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.
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.
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.
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:
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?