Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Big Boi "Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors" Review

Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors
★★★ 1/2

Imagine an isolated, “perfect” society, one whose citizens have been engineered to be as biologically immaculate as possible.  None can enter this place from outside, and those who peep inside its walls and attempt to recreate what they see are doomed to failure.  Along comes a mysterious traveler astride a white horse.  Though he is a legendary figure, revered by all those within the society’s walls, he hails from the outside world and thus cannot be allowed in.  The traveler discreetly slips under the bubble containing the isolated society, leaves with a handful of the most desirable genetically engineered women he can find, and decides to start a society of his own.  He builds a house somewhere, has a few kids, invites some of his friends, and anoints himself king; all the girls have an awful lot more fun than they did within the warm and insulated bubble.  That bubble is the world of indie music, or the “indieverse,” a place anyone can leave but no one can enter; its citizens are bands and musicians, its arbiters bloggers and critics.  The traveler is, of course, Big Boi, and his society is called Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors.

Even if absolutely nothing about the music on Big Boi’s second post-OutKast solo album appeals to you, it’s hard to deny the audacity of such an undertaking.  Indie music and hip-hop are two genres with wide boundaries and a lot of narrow-minded fans, and combining them throughout an entire album is risky indeed; chances are it’ll either be not hip-hop enough for the hip-hoppers or not indie enough for the indie kids.  Vicious Lies would appear to be neither.  There are only two “conventional” hip-hop songs on here (that is, songs that would be classified solely as “hip hop” if they had their own Wikipedia pages); they are also the most acclaimed, with “In The A” being the most downloaded from iTunes and “Thom Pettie” being called out by Pitchfork as the best track on the album.  (It’s not a bad pick.)  It’s also not difficult to see why indie rock fans would have a problem with this thing; this is a perspective on a genre that thrives on artistic development and DIY aesthetic as provided by a dude who’s been part of the mainstream for nearly two decades.  This album borrows sounds from indie rock, nothing more.

If that latter statement brings to mind bands like AWOLNATION or Imagine Dragons who sound infinitely more “indie” than they actually are, I don’t blame you, and I would likely have considerable difficulty accepting the idea of this album if it didn’t contain some of the most vital and fascinating hip-hop I’ve heard this year.  Vicious Lies seems to be the sort of album Big Boi would want to make given his eclectic music taste and genre experimentation; he certainly sounds like he’s having fun on it.  There aren’t too many dizzying verses or clever quips on this thing, but Big Boi’s excited delivery on lines like “I’m Daddy Fat Sax, they say triple X/my music sounds so good it’s almost like we’re having sex” allow them hit as hard--and sound as hilarious--as the wittiest Big Sean or Danny Brown punchline.  (One of my favorite moments on the album is when Big Boi expresses his desire to “rub this stick on your chick like a violin”--a ridiculous image that is followed by a sonic recreation of exactly that.)  

In fact, there’s not a single person on the album who sounds like they don’t want to be there.  Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano and Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel gleefully step into the “chorus-of-hoes” role, like Total on The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die; Nagano is especially fun on “Thom Pettie,” reinforcing and reiterating one of Big Boi’s boasts in a sultry voice.  Even Wavves’ Nathan Williams, in the album’s strangest cameo, sounds right at home; admittedly, the song he’s on (“Running Shoes”) is one of the album’s low points, but it’s way better than a rap song featuring Wavves could have been in 99 percent of circumstances I can envision.  

Much of this is because Big Boi deliberately makes room for them.  This is an intensely collaborative album to the point that it barely sounds like a Big Boi album at all; this is both the album’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw.  If Big Boi’s intent was to successfully fuse indie pop/rock and mainstream hip-hop sounds, stepping aside was probably the smartest thing he could do, and if Vicious Lies consisted of nothing but Big Boi rapping over surf guitars and atmospheric electro-pop, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful.  On the other hand, there are long stretches of this album that don’t sound like Big Boi at all, to the point that calling Vicious Lies a Big Boi album is not entirely accurate.  He feels like a frontman, rising above the sounds rather than absorbing himself in them; when he disappears for too long, the album loses a bit of its identity.  “CPU,” despite being one of the album’s best cuts, is a better Phantogram song than it is a Big Boi song; whoever sings the hook on “Apple Of My Eye” doesn’t even get the honor a “feat.” in the song title, but he’s by far the most memorable and defining feature of the song.  

