Lettermans

The Unseen – Quasimoto / Madlib

Oxnard, CA
2000

There's some music that just feels so near and dear to me before I even give it that many spins... I think it's because you can tell when an artists loves music as much as you do, and even more so when they love the same artists, genres, albums, whatever. That's why I love Madlib. When Madlib chooses to sample a track, it almost feels like an homage to the musical forefathers that came before him, even if he pulled their music out of a dusty crate for less than a dollar. The lineage of music that Madlib draws from on this record just feels so deliberate, and I appreciate every decision at every turn. That little horn sample that skips across "Microphone Mathematics" moves with so much swagger. "MHB's" sounds like the opening of heaven's gates. The David Axelrod sample on "Return of the Loop Digga" is shamelessly identifiable, but who cares, because does Madlib really need the credibility as a crate digger? Earlier on the track he hilariously sons a record store owner for having a weak collection: "Would you happen to have any uhh... Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff...? Oh you haven't heard of him?... Nah?... Aight man." His commitment to resurfacing music that he loves, regardless of it's geography, era, or popularity is just so pure, and I think that's what draws me to his music. I don't even think he makes it a point to show that he loves music. He just does, and we get to watch.

Own Pace – Medhane

Brooklyn, NY
2019

One of my friends has been trying to put me onto this whole sad boy rap circuit for a while now. The stars of the show are Earl, MIKE, Mavi, Navy Blue, Standing on the Corner, Medhane, and a couple more guys I'm surely missing. I was apprehensive to give the whole scene a chance, because I feel like the older you get, the more you really have to muster up the energy for "sad" music. I was obviously wrong for having believed that, and I was even more wrong for mislabeling their whole movement as "sad". These guys aren't sad; they're just tired. Their music is basically about self-actualization, much like the 2015 album that sparked this whole thing: Earl's sophomore LP, IDLSIDGO. It's music that's relatable by design, but in a way that's just more piercing and vulnerable than you'd expect. Navy, on "Stranger" spells it out: "Fightin' by the lead / Had to tighten up the leash .... / Keep on trekkin' 'til the goal is in reach." They sound exhausted. Young, but definitely weathered. The production styles show that their ears are definitely beyond their years too. The texture of "Walk With Me" is surely a Dilla reference; "Affirmation #1" feels like a dejected Late Registration B-side. At the same time there's some outrageously forward-looking stuff. That beat on "Whispers"? Son... I'm running out of room for that.

Second Life – Omar S

Detroit, MI
2020

Please don't take it lightly when I say that this might be my favorite Omar S song... Omar was basically my foundation in house music. The Best! was one of those very, very special albums in my life that introduced me to a world of music I never knew existed. This track, "Second Life," is arguably the centerpiece of his new album, You Want, and yeah, it delivers. The song is almost deliberately corny in topic: A club-going girl's life is crumbling due to her partying habits, and yet she just can't stay off the dance floor. Omar, who isn't exactly known for his vocals, kicks off the track by belting out a hilarious a capella performance to tell the story. By the time the bassline starts thumping, it becomes clear that Omar isn't here to help this poor girl... he is enabling her problem. At about 2:13, these keys come in and sit just behind his vocals, and it's subtle, but it's these little details that make the track so unbelievably good to me. The climax of the song is stretched into a 2-3 minute ordeal where it becomes unclear how many more ways he can bend the synth before the song snaps. It's aggressive, funny, and melodic in a way that only Detroit house can be, and that only Omar S can do. Oh, and the video is an instant classic. Probably my favorite of 2020.

Every Day I Ran – James Blake

London, UK
2013

Overgrown was my introduction to James Blake. I was late, and even when I started listening, it took a while for me to appreciate his whole... uhhh... dynamism. He would have these really interesting drum patterns that technically labeled his music as dubstep (not what you think) or even garage, but then there were obviously his vocal and acoustic piano performances that layered over top. Beyond the music, there were interviews where he would shoutout rappers, and they (read: Kanye) would even show love back. He was all over the place, but when he brought his influences together in a way that made sense, it was straight explosive. I went digging through my iTunes last weekend and revisited "Every Day I Ran," a bonus track from the album. I've had it on repeat since, and yet, every listen feels like hearing it for the first time. The song starts with a Big Boi a capella sample and pretty much maintains that air of unpredictability throughout. At about the 1:02 mark there's this synth that he brings in... and it just stays... and believe me, you never want it to leave. You'd think that a warped Southern rap sample over synthy, atmospheric production would be the type of stuff you'd find in the Yung Lean-influenced depths of SoundCloud, but somehow Blake makes it work.

