Tag Archives: 2011

Album of the Year 2011: Tyler, the Creator – Goblin

The first time I ever read anything about Tyler, the Creator, I was on the Adriatic, swigging dark rum, consuming anything English I could get my internet-starved hands on, and gradually growing more and more disgusted. The news that day was that the adolescent Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All leader’s sophomore LP Goblin had just dropped, his first on a major label (XL). The real news that day was that Tyler had successfully beaned an innocent and fashionable bystander, outside of a restaurant, with a frozen treat, from a moving vehicle – the latest in a string of antics that would have been completely embarrassing had he not been about 19 at the time.

Like so many readers that day, my jaw dropped a bit when I read up on OFWGKTA’s lyrical rap sheet: extensive rape imagery, homophobia, necrophilia, racism, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and more! How delightful! On principle, I was completely disgusted – however, seafaring as I was, I had no opportunity at all to actually hear the group. So, I naturally reserved judgment while turning my nose skyward at the whole affair. Now, as anyone staring up at the sky will tell you, turning up your nose has a way of causing you to miss things and kick pets and trip down slight inclines – all of which I did in short order. OFWGKTA had already blown up, leaving me to play catchup in the critical aftermath of the whole thing. Fast-forward several months and Tyler’s gone and won Best New Artist at the MTV Music Video Awards, Odd Future’s opened a clothing store in L.A., crooner Frank Ocean gets featured on a Kanye and Jay-Z album, and I’m giving Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin album-of-the-year certification. So what the hell happened?

Let’s go back to the part of this article that stopped you in your tracks: the lyrical content. Defending and describing the whole of OF is outside the scope of this review – and others have done it better – but rest assured, all of that awful stuff loses none of its potency in translation to a Tyler solo LP (“Oh good”, you reply). Tyler and now-M.I.A. cohort Earl Sweatshirt were the locus of the group’s controversy, and left to his own devices Tyler’s morbid fascinations only intensify, quickly reaching their logical, stomach-churning conclusions (try sitting through “Transylvania”). In and of themselves, the sorts of imagery Tyler brings into play are despicable and indefensible; that much is painfully obvious. Nobody gets away with “F-ck a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” (“Tron Cat”) without raising some eyebrows and losing more than a few fans (and fans’ lunches) in the process. Drawing out all the relevant quotations to fully flesh out Tyler’s descriptive (and offensive) faculties would take pages upon pages; in short, Tyler is going to horrify and bully you. He’ll shock and antagonize every moral value you’ve got. He’s going to disgust anyone unwitting enough to get caught in the audio-crossfire. Your mom is going to find your copy of Goblin, snap it in half, and be more or less justified in doing so. And that’s just the way he wants it.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s going to take a certain type of listener to enjoy what Tyler does, but that isn’t to say the point of entry is particularly small – it’s just going to take a bit of footwork to reach it. Anyone that caught Tyler’s debut LP Bastard is already in on the act, so to speak: all of Tyler’s novelty and lyrical ammunition would be for nought if there weren’t substance hidden somewhere underneath, and on this front he delivers in spades. As much as Bastard was an hour-long showcase for the Odd Future crew to show off their “swag” and make as many ugly “jokes” as their teenage minds could come up with (and establish themselves stylistically), it was an opportunity for Tyler to exorcise his demons and lay plain on tracks like “Bastard” and “Inglorious” how intensely his life has been affected by the absence of his father, and the mixture of sadness and hatred that absence has bred within him. On those same tracks (and others like them), we find that he loves and respects his mother, that he doesn’t understand girls at all, that he feels isolated in the company of friends, and that he has apparently constant and intense suicidal urges. All of these themes feed upwards into Goblin: Tyler doesn’t hate women (“She”), he hates that he can’t communicate with them, and doesn’t understand how to relate. He doesn’t hate his mother, he hates that he can’t explain what it is he does for a living, having dropped out of college and used her money to record a pair of albums (“Nightmare”). He doesn’t hate you or girls or Asians or the rest of Wolf Gang; he doesn’t even drink or smoke pot – but he isn’t about to tell you that. He’s going to rape, pillage, murder, insult and graphically murder his friends on-track until you either “pull your panties down and start to piss off”, somehow embrace the imagery (Yikes.), or realize his entire musical persona is an intricately maintained work of performance art. On track, Tyler hates critics because they close-read his stuff and defuse him by drawing these messages out – but of course, which raging punk wouldn’t be upset that you’ve gone and lain bare his emotional side?