This isn’t a huge problem during the album’s first ten tracks, which are all decent to fantastic (with the exception of the high-killingly bad Kid Cudi collaboration “She Hates Me”) and balance Big Boi’s presence with those of his collaborators effectively enough.  But after “Shoes for Running,” the album takes a right turn into what sounds a bit like a trash bin, a storage space for the residue of successful collaborations.  “Raspberries” features frequent Big Boi collaborators Scar and Mouche squabbling over what sounds a lot like Usher’s “Club Can’t Handle Me”; the Bosko collab “Tremendous Damage” is an absolutely God-awful piano ballad that is only made worse by being five and a half minutes long; “Descending” is a gorgeous ambient track, with sonics provided by Little Dragon, that is nonetheless underwhelming as the album’s closer.

Things pick up significantly on the deluxe version, particularly on the last two tracks.  “Gossip” would have been my personal pick as favorite track, a funky, whip-smart jam with four great verses by four of the best Southern rappers going (including the late Pimp C); “She Said OK” is as jokey as “Raspberries” but far more effective, with a hook so lecherous you can almost imagine a heart-eyed cartoon Big Boi drooling into the microphone while singing it.  Why these gems were relegated to the semi-canon confines of the deluxe edition is beyond me, but had they been swapped with “Raspberries” and “Tremendous Damage,” it could have made the difference between an “mostly successful experiment” and a “great rap album.”

Indeed, this is not a “great rap album,” and it will likely be remembered more as a weird experiment rather than an integral piece of the Big Boi canon.  Yet in the long run, a good chunk of what’s “wrong” with this album has less to do with what is actually taking place during its running time than just how difficult it is to approach it.  The idea of an established mainstream hip-hopper breaking through the walls of a fiercely guarded genre and pillaging its sounds may be difficult for some of the stauncher indie/hip-hop adherents listening to this album to get past.  But Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors is best approached the way one might approach some exotic meat they are trying for the first time, like octopus or eel--once you get past what it is and what it’s made of, it’s actually pretty damn good.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Baths - Cerulean (older review)

I used to publish the bulk of my reviews in my old high school's online newsletter, which has deleted all but a handful of my reviews after extensive renovations.  This is one of the reviews; I posted it here because a lot of people particularly like this review as well as because Cerulean by Baths is increasingly becoming one of my all-time favorite albums.  I will probably write a new review of Cerulean soon.


It’s not easy to find real “protest music” these days.  The term, once used to describe the rousing, unifying anthems of the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, is now synonymous with lower-middle-aged millionaires railing about the economy and evil corporations while the Samsung logo flashes on the three-hundred-foot Jumbotrons above their heads at the arena.  The best “protest music” not only tempers this anger with hope, it also provides a sympathetic portrayal of the victims of whatever injustice the music may target.  This is what Will Wiesenfeld is out to do on Cerulean, which, in spite of having almost no lyrics, is one of the best protest records I’ve heard in a long time.

Wiesenfeld, a 21-year-old, openly gay SoCal resident, has plenty to protest about.  This album was released in the wake of the passing of Proposition 8, re-prohibiting gay marriage in California after its short-but-sweet period of legality.  And if you’ve heard any bullshit about how nobody in California is going to discriminate against you based on your sexuality (presumably from a straight person who pretends to be tolerant but harbors a subconscious and almost superstitious prejudice), think again.  As a seventeen-year-old gay kid living in what is supposedly the most LGBT-friendly city on earth, I know there are always too many exceptions, and I can more than identify with what Wiesenfeld sings about.

The songs on this album that most overtly address this issue are “Plea” and the excellent “<3.” “Plea,” a passionately furious song that ends with a reminder that “we’re still not valid,” is chilling.  “<3,” over a fluttering piano loop and a stormy-ocean beat, is an elopement ballad that ends not in tragedy but in liberation (“Met in the night like it was wrong/Laugh at the life left now that we’re gone/I won’t go back/I love you too much”).  But what makes this a protest record, not just an album with two songs about being discriminated against on it, is the sympathy and complexity of Wiesenfeld’s gay characters and the elaborate love stories Wiesenfeld spins with as few words as possible.  “Rain Smell” describes a sad memory of a lover evoked by water, set to a background that evokes a row on a creek in the rain.  “You’re My Excuse To Travel” is a romantic tune delivered in inarticulate teenage slang and run through piercing digital effects.  And “Maximalist,” arguably Wiesenfeld’s mission statement, consists of a funky, aggressive beat interrupted time to time by samples of dialogue about matters of the heart.  This is not an album about queer love--this is an album simply about love, and how nothing can or should stop it.

