Album Reviews

Hip Hop Album Reviews, Week Ending Feb. 17, 2017

This week, recognized rap icons Fat Joe and Remy Ma released their joint album, to once again profit off feeding the industry’s appetite for pulp formula (shamefully enough), but aside from that and best of all, there is a bundle of better projects from more respectable, art-minded producers and emcees, artists like Jonwayne, beatmaker Superior, SkyBlew, AllttA (Mr. J. Medeiros + 20syl) and others. Those are the works that should be given the most attention.

Rap Album Two by Jonwayne (Authors Recording Company/The Order Label)

Apparently La Habra, CA rapper/producer Jonwayne never retired back in 2015 after his Jonwayne Is Retired EP, or did he? The artist formerly on Stones Throw Records purportedly had some drinking problems which he has supposedly moved on from since then, thanks to his work on Rap Album Two, the big man’s new rap-plus-beats LP. Via casual rhymes and gentle production, Jonwayne is very poignant on the project, discussing the vagaries of human pain in “Human Condition” and other bohemian styled philosophies in “Out of Sight” to take one example. Still, he now and again brings it back to his lighter side – him messing up his recording takes in “The Single” is impossible to not smile at.

Through the happy and sad, Jon strikes a chord with his thoughts and feelings. He’s at turns  regretful for disappointing friends and himself for his recent behavior but also hopeful for the future, with dreams of a getting sober, growing up and starting a family. Jon reserves a very loaded track in particular to close everything up. In “These Words Are Everything,” he knows that his current label and artistic choices won’t get him the most money or followers, but he is focused on doing it his way and not selling out, the greatest choice of all. Guests on the album are Shango, Danny Watts, Zeroh and Low Leaf. Rap Album Two doesn’t jump out at you but rather lays back in the cut; nevertheless, it’s a nice setup from the reliably solid Jonwayne.

3 out of 5 stars

The Journey by Superior (Below System Records)

When it comes to boom-bap, Spanish-German producer Superior (Marcos Oviedo) is steadily becoming one of the best in the business. His brand of the East Coast American style of beats is on the smoother end of the spectrum, lovely and almost romantic in its gentle sway of samples, yet firm on the drum end. His new LP The Journey, the followup to Scenes from 2015, is a pro-compilation of some of Superior’s best stuff of late married to great guest verses from emcee-names big and small so you’ll learn about some new artists in the process.

Street themes are present in several spots, but worth mentioning specifically and besides the typical urban tales are Lyric Jones’ wise perspective on “Open Letter,” Rocdwell’s love for lady in “I Got You,” and the excited power coupling of M-Dot and Revalation in “Earn It.” The “bigger” boys worth shouting out include REKS, Verbal Kent, Termanology, Lil Fame of MOP and Spnda. Superior doesn’t show many angles of his producing style, even within boom-bap, but his sample selection, his mixing and the silky finish of the final audio-product are truly from a trained, skilled technician and artist of hip-hop music.

3 out of 5 stars

Dreams, Toonami & Jazzier Days by SkyBlew & Pabzzz (The Jazz Hop Café)

Chapel Hill rapper, proactive project-maker and prolific collaborator SkyBlew (Mario Farrow) has come a long way since being Young Millionaire from Auburn, Alabama back in the day when heads were eating up Jay’s Black Album and Ye’s College Dropout as the then biggest crave-crazes in hip-hop. Now, the conscious emcee has ten albums to his name, including Dreams, Toonami & Jazzier Days, his new EP with French producer Pabzzz released by UK internet radio channel Jazz Hop Café.

Pabzzz plays us warm welcoming piano in the intro “This About Dreams,” but with life SkyBlew doesn’t play around. He holds onto his sanity and remains committed and persistent to the EP’s midpoint commenting, “I refuse to snooze, I turn off the news” in “Always on Call.” The whole EP is about cool chill vibes, on music and musings. SkyBlew’s focused vocal delivery is of a prepared freestyle type, but he’s all about love and good attitude all the time. Pabzzz is more than a match for the man with beautiful easy listening, serene spa sounds, tasteful jazz of course and more.

Dreams, Toonami & Jazzier Days is a gift of random notes from the young, smart, and open-minded. SkyBlew is technically not the most complex rhymer nor the most renegade in subject matter, meaning he likely won’t turn your casual listening into deep intense concentration but still, he remains a very good guy in and for hip-hop who stands for all the right things.

3 out of 5 stars

Price of Freedom by Prince of the City (Freedom Records)

Prince of the City, Tariq Ali Muhammad, hasn’t developed his emcee-craft into a whirlwind of complex lyrical rhymes, but since being reborn as a pious Muslim in the Nation of Islam some time back, deep moral teachings have been his strong suit. The teacher and rapper from Stockton, California and Norfolk, Virginia has a lot of perspective needless to say. In his debut album Price of Freedom, Tariq leaves out none of his concerns or values so he’s completely sincere with his integral outlook on life.

Muhammad’s heartache stems from the ghettos’ problems with drugs, gun violence, arrests and lockup, and his solutions include love and self-improvement, though there’s scantly any mention of the greater economic and political system acting upon communities, poor, affluent or otherwise. Still, his messages are a great start. His “M.O.B.” is not money over b*tches but rather “my other brother,” he’s not for selling one’s soul for a check, he’s seen a nine-to-five turn into a “lifelong prison” and he states simply that you can’t take wealth into the afterlife.

