I'm slowly but surely getting more into this post-Earl lo-fi rap scene... Navy's been dropping a handful of loosies on SoundCloud to get through the quarantine, and this one was my favorite. Like the rest of Navy's stuff, it blurs the line between triumphant and depressed; victorious and dejected. The production features a gorgeous sample flip and some basic drums that never really pick up tempo or volume. It moves at a very leisurely pace, as if Navy were to drag his feet across the track for 3 minutes. His music has an almost Drake-like appeal to it where you know you're clearly listening to a winner, but they've just grown weary and paranoid with along the way... "Who am I kidding cutting through the frigid air / It's Navy Blue, I'm catered to, I made it work / I hate to lose, I made it through with all this hurt".
I found this kid Thomie while digging around on SoundCloud one night, and this mix was my entry point. I'd made a few mixes before myself, and what I always strived to do was something different from the standard 60-minute, 120bpm thumping dance mixes. That's boring. Not fun to make, and even less fun to listen to. I liked this idea of blending together music that wasn't necessarily supposed to be heard side-by-side, and yet still making it work. I think this is the first time I've seen someone else doing the same thing, and the fact that their selection is incredible makes it even better. The whole thing is just really tastefully done. The intro features a little excerpt of a Brian Eno interview where he discusses his unexpected preference for natural tones and textures, which is funny because his career was obviously built on electronic sounds and synth manipulation. What follows the intro is an unbelievably lush mix of ambient, pop, soul, acoustic, and synth music spanning dozens of subgenres and countries in-between. Highlights include Tennis's "Runner" (19:34), Lou Rebecca's "Waiting" (27:25), Scott Gilmore's "Europe" (42:10), and a ton more. There is no tracklist, so yeah, I had to Shazam those. A ton of tracks aren't even Shazam-able. Thomie has some other cool stuff on his SoundCloud too, like a remix of Kanye's "Jesus is Lord", which I thought was an under-appreciated track from Jesus is King, so that was cool to see.
I went to Coachella for the first time last year (2019) and saw a lot of good shows. I was front row for what I think was Aphex Twin's 9th live performance of the decade; I saw Kanye's first-ever public Sunday Service; I saw Yves Tumor while standing in the crowd directly next to Virgil Abloh, who I then watched DJ the very next day. All of these were good experiences, but my favorite set of the weekend was easily Four Tet. They gave him the ideal slot: 7:30pm under the Mojave Tent. It was starting to get darker just as he began his set, and I remember the whole show had an almost film-like arc where the music became a bit more ethereal as the sun slowly set on the festival... There were no lights or anything for his show, either. Kieran literally just had 2 lamps on a standing desk on stage, used to illuminate his decks. Towards the end I remember it being so dark I could hardly see my own hands, and it was then, that Kieran dropped this track. I didn't think it would ever be formally released, but here we are. There was just something really pure about someone on stage in a grey tee shirt, no lights, doing an absolutely no-frills performance and mixing this a capella sample about racism in the 90s. Coachella is obviously a safe haven for hippies and "progressive" types, but his mid-set PSA felt appropriate and borderline required even in 2019.