He doesn’t explicitly avoid this sort of analysis, but he’d rather it stay intuitive, an open secret amongst the fans that “understand” him – which isn’t particularly difficult. At his most confessional his music begs this interpretation, but he sees it as his artistic responsibility to guard it closely (which it is). As he rambles on “Goblin”:

“..But that’s bull of the sheet, they want to critique

Everything that we, Wolf Gang, has every released

But they don’t get it cause it’s not made for them

That nigga that’s in the mirror rapping, it’s made for him

But they do not have the mindset that’s same as him

I’m not weird, you’re just a faggot, shame on him”

Even at his most expositional Tyler can’t help but be abrasive and hurtful (and insincerely, antagonistically homophobic); Goblin isn’t for you, it’s for him (which means it’s for you). Effectively, Tyler wants you to bugger off and get it, and it’s this constant push and pull between audience and artist that makes his material so engaging. Listening closely to Goblin you’ll pick up on themes as diverse as his imbedded guilt over his own success, his affection and respect for his single mother, his complete and total awareness of his hurtfulness (“They claim the shit I say is just wrong/Like nobody has those really dark thoughts when alone/I’m just a teenager, who admits he’s suicide prone/My life is doing pretty good, so that date is postponed”) – but of course initially you’re going to get hung up on the violence and the hatred and bigotry, and that’s exactly the facade that lends his artistic presence so much force.

Lyrically, Goblin is a puzzle I’ve yet to wholly crack, which is why it’s lasted me since May. Musically, it’s spacious and strange; eerily bouncing pianos and synths skitter across “Yonkers”, “Goblin” is slow and echoing with lush strings that seem to drop at random, at odds with the off-kilter percussion and the mumbling pitch-shifted speech of Dr. T.C., Tyler’s self-voiced therapist and conceptual MacGuffin. “Radicals” has its Punk tongue thoroughly in cheek when it chants “Burn shit kill people fuck school” over crackling microphones and that same monotone synth that haunts every corner of the Odd Future catalogue. The deeper message of the song is, as Tyler dubiously states, to express oneself honestly, and its menacing thematic ambiguity only feeds further into his self-battling morality. “She” is as creepy as it is beautiful, with warm synths and a Frank Ocean chorus that’s either about loving devotion or stalking (though likely both). Musically Goblin is consistent to the point of mid-album repetition, which makes sense: Tyler makes all his own beats alongside production by Odd Future member Left Brain. He also designs his own clothes, directs his own music videos, creates his own album-art, very openly loves Pharrell, has one of the strangest and deepest vocal deliveries in contemporary hip-hop, and turns 21 this year. Yikes.

It’s been a curious year for music, the sort of year that allows for an album like Goblin to win top honours. This article has been difficult to write because, emphatically, Goblin isn’t the most consistent, dense, or technically proficient album of the year (you’ll find those below). It stretches long and some tracks feel completely unnecessary: “Boppin’ Bitch” is offensively stupid, Tyler kills his friends in “Window” – which is thematically important – but the eight-minute song itself is intensely long and repetitive. “Fish” is, frankly, quite dull. “Au79” is a great instrumental track, but begs more of itself and suggests Tyler could do subtlety, if he had half a mind to. If you don’t fall for Tyler’s artistic eccentricities almost immediately you’re simply going to be very offended, and that’s that. If you don’t like his echoey, rough voice and production, it isn’t likely to grow on you. If you think the rest of OFWGKTA is untalented, well, I don’t know what to tell you; much of OF’s appeal is charismatic and personality-based – meaning that in the case of some members (Dolphin, Taco), talent is a non-issue. They’re simply there, and they can’t rap, and that’s just how OF is. Actually coming to enjoy Tyler, the Creator after being a former detractor is a difficult thing, I’d know, and it involves a great deal of swallowing one’s pride and good taste.

Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin is a very, very strange album. It’s layered, incessantly bleak, adolescent, and gut-wrenching. It’s certainly underground Hip-Hop, likely Punk, and definitely Shock-Rock of some caliber; Tyler’s furious and he’s articulating his rage and confusion and embarrassment the way he feels most comfortable – by lashing out against everything within reach. That he’s intelligent enough to know this and then subvert his own messages (positive and negative) within nearly every track, at his age, is an astounding achievement. Goblin isn’t the album of the year because it’s the most technical, or the most consistent, or even the most easily listenable. Goblin is the album of the year because it is impressive and, like all great art, thoroughly uncomfortable. After several months with Bastard and Goblin I’m still finding ways to re-interpret tracks, to sketch personal details and thematic reflections out of some of the most utterly offensive lyrics I’ve ever heard. For my money, Tyler, the Creator has released 2011’s most impressive work of musical art – offensive flaws and all – without conceding to almost anyone. Now that’s an accomplishment.

Transylvanilla’s Album of the Year 2011

In No Particular Order, The Runners Up: 

Opeth – Heritage

The Roots – undun

Battles – Gloss Drop

Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage

The Devin Townsend Project – Deconstruction

The Honourable Mentions:

I’m Gay – Lil’ B

Amebix – Sonic Mass

The Throne – Watch The Throne

Fucked Up – David Comes To Life

Akira The Don – Manga Music

Everything here reflects my more-subjective end of the year tallies, which means these rankings Do Not represent these albums’ individual scores. Goblin is not a 10.0, I’m Gay is not a 7.0. These rankings are based on enjoyability, combined with their impact on myself, personally, as a result of their longevity and my extended opportunity for reflection. I have weird taste; weird things win. Onwards, to 2012! 

Originally published right here, January 2012. Swag. 

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Skrillex – Bangarang

Skrillex has arrived with another EP! The clown prince of wubs is back, come to wub wub wub and all that! The music community nominated him for no less than five Grammys last year, so he must be doing something right, right? Well, he’s certainly doing something. If you’re reading this, you already have an opinion on Skrillex: former singer of From First To Last, ambassador of (what we’re calling) ‘American Dubstep’, rocker-turned-electronic-musician, and effectively the single most divisive character in electronic music today. Bangarang is his fourth EP – Skrillex as an entity having existed for three years now – and he stalwartly refuses to put out an LP (which he hopes to remedy with 2012’s purported Voltage). While I’m fully willing to debate whether or not an album-less artist should be in the running for five Grammys, reviewing Bangarang is much more straightforward: with EP number four Skrillex does what Skrillex has always done – churn out a highly idiosyncratic and mercenary pile of tracks that seem tailor-made for compiling your own Skrillex debut-album, since he can’t seem bothered to amass enough track diversity to make one for himself.

Maybe I’m coming down too hard on Skrillex. Some truly great artists hung back releasing albums, that’s fair, and some of the finest albums out there were one-offs with disconcerting sequels (Endtroducing springs to mind). I’m running Sonny ‘Skrillex’ Moore through the ringer because of his meteoric rise to fame, and subsequent unwillingness to do anything with it – all of which is perfectly documented here on Bangarang. If you don’t know Skrillex, if you’ve never heard American Dubstep’s hardcore beer-swigging beer-spilling jams before, this is not a bad place to start (or more accurately, try here). One’s first Skrillexian Dubstep experience is always the best, and to his credit he does some really neat things when he gets going; it’s a rare video game fan that will deny that the first time they heard him bounce Atari samples off that signature two-step beat it got their head nodding, even less if they were playing ROMs at the time. The problem arose when his novelty wore off, which occurred about a year ago, conveniently around the time he embarked on The Mothership tour, whose tracks he largely harvests for Bangarang’s playlist. In 2012 we’re left with Skrillex at his most comfortable – and consequently least ambitious – throwing around the ideas, the chipmunk vocal samples, and the grainy-dirty synths we’ve all come to identify with him. Over and over.

