Where's The Funk? And Soul?
Language is a bitch (dere's no escapin it). And as a result, so is genre. But what, if any, meaning do the words we give to musical genres have and what are their purpose? Are they merely linguistic placeholders for describing the aural experience of listening to a specific set of music or do they serve a greater purpose than that, one rooted in the material world, the everyday, the places outside of the studio and the new places outside the studio technology allows musicians to to access? What role does race and culture play in giving form and style to a genre? How significant is regionalism in a time of infinite streaming? And for that matter, why does genre "matter" primarily in textual, visual, and audio-visual art?
OK, let me backtrack for a second. What was supposed to be a quick album round-up highlighting my four favorite albums from July--so far-- not only led to my falling down the above rhetorical rabbit hole, but led me to interrogating my own beliefs about the different ways we listen to and identify with music and how race shapes those experiences and genre signifiers. I first started to feel torn between two different sets of experiences and even two selves: my digital and IRL versions, which remain difficult to reconcile as we all lead secondary or more lives when it comes to our status as music fans (or do we?). The avowed classic rock fan who listens to the same format radio every day may spend their evenings listening to Selena Gomez or Arcade Fire or Canadian library music--hey, you never know. Though being insecure about one's tastes has been going on long before streaming exists, it's only become easier with each passing year to embody different forms of "fandom" in secret...but in the scarily sincere world of social media-enabled streaming, be it a performance or not, sharing what you listen to on Spotify or the playlist you "make" are like this decade's versions of band patches and bumper. We've always been eager to share our taste in music, often in the hope of communicating some fundamental aspect of our own identities. That said, pop music has become blandly suffused with differing styles and genres and scarily fast to become aware of and co-opt underground trends and movements, meaning listeners are in many ways fans of all types of genres, even though they might not recognize the dancehall or deep house elements in a Diplo production, where everything is ironed out to make it pleasant background music for any environ, perhaps even fit for airports?
Suffice to say, talking about music in terms of genres is a rather thorny endeavor, one that means different things to different generations and fans alike--just because I and some random bloke both like techno doesn't mean we'll have anything in common, especially if their idea of techno begins and ends in Europe. But to treat genre names as a purely linguistic phenomenon ignores the ways language manifests itself into both material practices and beliefs that gain far more real-world meaning than being simply a "placeholder." Of course, this whole unresolved endeavor began with a text conversation with a DJ buddy in which he made the point that much of what he and myself view to be the diminishing returns on underground dance music in spite of its increased popularity is due to a lack of understanding or concern about "funkiness," let alone the desire, the need to "make it funky." What, I thought, does "funky" even mean at this point? Much like the concept of "soul," funk has transcended many of its original sonic identifiers yet remains a constant in so much groove-based music. Both genres were byproducts of the black experience in America, synthesizing a variety of existent genres and ideas into something wholly new, much like the progenitors of house and techno music would do a couple decades later.
Today, both terms are used to describe a feeling as much as a sound as both "soulfulness" and "funkiness" have been re-contextualized and re-interpolated around the world, much like another distinctly American genre that emerged out of a similar degree of hybridization. This time it was the fusing of black musical traditions like gospel and rhythm and blues with country music that ultimately led Cleveland disco jockey Alan Freeit to begin using the already-existent term of Rock and Roll to describe this new sound and style. It wasn't long before the nascent genre gained a self-awareness and formalism to it that has been redefined and reworked into forms that would be unrecognizable to Chuck Berry, who developed the guitar-led style over a series of records that many consider the genre's urtexts (like the one above covered by a certain Fab Four).
