Tag Archives: Hip-Hop

M.I.A. – Matangi

“If you wanna be me you need a manifesto” 

Does everyone remember Kala, M.I.A’s real critical breakthrough album, and the reason the radio knows her name? That’s “Bird Flu”, “Jimmy” and, of course, “Paper Planes“, if you need a refresher. And do you remember her manifesto, her clear artistic direction? That fusion of eastern and western musical influences, the bhangra breakdowns and sudden disco flourishes that, at times, rendered her music breathlessly novel to the same western audiences she relentlessly politically criticized (and simultaneously courted)? Of course we do – it’s the reason she’s successfully garnered enough attention to appear at the Super Bowl the same year she decided to flip off the Super Bowl. We loved M.I.A. for that one, right? We loved M.I.A. because she was pop and punk; catchy enough to dance to, controversial enough to appreciate intellectually and Hip-Hop fresh enough to maintain her superiority in both fields. That’s why it’s so damn frustrating, several years later, to watch that artistic focus fade gradually into oblivion. Through some perversion of logic, her music is growing less culturally aware and mature with age, to the point that we get this thing: Matangi, or as we can charitably call it “Not /\/\ /\ Y /\, Right?”


There’s nothing fun about coming down on M.I.A., trust me. But where we once got Kala, her effortless cultural pastiche hip-hop-dance-record-thing – the one where she managed to criticize international crime by posing as an international credit-card fraudster and having us all memorize the lyrics – here the political angle is sanded down to near-inanity. “Boom Skit” is the most politically incendiary thing here, shouting out North American passive anti “brown girl” racism the way it does, and that’s commendable! We don’t like racism, we can all generally agree that racism is some crap and ought to be avoided. “Okay, great, what else?” we’re inclined to ask, and Matangi has frustratingly little to say in addition. Perhaps the fact is simply that a large majority of the educated music-listening populace is post-racism at this point (and let’s face it, it’s not), but that doesn’t change the fact that her messages here largely lack any sort of poignant argument, when there’s an argument at all. And maybe there doesn’t have to be one! But on an album whose major hit – “Bad Girls” – features a fantastic video slamming anti-female-driving laws in the Middle East, we’re allowed to expect a greater level of actual political engagement within the lyricism, which simply never appears. Certainly she name drops plenty of countries to establish her international cred (that’s “Matangi”) reasserts her bad-assery with a decade’s worth of apparently Julian-Assange-approved ‘tent’ puns (“aTENTion”, sigh) and criticizes a lack of western self-reinvention via the world’s final Y.O.L.O. joke (on “Y.A.L.A.”, somehow), and all of that is interesting in its own way, but this is M.I.A., man! We’ve earned the right to expect more, and if she really feels like dropping an album largely devoid of political interest, we can at least expect fantastic songwriting and performance to carry us through, right?

Remarkably, even in all its frenetic genre-gymnastics and cross-cultural musical exchanges (and yes, there are plenty), Matangi still evades any sort of easy purchase for the listener. Naturally, the album varies: “Bad Girls” is as fantastic as it was, uh, last year, “Bring the Noize” is a legitimately fantastic strobing slap in the face, and “aTENTion” manages to sound like gladOS rapping, but there’s so little else to differentiate tracks musically that I find myself struggling to go back and recall each one’s name, never mind its lyricism – and it’s important to remember that M.I.A. is a rapper. “Matangi” is neat initially, but bears an unfortunate similarity to “Boyz” off Kala, and much of the rap in its latter movement is groan-inducing. “Come Walk With Me” will get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons, and its first half is exactly the worst sort of laser-focused lovey pop we try to avoid from M.I.A.. Its last half is, bewilderingly, hardstyle that samples… a truck backing up and the Macbook volume-indicator. “aTENTion” is grammatically insufferable and rhythmically aimless, and was apparently co-written by Julian Assange following a particularly exciting google search on homophones. Some tracks, like the “Only 1 U” (which sadly feels longer than it is) and the staggering 10 combined minutes of “Exodus” (suitably epic, the first listen) and “Sexodus” (mystifying in its presence), are gratuitously repetitive and aimless enough to be painful on repeat listens. And perhaps I’ve mistaken myself in that last paragraph and there are a ton of clever political allusions throughout Matangi: the key issue quickly becomes that the album does nothing to endear itself aside from singles “Bad Girls” and “Bring the Noize”. If there are politics in here beyond the bluntly obvious, several listens simply aren’t bringing them to the fore. So much of Matangi feels rushed, and despite some fantastic production work – bhangra-core isn’t growing old any time soon – M.I.A. rarely makes any real impression at all, lyrically or vocally. As a case in point, one of the only strong melodies on the album I can recall offhand occurs on the Weeknd-waste “Exodus”… and even then, only because she sings it again as “Sexodus” half an hour later.