Let's be honest... this is probably album of the year. No one is topping this in the next 8 months. Since I first caught wind of his music on the 2017 PAN compilation, Mono No Aware, Yves has been arguably the most difficult artist to grasp, label, define, confine, or control in any sense of the word. He is totally amorphous. When you think you've got him figured out, he shows an entirely new dimension that you never knew was within him. He deliberately obfuscates pretty much all physical or autobiographical information you could ascertain from him outside of his music; when performing live, he literally renders himself as a silhouette in a cowboy hat: an amalgamation of contradictions. And to me, the novelty of this whole Yves Tumor "project" is rooted in contradiction. Tumor is black, non-binary, sexually fluid, and almost completely absent from the public sphere, and yet, he's an undisputed commercial rock star, arguably one of this generation's best album artists, and surely one of the most emphatic live performers we've seen. What makes this crazy is that he hasn't even given us much to see. And let's not forget the reason we're even discussing him: The music... the music is just undeniably good. Unpredictable as ever, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is essentially a stadium rock album, channeling Shoegaze, Britpop, Krautrock, and psychedelic rock all at once. Again, these weren't even reference points for him prior to this album. He has pulled this out of thin air. Two years ago people were comparing him to Brian Eno, and now it's Prince. Both comparisons are warranted. The intro here, "Gospel For A New Century", features one of the most satisfying basslines I've ever heard. "Kerosene" is just a strikingly beautiful duet; his attention to song structure really comes to the fore here with an almost window-shattering guitar solo somehow slotting into the middle. Like his previous album, there is a "middle stretch" that serves as the album's climax. Here, we get "Romanticist" into "Dream Palette" and then "Super Stars". The first 38 seconds of "Dream Palette" build tension with literal fireworks leading up to arguably the album's finest moment. And then there's "Super Stars," which sways back and forth like the hands of the imaginary stadiums he's filling. It's a shame he hasn't filled any yet, but more than any album this year, Heaven to a Tortured Mind deserves to be heard by an audience of 60,000, minimum.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Egon (@nowagain) and he talked a bit about his friendship with Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), but still, I wasn't prepared to see the news that 1) Madlib is dropping a new solo album, at a time where his mainstream relevance seems to be heightened by his work with Freddie Gibbs, and that 2) Kieran is assisting with arranging, editing, and sequencing. Although the album will be billed as Madlib's, it's really a mindmeld between two of my all-time favorites. So, naturally, I love the single. Madlib just has a way of squeezing every ounce of emotion out of his samples, often zooming into a single microscopic segment and looping it until you discover new details on the 1,000th iteration. He also has a great sense of spacing; sample-driven music has natural limitations, but Madlib times the entrance and exit of each sound perfectly, often "breaking" his loops for a fraction of a second to add variety and avoid congestion in the arrangement. There's a bit more of that here on "Road of the Lonely Ones", where he flips The Ethics's gorgeous "Lost in a Lonely World" for the main vocal theme, but also "Now Is The Time" for the little intro theme. The drum break (from Lou Donaldson's "Ode to Billie Joe") is also just so satisfyingly sharp, which is actually kinda uncharacteristic for a Madlib beat. Not that I prefer the "correct-ness" of the sound here – I know a lot of people have fetishized the off-kilter, lo-fi feel of Madlib's (and to an even greater extent, Dilla's) drum patterns, and as a fan I love them all the same – but I do think the added "polish" here is definitely Four Tet's doing. To be clear, I welcome the change, and for better or for worse, it'll help amplify Madlib's music to a wider audience once this inevitably gets fed into all of the streaming algorithms, etc. Part of me cringes at the thought of someone discovering Madlib through one of those dystopian "chill lo-fi beats to study to" playlists, but if it gets him paid, then I'm for it. Anyways, cynicism aside, I love this single, I love Madlib, I love Four Tet, and I'm super excited for the album, Sound Ancestors.