Lyrics aside, the music used to support Wiesenfeld’s pleas is remarkably skillfully crafted, if nothing groundbreaking.  The most obvious feature of Baths’ music is the rhythm.  This is neither dance nor ambient music--this is simply very percussive electronic music, built around funky cross-rhythms and clattering beats.  The filtered and effected samples (the piano on “<3,” the tender guitar on “Aminals”) have more to do with chillwave than anything else, although Wiesenfeld’s music lacks the haziness and laziness felt in the music of Washed Out or Toro Y Moi.  Appearing every now and again is Wiesenfeld’s voice, a Mel Blanc falsetto that often sounds comical but is used to great effect (the sensual yelps on lead single “Lovely Bloodflow”).
Those I know who have seen Wiesenfeld perform live describe him as an awkward, mild-mannered guy who hops onstage, sheepishly says something like “Hi, I’m Baths, how’s everyone doing?” and proceeds to rip the roof off the club.  I’ve never seen a Baths show for some reason, but I am not surprised in the least by this description--on Cerulean, Wiesenfeld comes across as the kind of dude who could beat the shit out of you if he wanted to (his muscular music) but would much rather just give you a giant hug and tell you how much he loves you (his voice and lyrics).  He’s not hard to love back, and neither is his music.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (Review)


Hip-hop is the most subjective form of popular music because there are so many different ways it can fail or succeed.  Someone like A$AP Rocky may make music that succeeds almost solely on the basis of its production; on the other hand, Curren$y or Tyler, The Creator might make absolutely fantastic rap music with solely their personalities or their natural, God-given voices to elevate their music.  The same could be said about Big Sean’s punchlines, Lil B’s infectious positivity, or Lil Wayne’s sheer insanity.  People might respect a politico-rapper like Immortal Technique for speaking what they might perceive as “the truth,” or someone like Aesop Rock because he’s so inscrutable he’s almost certainly a genius.  

On the other hand, you have Kendrick Lamar.  Lamar has everything going for him; he’s an incredibly nimble rapper, his writing style is clear and evocative, and he’s as capable of telling a great story or making a keen sociopolitical commentary as he is at firing off boasts and disses.  But those things are not what makes his major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, a success.  This is an album that works on the basis of one of the best narratives I’ve heard on any recent rap album.

good kid is a rap opera through and through.  There is a very clear narrative to the work; it’s largely autobiographical, recounting the eight years of Lamar’s life prior to the release of the album.  It begins with a teenage Lamar taking off in his mother’s car to meet up with a girl, Sherane; his parents’ voicemails asking for the car back tie the album together, even much later in the narrative.  As a conceptual device, it’s incredibly effective, and the final voicemail is one of the most poignant moments on the album.  By scattering the voicemails (which were presumably sent in quick succession over the course of not more than a few days) across several years of narrative, Lamar creates a complex time-frame that nonetheless manages to flow with chronological ease.  Characters who appear earlier in the album return later, as well as some minor characters--on the 12-minute seance “Sing About Me I’m Dying Of Thirst,” Lamar delivers an entire verse from the perspective of Sherane’s sister, and it is without a doubt the most devastating moment on the album.  

However, as do many such concept albums, good kid relies heavily enough on its narrative that the impact of its individual songs are blunted out of context.  When you take a song like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by itself, it’s a great track, with fun production that warps the synth-heavy sound of mainstream rap to effectively convey Lamar’s psychoanalytical perspective on getting wasted.  But after you’ve heard the eight songs that precede it, the song’s first chorus simply rams into you, hitting as hard as the shots of liquor Kendrick describes himself consuming. 

Yet good kid’s greatest flaw is, perhaps counterintuitively, Lamar’s own personality.  Throughout good kid, Lamar portrays himself as a model of goodness whose only reason for indulging in things like drug consumption or even robbing houses is because the pressure from the people around him was simply too great for him to resist.  At his most sanctimonious, Lamar sounds like he’s trying to shrug off any responsibility for his actions; he’s a good kid, he swears.

“Backseat Freestyle” is the worst offender.  At first glance, it’s a boast track, with brags that wouldn’t be particularly impressive from any rapper and a grooveless beat that sounds like someone loudly practicing the drums on the other side of the room while you’re trying to have a conversation.  It’s also the only moment on the album where Lamar indulges in any such bragging, something which he has proven to be incredibly good at (check out “Rigamortis” or his cypher with Big K.R.I.T., Tech N9ne, MGK, and B.o.B).  Yet it, too, is loosely tied into the narrative, becoming a recreation of his first attempt at rapping when in the car with his friends.  In this context, it becomes something of a parody--the real brag Lamar makes on the song appears to be his own elevation above rappers who actually do brag about such things.  I would like to think that “Backseat Freestyle” is a boast track Lamar recorded for fun and then decided to insert onto the album; it’s a much more appealing explanation than what Lamar gives.