Of course, this particular narrative of the development of these three genres elides the whitewashing employed by white record industry execs to make the music more palatable for a white audience--turning Pat Boone into an eternal punchline in the process--a narrative whose malignant, parasitic dynamic was famously captured by Nelson George in his seminal The Death of Rhythm & Blues published in 1987. That book elegantly and expertly traces the history of "race music" and its rebirth as rhythm and blues as well as the effect that mainstream popularity had on R&B, watering down and submerging the music and its stars only for it to become "crossover music." Reading the book thirty years on from when it was written, its argument that "black America's assimilationist obsession is heading it straight toward cultural suicide" paints a rather stark, categorical picture of the way different cultures and genres interact, or rather how dominant white culture contaminates the 'purity' of black music. With the past decade seeing Solange, Beyonce, and Jay-Z getting down with the Dirty Projectors and turning up at Grizzly Bear show while Marilyn Manson and System of a Down are routinely name checked by younger rappers, fandom and influence work in a far more nuanced way in 2017 then when George was writing. If the rise of the bedroom superstar and the YouTube Generation have taught us anything, pop culture has become a two-way mirror, subcultures and musical genres no longer the inevitable bedfellow they once were and most musicians are fans first, not to mention the fans that become musicians. The top-down movement of power illustrated by George becomes much murkier when considered alongside the technological and informational tools that we now all largely have access to in one way or another, meaning that no one need be defined, at least musically, by the culture in which they are raised.
White Guilt: A Look Back at Sasha Frere-Jones' "A Paler Shade of White"
Nonetheless, the machinations of white capitalism should never be ignored or played down to treat the sixties and seventies as some halcyon period for genre and cultural synthesis as Sasha Frere-Jones does to varying degrees in his 2007 New Yorker piece "A Paler Shade of White. I should note that at the age of twenty-three, this was a very important article for me, validating my having given up on indie rock in favor of groove-focused, funky music that ranged from house and techno to Italo and IDM as I became rather entranced by "white" takes on the funk sound, no doubt inspired by my being raised on the music of the Talking Heads while also diving headfirst into dance music traditions that had long seemed to exist in another world. That was really the first time I started viewing music in somewhat segregated terms, or at least recognized that black music in America represented a tradition of cross-pollination and stylistic interchange that gave birth to most of its most enduring genres and musical traditions. It was also a narrative I was too young to understand the nuances of, over-simplifying it as being an issue of a lack of "soulfulness" in indie rock without truly understanding what that would even resemble. And while reading it now I find myself still agreeing with his overarching bemoaning of the anemic, abstraction-heavy, and groove-adverse state of indie rock, there's also much with which to quibble and cringe at, though his insights into the contradictions he felt as a member of the white funk group Ui who were active in the 90s and early 00s are genuinely engaging and illuminating. In Frere-Jones' telling of the story, after decades of a fruitful if not exploitive dialogue between white and black musicians, white indie rock musicians had seemingly jettisoned what the writer identifies as several key features of "blackness" over the previous fifteen in favor of "retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance." In my opinion, authenticity has been one of the defining myths of this still-young century. But saving that discussion for past and future pieces, it's clearly a word-concept that means a lot to Frere-Jones.
He takes his perception of the lack of "attributes of African-American popular music" in Arcade Fire's music as a jumping-off point to make sense of the "racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties" underwent by that most "mixed" of genres, rock and roll. Its white practitioners seemingly moved away from the genre's roots in black musical as bands thin on groove, but heavy on conceptualism such as Pavement and . Not surprisingly, he paints a decidedly less-vampiric rendering of what he so charmingly calls the "musical miscegenation"--am I still allowed to say that word?--though his reasons for doing so ring sincere. Citing Mick Jagger, Prince, and "any number of other great rockers" who were able "to fuse disparate traditions into a sound that was obviously related but unique—a true offspring," Frere-Jones' moves from these auteurs of the "crossover music" that was r&b and rock&roll to rap music post-The Chronic. He writes of the MTV era, commenting that "black and white musicians continued to trade, borrow, and steal from one another, but white artists typically made more money and received more acclaim. This pattern held until 1992, when the Los Angeles rapper and producer Dr. Dre released The Chronic, an album whose star performer was a new rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg." In discussing the paradigm shift this album embodies for the writer, he notes how the g-funk and live instrumentation utilized by Dre redefined the sound of hip-hop into a music built for driving where even the booming bass tones could have a soothing effect on the car's occupants, the bass frequencies imbuing the power of magic fingers into the vehicle's seats. Framing the timing and significance of The Chronic's release and effect on mainstream culture as dovetailing with the rise of the academia-powered political correctness wave 1.0 of the early-to-mid 90s, Frere-Jones doesn't go much deeper than that in explaining indie rock's becoming synonymous with "white rock."
