In a year where R&B had an out-of-nowhere renaissance, between mainstream radio and weirdo online only releases (seriously, it may not be the best album but The Dream’s “Wedding Crasher” is probably my most-played track of the year), Frank Ocean managed to not have any competition in great songwriting (or in a few cases rewriting other people’s eh songs as great songs, fudging the “your favorite hip hop/r&b artist’s taste in rock is about the same as your mom’s” rule by making a Coldplay track pretty listenable). Subject matter, this is as much about sex and relationships as the Jodeci he takes a swipe at in one of the interstitials, but there is a breadth of language and approach to subject matter on this record that makes Nostalgia/Ultra different. “Novacane” draws a parallel between a need to be numb and the current studio-frankensteined style of his genre, but still manages to walk us through a pretty specific story in a way you only see in golden age rap and singer-songwriter deep cuts. “We All Try” positions Ocean’s relationship with his girl by laying out his entire belief system. “Songs For Women” playfully navigates the before and after of becoming a songwriter to get with girls, and what it feels like when the one girl isn’t interested. A pretty rote love song is bookended with a monologue from Eyes Wide Shut, seemingly tearing into the misogyny of the track itself. On “There Will Be Tears”, Ocean gives us the heartbreaking ballad, but instead of being lovesick for a girl he sings about growing up without a father and losing his grandfather. He sings his heart out, and it hurts, and not in the way that these kind of songs ever hurt to listen to. All of Nostalgia/Ultra takes what are essentially genre tropes that have been worn smooth and impersonal and make them personal to Ocean in ways that show how idiosyncratic an approach he can take without really changing up what an album like this should deliver. Everything here is a presentation of Ocean’s personality - from the videogame cartridge noise to the way he approaches sex, and how well it speaks to you has everything to do with how you respond to him. -SW
The truth is, coke rap was always a metaphor for the music industry. Just like most rock bands’ second albums are secretly about the process of making a second album, raps about hustling on the corner are really raps about hustling to get into the studio. Hustler’s remorse is just self-doubt. Measuring weight = measuring sales. The good shit is the good shit. Keys open doors… to your new career! But these days every rapper is his own label, accountant, and marketing department. Rappers like Nicki Minaj and Kanye West use the music industry itself as a lyrical focus. So what’s the metaphor now?
On Return of 4Eva, 25-year-old Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T.’s industry talk seeps out between the UGK-indebted tributes to wood grain that define his album. He claims that rap labels aren’t interested in signing someone who’s just rapping about country shit. They’re not interested in someone aiming for a collection of songs rather than a monster single. That may be legit; it may be part of K.R.I.T.’s mythos. Either way, it’s K.R.I.T.’s relationship with his own career that gives Return of 4Eva its poignancy. When he’s not fetishizing his tires, K.R.I.T. is transparently working through the artist’s process—ambition, second thoughts, trying to be the person your family and friends see you as. Every time he contemplates writing a gangsta track or wonders if his deceased grandmother has been pulling strings for him from beyond the veil, K.R.I.T. taps into that larger metaphor—how you fight or buckle against the seemingly unmovable forces in your life, especially when it seems like you’re not built to succeed. That’s the difference between coke rap and industry rap: there’s no underdog in the crack game.
“Couldn’t pay the rent, but passed up on the deal because it wasn’t right,” K.R.I.T. raps on “Dreamin’,” “Sometimes you gotta wade the storm.” You’re not going to get better life coaching from the Clipse. -MB
The cover I usually see attached to WU LYF’s Go Tell Fire to the Mountain is a simple collage. A shard of a picture of raging fire tearing through tall, dry grass sits on top of a picture of storm clouds burrowing through mountaintops, just below a crystalline sky. WU LYF’s music is similarly elemental, a torrent of swells and decrescendos, with singer Ellery Roberts’ anguished voice calling out through the flames.