Of course, the disclaimer is that if you adore Skrillex, and there are a lot of you, you’re going to feel very much at home here (add three points to the score! Ignore me entirely!). “Bangarang” itself is the sort of, uh, banger he’s built his career under, and if you’re in the mood for it (or playing Audiosurf) it’s going to get you going in all the right ways. “Right In” – whose vocal sample I swear is chanting “bite in” – sounds a whole lot like “Rock n’ Roll”, sounds a whole lot like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and… well, you get the picture, and if you loved those you’ll love this. As an album, Bangarang features more collaborations than we’ve ever heard with Skrillex (6/7 tracks), and brings some much-needed variety into his catalogue. That these collaborations all more or less work is a testament to the sort of dedication we’ll want to see on Voltage – it’s just a shame none of them seem to reach full potential here. “The Devil’s Den” was produced alongside Wolfgang Gartner, and suggests Sonny might be listening to a bit of Kavinsky and Danger these days.. but the vocals are undercooked. Vocal samples by Sirah (“Kyoto”)  beg inquiries into whether or not Sonny should try his hand at Grime, but again fail to reach full potential; why not just recruit a full-on rap-friend, Skrillex? Varien’s “Skrillex Orchestrial Suite” is just plain hilarious, unintentionally self-parodic, and an attractive must-hear for fans and haters alike (Pip Williams, is that you?). If you look at it the right way, “Bangarang” even recalls Daft Punk, and “Breakn’ a Sweat” (get it?) just might vindicate itself with one very carefully-placed Jim Morrison interview sample.. when it isn’t horrifying The Doors fans by propping Jim’s corpse up on stage to deliver a frightening and out-of-place “Light My Fire” sample or two. To it’s credit, “Breakn’ a Sweat” does mix things up a bit with it’s organ and percussion samples, and is fun and infuriatingly infectious in its repetition when it isn’t plain infuriating (Skrillex synths ahoy!). To that end, it’s actually a pretty concise summary of the album as a whole: familiar, infectious, and growing a bit stale.

So it isn’t strictly the same track over and over, and it features a few nice changes of pace for a Skrillex EP (even when they don’t quite stick). Bangarang does, however, struggle with the same issues Skrillex has wrestled with his entire brief career: I, for one, would like to see Sonny locked in a room with 3/4 time and a clean synth, just to see what would emerge. Bangarang’s a swirling kiddie-pool of whomping quarter notes and 1-3 accents – which is to say it’s all two-step, which is fine – but it lacks the firecracker energy and innovation that enamored his stuff to an entire generation of club-hoppers a couple of years ago. It’s funky, vocal cuts on “Kyoto” and “Right on Time” hit hard, but are curiously empty and fairly generic. You aren’t necessarily going to be able to identify all the tracks by the time it’s 38 minutes are up, and that’s a problem. We’ve seen and heard this before with Skrillex. This is all we’ve seen and heard with Skrillex. It’s time to up the ante. Someone needs to be reminded that it is Skrillex, not From First To Last, that will be his legacy, whether he likes it or not. A while back, Sonny Moore swaggered out with something really neat. He’s been vampirizing it ever since. To share a secret, I really like the the idea behind Skrillex, he just needs to decide whether or not he’s going to make generic sex-soaked ‘Brostep’, or exciting video-game inflected two-step. It’s your call, Sonny Moore. Five Grammys.

As Jim is puppeted into saying, “IT’S [just] ALRIIIGHT, YEEEEAH IT’S [just] ALRIIIGHT.”

5.5

Originally published right here, January 2012. A very happy new year’s to you too!

