Experiencing: Kendrick Lamar’s – “Damn”

 

There are “albums” that are collections of songs (glorified mix-tapes), and then there are albums that construct context and either literal or thematic cohesion from track to track; providing truly a genuine conceptual experience. Kendrick Lamar has managed to craft yet another experience with “Damn”, and while this album is not as blatantly ambitious or diversionary from contemporary hip-hop norms as certain moments on “To Pimp a Butterfly”, it does provide both solid music, and intellectual/emotional depth.

First, I will clarify my opening statement: if you expect this to be another “Good Kid Maad City”, you’ll not find nearly as clear of a straightforward narrative here on “Damn” (though plenty of storytelling, both literal and metaphorical, fills the album – particularly on “XXX”). The themes of representation and conflict with media and society take the forefront on this album, featuring a particularly bleak and un-amused Kendrick Lamar. While I have no doubt that after enough spins, listeners (including myself) will be able to craft a myriad of interpretations, from those of a narrative nature to those of thematically and meaning, from the album, I believe that the strongest appeal of “Damn” is the fact that it can be so musically flexible. Songs on the album can stand on their own as beautifully constructed, detailed, reasonably diverse, from just a purely musical standpoint, whilst also providing more than a hearty serving of lyrical and thematic discourse for the deep analytic folks to really sink their teeth in. This is an album that you will have plenty of reasons to want to replay from start to finish, likely many many times.

“Damn” feels incredibly concise, almost eerily so. I found myself surprised that after what only ‘felt’ like a few minutes had passed, that I already managed to make it to track 9 of 14, “LUST”. I still find it hard to believe by the end of album that 54 minutes had truly passed, and its a unique experience I haven’t had with any other album – not even smaller albums that would clock in around the 20 or 30 minute marks. Kendrick Lamar rarely wastes your time, nor let musical ideas drag on far past their usefulness; an issue Kendrick has rarely had in the past, but stands out in particular on this album. “FEAR” may stay past it welcome for some, but I was thoroughly entertained, at least.

After my first listening I honestly could only find maybe 2 or 3 tracks I didn’t find captivating or at least enjoyable. Most tracks I wanted to go back to and re-play to really comprehend what I had heard, making my first pure play-through difficult to do.

As for any weak spots on this album, I would say the first half of “GOD” was a bit boring, if only because the beat and vocal performance of Kendrick on this track felt rather generic. Luckily the song becomes slightly more interesting on the latter half. “YAH” feels a bit too lethargic and chill after following a track after “Damn” but does maintain the overall introspective and critical theme of the album, just with a weak chorus. “LOYALTY” is an excellent track during it’s verses, but the chorus, once again, is kinda annoying to me. I’m not too surprised by this, however, as I’m not much a chorus or hook fan to begin with – and it’s easily been my least favorite aspect of Kendrick’s music since Section 80 (Ironically, the one album where I don’t have a problem with really any his chorus based songs).

There are only a few real bangers on “Damn”, with “DNA” being easily the heaviest and hardest song Kendrick has done since Backseat Freestyle. “DNA” is an incredible second track, with a merciless lyrical and instrumental assault that builds up to an incredible, yet sudden, ending. “Humble” is an upbeat, self-aware braggadocios venture, and likely a standout track, though I much prefer “DNA”.

This album is also full of songs that are complex, merging either ferocious and relentless lyrics with more subtle and lurking instrumentals, like “ELEMENT” and “FEEL” for example. From “LUST” to “DUCKWORTH” you have a captivating series of unique and interesting tracks, ending the album. “LOVE” is a near perfect atmospheric and emotional track that flows naturally into “XXX”, which is a unique and haunting song which slips into captivating intensity just enticing you for future replays.

I will say, this is an excellent album worthy of at least somewhere between a 8-9 out of 10, no question. I will say, it lacks some solid identity that previous projects “Section 80”, “Good Kid”, and “To Pimp” all had in spades, and were inherently obvious. “Damn” is quite a bit more complex, a bit more unwilling to take your hand and walk you through it’s purpose, and still an incredible album. At this point, it’s incredible that Kendrick can continue to produce consistently high-quality albums. Purely from a musical perspective, this album has some of the most efficient and enjoyable songs in Kendrick’s career – and that’s saying a lot considering his catalog.