So does Matangi have an ace in the hole? It does, insofar as much of the production is brilliant: “Only 1 U” might be forgettable lyrically, but its the boom of its heavy beat and ritual chime, electric zap and plethora of other seemingly-random samples do much to endear it aurally. “Bad Girls” runs on a combination of bhangra beats, plucked strings, and a slithering club chant that’s nigh-impossible not to dig. “Bring the Noize” is simply a blast, and even “Matangi”s percussive ‘Matangi’ sampled choruses are fun and appropriately, excitingly foreign. “Lights”, to its credit, has some fun vocal harmonies going on, and some clever lyrical turns. Every track on the album jumps sporadically between production styles, beat constructions, traditional instruments and glitchy connections – and all of that is great  because no one has managed to steal this from M.I.A. just yet. Even Matangi‘s handful of slow tracks manage to feel suitably heavy – even if they fail to differentiate noticeably from one another. The issue isn’t that M.I.A. can’t write songs – she clearly can, and we’ve seen her do it successfully dozens of times before. Matangi suffers from a distinct lack of direction – and if her intended direction legitimately was “unfocused, overwhelming confusion” we have much bigger problems to discuss.

Matangi is, apparently by design, a dense and frequently frustrating listen. It’s certainly concentrated, despite running 15 tracks, and any extended listening period is appropriately exhausting. That said, Kala by its novelty was exhausting too, and managed to be exhausting without feeling stretched out, rushed or samey. Matangi suffers from all of this. Tracks fail to make individual impressions, and while beat production is often brilliant, vocal production is often shrill and irritating (instead of the no-doubt intended percussive). The Weeknd shows up for some reason and fails to utter words. This album is a full 15 tracks in length, and I can only name about 5 after roughly 5 listens. So while Matangi is no doubt novel, it also utterly fails to make an impression beyond acting as an appendage to M.I.A.’s discography. Yes it’s there, but we know she’s capable of so much better. M.I.A.’s brilliant, she can do it, and her fans deserve it. So let’s rewind to ‘better until Matangi is as forgotten as /\/\ /\ Y /\.  

C

Or, sigh, Vicki Leekx.

Published right here, December 2013.

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Death Grips – Government Plates

Reviewing Death Grips is really, really difficult.

Well alright, maybe it isn’t difficult, but it might be ridiculous and unnecessary. Any discussion of Death Grips as a musical.. project.. thing is bound to be nested in a description of the sorts of sounds Death Grips actually produce, and an assessment as to whether they’re getting better or worse. You know, like a review – and that’s fine! I like doing reviews! But when it comes down to whether or not I can recommend Death Grips’ new album – the free-online double-entendre Government Plates – it’s largely going to be a factor of whether or not MC Ride, his perma-furious DJ Andy Morin, and drummer Zach Hill are making sequenced sounds you already enjoy, or you know to enjoy because it’s cool to like Death Grips right now, or whether you can appreciate them as an aesthetic entity (if not necessarily a musical one). All three are valid access routes to Death Grips these days, and the band does nothing to dissuade  it – have you seen MC Ride? – and so I feel the necessity to look at the band all three ways, and attempt to parse out what might be going on here musically. Or aesthetically.

That said, this is the MC Ride hype train, and in the spirit of whatever-this-genre-is it feels appropriate to go straight for the throat and get the tl;dr out of the way immediately: Government Plates is a solid addition to the canon. It’s also short, blistering, blood-curdling, increasingly synth-y, sarcastic, free online, unbalanced, and intensely free on the internet. If you’re a fan of these guys, you’ve already bled the MP3’s dry and you’re waiting for your next fix and maybe secretly hoping we can get back to Exmilitary‘s nigh hardcore-punk pacing, lyrical acuity and Vancouver skate-punk music videos (that’d be me). You’d be the ones reading this just to see how I talk my way around having to talk about Death Grips, and checking whether or not my punk cred is going to see any revival after that Lady Gaga review last week. Fair enough! The rest of the review is for anyone else that’s wondering what the hell the deal is, whether or not MC Ride is an MC and therefore this is a rap crew, and why I’m taking so much time getting to the review portion.

This part’s for those people in the latter category.