What Kinda Music – Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes

Peckham, London, UK
2020

I discovered Yussef Dayes a couple years ago as one half of Peckham-based Jazz duo Yussef Kamaal (the other half being multi-instrumentalist Kamaal Williams). As a group, I thought their music was "cool" but also kinda sterile and inoffensive, almost designed to slot into those "chill lo-fi instrumental study music" playlists. It was alright, but just not my thing. So, when I saw that Yussef was doing a joint album with Tom Misch, I thought it would be a good chance to hear him play in a totally new, presumably more vibrant context. "What Kinda Music" is the first single off their namesake album, and I think they've definitely got one here... At first I thought it was weird to credit a drummer so prominently on a pop record, but it's mixed in a way that makes Yussef's drums the single most piercing layer of sound; when he really gets going, you can physically feel it in your ears. The production in general also just feels expensive... The string orchestra that comes in around ~2:49 brings a sweeping movement that might've been pulled straight from one of Radiohead's In Rainbows sessions. Tom's vocals aren't bad too, yeah? If this is the general palette they're running with, and if Tom continues to try his hand at being Thom, I definitely won't be mad at it.

Fading Love – George Fitzgerald

London, UK / Berlin, Germany
2015

When I was in the 5th grade I had some cousins from Iran move in with me and my immediate family, and with them, they brought a ton of euro-trash techno music that all the Persian kids were up on in 2005. That was my introduction to electronic music. I'm not gonna lie, I was into it, and I still have some of those Tiesto mixes from way back. They're still good! Nonetheless, there was a stretch from about 2009 to 2017 where I didn't even touch anything electronic in the slightest. But then I spent a good 5 months in London... bro... London... it wasn't until I came back that the digging began. One of the dance records that I'd saved the following summer was George Fitzgerald's Fading Love. It somehow stayed out of my rotation for 3 years, but I finally got around to it and... it's incredible. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of vocal-heavy, pop-y, almost Scandinavian-sounding dance music, but track after track, it manages to win me over despite itself. The pulse on "Full Circle" is just undeniable. That synth on "Knife to the Heart" is more like a tractor beam. At under 40 min, the pacing is almost flawless, and yet, on some listens it's taken me over 2 hours to get through because of tracks I just couldn't let finish. One of the most universally accessible dance records I've ever heard. Guaranteed to get a room moving.

Summer14inBrazil – Floating Points

Manchester, England / Minas Gerais, Brazil
2014

Back in 2015 I was on a road trip with my family and needed to put something on to help me fall asleep in the back; I threw on Floating Points' Elaenia, and what I got instead was one of the most meticulously-crafted, slow-burning electronic albums I'd ever heard. I was up from start to finish, probably making that cringe face people do when listening to something really good. Since that first spin, Elaenia has grown to become arguably my favorite electronic album, and likewise Sam Shepherd my favorite artist of his kind. No matter how deep I've dug into his catalog over the last 5 years, I've always found some sort of hidden gem that I somehow missed on previous searches. Last week I went digging into his SoundCloud and found a handful of mixes from 2013 and '14, one of which was an 86-minute compilation of classic Brazilian records... I rarely find music this tailored for me, and bro... it delivered. Highlights include Tim Maia's "Contato Com O Mundo Racional" (17:50), Simone's cover of "Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser" (28:46), Azymuth's "Melo Dos Dois Bicudos" (59:10), and a ton more. For those of you who are into ripping .mp3s, there's a download link in the track description and also a guy in the comments posting a link to the tracklist. I'm not going to make separately-dedicated posts, but I also recommend his "Summer13at45" mix, and obviously Elaenia, Shadows, Crush, Vacuum Boogie, etc.

Best Interest – Tyler, the Creator

Ladera Heights, CA
2019

I grabbed dinner with some friends earlier this week and we talked about Tyler's evolution over the last 10(!) years; I was surprised to be the only one that preferred his more recent work. Don't get me wrong – his early stuff was always cool to me because I could tell he was a part of that lineage of my favorite weirdo rappers, and also that he had an appreciation for the music that came before him: Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, Ronnie McNeir, Krautrock, whatever. You could also tell he was a real "music kid" by how he recalled his favorite songs by their track numbers. This IGOR era though... musically, it's just different. It feels lush and expensive in a way that pop music hasn't been since, well, the days of Pharrell. The way he layered the electric guitar with the soul sample here immediately took me back to the guitar solo at the end of "Christian Dior Denim Flow". If you ask Tyler though, his analogue is probably N.E.R.D. Nonetheless, it's all one and the same. It's pop, but it's also subversive. It's triumphant, but in a way that's intended to let you know he's not supposed to have the life he has now. All this for a song about being someone's sidepiece. And the video? Man...

