Wednesday, January 31

Nas Says Death to False Hip Hop!

Artist: Nas
Album: Hip Hop is Dead

Comments: Nas has always been a polarizing figure in the hip hop world. To some, he is nothing more than another rapper with pretty good skill who has been living off of one phenomenal debut (the classic “Illmatic”) for his entire career. To others, Nas is a thinking man’s gangster who is able to blend street life drug rap with higher thought; he is able to appeal to fans of crime rap and fans of “smart” rap. His is a career that has always been draped in dramatics and controversy; ever since his debut, he has had beef with everyone from (most famously) Jay-Z to (inexplicably) Young Jeezy. On his newest release, Nas is back again, and bringing more controversy with him. This time, he’s letting us all know that Hip Hop is dead, gone, and not coming back any time soon.

This album title alone has got people up in arms. Some agree with Nas; they say that true hip hop, a genre built from oppression and hardship that reflects such things, is a lost art that is no longer being respected. Others argue that this is bullshit. Look at all the rap music on the radio or on TV or in the record stores, they argue. How can Nas say that Hip Hop is dead when now, after 30 years of being ignored by pop culture, it is at its most prominent? I’m only here to review an album, not defend either side. But I will say that those of you turned off from this album by its name should get a clue and at least listen to the man’s argument. Because while it’s not always clear, and it’s not a classic, it’s still a fine hip hop record.

It doesn’t really start out fine though. The first five tracks have Nas in battle form. He calls out everyone and everything on the first five tracks, from people trying to take his money, to people trying to kill him, to people making bad music, to people who, um, can’t quote Kool Keith at will. These songs really start the album off with a stumble and a thud, as each of these tracks offer a few moments of tight lyrics buried under third rate west coast beats and verbal diarrhea. The best beat among these first five has got to be the Iron Butterfly sample found in the first single and titular track “Hip Hop is Dead”. This song is by far the best of the first five, but it deserves some better lyrics and a more accomplished third verse, especially because of how good the sampling and beat are.

Even if these first five are not the best, they are forgivable missteps for two reasons. The first is that each song has some redeeming value to it, so none of them are complete throw-away. The second reason is that for the six songs on the album, Nas moves away from his battle mode, focusing less on others and more on self-examination. “Black Republican” features a guest verse from Jay-Z, officially squashing any and all beef. A strong, if brief performance from both MCs. Jay sounds more alive on this track next to a former enemy than he did on his entire album from 06, giving me the idea that maybe Jay just plays to the level of his competition. “Who Killed It?” has Nas in full on 40’s PI mode, telling a crime story revolving around a good looking woman that men will kill for. It’s one of the best tracks on the CD, and is the most creative on Nas has done since “One Mic”. “Not Going Back”, “Still Dreaming”, “Hold Down the Block” and the unfortunately titled “Blunt Ash” make up the core of this CD. All are tracks in which Nas looks at himself and his own past mistakes to make commentary on the current state of the rap game. Two songs in particular have some really head turning production in this section of the album; “Still Dreaming” is proof that Kanye West still hasn’t fallen off, and “Blunt Ash” has a soupy kind of haze-production you would expect from someone like Madlib.

Despite a rather long track listing that could have used some more editing, and a few early stumbles, Nas continues to startle that line of crack music and thought music, keeping a toe on both sides. He is one of the giants of rap, regardless of how much commercial or critical acclaim he gets. At the same time, he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he may spend his career trying to top a genius debut. As it stands, “Hip Hop is Dead” is a good addition to a good career from one of hip hops biggest enigmas.

So is Hip Hop dead? That’s for you to listen, and for you to decide.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Key Tracks: “Who Killed It?” “Blunt Ash” “Not Going Back”

Worth The Money: It’s a stretch, but I’d say yes.

Monday, January 29

50th Post Extravaganza!!!

This is my 50th post. Woot!

Anyway, here's what this week looks like

Tuesday: Naz - Hip Hop is Dead

Thursday: Incubus - Light grenades

Saturday: Mr Dogg Classic - Jawbreaker or Old97's, I haven't decided yet.

that's about it. As always, if you feel like writing a review just email me which album you'd like to do and we'll work something out. See you all tomorrow.

-Mr Dogg.

PS: Mt Dogg is now on the myspace, so you damned kids can point out my spelling errors and assault me electronic. Technology, Ho!