Wikipedia says “Death Grips is a hip hop group from Sacramento”, which is a charitable and fun way of saying they definitely use beats, and MC Ride’s first name is “MC”. Death Grips cleave closer to something like alternative Hip-Hop attempting to appropriate melodic Industrial while keeping one eye firmly and secretly locked on the club dance floor. At their most accessible (that’d be “I’ve Seen Footage“) they sound like an extremely antagonistic Primal Scream therapy session featuring a Skinny Puppy fan for a DJ and a drummer whose only obvious musical alliance is technical acrobatics. At their least accessible, they sound like someone threw some screws into a washing machine. Along with their pit bull. Sometimes there are guitars; they once let a girl sing. They have trouble showing up to live shows and obeying contracts. One of their album covers is very banned. One Death Grips performance famously consisted of a children’s drum set, their music played through the PA, and a fan’s suicide note. So to say the group values their reputation would be an understatement: they’ve crafted a unique folk appeal by virtue of incredible bizarrity, having no clear musical parallel, and remaining utterly and completely true to their murkily-articulated, libertine philosophy. Fashionable.

So it’s easy to understand why they’ve curried such appeal with their young fan base – MC Ride is fearless, black and coated in arcane symbols and gang signs. His two white accomplices are absurdly talented and musically unheralded in turn. Their music lacks a clear lyrical message beyond rage, paranoia, confusion and isolation – MC Ride doesn’t speak so much as bellow constantly, and his vocal production intentionally obscures  most anything beyond blind, frightening anger at any given moment. They transcend race, they transcend clear imagery or context or politics (beyond, of course, anarchy) – they’re punk as hell, and I’m sure they hate punk music. These boys came out of nowhere, and appropriately they sound like nothing else   – though Yeezus certainly took a shot at it.

Government Plates makes no moves to dislodge Death Grips’ carefully-constructed reputation, though they certainly seem self-aware enough to poke fun at their own superior impulse-control issues (the final track being “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)”). That said, it does push their song construction forward: where previous releases would occasionally deign to hard-rock architecture (The Money Store) or smack of punk (Exmilitary), Government Plates takes Death Grips even further down their own strange road of musical anarchy. Morin’s synthesizers are in full force, several tracks are downright danceable, featuring as close as Death Grips ever come to softer breakdowns (on “Anne Bonny” and the final track). “Feels Like A  Wheel” gave me flashbacks to KMFDM and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (on guitars, at least). “Birds” even gives us a lurking MC Ride reciting poetry over a shrill, oscillating klaxon, in between drum breakdowns.
MC Ride is more subdued on Government Plates than usual as well, relegated primarily to audio loops with his trademark beatdown-delivery checked for the majority the album’s second half – leaving DJ Morin to take centre stage. He does a respectable job, too, though for many by premise Death Grips’ affinity for unbalanced percussion loops and shrill everything will prove too much within the album’s opening moments. There are fantastic beats here, though – “Big House” is frenetic, bass-heavy and nearly club-ready, “Whatever I Want” has sparkling synths that only serve to unnerve further, “Birds” plays with softer guitar tones in a way Death Grips isn’t yet known for. He’s pushing things forward, certainly, and deserves credit for it.

That said, despite repeated listens Government Plates can’t help but feel somewhat sapped, for me at least. Perhaps this is the result of a couple years of DG fandom (and one insane live show), but the shrill-synth well seems to be running dry for me – and a further focus on that musical direction detracts somewhat from the freneticism that drew me to Death Grips in the first place. In order to stay this angry, you have to keep amped, and if that energy should run out, you need something beneath it. Preferably not, exclusively, sometimes headache-inducing synths (“Birds“). There’s a question of whether or not Death Grips can do this. Government Plates is a solid musical release, absolutely, and a respectable and appropriately-experimental addition to bizarro-Hip-Hop canon, but it fails to energize in the way their previous releases did. Whether this is a result of their growth as a group, a lessening of their rage, or a blossoming maturity remains to be seen. That said, I’m certainly excited to see what comes next as experimentation (or breakup) seems inevitable for the Sacramento trio at this point. Three things are for certain, though: Death Grips will remain an absolute cultural force to their devotees, a literal headache for their detractors, and a fascinating aesthetic exercise in the meanwhile.

B

Reviewed right here, November 2013. 