The Ecstatic – Mos Def

Brooklyn, NY
2009

I remember exactly where I was when I heard "Auditorium" for the first time 10 years ago. I was in the 9th (10th?) grade and had caught the bus to my friend's house after school. It was ritual to spend 1-2 hours a day digging through YouTube and WorldStar for new music. Being a Persian kid who played the cello and who was deeply obsessed with production styles, the Bollywood sample here caught my attention in the most... natural way. The album in general is dominated by Middle Eastern sounds and internationalist, Pan-Islamic ideas, blending the conscious Brooklyn style you'd expect from Mos Def with the sounds of Indian, Brazilian, and Moroccan pop music. I'm sure I'm missing more than a dozen other geographic references. One of my favorite details is how it also served as a precursor to Kanye's whole Good Friday / Rosewood era. I was actually prompted to revisit the album a few weeks ago with the 9-year anniversary of MBDTF, accidentally uncovering so many details that I didn't catch the first time around: the loop on "History"; the way he guides the pulse of "No Hay Nada Mas"; the careful restraint of "Pistola"; the shameless positivity of "Priority"... It's just an all-round genius and lovable album.

Olha O Menino – Caetano Veloso

Santo Amaro, Bahia, Brazil
1977

I found this record by digging up the sample from Karriem Riggins's "Summer Madness". Earlier this year I'd already started to make the foray into Brazilian pop music with Milton Nascimento's Clube da Esquina, some random Arthur Verocai records, and the obligatory Madlib Flight to Brazil. All of them were good, but they seemed like foundational starting-point type records. I'm still trying to learn more, and this Caetano Veloso record might be the one to finally push me further into the rabbit hole. "Olha O Menino" fits right into the whole "Música Popular Brasileira" (MPB) canon with one of the most infectious, sun-bleached hooks I've ever heard. The bassline on this song is... not from this planet. Like pretty much all of my favorite artists, Veloso brings an unusual use of textures, like the random rhodes keyboard hanging out somewhere in the back, and the ornate string arrangements that would normally feel out-of-place on a record likely inspired by kids playing barefoot street soccer.

The Unseen – Quasimoto / Madlib

Oxnard, CA
2000

There's some music that just feels so near and dear to me before I even give it that many spins... I think it's because you can tell when an artists loves music as much as you do, and even more so when they love the same artists, genres, albums, whatever. That's why I love Madlib. When Madlib chooses to sample a track, it almost feels like an homage to the musical forefathers that came before him, even if he pulled their music out of a dusty crate for less than a dollar. The lineage of music that Madlib draws from on this record just feels so deliberate, and I appreciate every decision at every turn. That little horn sample that skips across "Microphone Mathematics" moves with so much swagger. "MHB's" sounds like the opening of heaven's gates. The David Axelrod sample on "Return of the Loop Digga" is shamelessly identifiable, but who cares, because does Madlib really need the credibility as a crate digger? Earlier on the track he hilariously sons a record store owner for having a weak collection: "Would you happen to have any uhh... Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff...? Oh you haven't heard of him?... Nah?... Aight man." His commitment to resurfacing music that he loves, regardless of it's geography, era, or popularity is just so pure, and I think that's what draws me to his music. I don't even think he makes it a point to show that he loves music. He just does, and we get to watch.

Own Pace – Medhane

Brooklyn, NY
2019

One of my friends has been trying to put me onto this whole sad boy rap circuit for a while now. The stars of the show are Earl, MIKE, Mavi, Navy Blue, Standing on the Corner, Medhane, and a couple more guys I'm surely missing. I was apprehensive to give the whole scene a chance, because I feel like the older you get, the more you really have to muster up the energy for "sad" music. I was obviously wrong for having believed that, and I was even more wrong for mislabeling their whole movement as "sad". These guys aren't sad; they're just tired. Their music is basically about self-actualization, much like the 2015 album that sparked this whole thing: Earl's sophomore LP, IDLSIDGO. It's music that's relatable by design, but in a way that's just more piercing and vulnerable than you'd expect. Navy, on "Stranger" spells it out: "Fightin' by the lead / Had to tighten up the leash .... / Keep on trekkin' 'til the goal is in reach." They sound exhausted. Young, but definitely weathered. The production styles show that their ears are definitely beyond their years too. The texture of "Walk With Me" is surely a Dilla reference; "Affirmation #1" feels like a dejected Late Registration B-side. At the same time there's some outrageously forward-looking stuff. That beat on "Whispers"? Son... I'm running out of room for that.