The Guardian recently wrote a review for Rico Nasty's new album, Nightmare Vacation, and in it, they tried their hand at defining hyperpop: "this year’s buzzy, catch-all term for candied pixelations of J-pop, EDM, hip-hop, rock and chipmunk vocals that is aesthetically rooted in the 00s, and is either the coolest thing to happen on TikTok or is like what Hudson Mohawke was making 10 years ago." I thought the HudMo nod was nice, and even though I'd been listening to him since his work with Lunice back in 2012 (as TNGHT), I admittedly never caught the parallels with his solo work and today's renewed interests in Bladee, chipmunk soul, and uhhh... 100 Gecs. But yeah, he was ahead of his time, as they say. While the thundering horns he did on "Blood On The Leaves" remain a one-off, you do hear aspects of his work on, say, Rico Nasty's "iPhone". I used to, and still think that the sound is a bit too dramatic for my liking, but I can dig it. What I liked about Mohawke though was that he had a wider palette, and I think that comes through on Poom Gems, where he mostly just sounds like the forward-thinking hip-hop producer I came to know him as. Poom Gems, along with Airborne Lard and B.B.H.E, rounds out a series of 3 compilations he released earlier this year, encapsulating all of the loosies that fans have been trading on KTT for the last 5-7 years. While this post is technically titled after the former, it could very well be about all 3; they're all good. Airborne Lard for example includes "Be Ur Fantasy", which some fans might recognize as the earliest iteration of the instrumental from Pusha T's "No Regrets". Poom Gems includes most of my personal favorites: "Solstice Izo", "Need U Here", "Sweet Silverskin", "Hoiarp", and "Foam Finger" – these tracks paint a picture of a goofy Scottish dude with a sense of humor, but also a great ear for textures, which made him one of the most exciting and dynamic contributors to projects like Yeezus and Nothing Was The Same.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about how quarantine is causing people to revert back to the music of their childhood, myself included. After sending that out, I received at least 10 responses from people saying how much that resonated with them, and it got me thinking: What exactly did I grow up on? It's easy to forget some of the details, as the most obvious essentials stay at the forefront of your memory and style, while others trigger reflexes that you don't even notice, like reciting every word to a verse without really thinking about it. I think Daft Punk slipped into the latter category for me. Thinking about it now though, I remember back in like 2006 there was this Norwegian kid that lived about a block from our middle school. I would walk over to his place after school sometimes and we would kick around a soccer ball and listen to music. This kid was super into Daft Punk, and I specifically remember him putting me onto the song "Aerodynamic", from Discovery. And although I didn't know it at the time, that guitar solo would send me down a 10-15 year rabbit hole of searching for even more French dance music, and along the way, gaining an even bigger appreciation for Daft Punk, their popularization of fringe movements, and how they educated audiences without diluting their club scene reference points. There's actually an interview they did with Rolling Stone back in 2013 where they talk about how the whole robot schtick allowed them to have more commercial appeal than they otherwise would have; without the covering, they're just extremely nerdy, middle-aged French dudes who are equally likely to geek out over modular synths as they are to Fleetwood Mac. And it wasn't until 2013's RAM that I realized that although a lot of their music can be brash and aggressive (especially here on Homework), most of their reference points are actually from the most warm and radiant music out there: Chic, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Wonder, Philip Glass, Beach Boys, The Eagles, Giorgio Moroder, and just a ton of 70s disco. The disco influence was always something I especially loved, since the whole culture around it is about a shameless love for music itself: the embellished string arrangements, the belting vocals, the strut of the guitar riffs... the "biggest" tracks always felt like monuments in music – a testament to just how *good* music can be. As a kid who grew up playing the cello, the warmth and richness of these songs became an obsession for me; at the same time, I could hear how they lived on through the more industrial-sounding tracks in Daft Punk's early catalog. When I first heard "Teachers" as a 13-year old, maybe I couldn't make too many connections, but as an 18-year old, the lights did start to flicker. "Revolution 909" for example is like the perfect club song. The propulsion of that synth that underlies the latter half of the song definitely drew from the same well as Todd Edwards. And then there's "Fresh", one of the great slow-burning house records, but it doesn't have any sort of "drop", release of tension, whatever. But who cares – with a loop like that you don't really need one. It puts you in a state of maybe waiting for something, and then forgetting what you may have been waiting for, and then losing the sense of waiting altogether. Yes, the ocean sound effects are a bit on-the-nose, but if you're the type of person who'd scoff at that, you probably wouldn't have even bothered after seeing the helmets. It's that shamelessness that I love most about Daft Punk. Like yeah, I will blast "Around the World" in my headphones as I make my way through international airports. They've carried that shamelessness with them throughout their career, and it has a way of rubbing off on the audience, almost as if what they do behind their helmets is what we'd all like to do in the privacy of our homes, headphones, etc.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love a good vocal-driven dance song. There's something about the human voice that triggers us in a way that no bassline or synth can. It's what makes gospel music so interesting to me too – when you have a choir of +50 vocalists it just creates this impenetrable wall of sound, and when you repurpose that effect on the dancefloor, it's literally heavenly. Anyhow, a couple weeks ago I saw Mixmag posted an article titled "VOCAL HOUSE: THE 30 ALL-TIME BIGGEST ANTHEMS". I skimmed through the article, and basically every selection was immense. One of the songs was Dominica's "Gotta Let You Go", which was great, but I felt like the song restrained itself just as it was about to climax. Enter the YouTube "Recommended Videos" bar (the most reliable source of information in my life), which suggested this Bicep remix. With all due respect, where the original fell flat, this one just keeps climbing. When those keys come in at 3:33... If there were ever a song guaranteed to get a room moving, it's this.