Tuesday, January 23

The Good, The Bad, & Chinese Food

Artist: The Good, The Bad, & The Queen.
Album: The Good, The Bad, & The Queen.

Comments: There are a lot of things that I could say about this album that would give you a sense of what it sounds like. I could tell you that it is distinctly British in its nature, calling to mind all sorts of modern UK pop artists, from The Gorillaz to the Arctic Monkeys to Babyshambles to Muse. I could comment on the ethereal and polished nature of the production, which gives the record a grand, if somewhat unfriendly feel, and makes the songs seem formulaic and similar. However, I think that the best way for me to explain to you, the reader, how The Good, The Bad, & The Queen, self titled album sounds is to use a metaphor.

Imagine that, after a 40 minute wait on an empty stomach, the Chinese food you ordered finally arrives. You pay the delivery man and thank him, not even caring that your salutation was probably not understood due to his tenuous grasp of the English language. You rip open the packaging and bask in the golden brown goodness of your General Tso’s chicken. You dip your cheap plastic fork into one of the large, saucy nuggets, swirl it around in your white rice, and lustfully plunge the chicken into your mouth. And man oh man, that first bite (opening track “History Song”) is out of this world. It’s obviously chicken, a dish you’ve had before, but this is chicken in a whole new way; it tastes fresh and different and exotic. You could eat this for the rest of your life.

It doesn’t last, sadly. It never does. As you continue to gorge yourself on your hot, tasty meal, the euphoria starts to fade. The sauce is suddenly a little less appealing, the brown goodness of the fried meat cools, and all of a sudden, all you have is a cold plate of leftover chicken bits. So you put the food down, and you watch TV. You don’t throw the food out, however. Something about it makes you keep it. A few minutes later, it’s positively calling your name. So you go back and have a few more bites. Sadly, Chinese food and heroine share the same problem; it’s never as good the second time as it was the first time.

After the second good, but not great, helping of food, you take your Styrofoam tray to the kitchen and hold it over the trashcan. You are stuffed and groggy; a nap is going to happen in your immediate future. As you dangle the last few pieces of the once glorious chicken over the bottomless, all consuming trash can, you take one last piece of chicken out of the tin and pop it into your mouth. And it’s almost, ALMOST good enough to make you want to save the chicken for tomorrow later. 5 minutes later, you’re asleep in your bed and leftovers in the trash.

This is exactly what listening to “The Good, The Bad, & The Queen” is like . At first, it sounds like it’s going to take it’s brit pop influences and expand upon them in a really interesting way, but then it just leaves you bored and unfulfilled. After listening to the record, like after eating a big Chinese food dinner, you’ll be full for a little while but two hours later you’ll be hungry all over again.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Key Tracks: “Behind The Sun”, “A Soldier’s Tale” “History Song”

Worth The Money: Nope

Monday, January 22

Chemically Imbalanced

Artist: My Chemical Romance
Album: The Black Parade

Comments: My father, a man whose musical tastes are rarely called into question, is the man to blame for me listening to My Chemical Romance. At the suggestion of Rolling Stone magazine, my father bought MCR’s breakout record “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” to see what all the fuss was about. After listening to the record once he passed it on to me, with a preamble of “This record stinks”. I listened to it anyway, and I came to the same conclusion. But still, I hold that if he had never bought the stupid thing in the first place, I never would have listened to it.

I was ready to give this record a good review, and despite my sordid history with MCR, I was prepared to give “Welcome to the Black Parade” high marks. However, as I listened to the album over and over again, I find that while some songs truly do stand out, much of the record is lifeless. I think the reason that I wanted to give this album such praise is because of the big difference in My Chemical Romance’s sound on this record. They tossed aside the screamo style that made them hot topic hits for a more classic rock influenced sound. The reason they can do this and not completely fail, I think, is that modern emo and mid eighties stadium rock share a lot of the same principals, in theory and theatrics if not in sound. Both landscapes are full of over the top, unnecessary dramatics, and the “bigger is better” mentality. And a lot of the artists dress like women.

The songs that I like best on this album are the ones that sound the most like other people’s songs. For example, “Dead” features the big guitar riffing and choral vocal arrangement of Thin Lizzy. In fact, MCR is practically committing plagiarism, and I couldn’t care less. That’s how I know the song works; it’s able to show me exactly who they are stealing from, and the song still holds up as an independent wrong. The other place this works is on the title track “Welcome to the Black Parade”. I swear to God that this is, note for note, a Queen song. It’s got everything from the “emerging from the background” guitar solo, to the over the top womanly screams. And yet, it’s the large, grandness of the song that makes it good. It is, for lack of a better word, rocking. These two are better songs than anything I would have thought MCR capable of.