In spite of all of this, good kid is ultimately a success.  In the context of being a high-concept rap record, you won’t find many better albums than this one, and the skill with which Lamar executes his complex narrative is what saves good kid from being the overly ambitious mess it could have been.  Even if you don’t come out of your listen particularly liking Lamar as a person, it’s difficult not to be affected by his story and even more difficult to deny his skill as a storyteller.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Post-Irony--It's Not Just For Hipsters

If you’ve never enjoyed something post-ironically, you’re missing out.  In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of post-irony (in which case you are doubtlessly rolling your eyes at the smug-faced hipster that’s probably writing these words) it’s basically the idea that you can come to appreciate a piece of music you may not like initially through listening to it ironically.  On a large scale, the best example of this phenomenon is probably Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” which has been exalted to a level roughly equivalent to that of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” since it ended up on the Pitchfork decade list, and at least three or four of my friends have been more than happy to heap their praises upon it between discussions of Jandek and Joanna Newsom.  But were people ever really listening to Kelly Clarkson ironically?  Nobody claims to music they don’t actually like unless they’re trying to impress someone, which isn’t going to happen if you go around openly bragging about your love of Justin Bieber.  Post-irony isn’t the final stage in some complex process--it just means you’re no longer embarrassed of your guilty pleasures, and it thus may be one of the best things ever to happen to the way we listen to music.

Here is some of the music “post-irony” has opened my eyes to.

1. Emo.  Not the “cool” emo from the ‘90s, not guilt-free emo like Cloud Nothings--I mean studio-polished pop-punk with over-pronounced lyrics about self-hatred and romantic frustration.  Emo is notoriously relatable to a lot of people, usually teenagers who exist outside the social mainstream.  But the people who sing emo music are not outcasts--in fact, they’re usually heartthrobs, with smooth and seductive voices to match (even the un-sexy vocals associated with screamo are usually diluted with “clean” vocals).  They can be rock stars or average human beings depending on the listener’s mindset and perspective--in other words, they’re whoever you want them to be.  Also, “Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance is a near-flawless pop song, with an indelible riff, fantastic lyrics, and a vocal performance that’s like a tongue in the ear.  

2. Adele, “Someone Like You.”  I love this song because it’s absolutely vicious.  Do you honestly believe she only wishes her former man the best?  Not a chance--if she had the chance she would rip him limb from limb, and after accepting the inevitability that her love is gone forever, the best she can do to keep herself happy is be happy for him.  That rage permeates Adele’s vocal to the extent that just writing about it makes me want to throw a chair out a window.  

3. Port Blue.  Though the go-to comparison for Adam Young's Owl City project is usually the Postal Service, there’s also a lot of downtempo and ambient music in his work--parts of the first few Owl City albums could pass for early Ulrich Schnauss or even Boards of Canada circa The Campfire Headphase.  His early work as Port Blue is infinitely more satisfying than anything Owl City’s put out, allowing his interest in quality ambient to shine.  Though I first listened to Port Blue’s Albatross EP because it was curiously listenable compared to bottomlessly awful songs like “Fireflies,” it’s since become one of my go-to ambient albums.  

4. Justin Bieber, BelieveYou heard that right.  Justin Bieber, the epitome of everything wrong with music according to a hundred million Led Zeppelin fans with YouTube accounts.  I’ve sat through My World and Believe just on a lark; neither are great, but at their worst they're more mediocre than terrible, and the latter is actually a pretty good pop album--at least in the mid-sixes if I were to think like Pitchfork.  Bieber sounds thoroughly sincere, and the production sounds like the work of people who know they’re working with Justin fucking Bieber and that they’d better make it count.  

5. Ke$ha.  Unlike the other artists on this list, Ke$ha took her time to grow on me.  I used to think of her as a second-rate American Uffie ripoff, but I soon realized that while Uffie does a lot of things not that well, Ke$ha does one thing extremely well, and that one thing is being Ke$ha.  I can’t think of another pop star with such a clearly defined personality, nor one who exploits it so effectively.  I even feel a bit violated when I listen to her music--something I can only say about a handful of artists, including Danny Brown and Exile-era Stones--and a lot more than you can say about Rihanna’s Talk That Talk, which VH1 proclaimed “the dirtiest pop album since Madonna's Erotica.”    

6. LMFAO, “Sexy And I Know It.”  I don’t like this song much (well, I’m neutral on it--wouldn’t put it on my iPod, but I can certainly dance to it), but it has one moment of absolute production genius.  During the brief moment after the buildup when Redfoo intones “I’m sexy and I know it,” a sample of a drum fill briefly flits across the background.  It’s the sound of jizz spilling after a climax, and it’s so perfectly in place it makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it.