Ok so for most of this COVID-era (March - November, currently), I had been in a bit of a rut musically. Despite being home all day and having more time on my hands, I've somehow been spending less time listening to and digging for new music. But, the one thing that has been a consistent source of light for me has actually been a Facebook group designed for the original attendees of the Paradise Garage: a Black and LGBT nightclub that operated in Manhattan from about '77 to '87, held down by legendary resident DJ Larry Levan. The Facebook group is primarily for older folks who actually attended the Garage. It's a space for them to share photos, music, and bond over memories, but it also has some kids around my age, including a Harvard anthropology student interviewing members on the culture and rituals of the club. For those of you interested in learning more about the Garage, I won't be able to serve it justice within the limitations of these Lettermans posts, so I highly recommend checking out some of the music and reading material independently... But anyhow, the Garage, and more specifically Larry, was known for a distinctly-branded disco and soul sound, driven by booming vocals and ornate string arrangements. Members will often share music that they remember being played at the club, and that's how I found this gem by Joe Smooth... Now, I have a habit of developing really intense obsessions with single tracks, but my obsession with the title track here – "Promised Land" – is unusually deep... I played this song for about 7-10 days straight, not bothering to listen to or even consider anything else. There were times where I was up at 6:30am blasting this while brushing my teeth, more geeked up than if I'd had a double shot of espresso. This song prompted me to get back and post on Lettermans after a 6-month hiatus. Without trying to be funny or corny, or whatever, this is the type of song that can add clarity to your most life-changing decisions, if you've been mulling over any. "Promised Land" is one of those songs that just goes directly to the source material that so many other songs aim for. If you want to make heavenly music, just make the hook this: "When the angels from above / Fall down and spread their wings like doves / And we'll walk hand in hand / Sisters, brothers, we'll make it to the Promised Land".
No joke – I discovered this album through one of those memes on twitter (cc: @gum_mp3) where an astronaut is looking at something in space, and another astronaut behind him puts a gun to his head; the first guy was saying "Wait, this is the best house album?", and the gun guy was like, "Yeah, always has been". So yeah, I checked out Black Mahogani, and yes, I was blown away pretty much as soon as I hit the 2nd track. I've listened to a ton of Detroit house, but this is a totally different experience altogether. The album is dark, cinematic, and generally broody, almost like a film noir house record, but set inside of a '71 Cutlass with velvet interior. It draws from Detroit-centric film dialogue and 70s Motown music to create a hazy, almost psychedelic mise en scène of cruising around the city 50 years ago or staring at the ceiling of a basement jazz lounge at 3am. His use of live instrumentation, be it rhodes keys, standup bass, strings, or just extremely raw sounding vocals gives the music an unusually intimate feeling for a house record, and unlike attempts from more recent "internet DJs" like DJ Boring and Mall Grab, this stuff actually feels designed for private consumption. I especially love the tasteful racial commentary: "Riley's Song" kicks off with a sample from Marvin Gaye's What's Going On; "Mahogani 9000" opens with a sample of a woman calling white men in downtown Detroit "a minority race", and closes with an iconic sample from the 1972 Blaxploitation film, Super Fly. The music itself is also wholly unlike anything I've ever heard... "Roberta Jean Machine" is maybe my definition of a "perfect song" with the way the strings lurch over bossa nova style percussion, the way the horns and chopped vocals chime in in the back... Still, I have heard nothing like it. Even the more upbeat segments of the album, like the back-to-back "Runaway" and "I'm Doing Fine" just don't really feel fit for the dancefloor... He splices in audio of Black friends greeting each other in a way that makes the event feel more relaxed and informal. So really, it's more fit for your living room, but like, with The Mack playing in the background, and with select guests smoked out trying to recall the events of the night.