Go Tell Fire to the Mountain’s vinyl album cover is even more intriguing. It primitively depicts a group of people embracing and celebrating at the edge of a body of water, itself in front of a pyramid-shaped hill. WU LYF’s full name is displayed—World Unite: Lucifer Youth Foundation—and at the top, against a white background, sits a modified cross with a W at the top. Because the cover’s not as immediately visually striking, the vinyl album could conceivably be lost and rediscovered in a record bin decades from now, mistaken for a relic from a tribe or cult. And that’s exactly what it sounds like, from the passionate sweep of the orchestration to the organ-led songs to the chanted choruses. When lyrics do creep out through Roberts’ garbled annunciation, they are often familial (as on the self-explanatory “We Bros”), adoring (he is as unafraid to say “I love you” as anyone since Billy Corgan), or primal (the most articulated lyric is the refrain “I’m spitting blood”). It’s as if Go Tell Fire to the Mountain has been unearthed from a colony, tucked away somewhere in the Western hemosphere, where the inhabitants worship at the church of Broken Social Scene, and even the discontents are occupying bro street. -MB
While I have few music examples beyond Watch The Throne at hand, it certainly seems like 2011 was a year where our more reliable sluggers failed to get on base. David Fincher continued his post-Zodiac “i’m taking some time off from hard work”, Soderbergh remade Full Frontal with disease in place of the jokes, Thom Yorke accidentally labeled his new solo album as a Radiohead one, and then there’s that aforementioned West/Z team-up, which confirmed what we’ve all long suspected: Hova did actually retire, he just forget to take Shawn Carter with him. Enter: The Shjips. These San Francisco psych merchants have been steadily building better tracks for a solid six year bent, and West is one of their strongest and most accomplished collections to date. (The word album doesn’t really fit for West--the songs have a tendency to sound a bit better when presented side to side, and yet each of them is best experienced singularly; that way, the sea of conclusions they present remains navigable. It’s the same problem a short story collection creates. History tells us we read books cover to cover, and yet the pieces need you to give them their own private space.) There’s no denying that the Shjips will, for some, forever be relegated to the retail wallpapering category currently teeming with psycho heroes of past and present. That’s just the rules of the game, as much a subtitle as the old Parental Advisory used to be. But every once in a while, pull this one out and really give it a listen. Underneath the drone, distortion and shimmering chords, you’ll find a living center, pulsing with life, as hard as nails. Watching these guys get better is never going to get old. -TS
Dan Bejar sings on the final track of Kaputt, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)”, that he “was 20 years old in 1992”. Which places Kaputt in a different context than almost all of the past decade’s 80s nostalgia - or modified nostalgia where New Order and The Swans were as big as they are now remembered, instead of Phil Collins and Ultravox. Here, cultural memory is slammed back to jibe with actual history, and while the lyrics can poke at “Message In a Bottle”, the songs sound closer to Nothing Like The Sun, with all the weird issues of ego, race, pretension, pandering, nostalgia, and “lifestyle music” that can come with. All of it being dealt with by a guy who probably went to punk and indie shows to avoid ever listening to music like this at the time. Kaputt is an absolutely gorgeous record, one that finds the perfect way to present the lyricist side of Destroyer, because all the clusters of words and references don’t feel over-labored, instead they seem to slide along these songs. While Destroyer has been a motherfucker guitar band and a digital-only chamber pop orchestra, “ease” isn’t the kind of word you’d ever have associated with Bejar before now. There is a sense that in making an album like this, combined with the words he does “why’s everybody sing along when we built this city on ruins” - that Kaputt is a refutation of the kind of fake nostalgia records that are everywhere nowadays, the problem being that this essentially the same thing. So instead Kaputt feels like a call for a tempering of nostalgia with the kind of personal desolation every one of the records he’s referencing tried to cover up. This is where the rebellion came to die, and do cocaine and make some money. Those albums are all about the emptiness of being a rock star, but also the emptiness of singing about that. All the big statements, the gestures towards relevance, towards social conscience, and searches for love, all the stuff that dominates the record (even though in Bejar’s hands the words are wrong) were there because you’ve got to sing about something, right? It was music to listen to at dinner, before you broke out the coke, no one was listening anyway. But maybe now we are. -SW
