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.