Things start to get truly intriguing when Frere-Jones places himself within his narrative, discussing the all-white six-person funk band of which he was a founding member and served rather uncomfortably as he notes, as its singer when vocals were needed. He writes, "Playing black music never felt odd, but singing it—a more intimate gesture—seemed insulting." But what would a successful emulation or appropriating of black vocal styling sound like, in Frere-Jones' perception?
When you're playing an instrument, be it hitting the drums or playing a guitar line, you are acting upon an object separate from yourself, making it much easier to depersonalize your own style of playing and to try different methods and styles pioneered by other drummers. Hell, emulating one's playing and/or compositional style is one of the oldest forms of musical education that has taken numerous forms depending on the culture in which it manifests itself, be it mimesis for the ancient Greeks, the notational system pioneered by classical western composers, or the Suzuki style of musical training in Japan. To sing in a voice not your own, in a style not your own, is a far more fraught process. It's one thing to listen to artists and music not indigenous to or popular within your local community. The corporeal is where shit gets real, so to speak; I can affect the style of a metal drummer all day long when I'm just practicing the drums. But to internalize and truly perform an identity that's not necessarily your own, well, that's where shit gets, ugh, problematic. (Sidenote: If you haven't read the Vulture article by Kat Jones on the problematic police of the YA world, just go and read it now.)
And Frere-Jones eloquently captures the inherent awkwardness of singing in a voice, taking on a life that is not your own. "It seemed silly to try to sound “black,” but that is what happened, no matter how hard I tried not to. In some ways, this was the result of a categorical confusion, the assumption that if I could use my hands to play a derivation of black music with any authority I could use my voice to do the same thing. Playing black music never felt odd, but singing it—a more intimate gesture—seemed insulting." At the same time, reading this article ten years later, it makes me a bit uneasy at the end of the article where he cites Devandra Banhart identifying himself as a fan of R. Kelly, who at the time was enjoying something of a career resurgence following the whole world watching him urinating on an under-age young woman. He writes, "Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan." I don't buy that, like at all. What artists like Banhart and anyone not content to just listen to what they're told to basically laid the template for is the playlist mentality of the 10s, where algorithms gently nudge the Coldplay fan towards Sade suddenly being embraced by the whole of indie rock. Oh, and considering that white r&b acts like How to Dress Well were just around the corner alongside rap music's flirtation with indie rock in the late 00s and 10s, he should consider himself lucky that he wrote this right before Dirty Projectors blew up with their blend of prog-folk that would soon embrace funk and r&b, prompting Solange to record a cover of their still-banging "Stillness is the Move" only two years after this article was published. Seeing that Frere-Jones is a musician, albeit one with more experience singing than I do, comfortable with playing "black music"--which he generally defines as having rhythm, "swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies,"--I still have a hard time following him when he links up these musical trends with the abandoment in the 90s of "full-throated vocals" when "indie singers abandoned full-throated vocals and began to mumble and moan, and to hide their voices under noise." Uh, what would he call the vocals of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse whose voice is yelpy but booming or Laetitia Sadier and her throaty baritone, an artist he collaborated with?
What Does "The Whitest Music Ever" Even Mean?
Either way, since I seem to doing the reverse-linearity thing, my revisiting the Frere-Jones piece came after stumbling across an abhorrent and unusually irrelevant screed in The Atlantic that has managed to enrage Yes fans and myself alike--not that I don't fucks with some Yes, Fragile and Close to the Edge in particular. Entitled, wait for it, "The Whitest Music Ever" written by the British-born, Boston-residing James Parker--oof, that's two strikes off the bat--throws the equivalent of a literary tantrum in reviewing David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Just that book's title should suggest to the well-listened reader that these guys aren't really taking about prog rock, the musical movement that can be traced from the Soft Machine, Zappa, and Miles Davis in the 70s up to tolerable stadium rock acts like Tool, Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered., and post-rock pioneers like Do Make Say Think and Tortoise. I dare you to call "Djed" not at least prog-influenced, bro. In Parker's cutely simplistic and oh-so British account of late-twentieth century popular music, prog rock was "the extravagantly conceptual and wildly technical post-psychedelic subgenre that ruled the world for about 30 seconds in the early 1970s before being torn to pieces by the starving street dogs of punk rock." That quote makes Parker's decision to assail Weigel for not going full-Foster Wallace and leaving the cruise ship to trace the chronology of the genre, starting with Procol Harum's proclamation that since they aren't African-Americans, they "can't improvise and feel the way they can"--god that's a depressing quote. Parker readily accepts Weigel's assertion that prog rock was essentially neo-classical given a rock n' roll treatment, minus the repetition. You know, because Soft Machine and the Canterbury Scene never existed, nor did continental European prog acts like Magma, Gong, Brainticket, not to mention Japanese bands like Ruins or modern acts like Finland's Circle or even the ever-so-proggy genre of IDM. Yep, no relation to prog there.
