Component drops September 23rd

Crosslegged-Truly Truly: EP Review

Truly Truly cover art

Keba Robinson is an independent artist from Brooklyn who has been recording under the name Crosslegged since 2011.  Encompassing a wide array of sounds in her songwriting, Robinson sometimes finds home in long, haunting notes strung over a moody bass groove, elsewhere favoring lightly-articulated, bright melodies embedded within a sunburst rock sound.  On Truly Truly, four new tracks are added to the bandcamp page, each providing something worth pondering.  “Under the Nose” operates as the single, its silky vocal melody immediately unveiling a certain intimacy that would remain constant throughout the project.  Comforted by the lush instrumentation, this intimacy gives the soundscape an immense amount of heart making for an emotional musical experience.

Beginning with a relatively standard guitar melody, “Under the Nose” builds an extremely well balanced sound, each instrument committing to a specific duty.  Robinson’s lyrics discuss the escapable quality of emotion, suggesting that happiness and love may be directly under one’s nose, yet still fleeting; “under your nose but still you’re turning around again.” “Blue and Green” may be a slightly weaker sonic effort with a few too many sound effects surrounding the core of the song, losing the focus of the first track.  Strange rhythmic snapping sounds occur on the occasional off-beat, with continuity lost a bit in the melodic layering.  Nonetheless, the track finds a bit more completion by its end, the lyrics “Truly Truly” reigning in an optimistic melody. “Stand On” showcases Crosslegged at her most catchy with highly articulated guitar complementing a singable melody.  The EP finishes off with a long droning effort in “With the Wind,” repetitious organ providing the foundation for an emotional vocal delivery.

Robinson always takes time to build her songs up.  Rather than immediately shedding light on the song’s direction, sketches of the song’s intended sound slowly amass themselves bringing the groove full circle.  This ideology somewhat works against her on “Blue and Green,” where the song takes a bit too long to organize itself, making the beginning feel random, however, it also saves the songs from sounding too formulaic, each groove naturally coming together as the songs press forward.

Instrumentally, Crosslegged shows a lot of potential.  A unique pallet of synths and sound effects come into the picture on each song, escaping Robinson’s guitar/vocal roots while also avoiding a full band sound, which may be the source of the intimacy that comes through clearly on each song.  Robinson’s whispery vocals read as the centerpiece due to the subdued energy surrounding her.  Although it is certainly possible for a band to accompany a quiet voice, there is something about these songs that make them sound as if they come from a singular place, Robinson being the only soul behind the whole experience.  This really helps her showcase her heart quite directly, contributing to the emotional effect of the work.

Truly Truly showcases Crosslegged’s knack for constructing grooves; her eerie vocal work helps develop small, initial ideas into full, warm song structures.  By leaving her instrumentals at something of a distance, Robinson remains dedicated to the singer-songwriter set-up, which suits her voice more than a full ensemble sound would.  Perhaps a bit more growth needs to take place in her production, her songs sometimes show immaturity, but she is certainly in a good place right now.

-Donovan Burtan

I really like this EP, Crosslegged has a bit of room to grow, but her potential is clear. 7/10