Second Life – Omar S

Detroit, MI
2020

Please don't take it lightly when I say that this might be my favorite Omar S song... Omar was basically my foundation in house music. The Best! was one of those very, very special albums in my life that introduced me to a world of music I never knew existed. This track, "Second Life," is arguably the centerpiece of his new album, You Want, and yeah, it delivers. The song is almost deliberately corny in topic: A club-going girl's life is crumbling due to her partying habits, and yet she just can't stay off the dance floor. Omar, who isn't exactly known for his vocals, kicks off the track by belting out a hilarious a capella performance to tell the story. By the time the bassline starts thumping, it becomes clear that Omar isn't here to help this poor girl... he is enabling her problem. At about 2:13, these keys come in and sit just behind his vocals, and it's subtle, but it's these little details that make the track so unbelievably good to me. The climax of the song is stretched into a 2-3 minute ordeal where it becomes unclear how many more ways he can bend the synth before the song snaps. It's aggressive, funny, and melodic in a way that only Detroit house can be, and that only Omar S can do. Oh, and the video is an instant classic. Probably my favorite of 2020.

Every Day I Ran – James Blake

London, UK
2013

Overgrown was my introduction to James Blake. I was late, and even when I started listening, it took a while for me to appreciate his whole... uhhh... dynamism. He would have these really interesting drum patterns that technically labeled his music as dubstep (not what you think) or even garage, but then there were obviously his vocal and acoustic piano performances that layered over top. Beyond the music, there were interviews where he would shoutout rappers, and they (read: Kanye) would even show love back. He was all over the place, but when he brought his influences together in a way that made sense, it was straight explosive. I went digging through my iTunes last weekend and revisited "Every Day I Ran," a bonus track from the album. I've had it on repeat since, and yet, every listen feels like hearing it for the first time. The song starts with a Big Boi a capella sample and pretty much maintains that air of unpredictability throughout. At about the 1:02 mark there's this synth that he brings in... and it just stays... and believe me, you never want it to leave. You'd think that a warped Southern rap sample over synthy, atmospheric production would be the type of stuff you'd find in the Yung Lean-influenced depths of SoundCloud, but somehow Blake makes it work.

What Kinda Music – Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes

Peckham, London, UK
2020

I discovered Yussef Dayes a couple years ago as one half of Peckham-based Jazz duo Yussef Kamaal (the other half being multi-instrumentalist Kamaal Williams). As a group, I thought their music was "cool" but also kinda sterile and inoffensive, almost designed to slot into those "chill lo-fi instrumental study music" playlists. It was alright, but just not my thing. So, when I saw that Yussef was doing a joint album with Tom Misch, I thought it would be a good chance to hear him play in a totally new, presumably more vibrant context. "What Kinda Music" is the first single off their namesake album, and I think they've definitely got one here... At first I thought it was weird to credit a drummer so prominently on a pop record, but it's mixed in a way that makes Yussef's drums the single most piercing layer of sound; when he really gets going, you can physically feel it in your ears. The production in general also just feels expensive... The string orchestra that comes in around ~2:49 brings a sweeping movement that might've been pulled straight from one of Radiohead's In Rainbows sessions. Tom's vocals aren't bad too, yeah? If this is the general palette they're running with, and if Tom continues to try his hand at being Thom, I definitely won't be mad at it.

Fading Love – George Fitzgerald

London, UK / Berlin, Germany
2015

When I was in the 5th grade I had some cousins from Iran move in with me and my immediate family, and with them, they brought a ton of euro-trash techno music that all the Persian kids were up on in 2005. That was my introduction to electronic music. I'm not gonna lie, I was into it, and I still have some of those Tiesto mixes from way back. They're still good! Nonetheless, there was a stretch from about 2009 to 2017 where I didn't even touch anything electronic in the slightest. But then I spent a good 5 months in London... bro... London... it wasn't until I came back that the digging began. One of the dance records that I'd saved the following summer was George Fitzgerald's Fading Love. It somehow stayed out of my rotation for 3 years, but I finally got around to it and... it's incredible. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of vocal-heavy, pop-y, almost Scandinavian-sounding dance music, but track after track, it manages to win me over despite itself. The pulse on "Full Circle" is just undeniable. That synth on "Knife to the Heart" is more like a tractor beam. At under 40 min, the pacing is almost flawless, and yet, on some listens it's taken me over 2 hours to get through because of tracks I just couldn't let finish. One of the most universally accessible dance records I've ever heard. Guaranteed to get a room moving.