But the real reason this article has stuck in my craw like the popcorn kernel lodged in my top-left molar at the moment is the author's assertion of the genre's inherent whiteness, which he takes its obsession with baroque music and Aaron Copeland alongside the long blonde hair of "super-keyboardist" Keith Emerson as proof of concept. He bemoans the genre's lack of groove and then holds up punk rock as the great correction, glossing over everyone from the manically sturdy bets of Billy Cobham to the rock n' jazz ensemble Mahavishnu Orchestra. And while he's clearly not a writer deeply familiar with the history of electronic music, the fact that he's unaware of or simply chose to forget the fact that Goldie nearly single-handedly derailed the momentum of drum and bass by going full prog with the sixty-minute composition "Mother," it's interesting to consider when a prominent artist like FlyLo can release the prog-indebted album You're Dead and not raise an eyelash. He also makes a humorous aside about "fake news" all the while "glibly" indulging in it himself, having clearly not gotten the essence of Miles Davis' near-mythic '68-to-'75 output. In that article, written following the awful Miles Ahead, he mocks the critics of Miles' time for weeping at the artist's decision to surround himself with the trappings of "electric guitarists, electric keyboardists, and extra drummers; wired himself up with a wah-wah pedal; and fired frosty fillips of trumpet-sound into halls of reverb." Not to mention the fact that this plague upon humanity that was the "whitest music alive" finally found its salvation...in the Ramones.
OK, so the piece is a stinker. I should have just left it at that. But when writing about music, it almost always starts to mirror your actual life. Or maybe it's just me. Presenting the article to my father, a music listener I would consider far more open-minded then Parker, he responded with one of those texts that you feel like they were written in all-caps, even if they weren't: "Prog rock sucks and always has!" And when I used the Zappa line of argument, an artist he taught me to love via the insanely proggy "Peaches En Regalia," this time I did get an all-caps reply. "Omg, please do NOT LUMP ZAPPA IN WITH THAT SHIT." It was a fun conversation, seriously. It got me thinking that for men like Parker and my father who are in their fifties and sixties, genre tends to mean something much different than for any generation since, especially my own whose favorite genre is "everything." And hell, in this age of playlists, it's certainly easy to be a fan of far more genres than ever before, especially considering the amount of "miscegenation" going on in pop music where Diplo and his minions mine every and anything for rhythmic inspiration, somehow sucking out of all the life-affirming elements in the process. But nonetheless, before the rise of the indie underground network, music fans were reliant on the mainstream media machine for their sustenance, and as has been pointed out to me many times, up through the 80s, the Top 40 was actually a somewhat useful source for discovering meaningful new bands, each coming with a new label to both capture and sell the sound such as shoegaze, new wave, synthpop, Italo, etc.
For as poorly conceived as the Parker piece is and as much as I still don't understand how he feels prepared to decree prog to be the "whitest music alive," I at least now find myself moving from indignant outrage to calm disagreement. This is a genre that looks far more appealing forty years on than it did when the major label industrial complex foisted it upon the masses. And when you have a genre that Lester Bangs was a sworn enemy of, well, a certain set of largely white males are going to dutifully step in line to uphold the gospel of Lester. This is a point also, and better, made by one of my long-time writer crushes, Kalefeh Sanneh, a music journalist and critic who is inclined to look at the wider context in which a phenomenon occurs and has been processed by history undoubtedly informs my own approach.
Kalefah Sanneh: The Voice of Reason (and Retromania?)