Muhammad’s been converted to good but it’s always been in him. He says, “my body left the trap, but my heart always stayed in.” He rarely brings up his own flaws, which hurts some chance of connecting with listeners, but his words of dedication and discipline to principles of integrity and dignity are no doubt refreshing amidst new rap music that glamorizes street crime. Prince Muhammad is also technically plain with his basic rhyme schemes and standard production but through his words he can surely help many onto safe paths of healthy thinking.

3 out of 5 stars

The Upper Hand by AllttA (On And On Records)

The new duo of L.A. rapper Mr. J. Medeiros (pronounced Muh-deer-us) and French producer 20syl called AllttA release their heavy debut LP The Upper Hand through On And On Records, and despite its lyrical complexities and loaded subject matter, it sort of feels like a heartbeat away from being a pop rap crossover, mostly because of 20syl’s groovy, electro dance club beats, nu-disco music if that makes more sense. Medeiros shoots his quick flash rhymes on love, fame, celebrity-worship, race, religion, injustice and childbirth with more than an air of awareness.

The issue arises in that Medeiros brings forth all these sad and intriguing truths but doesn’t slow down to discuss what we can do and how we should respond to them. It’s interesting but also troubling that on “The Woods,” the chorus states that “who controls the past controls the future.” That’s obviously not a reassuring prospect in light of who and what has been controlling the world. For the most part though, The Upper Hand may not have a leg up on the best rap ever, but it’s a pristine, finely mastered hip-hop project that does explore some of those less than comfortable topics and areas with which we need to get acquainted.

3 out of 5 stars

Golden Crown by SK Invitational (Kopfhörer Recordings)

Acoustic live hip-hop band SK Invitational from Austria may not be Europe’s version of The Roots crew, but they definitely have ambitions to become it or something close to, as they routinely have something around sixteen member-instrumentalists on board and work with several talented artists, especially on their new third album Golden Crown. Firm, strong, hard-driving and invigorating tones break open the start, and appearances from MOP, John Robinson, Homeboy Sandman, Sadat X and Edo G only sweeten the pot.

The striking whole music sounds of hot jazz, funk and soul in concert with positive rap and lush singing are top notch and no less than par for the course; however, on the whole, Golden Crown doesn’t test the system in those natural, controversial hip-hop ways, and there is generally not a great deal of emceeing, certainly not enough from the original group members, instead depending on the guests to spit the greatest heat so to speak. This is a nice music experience, albeit with a tamed and limited rap element.

2 out of 5 stars

Molotov by Saga & Thelonious Martin (Saga 718/Empire Distribution)

One could argue that Brooklyn rapper Saga on his new album, Molotov (with Chicago producer Thelonious Martin), is brash, openly and grossly sexual, materialistic to an extent, moderately lyrical and basically unoriginal but there are a few things to learn from him here, even if he is largely a less than venerable personality on his records. Saga’s lyrics on the new album unveil the face of a rapper looking more to vent, brag, and self-counsel than spread positive progressive messages. He feels as if he’s a tough savvy urbanite though he doesn’t often come down to our level (or our part of town).

He’ll one moment put cocky ones in their place when he can be pretty arrogant himself then warn fellas who chase skirts that the girls very well might scam them in the end – just two examples of where he’s coming from mentally. “Where We Live,” the crowning achievement in this set, makes us aware of warring, whoring, pimping, poverty, ghetto violence, low standards of dress and physical impropriety among young girls and so forth, all around the parts he comes from in BK, NYC, but it applies nationally really, even globally. Taking smooth twinkly samples and applying lowkey drum rhythms, Thelonious Martin loops his cuts with rigid precision but has a cozy bed of productions for us still. Saga is caught between two worlds in Molotov but avoids the worst of both with his common sense and support from new-age music mate T. Martin.

2 out of 5 stars

Plata O Plomo by Fat Joe & Remy Ma (RNG/Empire Distribution)

It’s been a long time since Fat Joe and Remy Ma dropped LPs. Joe’s last was 2010’s The Darkside Vol. 1 and Remy has been without a new studio album since 2006 when she released her debut There’s Something About Remy. In their Plata O Plomo (“silver or lead,” i.e. “money or bullets”) collaboration, they literally pick up right where they left off, going commercial, superficial and gangster to the fullest and pretending as if character and responsibility in the music are not important to observe. It’s funny but also sad how Fat Joe’s beginning statements give allowance to coke, minks, Gucci flip flops and beating cases and rats, among other demons and misdemeanors.

It’s not rare that the two are flagrantly confrontational, romantically unfaithful or obsessed with extravagant wealth. Final cut “Dreamin” attempts to regain some respect lost but just skims the surface. Put another way, if you were looking for Fat Joe and Remy Ma to confound our expectations of them here, you’re gonna be disappointed. Plata O Plomo is totally detached from intelligent hip-hop and worldly consciousness as it’s nothing more than a glitzy mobster fashion show gone much too wild.

1 out of 5 stars

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