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Music Overview: Modest Mouse – “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About”

MODEST MOUSE – THIS IS A LONG DRIVE FOR SOMEONE WITH NOTHING TO THINK ABOUT (1996)

To many a typical ‘radio-and-tv-media-consumer’, the band known as Modest Mouse essentially only became relevant when their single “Float On” – a tack off their fourth album, “Good News For People Who Like Bad News” – was released, coupled along with it’s extremely popular video added to Vh1 and MTV rotations in 2004/2005. Obviously, for many fans of the band, the true appeal of Modest Mouse extends far further back into their first few albums, such as their debut “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About” in 1996. Like many casually/lazily “indie” labeled bands (Indie now often refers to an aesthetic, attitude and sound, and often takes for granted that these bands are somehow also “independent”, which isn’t always the case) there is always a strange battle between making more experimental and unique music, and with creating more straight-forward and poppy music: Modest Mouse’s evolution, among plenty others, over the years is a prime example of this struggle. Music found on We Were Dead Before The Ship Sank is pretty estranged from their debut, though if anything remains consistent between all the albums is Isaac Brock’s vocal approach – which is probably the most defining characteristic of the band, at least by the last two album.

This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About” is a rather bizarre album for anyone who had just listened to the bands most recent two albums. While I’m no stranger to odd/experimental/unique music, to say the least, especially in genres far more audibly aggressive (Noise, metal, ect), this is by no means an accessible album – no matter what the first few tracks try to do. What starts the album is is a very calming, clear, and pleasant experience despite being uniquely contrasted by Isaac Brock’s wallowing vocal style and lo-fi recording quality which he has become known for, which is titled “Dramamine”. In my opinion, this first track is still one of their best, which is saying something considering I would say the song has plenty of stiff competition among the band’s more polished and concentrated tracks on later albums. It’s already clear by end of this first song that Modest Mouse stand out from the crowd, even among Indie music at that time and to this day, and particularly this album. Following the first song, is the somewhat garage rock-ish track “Breakthrough”, which switches back and forth between this new sound with the more mellow catchy side demonstrated in “Dramamine”. This is done for good effect, as it does create a strong energy during the chorus and the last half of the song, where a very simple yet engaging guitar solo is presented. By this point you begin to feel a good description of the band would be an odd meoldic, punk-ish, garage band.

Once the third song “Custom Concern” begins, Isaac Brock proceeds to provide a even further amplified vocal performance, with multiple layered vocals and different inflections also incorporated. The song continues the more relaxed and chilled-out vibe from “Dramamine”, and while it starts off rather shaky and messy, the song eventually quite easily memorizes in it’s simple groove and relaxed instrumentals. Then, you are hit rather abruptly by “Might”, which is very short track. To clarify, the track still features a more relaxed and calm instrumental, but the vocals become angry and frustrated, which immediately contrast. By this point, the album has begun to venture into true odd territory, as the track “Lounge” provides us with what at first seems like a blurry, muffled attempt at funk-punk track, and then ends with a few minutes of relaxed odd psychedelic and slightly baroque instrumental lingering. While the last half of this song DOES have a lot of layering and complexion to it, a very soft melodic wall-of-sound essentially, it goes on for far too long with seemingly little purpose and an abrupt end.

Once you hit “Beach Side Property”, you realize that album is perhaps trying to generate a very uncomfortable mood on purpose, though exactly why is up to anyone’s interpretation. Once again, you have a very exaggerated and powerful, occasionally slightly distorted, wallowing vocal performance accompanied by their strange soft-punk sound, being frequently transplanted with their more gentle slow and bass/drum driven side. The song does build up to what seems what will be a very and chaotic ending, though it feels like it’s needlessly dragging itself along. This is a problem with many of the songs on here: while their sound is an unique and interesting blend of styles and influences, they often can’t seem to justify the length of some of their songs with just their sound alone. Oftentimes, there are great sections and ideas, but they either get repeated to death or wander off and end up sounding irrelevant to how the song even started. It’s a shame, because their production is a perfect blend of intended lo-fi, and yet still very sophisticate. “Dog Paddle” is fun and strange, so I do like it’s inclusion, though it so easily could be seen as annoying after a while, as Isaac continues his contrasting emotional sing-howls.