In his own review of the Wiegler book entitled "The Persistence of Prog," he spends a mere two paragraphs to recap the odorous narrative of prog rock in mainstream culture and then judiciously pivots to the fact that its many ideas undoubtedly have informed many of contemporary indie rock's biggest bands, such Radiohead who gave into their own pretensions when responding to the possible influence of Genesis and Pink Floyd on Kid A with the instant shut-down "No. We all hate prog rock." This quote leads Sanneh to pen one of the piece's most on-point passages:
It is common to read about some band that worked in obscurity, only to be discovered decades later. In the case of progressive rock, the sequence has unfolded in reverse: these bands were once celebrated, and then people began to reconsider. The collapse of prog helped reaffirm the dominant narrative of rock and roll: that pretension was the enemy; that virtuosity could be an impediment to honest self-expression; that “self-taught” was generally preferable to “classically trained.”
The rest of the piece is a gentle assuaging of readers who share Parker's and my father's knee-jerk reaction to a genre basically force-fed down their throats. Sanneh succeeds in subtly extracting prog rock from its immediate context and places it within a broader one to illustrate how its ideas about the importance of experimentation and challenging the musical status quo have continued to inform acts and songs by Joanna Newsom and Frank Ocean and many others. And yet, it's his concluding thoughts that again give me cause for pause, closing with this depressing nugget of middle-aged wisdom: "Nowadays, it seems clear that rock history is not linear but cyclical. There is no grand evolution, just an endless process of rediscovery and reappraisal, as various styles and poses go in and out of fashion. We no longer, many of us, believe in the idea of musical progress. All the more reason, perhaps, to savor the music of those who did."
It never ceases to amaze me how critics like Simon Reynolds in his toxic book Retromania and even a writer of Sanneh's intelligence insist on characterizing contemporary music as being devoid of actual innovation, everything being a copy of a copy after all. And while I need to read more of Sanneh's thoughts on the topic, with Reynolds he seems to be missing an essential aspect of what it means to create music: it will always keep going forward. Whether it's "music miscegenation," briccollage, synthesis, or whatever you want to call it, art isn't made in a vacuum and responding to other musical ideas need not result in mere mimicry. For all the writers who praise the interpolation of different musical ideas and cultures as giving rise to some of the most innovative music in recent history, YouTube and reissues seem to be portrayed more as an attempt to mine ideas where there are no new ones rather than given a more nuanced analysis of just how the infinite possibilities of streaming are affecting music.
Oh Yeah! Album Reviews!
It's a tad ironic then that the albums I'm reviewing this week could arguably be classified as more formalist works in that each is working from certain rhythmic and sonic templates, but these are artists who focus on the genre they have the most affinity with and double down, revivifying the old tropes while subtly building on old frameworks. But each carves out a new place in their respective genre, toying with, refining, and breaking the rules while packing a funkiness that everyone might not feel, but for this listener is undeniable. For all the passivity that playlist culture engenders in a whole generation of listeners, there will always be those for who music is the key, the truth to just maybe better understand one's place in the world. Three of these artists--Nídia, Bill Converse, and Karen Gwyer--make machine funk in the purest sense where even those sounds meant to emulate instruments instead retain a synthetic, plastic quality, an aesthetic we are becoming increasingly comfortable with, it seems. The fourth is the type of artist I never review around here: an established one. Believe me, while I'm a fan of Reasonable Doubt, Hov has never been a rapper who was a particular favorite and his locking his album behind a payday-protected streaming service would likely have deterred me for much longer had I not been hired to write the review, but whether or not everything happens for a reason, there was no way I could talk about four of the most significant albums of last month and not include Mr. Carter. Not when a forty-seven year-old near-billionaire creates such a momentous audio-visual commentary on issues far greater than the tabloid fodder that may have led to his thirteenth studio album 4:44 to be the best and funkiest he's made this century, all while shedding some degree of his masculine ego, embracing femininity in a seemingly sincere way, and crafting a coherent sonic statement far more ambitious than anything Yeezy has done lately. Onward!
