Archive | January 2012

The Score – The Fugees, 1996

As I continue to reflect on the past year, I love to remember great concerts.  I had the great privilege of seeing the magnificent Ms. Lauryn Hill last spring at the Commodore. It may no longer have bouncy floors, but it’s still my favorite Vancouver venue.  The best surprise of the night – after discovering it was her birthday and having the crowd burst into song for her – was L. Boogie’s presentation of material from The Score.  She did a total of 5 songs from the album and owned everything.  Regardless of whether verses were originally spat by Wyclef or Pras, she would authoritatively rap every bit of the song at nearly double speed.  The songs lost some of their groove this way – the familiar rap felt a little less melodic than I was used to – and yet it had a new kind of forceful power. 

Anyway, this is not a concert blog, but seeing Lauryn Hill in 2011 brought her work with the Fugees back into my regular playlists over the past several months, and most recently I even made The Score my alarm CD to wake up to.  At Lauryn’s show, I was reminded not only how deeply Miseducation shaped and spoke to my adolescent self, but how her role in the Fugees introduced me a world of socially conscious rap.  Not that I would have called it that in Jr. High, but even in 1996 I could tell The Score was different than Snoop’s Doggy Style.   
Suprisingly, it was never Lauryn alone that made The Fugees attractive to a 13 year old white girl from the burbs.  Wyclef Jean allows his sense of humor shine through even the most serious verse, giving a sense of playfulness in “Fu-Gee-La” especially.  Pras sounds like a man with a lot of anger, but is too stoned to do anything about it.  Together they made a loveable trio who though clearly intelligent and socially aware, never lost their ability to have a good time.  When I bought the album, I had only heard the two radio-played covers: “Killing Me Softly” and “No Woman No Cry”.  Although hearing Ms. Hill sing the Roberta Flack tune would alter whatever I might have been doing, it was Wyclef’s guitar and vocals on the Bob Marley cover that drew the money out of my pocket. 
At the time, I didn’t know much about these refugees (other than having loved Hill’s performance as Rita in Sister Act II), but soon the first half of the album would open up my understanding of what music could be.  “How Many Mics”, “Ready Or Not”, and “Zealots” quickly became my favourite 13ish minutes.  To this day, I love how the three MCs share the songs; No one gets more mic time than anyone else, even though there are admittedly “too many MC’s, not enough mics”.  References are thick and plenty, whether it’s to Marcus Garvey or Corey Hart, and rhymes are effortlessly smooth.  Choruses are crooned, and I momentarily forget that this isn’t a classic R&B album… That is until “Ready or Not” reminds us, which is where we hear my favourite Lauryn line ever: “So while you imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone.”  Ok, one of my favourites.  She’s got a lot (oh yeah).  😉
It took me some time to appreciate “The Beast”, even though I loved to imitate the beastly-noises that Wyclef makes.  I don’t think, at the time, that I picked up on the comic-feel of this song, even though it’s constantly referencing super heroes and sci-fi characters. Now when I listen to this frustration rant against greed and corruption in government and policing.
Like Miseducation, most songs on The Score are punctuated by spoken scenes emphasizing the down-to-earth style of the Fugees.  “The Beast” is followed by possibly the oddest, and weirdly racist sketch, set in a Chinese restaurant that is “like burger king, have it your way”.  
At a younger age, both “The Mask” and “Cowboys” always felt awkward to me.  Now I love “The Mask” because it is positively brilliant, showing off the Fugees ability to use extended metaphor.  Cowboys is also an example of this, although less groovy. “Cowboys” allows the three MCs to have some fun with the plethora of Western clichés and cowboy media references.  It’s a bringing together of Reggae and Country in a way that I can stomach, and on top of it, critiquing drug culture.  Best line is from Pras: “F*** the Sheriff, I shot John Wayne”.
Fu-Gee-Las (the original and the three remixes provided) never get old to me.  Sometimes I’ll plan to skip one of the versions, but it’s hard – they’re each unique enough to require a listen.  Actually, I take that back.  Now that I’m listening through it all again, I know the Sly & Robbie mix the least.  I think I would tend to listen to the first Refugee Camp Remix and than skip ahead to “Mista Mista”, which is eerily beautiful.  When I was younger I thought it was a joke – every time Wyclef answers himself with “Hell No Mutha*****”, it would make me giggle.  Now I hear it as a musical conversation that can be seen on a regular basis in my neighborhood, and the questions so many of us in any city have to ask ourselves: when do we help those we see in need, and what is helping?  Money?  Food?  A fix to forget?
Finally, they end on a happy note, with the last Fu-Gee-La remix.  It’s possible that 4 versions of the same song on a full length album is overkill, but at least it’s a good, catchy song.  Or maybe we should just consider ourselves lucky that in The Score you received both an LP and a single.  Either way, it’s not worth a complaint.  If you’re not sick of it yet, you should probably watch this video:

Earlier I mentioned that all 3 Fugees share the microphone well.  Still, I can’t help but notice that Ms. Hill is already hitting the hardest.  And she gets away with some of the best words.  I mean, Poli-trick-cians?  And rhyming galaxy with phallic-sy?  She is a bold and clever phenomenon, and high on my list of hopes for 2012-and-beyond is a full comeback for this talented woman we grew to love, respect, and groove to.  Until then, I’ll keep returning to The Score, far more than a majority of rap albums from the mid-90’s – the height of the East-West tensions (Tupac died later that year).  While so much of rap was focused on destruction and self-promotion, The Fugees attempted to spit some positivity and call out the larger systems to blame, rather than simply slamming their own competition. When they did address their peers in rap, there was always a legitimate reason, punctuated by Hill’s verse in “Family Business” – “my army is trained, you never find us beefin’ in vain”.  This a record that is aging well, and may never lose its relevance.

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Undun – The Roots, 2011

I’ve been meaning to go back a little and give you reason to pull an older slightly-neglected album off the shelves again, but new music has been so good lately!  Undun is the record I can’t get enough of right now, and I want to offer it up as an alternative to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as an album that attempts to push rap music in a new direction.  The Roots, however, are able to do so far more narratively and positively on Undun, which focuses on a man – Redford Stevens – who dies at the beginning of the album, and everything we hear after that looks back to what led up to that particular moment.  And that’s about as much pre-amble as I want to give you, because something tells me Undun is the kind of thing that we’ll enjoy as we discover new things each time we listen.

The first thing I notice, before I even hit play, is the album art depicting a kid “flipping in the ghetto on a dirty mattress” as Lauryn Hill so eloquently describes.  Like any great rap album, Undun is full of reference, even in its few, but intentional visuals.  The first track, “Dun”, builds (or fades out backwards-ly) sonically toward the first full song, “Sleep”: stunning in its short and slow depiction of Redford looking on his own death through incredibly poetic rap.  Similarly, “Make My” is Redford’s coming to terms with his near-approaching life’s end.  This song is so beautiful, and strikes me as brutally honest in its ability to realistically capture someone’s final song or word.  As conceptual as Undun is, I can’t get over how catchy the music is throughout.  The Roots are relatively un-rivalled in the arena of instrumental hip-hop (heck, they created it), and prove they are still on top.  The bass line from “Make My”slips and slides around everywhere, and “One Time” is driven forward by percussive piano chords that, although with a low bpm, force physical movement out of its listener.

“Kool On” introduces a completely different beat with one of the slickest transitions I can remember – and it’s just a fade in!  And let’s face it, using an old-school vocal line as a rhythmic beat is so awesome right now, whether it’s on Watch the Throne or not.  This and the next, “The OtherSide” is the closest track to a dance groove that you’ll find on the album, but they are not really for dancing at all since they are gritty looks at a life of chasing drugs and money.  Greg Porn has some of the most direct and simple phrases, like “I’m on the edge of my bed making love to my meds”.  
I keep thinking that the worst must be over; Redford is dead, so eventually we’ll get to some happy memories, right?  On the contrary, it seems like his death is the most peaceful moment on the album, and “Stomp” definitely intensifies things, and gets the physicality of life, viscerally describing “blood sweat and tears, broken teeth and spit”.  “Lighthouse” continues that theme as guest rapper Dice Raw asks us to “take a look at my lungs and my liver – it’s disgusting”.  Again, the rawness of the story is never abandoned in the midst of thoughtful and catchy hooks that can be played anywhere.  I have cooked and cleaned and just chilled out to this record, and it all works.  
“I Remember” suggests that Redford never really had a chance, drawing “a two from the deck” and continues to be fairly aware that death is not too far off.  “Tip the Scale” is the last track that gives us any lyrics, and I suppose it can be seen as the beginning of the end in multiple ways.  It reveals either a real or felt decision he is making between a friend’s life and his own.  Knowing the end outcome gives this song even more dramatic weight.  And we are left to contemplate the short life of a thug over Sufjan Stevens’ “Redford (for Yia Yia & Pappou)”, and its 3 variations in the form of movements.  Each take a very different approach while holding a recognizable piece of Sufjan’s original: “Possibility” is high and dream-like, “Will to Power” is is dark and jazzy, and ends with chaotic chordal clusters, and finally “Finality” feels much like a string quartet at a funeral, yet ends with a low hammer on the piano.  
Undun allowed us to peer into a common character’s last bits of life, but Redford’s stereotypical thug-like behaviour never distracted me from his humanity.  Nothing about this album felt like every other rap about money, drugs, sex, and death.  It was neither braggy nor preachy, yet honestly looked at nothing less than the meaning of life, and I’m left wanting to have another listen.  Don’t mind if I do…  

