Album Reviews

Hip Hop Album Reviews, Week Ending Jan. 27, 2017

Last week, the output of considerable projects from both the mainstream and independent underground was immense. The best of the lot may not all be on the same level of artistic quality but they all bring a strength or strengths to the table.

Microphone Jackson by Rise Rashid (Rise & Grind/CAT’s E.Y.E./CollinsBoy/Skyward)

Virginia representer and Raleigh, NC resident Rise Rashid is positively on a roll having released one project a year since 2014. First came Microphone Jordan in 2014, then Microphone X in 2015 and then Microphone Ali in 2016 before Microphone Jackson moonwalked onto the scene earlier this past week. Expect the character traits of a role model from Rashid, who subs as a high school basketball coach in his spare time, something he takes very serious, as it gives him a chance to mentor all types of different students and have an impact in their lives.

Microphone Jackson is a spirited show of skill that’s just plain boastful at times but at every other turn, Rise Rashid opts for deep meaning and timelessness. He’s baffled at the poor integrity of those in power in “Be There,” concerned with real folks going through the everyday struggle in “People Make The World,” focused on learning from past priority-placement in “Dear Rise” and cognizant of the oppression of poor people, minorities and the like in “Skin.” This is a great album from a real rise-minded emcee.

4 out of 5 stars

Watch What I Do by Sam Shoemaker (Sam Shoemaker Music Group/Not 2 Sane Music)

Poetic protestor in the name of good, emcee Sam Shoemaker from Seattle is tough but conscious on his debut album Watch What I Do. With his rapid intricate bars, Sam uses his skills of clarity to touch on the Flint water crisis, Ebola, ISIS, religion and his hatred of war. The single “Not Another Love Song” talks about the pains we experience in love, and soon after, beginning in track five “Masochist,” after a quick look at the miserable, struggling 99% and the middle class in the song, Sam introduces us to the idea that our problem as people is we “love our pain.”

Again, in “So Much Pain,” the concept at the core is that we are addicted to the pain we endure everyday. Guest Bobby Watkins, close kin and singer in sync in style with Sam, appears on two songs and the movingly sung Rachel Jane dances a relationship-waltz of the indecisive sexes with Sam in “Tell Me What To Do.” Surprising considering his showmanship and abilities, Mr. Shoemaker is relatively new to making rap songs. He’s loved hip-hop for a long time, but he only began creating his own music in 2014. Watch What I Do just shows the great things one can accomplish when some positive energy is put to use.

4 out of 5 stars

Fay Grim by Likwuid & 2 Hungry Bros. (HiPNOTT Records)

South Carolina to NYC neo soul and hip-hop fusion artist and academic Likwuid (aka Likwuid Stylez, born Faybeo’n LaShanna A Mickens) hooks up once more with production duo 2 Hungry Bros. for the confident reflective Fay Grim. Emcee Likwuid has the fire to fry stalkers and over-spenders (“Hold That/Faybels”), police who use deadly force (“Fayded/Ebony Stoned”), and chicks who are financially irresponsible, jealous and all bluster with no bite (“UnFayzed”).

Fay looks inward elsewhere, on how she’s almost never on time for anything with the philosophy of “let go and let god” in “IllFayted,” on being in love and then having second thoughts in “Faynt of Heart,” to depending on others for help in “Faythful” to how she feels about constant anxiousness in “BiFaysic Sleep Paralysis.” To some, there may seem to be a tendency on the album for sections to move the project along instead of moving us (emotionally so to speak), but still, for the most part, the concerned unapologetic Likwuid, 2 Hungry Bros. and their guests are all keenly stylish and artistic with their contributions.

4 out of 5 stars

Shards Of Glass by Spnda (AR Classic Records)

Boston emcee Spnda, aka Hologram2beardz, A.Spendacash and one third of trio Retrospek, releases his fourth solo project with Shards of Glass. The longtime student of music and hip-hop, who has a knack for tight lyrics, a refined taste in production and a need to impart a message, spends his time on a few ordinary rap methods here, like supremacy declaration by way of reasonable braggadocio and track-bullying, but his critical thinking and the results he shares are everlasting.