Nídia - Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida
Starting off with one of the most singular, vexing, and downright badass albums of the summer, Lisbon's powerhouse Príncipe Records does us all a solid by not just finally releasing a full-length affair by one of their flagship artists, but by releasing the debut album from artist formally known as Nídia Minaj. Now just Nídia, the producer is a twenty-year old batida prodigy who released Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida in the second half of July. Unlike the label's other internationally-known heavy hitters like DJs Marfox and Nigga Fox who trade in longer-form, multi-part batida odyssies that are considerably easier to sink one's teeth into as they let their grooves play out and breathe, Nídia joins many of her lesser-known label mates like Normal Nada and Blacksea Não Maya in creating relatively brief tracks albums that can often seem like beautifully-rendered sketches than fleshed-out and belabored compositions. This off-the-cuff compositional strategy may prove a challenge for the steady 4/4-loving DJ, but the tracks lend themselves to being sewn into something much grander, a party-moving mix that starts off strong and only gets hotter before sending the dancers into a tizzy--a feat arguably achieved here by Nídia Thus it makes sense for an album whose title translates roughly to "Nídia is bad, Nídia is dope" to kick off with the minute-long MIDI salute to the badass-in-chief with opener "Mulhir Profissional," its MIDI horn-backed bombast setting the stage for the shaky-yet-sturdy rhythms that Nídia clearly has a preternatural ear for both assembling and tearing apart. The opening fanfare serves as covering fire for the nursery rhyme cadence of the opening synth line on "Underground," around which gradually assembles an almost biological confluence of rhythms that merge under the kuduro umbrella, banging on until the producer brings in an intoxicating melody for the last fourth of the song, almost setting the listener at ease before pulling the rug from beneath them. The manically clipped guitar-like hook of "Underground," shifting between a growingly disproportionate two-note change, promises a more conventional, steady groove until the producer starts getting antsy by her own rhythmic predictability, holding the note changes for differing temporal increments. Like most of the album's tracks, rhythms and their mutations intertwine, fade into the background, and return again, remaining in constant flux while never once giving dancers a reason to stop moving.
Kicking in with a chorus of a heavily delayed, aggressive male voice and a simple, haunting melody, "House Musik Dedo" continues to smoothly ratchet up the album's energy, the wooden mallet-like middle line adding a sensitivity offset by the rising waves of disembodied voices. Near the end, a female voice enters to counter the male chorus, much like the producer herself, a singular female voice in a predominantly male scene. For those here for the rhythmic pyrotechnics typically found on a Príncipe release, the booming female voice that opens up "Puro Taraxxo" calls the listener hither, a slow, sauntering beat soon shifting gears, opening up the spaces between the busy drums while another paper-thin melody barely hold things together, its rhythmic simplicity gloriously offsetting the vortex of rhythms swirling beneath. It's also a fantastic example in watching the more traditional style of fodencia's morphing into the contemporary taraxxo form, which is a more rhythmic reimagining of the languidly-paced latter with triplets staggered over the top of the beat. It is important to distinguish it from tarraxinha, a minimal form of kizomba, another slower-paced, more romantic rhythmic genre, of which tarraxo is an even starker form, emphasizing rhythm over melody, taking the slower BPMs of fodencia and kizomba and peppering them with novel, and darker, polyrhythmic accents and patterns.
The lilting dub piano line that opens the almost sentimental "I Miss My Ghetto" serves as the album's turning point, sitting squarely in the middle of the track sequencing on the vinyl pressing. For those who found the A perhaps a bit insubstantial, "Ghetto" represents a gradual warm-up, the producer applying a DJ's mentality to the album format as we get the album's first real show-stopper. From here, Nídia's in a peak-time mode of sorts, pushing the listeners and dancers alike into challenging new territory while retaining sonic residues that anchors this music to a variety of dance music traditions while placing it firmly outside, or on the distant margins, of the Anglo-American rhythmic heritage. The guitar tone that's transformed into a Begian New Beat rave-up on "Toma" places the listener in the center of the dance, an offbeat vocal snatch serving as the track's motor oil, this rhythmic roller painted in triangle synth hues and a brief techno-esque breakdown before fading out for a half-second, "Brinquedo"'s vocal bump and fallout horn further ratcheting up the energy, teasing the listener with a horn sound that should sound familiar but has been detuned and rendered other.