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Flatbush Zombies – BetterOffDEAD

Say what you will about Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future, but their impact on modern hip-hop culture is impossible to ignore. Take Flatbush Zombies: carving their way into the rap landscape toting equal obsessions with drugs, horror movies and vocal modulation (that is, squealing and growling), whenever they aren’t busily rolling joints or tearing out throats on track with their Method Man fang-grills, they’re engaged in the more personal, street-level activities of decrying the evils of government and wrestling their own post-adolescent mental demons. It’s a shift that’s gradually been occurring amongst young African American artists – a search on this year’s Flatbush riots proves educational here – so it comes as no surprise that in light of America’s recent racial tragedies, the disenfranchised and depressed youth are rightfully enraged; and so their recordings must reflect an alchemy of that violence into music. Of course, this is nothing new: Wu-Tang knew what was going on, we can go farther back to N.W.A., and obviously African American discontent can be traced much further, musically, than that as well. The shift occurring now, though, that melding of skate and young black culture in America (that OF typifies), is something of a new thing. The 90’s gave us our mainstream ultra-violence fix in the form of Eminem and Gravediggaz (obvious touchstones for ‘Zombies); 2013 seems intent to bring us Hip-Hop’s Bad Brains.

It’s easy to see, too. There’s a major shift occurring in underground hip-hop just now: look to Tyler sure, but look also to Danny Brown depicting Detroit’s devastation over the last decade with his drug-fueled yelp. Look at the near-wordless primal scream stuff going on with Death Grips. Hell, look to Kanye West, mainstream as hell and fanning his Throbbing Gristle collection with white-noise screams. Hip-Hop. I owe the essay on why I find this stuff so fascinating another time (and it explains why I’ve held off reviewing rock of late), but it’s that same fascination that draws me to Flatbush Zombies, especially on the advent of their second release, BetterOffDEAD.

Flatbush are an exciting anomaly,and so the chances of them ever cracking mainstream are incredibly slim. This is obviously to their benefit …Though maybe it’s bad luck to say that the day after Slim Shady somehow releases another album. Regardless, my first exposure to these maniacs came with their fantastic Pitchfork Selector, whose negligence had me naming them incorrectly to months (thanks). They’ve been hard at work touring with Joey Bada$$’ Beast Coast crew ever since, and giving away 100% of their output via Datpiff. That initial exposure blew me away: Meechy Darko’s gravel-blender delivery and wild-eyed madness had me hooked, Zombie Juice squeals like a cartoon character and freestyles like a tornado, and Arc meanders somewhere in between with his more introspective flow (when he deigns to speak). Nothing about that chemistry has changed since, and nothing changed for their freebie debut D.R.U.G.S., either (Death and Reincarnation Under God’s Supervision, somehow). BetterOffDEAD stays the course for the most part, but sees the trio laser-focusing their presentation. Frankly, they’re just better at it, in every sense. It takes a certain stomach to listen to Flatbush Zombies at all, and a certain drug appetite to really empathize with them (which I thankfully don’t share). So while their presentation might not be unprecedented in the field, it’s tough to find an exact contemporary to their work, even now.

BetterOffDEAD is the sequel to D.R.U.G.S. in every logical sense: the boys are older, colder, weirder, and they’ve dropped any pretense of typical gangster pastiche. From the get-go they’re feeding on brains, tearing apart tongues… and ripping into popular misappropriation of black culture. Darko’s first words on intro “Amerikkkan Pie” read “I am redesigning the mind of the masses/That fear a black man with tattoos and bandanas/but when a white man wear tattoos and bandanas/and joins a bike gang it’s all cool with the balance”. These are the politics we’re referring to when we say Flatbush, Brooklyn, and it’s a fantastic strain of millennial rap-punk that runs strong throughout BetterOffDEAD. Not that their success would even demand lyrical substance, really; it’s a challenge to describe Flatbush Zombies’ vocal tics without resorting to worn metaphor or fumbling similes all over the place. The boys would stand out in their strange field regardless; let’s see if you can guess why:

See what I mean? Who sounds like that?! Well, DMX for one, sort of. The trick-or-treater trio from Nightmare Before Christmas, for two, and that’s a prescient example. Flatbush would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with the label horrorcore (who is, ICP?) but there it is, in each and every track. Ultra-violence, mental devastation, moral and physical degradation. Narcotics! They love it, they thrive in it. And they have to – Flatbush Zombies are anything if not massive drug enthusiasts. Their beat production reflects this, too (and that’s Erick ‘Arc’ Elliot’s job, almost entirely) – it’s a hazy mix of thudding bangers and ethereal, horror-movie sampling introspective jams. There are pianos here, Gorillaz samples, Kanye nods, full strings and a full track or two full of homages. Look at “Regular and Complex (GNB)”, a favourite of mine that manages to elicit memories of ATLiens while lyrically tapping bubbling crack rock and suicide. When they reminisce, which is rare, it’s Arc claiming “the first time I did drugs it was makin’ the beats” – and certainly it has to have been every time since as well. He’s consistent too, and so just when you get as comfortable as BetterOffDEAD lets you, suffocatingly dark as it is, it’ll turn around and give you something like “Bliss”, their anarchy lovesong featuring the word “fuck” one hundred and thirty-three times.