As a sneak preview, he calls out the power structure in “Stones,” and though he digresses to nonpolitical subjects further into the song, the policy issues reappear in “Eggshells,” where Spnda attacks self-censorship, corporate mascots and police brutality and is disappointed that Obama didn’t do enough for the underprivileged.

He speaks to halt the pursuit of celebrity attention with emphasis on the cost of becoming famous in “Piece of the Pie,” and the last of the big three songs, “D’vices,” cautions against our close-minded transfixion on devices and gadgets, especially smart phones. A bright, open-eyed and authentic East Coast rhyme-spitter, Spnda is someone you don’t have to be afraid to let bump through your speakers.

3 out of 5 stars

Chill, Dummy by P.O.S (Doomtree Records)

Back in the music from a kidney transplant in 2014, Doomtree cofounder P.O.S releases his fifth LP five years after his last, We Don’t Even Live Here (Rhymesayers, 2012), in the middle of a shifting hip-hop field on which political content is gradually rearranging the music’s contours to where they should lay. This new album from the rocking Minneapolis emcee is aggressive, filled with hard intriguing confessions and truths, quick succession slam-lines, and slower metaphorical rhymes on various pieces of wisdom in pure art-rap form, from the raving banging beats to the multidimensional guests to P.O.S’s very scattered riotous mind.

Chill, Dummy is frustrated, anxious, and upset (e.g. “Bully”), and at those rare moments when it does sit still, usually in the hooks, it does get somewhere, but perhaps not to the promised land. Among a lot of matters, P.O.S raps of “national distractions” on the news, how kings are typically thieves and also to name drops of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, to his immediate benefit it seems and their long-run memory and influence in that last example. More often than not, Chill, Dummy feels like hip-hop with coded phrasing that redeems itself with intriguing messages, even if they require a lot of replays, pondering and processing to hit home.

3 out of 5 stars

Central Standard Time by Stik Figa (Mello Music Group)

Southern company man of Mello Music Group, Stik Figa (John Westbrook, Jr.) follows LPs from 2012 and 2013 with a third, Central Standard Time. Westbrook, committed to the wholesome essentials of the music, is all brains and clever with his literary lyricism plus well structured and aligned with his writing and delivery and so are his guests, pros like Elzhi, Homeboy Sandman and veteran Rappin 4-Tay. The soundtrack is scored by stunning coolness from producers Nottz, !llmind, L’Orange, Black Milk, Apollo Brown and Exile. You already know what time it is with this crew. They put majestic, melodic philosophy, experience and righteousness in the music, and they really get in the zone, save for some rigid consistency and loyalty to their brand’s reputed formula and style. Enjoy good down-home rhymes from Stik Figa and friends in CST.

3 out of 5 stars

The Valley Of Death by Tino (self-released)

The Valley Of Death by emcee Tino from Pittsburgh isn’t political or conscious on the surface, maybe just in Tino’s psyche (he doesn’t vocalize it here at least), but he can surely boast of stamina, endurance and great breath control in his consistently mid-tempo delivery on the project. It’s got your typical notes from the rhyme pad of a normal come-up rapper, values, frustrations, confessions and all. Tino makes good points about perseverance and sacrifice at first then admits he’s embedded in the struggle with seeking, grappling and even bitter feelings. The Valley Of Death never gets into very detailed stories or world events, but the upfront bumping beats with great new samples and Tino’s critical honesty of what he thinks are together the very breath of fresh air needed by us and him right now.

3 out of 5 stars

Just To Get By by Jonah Cruzz (Ordinari Music)

Jonah Cruzz from Atlanta has recently been basking in endorsements from the huge power-pulling hip-hop websites for his new Just To Get By album. Some intermediate rhyming and some down moments fail to do justice to its greatest mission of relating to listeners the despondency of the marginalized; nevertheless, Cruzz goes through all of resentfulness of racial prejudice, hopefulness, wishful thinking, and memories of harder times in his life. Portions of the project feel like the rapper is wallowing in sorrowful stories of woe and such, and he doesn’t explore or discover why or how the ghetto is like it is, but what Jonah Cruzz does very well in the safe, fairly substantial Just To Get By is express feelings of folks at the outskirts of society.