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Nujabes – Spiritual State

Jun Seba is dead. He’s been that way since a tragic traffic accident on February 26th of 2010, leaving an enormous legacy and a brief and highly concentrated discography in his wake. The man known as Nujabes was a legend in the ambient, jazz-infused hip-hop scene – consciously or not, many of us knew him as the force behind much of Samurai Champloo’s soundtrack, an OST so effective in its simplicity that years later, free of narrative context, it continues to stand happily on its own. That show’s artistic direction crystallized his signature style, a synthesis of hip-hop production and folk-y jazz, blended with dreamscape strings and floating piano lines – production whose artistic force often overshadowed whichever occasional guest-performer happened to drop by. Spiritual State is his first release since 2005’s Modal Soul – a six-year hiatus forcibly ended by his death – and his absence from the final stages of this album is palpable. Assembled by his musical companions from component parts found in his workshop, Spiritual State lacks the focus and polish of his finished material. A quiet, meditative work, it drifts from track to mostly-instrumental track, lingering for piano samples and five widely-spread and starry-eyed guest verses from Five Deez’s Pase Rock, longtime compatriot Cise Star and Hydeout Productions labelmate Substantial. Nujabes’ input is unfinished, but Spiritual State still stands: a calming and often beautiful work, it’s too concise to be a tribute album, too focused for a post-mortem compilation. In an inescapable way, Spiritual State is Nujabes’ eulogy, heavily steeped in his influence and haunted by his presence, but never quite an original or complete production.

Spiritual State, as the album-art suggests, bursts with colour and life. Album bookends and standout-tracks “Spiritual State” and “Prayer” mirror one another in their striking, nostalgic beauty . The former is produced by collaborator Uyama Hiroto (see: Final Fantasy), and relies on looping piano flairs and an almost Flying Lotus brush-drum sample that bring substance to its six and a half minutes; when that standup bass and clarinet kick in, the impact is undeniable, and more than a little heart-wrenching. “Prayer” feels like its response – the most complete-feeling of the album’s artifacts – and as a piano and flute duet around which the DJ builds swelling drum loops and organ responses, it results in something like a thinner version of the audio-hypnotism that he and Fat Jon conjured up with “Aruarian Dance” those years ago. In between the album flutters, world-music drums and chorus-filled pianos filling every track. “Yes” sees Pace Rock contemplating and reminiscing while 4/4 bongos and double-thumping drums fill the space beneath (and the final couple minutes of the track). “Rainyway Back Home” is dusty and expansive with its synthesizers and acoustic guitar, “Far Fowls” is plucking strings over hip-hop drumming and culminates with the same folk-hip-hop vibe that brought Samurai Champloo its fame. “Fellows” is tailor-made for rainy days in the lounge with its plinking keys, trumpets and vocal samples. There are many more effective moments too (an hour’s worth), and while the tracks can blend together imperceptibly, Spiritual State is consistent, never straying from its introspective, jazz-infused quietude.

It’s a sonically beautiful album, and for those that love Nujabes’ signature style Spiritual State will likely prove and emotional and fulfilling listen. Nujabes made his name producing music for thought, beats that went as well with mid-summer walks as they did with quiet rainy days at home. In this respect, Spiritual State doesn’t disappoint, though it meanders: some tracks (“Fellows” and “Color of Autumn”) seem to cut too soon, the album itself can feel too long and ambient for concentrated listening, and it’s missing the punch that contributions like Fat Jon’s might have delivered. While the overall listening is thematically focused, the songwriting isn’t, which sometimes results in indistinguishable tracks that feel as much like outtakes or safe experiments as they do original productions. Simply put, it isn’t his greatest work, nor does it a necessarily complete one. Which, in all fairness, it isn’t.

What do we do with Spiritual State? The name is a clue: quiet, relaxing and introspective, Spiritual State feels like a tribute to its creator. Like Nujabes himself, it cuts short, leaving us wanting more. As a capstone to his career, it’s effective. It’s beautiful and earnest, and like so much of his work it’s sad and uplifting at once. It leaves room for more, it begs the listener to retroactively explore his discography. This is likely the last we’ll hear from Nujabes, and while it isn’t his best work, as a eulogy it functions brilliantly; in listening to Spiritual State, you too might miss his style and influence. There’s a metaphorical statement somewhere in there. As a musical work, Spiritual State is expansive and humble and incomplete – and that still puts Nujabes ahead of his peers.

8.0

Originally published right here, December 2011.

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