The boys are blessed with incredibly bizarre delivery and an obsession with horror imagery and drugs, absolutely. What you’ll also find, perched alongside the rage and the politics and the posturing, is looming, uncomfortable sexism. These boys are as disenfranchised as they come, and their rebellion is an addiction to narcotics: here that word means drugs, violence and pussy. Pussy, specifically, becomes a focal point and a valid criticism of Zombies: there are no women here. There is plenty of pussy, the object, the commodity, apparently the drug. Meechy ‘garburator-flow’ Darko is likely the greatest offender here, if barely, but that’s also his job – whenever he isn’t shocking you he’s… crouched behind something, waiting to get you on the next track, likely. Women aren’t ignored; they’re non-existent. It’s a question of whether pussy even involves women – and while there’s certainly a ton of sex going on, those verses tend to wander by like distasteful filler, something of a necessary nod to the fact that, yes, Flatbush can have sex. Oh good. A very curious counterexample does arise on “222” though, by far the most shocking moment on an album packed with drugs and crime of every describable variety. “222” features Bridget Perez on the album’s only soft edge, crooning the chorus in between Arc’s capable, calm lyricism. He might be the producer, but Arc also shows a hand here for introspective rap that respects and reflects on women. Like an adult would. As an unexpected moral centre for the album “222” is an anomaly and a refreshing change of pace, a touch of catharsis in the midst of Flatbush Zombies’ descent into gothic-gangster madness.

BetterOffDEAD is a massive step forward for the group, in terms of production and presentation, both of which now arrive more confidently and fully-realized than ever before. Another result of their idiosyncrasy, though, is that criticism of Flatbush Zombies is relatively easy to come by. Were you aware that Action Bronson and Danny Brown both show up on this album? Neither was I, and I was halfway through Bronson’s turn before I even realized it was him, sounding lazier than ever on “Club Soda”. Danny Brown is more excited for his brief arrival on “Drug Parade”, but the Flatbush trio wisely limits downplays their collaborators’ presence, preferring to feature their own bombastic vocals. This much is fine. However, because Bronson and Brown have such trademark voices to begin with, Arc muddies their vocals to the point of near-distortion in order to accentuate his own crew, a bizarre move that damages both tracks. Additionally, and again this is difficult to describe by virtue of his voice, Meechy Darko has a habit of Cee-Lo-ing any track that features him on the chorus. That is, he dominates the mic every time he shows up. He’s Horrorcore Meatloaf. Zombie Juice does the same thing each verse, and the interplay between both emcees’ hyperactivity can be exhausting – as can the album’s suffocating weight. It takes a certain type of mood to listen to Flatbush Zombies, and BetterOffDEAD features none of the levity that their breakout hit “Thug Waffle” hinted back on D.R.U.G.S.. Growing pains abound, certainly (the boys are young), but what results is an album that can often be overwhelming in its enthusiasm to disgust and excite.

BetterOffDEAD is a dark and extensive listen, at times exhaustively negative in its density, but pleasantly surprising in its cultural awareness. No one is happy here; none of the performers, and by extension none of the audience. It’s a different kind of political hip-hop, and perfect for Vancouver’s cloudy Autumn season. As I said above, this is something like punk for a young African American audience, and for all their horror-imagery posturing there’s always a deeper, metaphorical intent behind the trio’s work – even though they clearly take greater joy in the medium (drugs, pageantry) than the message itself. After all, who else could come out with a knowing line like “I’m tryna free the slaves/young minds Bad Brains” than a would-be political messenger? And so Flatbush Zombies are certainly a sonic novelty, but rarely an empty one. The boys know what they’re doing and there is a political statement buried in here – so by all means listen to the divisive crew, but know what you’re getting into.

B

Flatbush Zombies are a strange thing to listen to. They know this: they’re giving it all away for free. By all means follow me and pick up D.R.U.G.S., or even BetterOffDEAD for yourself. You’ll enjoy it. Or you won’t. 

Flatbush Zombies are currently on tour supporting themselves, because they give all their music away for free. I saw them open for Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era. Their energy is crazy on album; ridiculous in person. Recommended.  

Reviewed right here, October 2013.

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