3 out of 5 stars

Sleep On It by Lil Freckles (Frex Music)

Following her Plan B mixtape from two years ago, Lil Freckles (Emma Carroll), a Brooklyn production assistant, actor and rapper from HBO’s Girls, is taking rap more serious as time goes by. One must look deeper into this quietly quirky, hipster-ish young lady’s vulgar lyrics to discover the profound feelings of uncertainty and instability beneath her very Millennial-esque rap character, which is probably an exaggeration to some degree of her real life self. The blue comedy in Carroll’s hip-hop about her sad addictive sex life is hard to fully embrace at first or take at face value but the light jokey Frexxx in the woman somehow pulls it off. Also loyal to her generation are her feminist views, notably her “Feminist King’s” announcement that “real men eat pussy, f*ck boys give roses.” Lil Freckles is admittedly horny, hopeless and hokey all at once, and she would be a novelty, but she can rap and she’s definitely funny in spurts.

3 out of 5 stars

Ego And The Enemy by M-Dot (Own Lane Music)

Experienced, well-connected emcee M-Dot (Michael Januario) from Boston returns this January (the month most befitting to his last name) after several mixtapes and one LP (Run MPC from 2010) with Ego And The Enemy, a wrought iron hip-hop quest from none other than several East Coast masterminds of beat and rhyme with M-Dot of course leading the pack. Conventional to the Northeast in style, Ego And The Enemy showcases hard plowing flows and caffeinated boom-bap from Hi-Tek, Marley Marl, Large Professor, Buckwild, Khrysis, Marco Polo and the Snowgoons among others. Krumb Snatcha and Method Man are among the guests. Parts to note most importantly include “Days Are All The Same,” where overconsumption and overspending are criticized, and “Chrissy,” which chronicles the downward spiral of a troubled young lady. The album suffers from some classic sadistic rap sexism (misogyny perhaps?) there and in “Death To Raquel” and “911,” and there is more stress on impressive mic mechanics over all else, but overall there’s enough substance, skill and artistry to save the day.

3 out of 5 stars

When Hell Falls by Wifisfuneral (Rich Life Records)

What do you get when you mix bling rap with hippie rap? Wifisfuneral. The Florida artist born Isaiah Rivera, who claims to have been a drug dealer and addict in the past, builds on last year’s Black Heart Revenge with this January’s When Hell Falls. Depressed, grappling but still somehow determined, Rivera and his guests on the new album definitely have high flossy aspirations, as their style can be considered rich-dreaming hip-hop under the influence to psychedelic beats on downers, but for all its gimmicky appeal and shortcomings, When Hell Falls by Wifisfuneral is a collection of real thoughts from the young, hungry and rapping, a window to the world of the disadvantaged working to get ahead.

2 out of 5 stars

Ghetto Olympics by Dyme-A-Duzin (self-released)

New era emcee Dyme-A-Duzin (Donnovan Blocker) from Crown Heights, Brooklyn has used his time between albums wisely, by holding his Ghetto Olympics (mixtape/EP) open to the public, for all to partake in. It is the latest stopover for the rapper before Crown Fried, his next official album. This five track set of microphone skill-testing games is by no means a classic – Blocker devotes much of it to braggadocio of his own wild fun and sex life – but his developed style of flowing and some societal consciousness at the end in “Raw” raise promise for the vocalist’s future.

2 out of 5 stars

The Local Cafe by Eric Biddines (Juggernaut Sound Productions/Empire Distribution)

It’s been around three years since South Florida artist Eric Biddines released his planetcoffeebean 2 album and one would think that the well padded time gap from then to now would generate something fresh from the rapper/singer’s camp, right? Biddines, who’s made a name for himself with Southern heartland hip-hop cut with bluesy folk music from the country cut with chilled laid back pop beats and swank, jazz and maybe a little rock on occasion, has turned in a pretty ok project in his newest, The Local Cafe.

The beginning starts off quite solid. Biddines raps on growing up poor and in want of better things and sprinkled throughout the album are bits of sagacities like in “20 Dollar Loan” when he accurately observes that too many are “stuck working a job with sorry ass thirty minute breaks, by [the] time you warm your food, you’re already late.”