“Tundra/Desert” is where the album goes rather crazy, as Desert is this just plain odd dance-y track, featuring strange samples and distorted guitars and various sounds all mixed together into a very ugly mixture. While listening, I constantly switch between liking the execution, and getting bored/irritated by it as it repeats and fails to go further in any interesting direction – though the inclusion of new drum work near the end spiced it up. “Ohio” and it’s slow instrumentation is straight up bland by this point in the album, though I do enjoy Isaac’s voice a lot when he does deeper vocal sections, and the guitar sound remains still ever catchy, even at this point in the album. “This Exit Does Not Exist” is another good funk-punk-garage band track, where it’s heavier and intense segments are done very well, and like the whole of this album, provides engaging and fun guitar work. However, like most songs by the last half of the album, it does drag on a bit. “Talking Shit About A Shitty Sunset” begins rather bland and seems like it will just be another instrumental lingering-fest, but the middle-half, it wins you over, and even when it eventually devolves into that – it provides actually fresh, and even further interesting guitar work and extremely catchy drums. The Baroque instrumentation even returns and compliments the song extremely well during the previously mentioned instrumental breakdown, though it disappears so quick into the slow and boring intro of “Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds”. Similar to the last few songs, the intro here is set at a crawling pace, until the song builds up into a bizarre wall-of-sound, climax. Though I do enjoy this aspect of these songs, it just feels completely random at times, which isn’t necessary bad, but does make it feel like a less cohesive project.

I am aware that generating a strange, lingering, angst-y uncomfortable feeling could essentially be the whole point of this album, and I have no objections to it. Still, what the album seemed to have been doing well in the first 5 or 6 tracks of the album, they quickly forgot how to do, and then just learned how to make a few interesting and extremely energetic instrumental breakdowns in the last half. While I do greatly enjoy Isaac’s vocal delivery, and the contrast it provides in many of the songs, it doesn’t always work here, and unfortunately is just often annoying as it is very suiting and interesting.

I do recommend this album to people, though I think it’s very difficult to approach and digest after the first few songs. If the sound that the band presented here isn’t something you immediately love, the album is likely going to have points in which it meanders for no reason, or just gets annoying. The album DOES get high praise for the fantastic guitar work and the overall production style, which allows the music to sound meancing, psychadelic, and punk-y without having too have much sheer sound quality stripped away. As a debut album, it’s hard to expect many bands to do any better, but it definitely demonstrated potential with the band’s refreshing new sound.

7/10

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Music Review – Childish Gambino: “Stn Mtn/Kauai”

CHILDISH GAMBINO – ST MTN/KAUAI

OCTOBER 2, 2014

AVILIABLE ON DATPIFF – http://www.datpiff.com/Childish-Gambino-STN-MTN-Kauai-Mixtape.642620.html

On this latest release, Childish Gambino essentially indulges further into his hip-hop guilty pleasures that you similarly can find on his earlier mixtape Royalty. If you’re searching for experimental, self-aware, progressive hip-hop here – don’t bother looking for it on this mixtape. The project does setup the context of the project being that Gambino is dreaming of himself “running atlanta”, and making a “Gangsta Grillz mixtape”. The opening track “Dream” loosely establishes a thematic narrative to tie the mix-tape’s songs together, and does explain why he’s choosing to create these over-popularized trap style tracks. There is basically no intellectual depth in the lyrics this time around, nor in most of the song concepts (at least not until the last few songs, MAYBE), but anyone who enjoyed Royalty wouldn’t mind this fact, as long as the flows and energy were being delivered. Gambino does successfully demonstrate that he is capable of doing popular ignorant trap-rap better and with more personality than many of his fellow contemporaries, though that isn’t really saying all to much, either. Really, there is simply very little being offered here beyond a few very fun and effective trap beats, and some very mediocre rapping/singing from Gambino. If this niche style of music is appealing to your pallette, then this mixtape may very well have few tracks for you to enjoy, but that is the most you can expect out of it.