I discovered Duval Timothy when Frank included one of his songs ("Ball") on Blonded Radio, and then a couple weeks later when Solange sampled him on When I Get Home (she flipped "No" at the end of "Dreams"). If Solange and Frank were showing love, I took that as signal that I should at least give him a spin. So, I checked out Sen Am, Brown Loop, and a couple other loosies, but was left pretty unimpressed. It felt like the type of fake-deep, pseudo-intellectual music that kids would play once they graduated from listening to Soulection. A lot of one-handed piano tracks, where the sparseness was maybe supposed to communicate some sense of deep sophistication, or whatever. On one hand, I could see why Frank would post it, but on the other hand, it definitely wasn't the finished product. About a year later I saw Jacques Greene sharing the song "Still Happened" from this new release, so I gave him another shot, and wow... This is one of my favorite albums this year. Duval seems to have been hanging out with more of the London cool kids for this one, and in particular, I think Vegyn may have been the most positive influence on the album. You can hear a lot of textures lifted directly from his work, and it's probably been the difference-maker here on Help. Vegyn also mentioned in a couple interviews about how his last album, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, was based on this idea of "happy melancholia" – feelings that aren't necessarily sad, but just reflective of the full human experience – and that's arguably the best description of how this album makes me feel. There is a general air of depression over the project, but like, it's not debilitating. The cover evokes similarly contrasting emotions. Where his earlier stuff aimed for minimalist-chic and landed on drab, Help takes Timothy's natural piano-playing abilities and warps them with Vegyn-style tinny percussion and emotional synths, which just makes for a more engaging listen. When you include more textured tunes like "Like" and "Still Happened", the more airy tracks like "9" and "Ice" become more interesting.
Like most fans, I caught wind of the Pauls back in 2013, when Jai's EP leaked. I was in my 12th grade English class when one of my best friends, who sat right behind me, was like "Yo, you need to check this out, people are going crazy." I saw the Chelsea kit on the cover, and even though I was a United fan, I was interested in the potential music x football crossover (the only two "extracurricular" things I care about, really). Naturally, I was hooked straight away. The feeling of incompleteness around Jai's music only made me more interested; you could hear great ideas and your brain would automatically fill in the gaps, ironically similar to a lot of high-volume artists like Madlib, and in some ways even Gucci Mane and Lil B. Despite the 6-year drought that followed the leak, I managed to pull dozens of extra songs from pretty much every corner of the internet, but mainly the Paul Institute thread on KTT, which is to this day the single most impressive thread I've seen on any music forum ever. Jai finally ended his silence mid-last year, "formally released" the leaked EP (only notable difference is the extended coda on "Genevieve"), and dropped a couple unreleased loosies from the early 2010s. Most importantly, though, he opened the floodgates for a series of newer releases from the Institute (e.g. from A. K., Fabiana Palladino, Ruthven, etc.). I remember this one had also been teased on a British radio station a few years back (with Benj B?). Anyhow, this one is also great. The main synth theme is super simple, almost oafish. It lands with a thud every time, but A. K. turns it into a beautiful R&B ballad, somehow retro-sounding and futuristic at the same time. That last bit is maybe the novelty of the whole "Paul Institute" sound.