While Pitchfork (and Pitchfork’s readers, and those White Hills fans who preceded both) have made any number of excellent cases for why the best White Hills is the White Hills you go see live, the argument seems like one lacking in necessity--after all, who says that both can’t be great, even if it’s not in equal measure? (“Great” didn’t all of a sudden get worse than good, did it?) And yes, some of the complaints have merit: the parts during the twelve minute “Paradise” where the Hills start playing with what sounds like the hissing suction straw popularized by dentists does get old around the fourth time you hear the album, and sure, “A Need To Know” seems like little more than baby’s first remix of cool movie scores. But any quibbling is drained of its strength when cast against this album’s four front attack: “The Condition of Nothing”, opening the album with a hellish descent into psychedelic metal oblivion, courtesy of the heaviest guitar available. “No Other Way”, with it’s whirling repetition and unpredictable swell, adding up to the most dynamic interpretation of being drowned since childhood nightmare. And then there’s that Basinski sounding decay at the end of “Monument”, leading up the title track, “H-p1”, and the return of vocals, albeit vocals that lurk behind the savage sonic constructions that opened the album in the first place. Angry, loud, and surprisingly political--it’s okay to forget, but yes, this is a protest album, as strongly felt as they come--“H-p1” serves as the album’s crushing send-off. It’s exciting and rewarding, the most straight ahead “song” of any that the album contains, and it’s a great reminder of the ease with which music can capture emotion at its most blunt, at its most raw. A lot of people got pissed off in 2011. White Hills? They just remembered that anger isn’t supposed to be fucking boring. -TS
I spent most of 2011 trying to find something--absolutely anything--that could closely approximate the excitement found when “Power” gave way to “All of the Lights” leading up to “Monster”. Nothing. It felt unfair, actually. Kanye’s Twisted Fantasy showed up at the ass end of the year and basically annihilated 2011 for me, it became the thing everybody had to beat, and that trio of songs was the specific height that bar got set at. When the Weeknd came along--as it was for most of us, I found out because somebody else (we all have a Marty Brown, I just happen to have access to the original model) pointed me in that direction--it wasn’t an immediate, drop-to-the-knees revelation. It was mostly just joy that somebody (besides Lonely Island) had figured out that R&B gets way more interesting when it quits trying to appeal to the Steve Harvey’s of the world and starts singing about big asses and fucking somebody’s brains into a pile next to the laundry, which you also should probably have sex with. Fuck it: you're not going to out-seduce the classics in the field, so why not out-vocalize every rapper alive: steal that attitude, and make up a story. That’s what Weeknd did on Balloons, although it wasn’t until “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” worked its way into my subconsciousness that I finally caught on to what I was hearing go down. The song suite is one of the strongest cases for the album’s production, a steel rimmed mix of stripper extravaganza and bathroom sanity check reliant on the popularity of stripped down dubstep and naked hip-hop beats amongst film portrayals of insanity. It’s creepy shit, sure--this album failed the can-that-voice-fool-mom test, f.y.i.--but that’s just a byproduct of how well the premise got nailed. It wasn’t a full-on concept album, thankfully. Instead, it split the difference--story, with narrative attention split amongst subjects and audience, a ballsy mix that somehow managed to avoid the danger of turning into a musical or (considering its delivery device) performance art. A song like “Wicked Games” lulls one in to connivance, rolling itself around like infatuation while, in reality, pleading for (and then condemning) attention, including us in the obsessive asides “Tell me you love me/I know you don’t love me”, never pretending that the playing field is an even one. (It’s not for nothing that the perspective is so one-sided--when there is a response, it’s a tinny, child-like one. A strong woman would make this whole thing way too weird to stomach.) “Keep it up” would be the mantra, if, you know, the guy hadn’t already proven himself pretty capable of doing so. -TS