Ah, if only MCR could have kept this up for an entire album, it would be in contention with The Hold Steady for the title of “Last Great Rock Band”. Saldy, the rest of the album is mostly blandness. The classic rock ripping is still there, but it sounds forced. It’s very odd to me how a band can sound so natural and effortless on one song, and then sound so flat and uninspired the next; this is sadly the case on this record. It’s a shame, really. I was ready to throw all of my indie cred (whatever that’s worth) out the window and love up a record by a band that most people over the age of 13 find deplorable. A handful of (really) good songs cannot save an album that I was really prepared to like. At the end of the day, this album is a reminder that without real emotion in music, it’s as hollow as a stadium.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Key Tracks: “Dead” “The Sharpest Life” “Welcome to the Black Parade”

Worth The Money: :(

Wednesday, January 3

2/3rds of Pop Punk Powerhouse Bring More of the Same

Artist: +44

Album: When Your Heart Stops Beating

Comments:Of the two bands formed in the wake of the breakup of Blink 182, +44 has stayed closest to their pop punk roots on their debut “When Your Heart Stops Beating”. The first three songs on the album reflect this fact; “Lycanthrope”, “Baby Come On”, and “When Your Heart Stops Beating” serve as a three song blast of high octane pop punk designed to draw the listeners in. Of the three, “Baby Come On” is the real standout, as it features the best song writing and a really good hook.

After the three song assault that sounds largely like Alkaline Trio B sides, “Little Death” kicks in, brining with it the albums first instance of programming and electronica. +44 was originally going to be an electronica focused group before they decided to go the darker pop punk route, so it’s no surprise that this album has programmed drums and synth loops all over it. Sometimes this works very well like on “Little Death” and, the call and response heart wrencher of “Make You Smile”. However, it doesn’t always hold up especially when the band leans more on elctronica, rather than their instruments. It’s on those songs, where simplistic samples cannot lean on Hoppus’s lyrics for structure, that +44 really falters.

(A quick note on the electronica in this album: Here’s a question that I can’t seem to figure out: if you played in a pop punk band and your drummer was Travis Barker, arguably one of the most accomplished and talented drummers of any generation, why would you use programmed drums? The man is like a drum machine himself; some of the rhythms he is able to maintain almost defy time signatures all together. He is better with one arm than 95% of rock drummers, more than a fair share of Jazz drummers, and yet programmed drums are all over this record. I just don’t get it. This is like ordering a 18oz steak at Outback Steakhouse and filling up on bread and blooming onion before the food gets here; sure the appetizers are good, but the steak is in a league of its own. Ok, back to the review.)

The songwriting throughout the album is somewhat of an issue. Listening to the record, you can tell that Mark Hoppus is trying to progress his song writing past the sophomoric jokes and adolescent heartbreak of Blink 182’s catalogue. One sign of this maturity is the use of swear words; with Blink 182, words like fuck and shit were used as school yard punch lines to get an easy laugh. With +44, swear words are used as exclamations and expressions of emotion. Little things like that show an attempt at growth. Some songs, like “Baby Come On” work because of Hoppus’ more mature lyrical touch, but he also falters, especially on the first single “When Your Heart Stops Beating” and “No, It Isn’t”. It’s a shame that the song writing is so poor on “No It Isn’t”, because it’s one of the my favorite songs on the album musically.

This record works, except when it doesn’t. The electronica sounds good, except when there’s no pop punk to support it. The pop punk is good, but only when the electronica is there to balance it out. The songwriting is good, except for when it isn’t. Confused? Don’t be; +44’s debut is a record that shows a lot of promise and room for growth despite all of its short comings. This album picks up where Blink 182’s self titled album left off, with more serious subject matter and a more adult sound all together. +44 still sounds like Blink 182 at times, but they also show signs of becoming a band with an identity all their own. I’m looking forward to that, because they could be something. They just aren’t something yet.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Key Tracks: "Baby Come On", "Little Death", "Make You Smile"

Worth the Money: It depends. Blink 182 fans will like it, but others may not.