The bulk of The Local Cafe however is sold to topics that mainly pleasure Mr. Biddines himself, a banging car and car stereo system (“Whole Trunk”) and a lot of romancing, some successful, some less than requited. Biddines’ lyrics are also less than complex and sophisticated, as his embraced natural drawl but mostly his settling for elementary to intermediate wordplay keep the project from reaching peak heights. The type, style and nature of the music we get in The Local Cafe are all too familiar for fans and also for Eric Biddines. In short, we’ve already been here before.

2 out of 5 stars

Risk/Reward by GrandeMarshall (Fool’s Gold Records)

Philly Fool’s Gold artist GrandeMarshall returns from hiatus with his new project Risk/Reward, but really there’s no risk in the album, and it’s unclear if there will be a substantial reward stemming from it for the rapper. There’s certainly not a huge one for fans picking up the music from where GrandeMarshall last left them on previous album My Brother’s Keeper (November 2015), which has more meat to it than Risk/Reward‘s got.

GrandeMarshall puts forth some of his staple logic and less than fully enlightened experiential wisdom, but for the most part, this affair touts casual, mildly lyrical big-shot raps, modest mediocre production and some but not a lot of vigor. In need of strong messages in its neutral stance in the gray area between trap and consciousness, Risk/Reward’s only risk, if it has any, is that it doesn’t push anyone’s buttons, and it will only pay off by lowering expectations of GrandeMarshall, assuming he wants that and thinks it’s a good thing.

2 out of 5 stars

The Art Of Rock Climbing by Boldy James & DJ Butter (Mass Appeal Records)

The second studio album from Mass Appeal artist Boldy James of Detroit is not an LP and it’s not a street release but a seven track EP, presented by DJ Butter, entitled The Art of Rock Climbing. Rap made Boldy’s dreams come true, but throughout the EP he celebrates the ins and outs of rock dealing as well, never letting us forget the rarely compromising art of hardcore gangsta rap in 2017.

Just listen to the hook on “Married to the Streets” – “the first rule of thumb, pinky ring on freeze, and my trigger finger on my gun, ring finger married to the streets, ain’t got no heat better get you some, they gon’ send me back to the clink, if I get caught with another gun, but my ring finger married to the streets, and my middle finger to the judge.”

There is obviously some creative wordplay there, but the five finger salute to the block as it were rules too heavy handedly. The Art of Rock Climbing showcases some nice bars and the guest list can boast of legend Kool G Rap, vet Kokane and some other hard dudes, but it’s primarily made up of some glorified entries in the diary of a zealous trap-cat from the drug game.

2 out of 5 stars

Culture by Migos (Quality Control Music/300 Entertainment)

Atlanta pop and trap trio Migos have returned, two years after dropping their debut LP Yung Rich Nation, with their sophomore, Culture, again on Quality Control Music, 300 Entertainment and Atlantic Records. Aside from just the fact that the boys have even made a second studio album, the formulaic project is not much of an accomplishment for Quavo, Takeoff and Offset.

This Culture album is filled with basic rap talk on choppers, expensive whips, high end apparel brands and jewelry, hoes, ungodly amounts of loot, drugs to sell (coke in particular) and drugs to take (lean mostly), plus the quotes are downright hazardous. After media poster child DJ Khaled opens for the group in the intro, Migos remark in that title song that “ni**as get money, don’t know how to use it” as if they know how to use money. Later they claim Versace as a “hobby,” contradicting themselves in the process.

Among their other ridiculous lines are the following from “Get Right Witcha” and “Brown Paper Bag” respectively: “I done f*cked a lot of ni**a’s wife” and “I had a dream in a pool I was swimming through cash.” They’ll mention here and there how their elders gave them good advice or that they’re proud of them somehow, but it’s only to try to make you think these guys are upstanding pillars in society when they’re not, and it’s easily refuted by Migos’ much more predominant, lowbrow harmful material.

The only good true thing one could say about the group in the album is that they continue to delivery their new unique flows over modern beat styles from their producer friends, but the subliminal messages in their words are so bad to absorb. The only type of culture in this album is propagandistic gang culture and it’s got very little if anything to do with real hip-hop.

1 out of 5 stars

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