As per the usual in hip-hop currently, the production is full of energy, subtle yet detailed background atmosphere, and the all the other delectable expected trap beat tropes. One can’t really complain about the production here, unless you simply aren’t a fan of this production. Personally, I often feel most rappers completely waste the potential of such powerful and commanding instrumentals, and to be honest Gambino does do better than most doing this style, but still does horrible for what we have come to expect from him. There is a constant interjection of nonsense by some other guy’s voice constantly appearing in basically every song, which in hip-hop normally doesn’t annoy me too much when used sparingly and for effect: but this guy’s stupid bellowing is in EVERY GODDAMN SONG, and at essentially THE SAME GODDAMN POINT in the track. Formula for song: Beat starts, annoying ass guy says some nonsense, then cue voiceclip saying “GANGSTA B”-whatever. Never I have been so annoyed by this pointless/infuriating voice addition, since hearing P. Diddy’s talent-less ass groaning all over the masterpiece that was Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready To Die. This makes it hard to enjoy Gamibno, and serves only as a distraction from what little is good about these very short songs.

“Southern Hospitality/Partna Dem” could have easily fit in on Royalty, and I are actually very catchy and replay-able. Only problem: They both are horribly short, unfinished, and sound more like combined track previews from Amazon, and there will never be more these songs to listen to. The disappointment has already begun here, since Gambino is totally capable of getting me amped up to enjoy more Royalty style ignorant wordplay raps – but then decides he only wants to do it for a like, at most, a minute or two at a time, and without any really memorable lines. “No Fucks Given” goes by so fast and says nothing, for some reason it’s almost easier to just let it play then to skip it, simply because the beat is interesting and heavy. “No Small Talk” is such a perfect, dirty, guilty pleasure track. You absolutely KNOW it’s an awful song, basically in every aspect, and yet it just screams for you and everyone else to indulge in it’s silliness: it has all the seriousness of a Riff Raff track with a female rapper verse and hook. “Let Your Hair Bow” would be nice, if Young Scooter was nowhere near the hook, or rather, the track at all. “Move That Dope/Nextel Chip” suffer from the same problem as the first group of grouped together tracks. If all you wanted to hear was Gambino drop very few verses on various Trap beats, then this project most certainly delivers that, albeit very briefly.

Now, where things do get a bit more switched up happens at “U Don’t Have To Call”, which includes both a singing, and spoken word portion. A bizarre track, and the only song with a few Childish Gambino qualities actually reminiscent of his previous album Because The Internet. Still, the track doesn’t last long, doesn’t have much context, and ends before you can understand what the hell the point of it was, or it’s relevance. “Candler Road” is pretty nice, and is probably my favorite off the mixtape. Both segments of the song are different, and thus work well in contrast to each other, though Gambino really didn’t need to sing for basically no reason his half of the song.  “AssShots” features yet another fun instrumental with immense potential, with Gambino doing a fine job over it, and a horrible “hook” and unimpressive feature by someone named ROYALTY, for some reason. “All Yall” is actually a straightforward Gambino track, with a very quirky and catchy beat. Lyrics aren’t horrible here, nothing really blows me away, though his singing portions here are bare and uninteresting.

Now, don’t get me pegged as some solely lyrical-obsessed critic, because I absolutely loved Gambino ignorant work on Royalty. However, Royalty did an immensely better job at being a popular, braggadocious, hip-hop project than this latest attempt. The beats on Royalty were more direct and catchy, memorable, and effective at being fun, guilty pleasure music. While this latest mixtape wasn’t trying to be Royalty, and even if Gamibno’s intentions are made very clear with just the first track, it still doesn’t excuse a very underwhelming, brief, and disappointing project.

For a hip-hop artist trying to expand and change himself, it’s difficult to tell if Gambino is taking a step ahead in living out his guilty pleasures on this mixtape, or taking a step back from the artistic and abstract efforts of Because The Internet. It’s clear he’s still capable of doing both, so it will be still interesting to see where he goes next.

Overall Raing: 6/10

~Jasusa Chrusta

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