4 – Beyonce, 2011

One of my favorite things to do around the new year is reflect on the finishing year by reading lists and making some of my own.  There are a number of artists that have shaped my 2011 with new and newly discovered albums – Bon Iver, Florence, Adele, Josh Garrels – but I’ve decided to talk about Beyonce’s 4, because I doubt I will ever be inspired to write about any of her other albums, past or future.  And I cannot stop listening to it.

Who would have expected this?  A chock-full collection of hit after hit, that somehow sound even better together, from a woman who has built her career on singles and music videos.  Beyonce has never been what I’ve considered great at the art of album, but 4 is an incredibly happy exception.

“1+1” reintroduces Beyonce to us as a sexy balladess with clear control on her vocal range.  Before we dance, we are asked to remember that she is not only a beautiful, engaging performer, but a vocal contender as well.  “I Care” and “Miss You” are best paired together, both using 80’s instrumentation to recall a classic pop-r&b fusion, and both wrestling with relationships either on their way out or regretfully finished.  Come to think of it, “Best Thing I Never Had” is a part of the series too – but adds some real Beyonce attitude.  Sure it’s a pithy chorus, but Beyonce’s never been hailed as a lyricist anyway, and it’s a great song to sing at the top of your lungs in the car.  Try it sometime.

By now, we’ve remembered what Beyonce is capable of, but we’re not sure if she’s still really got the power to start the party.  By the time I listened to 4 in it’s entirety I had already seen the video for the last track, “Run the World (Girls)”, and was at best disappointed.  Was that going to be the strongest dance song on the album?  Certainly not.  And this is where the party begins, appropriately with “Party”, which brings along with it Andre 3000 and Kanye, and a sample of La-Di-Da-Di.  It’s a massive summer party track, but was unfortunately released a little too late to get the attention it deserves.

There’s always one song I don’t love, and on 4 it’s “Rather Die Young”, which feels inauthentic and silly, referencing a bad boy who is worth all the trouble.  Beyonce is getting too old for that, and I find “Start Over” to be far more believable as she searches to reignite a spark with a long-term partner.

“Love on Top” is a throwback to past divas such as Whitney of the 80’s and even Diana of the 60’s, as she once again shows what she can do, this time in 6 key changes.  It was the perfect song to let the world know of her anticipated Knowles-Carter child in this pop-historic VMAs performance.  You should probably watch it here if you haven’t yet:

The party refuses to stop as Beyonce uses a counting down sample from Boyz II Men (good move B) to “Countdown” which is one of the most eclectic songs that doesn’t sound scattered ever made in the r&b world.  The video is nearly perfect as it mirrors this collage of a song, with great dance moves and even greater outfits.  If you haven’t seen it, you should probably watch it here:

THEN, “End of Time” comes on, with its massive horn shots and epic marching beat.  This for me is the highlight of the album.  By now I am sold on B, and all that is left to do is shake whatever your mother gave you, regardless of how it compares to what Beyonce received from her mother.

“I Was Here” slows everything down again with the track that will likely be played at Beyonce’s funeral.  Written by legendary love song writer Diane Warren, it might be a little melodramatic for my taste, but every diva needs to plan ahead for a memorial or life-time achievement award.

The album ends with “Run the World”, which actually has an incredible beat and similar energy levels to “End of Time”, but falls flat when compared to other girl-power/feminist anthems like Destiny’s Child’s earlier “Independent Women”.  The video has some amazing dancing, but it mostly frustrates me by what it could’ve been.  Still, considering this post has been video heavy, I might as well conclude one last performance that almost convinced me of this song:

When I think of 2011, I will undoubtedly think of Beyonce’s 4.  What will you think of?