A big part of my self-education in music has been going on blogs, forums, and comment sections to seek out great records from the past, but there's a certain genre of "classic album" that I've just never been able to get behind. I'm talking about albums like Sgt. Pepper's, Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon, Are You Experienced, etc. etc. etc. The type of stuff that winds up on college dorm room walls just because the kid's parents listened to it. But, if you, like me, had never heard any of those records before, there's a good chance you'd have to perform the mental gymnastics of imagining what it was like to be white in the 60s just to have a chance of enjoying the album. I shouldn't have to do that. It's not that serious. Just listen to whatever you like. And yet, it's a tricky conversation because on one hand, maybe music should be enjoyed purely for its sensuous and aesthetic value (see: Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag), but on the other hand, maybe context adds value too. And what about representation? Anyhow, I'm not going down that rabbit hole. I say all of this because Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is maybe the first album of it's kind that I've given a chance and just... completely and utterly fallen for. I mean, what an unbelievably flawless album. In the words of Salieri, it's "the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God". There's a stretch from "If It's Magic" to "Another Star" that rivals anything I've ever had the privilege of hearing. "If It's Magic" sputters along with only a harp to complement Stevie, but the songwriting and general arc of his vocals are gripping enough to capitalize on the sparseness of the song. There's "As", which I could listen to exclusively for the rest of my life. The arrangement is just so warm, so rich, and so pure that it distills an almost overwhelming dosage of love for music and life itself. The vocal performance at the song's climax is rightfully the stuff of legend. Anthems like "Isn't She Lovely" are tossed around like nothing. I recognized the motif from "Pastime Paradise" immediately and just sat, listening with my jaw open as if I were watching history unfold in real time. "Summer Soft" almost feels like a victory lap less than halfway into the album; he'll tap into a burst of genius and return to human form in the same breath. And where do you even begin with a song like "Another Star"? The audacity of even throwing a song with such Latin hues in the middle of a 1976 Motown record... The propulsion of that choir, that piercing entrance by Stevie himself... I'm not a religious person, but this is truly other-worldly, divine music. I don't care if my love for this album sounds corny, because wait til you hear the album itself: verse after verse on the changing of the seasons, ruminations on childhood, systemic racism, first love, heartbreak, sex, religion, and of course, death. Stevie gives you 100 years in a little under two hours, and yet, it would've been even better had he given us three. Every second of music here is purely additive. This is the rare case where more truly is more. God bless Stevie Wonder, king of kings.
Kid from Buffalo, NY makes a trip to Paris to hang with his idols – notably Virgil, among others – and has such a great time he decides to make an album about it. Pray For Paris is littered with the sheer joy of finally being recognized by the institutions that Gunn used to only have access to through the internet: Tucked away somewhere in the middle of "French Toast" he hits a strut with bars like "Heard you just killed 'em at the Raf show / Used to sell crack out the backdoor / But now I'm out here in Paris...." The celebratory air of the album makes it a bit more commercially bent than previous Gunn and Griselda projects, and you can tell that they really tee'd it up for a crossover too. Where they might normally have limited features to guys from the NY old head palette (e.g. Alchemist, Roc Marciano, Raekwon, etc.) they open the floodgates here for guys like Tyler (who drops a reference to the Safdie brothers...) and Wale. And of course, there's the fact that the cover is instantly recognizable to anyone who had too much money on their hands in 2013. Optics aside, this is very much still a traditional Griselda record, and even has Gunn getting out of his comfort zone at times. The track with Boldy James, "Claiborne Kick", features an uncharacteristically pitched-down Gunn over a stretched-out vocal sample from Alchemist. Boldy drops one of my favorite verses of the year too. As much as I love literally every moment of the record, I can't tell if it's just because Gunn and I are both so starry-eyed for the mixtape era... Maybe we should get over it? Move on?? Get with the times???