Past Life Martyred Saints is a series of journal entries, indulgent and raw, comprised of rambles and sentences repeated ad nauseum so as to find a hidden meaning between the letters, teasing out ideas through admonishments, fragments of stories, shout-outs to spurned friends, thoughts of self-mutilation, twisted idealization of her grandparents—you know, all the teenage stuff you’re still going through in your early twenties. But, even though she repurposes Bo Diddly’s humblebrag, “I am just 22; I don’t mind dying,” Erika M. Anderson is 29 years old. It’s to her credit, then, that her first solo album in the wake of a break-up with her boyfriend and Gowns collaborator, Ezra Buchla, sounds less like a fragmented emotional exercise, and more like a tightly-coiled emotional assault. Eight out of nine songs are downtempo, and they’re all propelled by a stately death march, punctuated by peals of industrial noise. At one point, EMA lets out a long groan that’s somewhere between a growl, a howl, and a burp—like much of the album, it might be embarrassing if it weren’t so visceral. Even the a capella round, “Coda,” is pretty in spite of itself. On it, droning voices sing, “These drugs are making me so sad”—an observation usually made after time and distance. So maybe Past Life Martyred Saints is Erika M. Anderson allowing her 22-year-old teenage self to whirl and spit within her while externally keeping a rigid front. You know, like an adult. Like an adult who knows that teenage feelings never really go away. -MB
Clams Casino, a 23 year old producer who works with his collaborators by email, is mostly known as a producer for Lil B. Sonically, his music is hip hop production. The beats are minimal, they build and recede the way a good backing track is supposed to. But Clams Casino is taking that structure and the immediate instinctual understanding that goes with listening to it, and does it with sounds and styles that are alien to hip hop production - the go to comparisons here are Warp records, M83 at their most digitally fuzzy, 70s Tangerine Dream, the late night comedown weirdness of Burial and Photek, Capcom games for the Super Nintendo. All of which it might be assumed Clams Casino probably wasn’t listening to for inspiration. So the sense of haze, the patient approach to bass, the manipulation of voices, the languid keyboards, they’re all decisions that have been come to because he thinks they sound good. While this could be a resume record, as a lot of producer-instrumental comps can be, the final result is a cohesive whole. Which is strange considering how these tracks could have been selected at random from the 200+ on Casino’s hard drive, but the final result is a journey which builds on the track which comes before it, whether it be a wide vista full production or a raw loop of an obvious sample, each of these tracks fare better on their own than in their original intended state as showcases for rappers. Unlike a lot of music that you can apply “haze” to as a descriptor, there is a sense that you can never call Instrumentals a stoner record. It’s too propulsive, too minutely detailed in it’s attempt to shudder off the rails that Casino has laid out for each track. It never does, but it’s the trying that makes it compelling. -SW
One of the only hip-hop albums released on Sub Pop records, quietly promoted with a series of eclectic videos (one a Burnett/Heron mash-up featuring a mass grave and bleeding pigs, the other a whimsical interview featuring the loveliest--and yet most incongruous--pairing imaginable), including songs bearing titles like “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)" it was no surprise when Black Up turned out weird. Coming at it without knowledge of pedigree--that it was Digable Planet’s Butterfly, grown-up and partnering with a multi-instrumentalist whose father is essentially African music royalty--the album’s initial bite was even fiercer, only eclipsed in audaciousness by Death Grips decision to open their 2011 album with a statement of purpose culled from an extended Charles Manson sample. But whereas Exmilitary ran itself headlong into exhaustion when the actual tracks began, Shabazz Palaces made good on theory: hip-hop’s great frontier might remain in its sound, and in the willingness of its participants to explore. On the image and statement front, you can file Shabazz's avant-garde artiste next to Twisted Dark Fantasy's real time celebrity psychopathy and Big K.R.I.T.'s termite work on today's carpenter--it's been a year of Platonic ideals. The trick to Black Up's success is in its confidence--this is a zealous album, consumed by the creativity of its creators, track after track after track of noise and unpredictability, the only constants those muffled explosions that crowd the ear and decide the tempo, while lyrics laced in double meaning and split second point of view changes swarm through wherever allowed in tight bursts of fire. Nothing sounded like this, and yet the hypnotic quality often worked to overpower the stink of newness, working--as Sasha Frere Jones so aptly put it, Black Up is the “loveliest fog”--to keel its listener over, exhausting and educating. And it accomplished it all--the intellectual satisfaction, the tromp through newness, the challenge, the weird--without lecturing, while still being compelling, still grinding out the necessary rhythm. This was the high wire act every year deserves. -TS