Nas – Magic
LATE ADDITION! Dropping last night like an early Christmas gift, Nas slides in with a readymade classic. King’s Disease I and II both delivered solid Nas music, a safely modern take on his sound. But Magic already feels like Nas at his most inspired – quietly confessional, sprinkled with wise jewels, rooted in boom bap beats. Credit to producer Hit-Boy for expertly channeling Large Professor’s bubbling subway funk. That sticking point with fans who want the old Nas is addressed and effectively Ether’d on “Wu Is For The Children” with a larger point about gratitude & humility. “Wave Gods” shouts out Max B with A$AP Rocky on a beat that would suit AZ verse for a remix. “Dedicated” is fire – that beat switch and last verse, as good as it gets.
LA LUZ – s/t
What sounded at first like a progression now feels like a peak. Interplay was always the key for this spunky surf rock trio, but here it’s more refined, a real blossoming. The songwriting too, which mines psychedelic pop and bits of country for headier, hookier songs. “Oh, Blue” sounds like Lana Del Rey singing some lost Grateful Dead ballad. “Down The Street” glows like a 45 single. “Lazy Eyes And Dune” draws its eerie atmosphere with a riff in the Abbeyroadian scale. In the 90s one of these songs would’ve gotten pushed to the moon as a buzz single, to then be cursed with oversaturation. La Luz is right where they need to be.
Westside Gunn – HWH 8: Side B
Call Westside Gunn an impresario/boom bap revivalist/dedicated wrestling fan – mostly he’s a workaholic. His ear for beats, sounds, and moods remains impeccable. Structurally there are nods here to prime Wu-Tang, with a mega-philosophical spoken word intro and classic guest verses from familiar voices. WSG has evolved the Wu formula, with old wrestling clips in place of kung fu films as statements of purpose, and an air of Ghost not RZA at the helm. But WSG’s genius was the realization that some of the best hip hop beats were wasted on interludes. Album intros and outros, spoken word joints – he raps on those type beats, with his unique flow like he’s spitballing catchphrases for abstract marketing campaigns. It’s dope, as usual.
Spirit Of The Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
I can’t say I love this as much as 2018’s Hypnic Jerks. Not yet. But like one song title says – “IT MIGHT TAKE SOME TIME.” Spirit Of The Beehive’s music personifies time, with warm melodies submerged like memories in among fractured constructions of found sounds and musical passages. Give it a chance, and it will sink in deeply. Design elements of Zappa and Ween and Butthole Surfers mix on this album with electronica and lo-fi indie pop. “Experimental” is not the word, because it’s all very self-assured, purely musical id. Lyrically the songs essay isolation and paranoia – “you’re already in the future, everywhere you go there’s a pulpit and a preacher.” Amen.
Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club
The first of two Lana albums this year, the one I prefer. More traditional maybe, but it’s to the benefit of her music. Sprawl is sometimes an issue for Lana’s albums, as her breathy expansive songs each take up a lot of air. As usual her lyrics evoke a dreamy California nostalgia, where even the good scraps of the present will soon fade. Here those sentiments have an edgy relevance. She’s worried about forest fires and being alone and she takes comfort in her musical heroes. She is sort of an elitist, in the way of any devoted fan of a culture. Chemtrails is like modern take on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection – ten songs, not a weak one with some instant classics. “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” reminds me of a Yoko Ono ballad with its yodel-y chorus of quiet human dignity. “White Dress” is another pithy take on fame, “Breaking Up Slowly” old jukebox country, “For Free” a solemn posse cut finale.
Kanye West – Donda
All ego and spectacle, as usual. Better than last year’s side project-y Jesus Is King, but still drowned in too much prog/gospel hop for my taste. Kanye’s value is more as a curator. A feature on this sort of blockbuster album is a rare opportunity for his guests no matter their level. The rollout was a public and populist series of events – almost like this is Kanye’s version of American Idol. Which sounds like a trainwreck, which Donda sort of is. The deluxe version is 32(!) tracks, bloated with mogul gospel and song sequels, and in that form it’s as tedious as an actual Sunday sermon. But somewhere in there is a twelve-song Kanye album that feels like a synthesis of his epic MBDTF era constructions with the edgy modernity of Yeezus.
Drake – Certified Lover Boy
Drake is Bruce Springsteen – ubiquitous, ultra-commercial, and committed to his craft. He feeds his fanbase like a good restaurant. Setting the mood with a rappity appetizer, with some sweets for the kids and some fat to scrape into the recycle bin. But it’s not fast food. CLB aims for a ‘pressure at the top of the rap game’ sprawl like Biggie’s Life After Death, though it lands somewhere near Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2. Which is not so bad – despite its warranted middling rep, I like BP2. Drake is the true inheritor of Jay-Z’s spot, with a flashy but engaging flow that feels more like conversation than structured verses. Like Jay-Z, Drake has an ear for beats and a knack for incorporating trends into his signature sound. And like Blueprint 2, Drake is trying to find his footing after a very public L. Post “Ether,” Jay-Z reconfigured; post “Adidon” Drake is following suit.
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
At first I heard this as new school conscious hip hop, in the vein of Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. But that’s damning with faint praise. For me ‘conscious’ hip hop has always rung a bit hollow, replete with affectations of ego more than viable solutions. This album is more vital, a spin on Kendrick’s thoughtful hip hop – deeply felt, bar heavy, with sophisticated hooks in puzzle box album construction. I don’t quite get the orchestral interludes, but that’s fine. This is new territory, a new lane for femininity in hip hop. And Little Simz is a major artist. The skittery beat on “Standing Ovation” is high difficulty, like something Lupe would try to spaz over. And she owns it. Little Simz takes risks, embraces esoteria, and rewards close listens.
Evidence – Unlearning Vol 1
Evidence is like a one man Gang Starr, with his low key monotone flow over superb beats. His humble manner suits the world weary wisdom in his bars, dispensed in a basic structure that won’t light up the clubs but make for late night contemplative vibing. And the beats – buried samples and low rumbling bass form soundscapes rooted but not tethered to classic boom bap. Alchemist laces him, as usual, along with stellar contributions from Nottz and Eardrum aka QThree. “All Money 1983” is the beat of the year. Just like on 2018’s Weather Or Not, Evidence is a good shepherd of classy ruminative hip hop.
Bob Dylan – Springtime In New York (Bootleg Series 16)
Only Bob Dylan could release an exhaustive disc set of outtakes from a spotty era and still miss some gems. Why not include all the tracks from the circulating Shot Of Love outtakes, with some un-Bob reggae and pop influences? The era chronicled on this set is weird, evolving from his radical Christianity into some conventional politics and then 80s professionalism. I’ve never been crazy about the albums documented here. But as usual rough takes breathe new life into these songs. “Jokerman” is still a big one, a Tambourine Man reboot. “Angelina” recalls 1965’s “Farewell Angelina,” and though it doesn’t hit the high poetry of the original it’s a solid sequel. And god bless them for including the wonderfully ragged version of “License To Kill” from the Letterman show. Somebody up there gets it.