Summer14inBrazil – Floating Points

Manchester, England / Minas Gerais, Brazil
2014

Back in 2015 I was on a road trip with my family and needed to put something on to help me fall asleep in the back; I threw on Floating Points' Elaenia, and what I got instead was one of the most meticulously-crafted, slow-burning electronic albums I'd ever heard. I was up from start to finish, probably making that cringe face people do when listening to something really good. Since that first spin, Elaenia has grown to become arguably my favorite electronic album, and likewise Sam Shepherd my favorite artist of his kind. No matter how deep I've dug into his catalog over the last 5 years, I've always found some sort of hidden gem that I somehow missed on previous searches. Last week I went digging into his SoundCloud and found a handful of mixes from 2013 and '14, one of which was an 86-minute compilation of classic Brazilian records... I rarely find music this tailored for me, and bro... it delivered. Highlights include Tim Maia's "Contato Com O Mundo Racional" (17:50), Simone's cover of "Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser" (28:46), Azymuth's "Melo Dos Dois Bicudos" (59:10), and a ton more. For those of you who are into ripping .mp3s, there's a download link in the track description and also a guy in the comments posting a link to the tracklist. I'm not going to make separately-dedicated posts, but I also recommend his "Summer13at45" mix, and obviously Elaenia, Shadows, Crush, Vacuum Boogie, etc.

Best Interest – Tyler, the Creator

Ladera Heights, CA
2019

I grabbed dinner with some friends earlier this week and we talked about Tyler's evolution over the last 10(!) years; I was surprised to be the only one that preferred his more recent work. Don't get me wrong – his early stuff was always cool to me because I could tell he was a part of that lineage of my favorite weirdo rappers, and also that he had an appreciation for the music that came before him: Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, Ronnie McNeir, Krautrock, whatever. You could also tell he was a real "music kid" by how he recalled his favorite songs by their track numbers. This IGOR era though... musically, it's just different. It feels lush and expensive in a way that pop music hasn't been since, well, the days of Pharrell. The way he layered the electric guitar with the soul sample here immediately took me back to the guitar solo at the end of "Christian Dior Denim Flow". If you ask Tyler though, his analogue is probably N.E.R.D. Nonetheless, it's all one and the same. It's pop, but it's also subversive. It's triumphant, but in a way that's intended to let you know he's not supposed to have the life he has now. All this for a song about being someone's sidepiece. And the video? Man...

The Ecstatic – Mos Def

Brooklyn, NY
2009

I remember exactly where I was when I heard "Auditorium" for the first time 10 years ago. I was in the 9th (10th?) grade and had caught the bus to my friend's house after school. It was ritual to spend 1-2 hours a day digging through YouTube and WorldStar for new music. Being a Persian kid who played the cello and who was deeply obsessed with production styles, the Bollywood sample here caught my attention in the most... natural way. The album in general is dominated by Middle Eastern sounds and internationalist, Pan-Islamic ideas, blending the conscious Brooklyn style you'd expect from Mos Def with the sounds of Indian, Brazilian, and Moroccan pop music. I'm sure I'm missing more than a dozen other geographic references. One of my favorite details is how it also served as a precursor to Kanye's whole Good Friday / Rosewood era. I was actually prompted to revisit the album a few weeks ago with the 9-year anniversary of MBDTF, accidentally uncovering so many details that I didn't catch the first time around: the loop on "History"; the way he guides the pulse of "No Hay Nada Mas"; the careful restraint of "Pistola"; the shameless positivity of "Priority"... It's just an all-round genius and lovable album.

Olha O Menino – Caetano Veloso

Santo Amaro, Bahia, Brazil
1977

I found this record by digging up the sample from Karriem Riggins's "Summer Madness". Earlier this year I'd already started to make the foray into Brazilian pop music with Milton Nascimento's Clube da Esquina, some random Arthur Verocai records, and the obligatory Madlib Flight to Brazil. All of them were good, but they seemed like foundational starting-point type records. I'm still trying to learn more, and this Caetano Veloso record might be the one to finally push me further into the rabbit hole. "Olha O Menino" fits right into the whole "Música Popular Brasileira" (MPB) canon with one of the most infectious, sun-bleached hooks I've ever heard. The bassline on this song is... not from this planet. Like pretty much all of my favorite artists, Veloso brings an unusual use of textures, like the random rhodes keyboard hanging out somewhere in the back, and the ornate string arrangements that would normally feel out-of-place on a record likely inspired by kids playing barefoot street soccer.