Employing a strategy found on another rhythmic masterwork from this year, Jlin's stunning Black Origami, where the Gary, Indiana producer seemed to wheel through a percussion bank rife with black music history to provide some form of narrative arc to her post-footwork tinkering, Nídia's global nomad uses western dance tropes to create something of a house of mirrors for both herself and the listener. She's in no way dismissive of externally-sourced styles and ideas, but she's also not beholden to them, employing hegemonic strains of dance music to accentuate her own indigenously-sourced rhythms and personal artistic voice. "É da Banda" places staccato woodblocks and a stuttering vocal hoot over a sensuously pulsating assemblage of chords. The fanfare returns on "Arme," a single horn note staggered out in triplets before being backed up by the whole of Nídia's plastic symphony, the descending-then-rising melody creating the type of weaving melodic tension that hitherto had been restricted to the drums' percussive interplay. Closing the album is the ellipsis of a track that is "Indian," returning the listener to the stripped-down rhythms of the A-side augmented by an androgynous sung melody, snaking forward into the record barrels headfirst into a massive locked groove, throwing the even 4/4 totally off-grid and hypnotizing the listener, minutes passing before the light of recognition hits and the record flipped over back to its beginning.
While many of Príncipe's tracks can seems more like rough outlines than drafted-and-proofed dancefloor novellas, Nídia takes this rough-and-cut aesthetic to a baffling extreme, challenging the listener to seek resolutions in her open-ended, often-unresolved tracks. There's a general nonlinearity in much of the more melodic material on the label as producers like Marfox and Nigga Fox couple their death-defying rhythmic constructions with jarringly hypnotic melodic counterparts, sewing together one after another until the tapestry is fully rendered. Nídia takes an arguably more stripped-down and confrontational approach, forcing the listener to grapple with her rhythmic rubics cubes that twist and move across as predestined by the producer, the chaos unfolding exactly as planned. Unlike Jlin''s Dark Energy or Black Origami, Nídia doesn't feel like so much of an essay as it does a snapshot, an ever-changing and growing producer, restless at her nature yet focused in her grid-opposed beats. And while Black Origami transcends the footwork genre in which it was birthed--albeit from afar--Nídia's similarly virtual placement at the center of this ever-enriching scene makes her both a familiar voice and an accepted outcast. Her selection of samples speaking volumes about the dialogue that can exist between the genders when all the superficial trappings, the make-up, the hair gel is stripped away and you're left simply with a beat and a melody. And when you're capable of moving bodies with the most minimal of means, you achieve a maximalist effect, challenging the listener in a way that forces them to both reconsider their own personal musical heritage while seeking to reconcile it with one that is wholly other.
Bill Converse - The Shape of Things to Come
So I arrived a bit late to the Bill Converse party. The Texan who's been fomenting interest amongst techno heads for much of this decade first popped up on the dance map with his debut album, the cassette release of Meditations/Industry. The San Francisco-based Dark Entries label did us all a favor by reissuing the tape to vinyl in 2015 and giving it a subsequent repress this year, when it happened to catch my eye at the local shop. Taking the record home on nothing other than a good feeling, I'm still coming to terms with this sensitive, vulnerable album of teardrop techno and acid that's as lush instrumentally as it is deep emotionally. The tracks play more like movements in two side-long techno epics, presenting a startlingly realized vision of techno that places him in rarefied company of Convextion as far as Texan techno classics go. Just listen to "Sea Bering" above, my current favorite track on the album. Channeling a Drexciyan aquatic sensibility, the drums have almost as much character as the beguiling lead melody and the 303 bass engine; there's both a lot going on here and yet the waters are fairly clear, the skies enabling the listener to see both forward and back with the utmost lucidity.
Perhaps the fact that I'm still very much digesting Meditations/Industry is what was keeping the producer's newest album for the label, the 2xLP The Shape of Things to Come at a distance following the first few listens. Don't get me wrong, this is still a producer fully in control of his equipment and whose sound certainly comes into a richer focus at the heightened fidelity found on Shape. If anything, the seven acid-tinged compositions on display here each stand confidently on their own in a way the tracks on Meditations didn't quite, the smudged sonics encouraging a kind of half-tuned-in listening experience at first as most of the tracks nudge up against the ten-minute mark and feature considerably minimal elements.
Opener "Thank You" places the listener instantly on quicker terrain, gone the blissful ambient intro as we are instantly plunged into this harder-edged sound world. Clocking in at seventy minutes, each track is given ample space to unfold and while "Thank You" ultimately boils down to do a circulating acid line, hiccuping vocals, a chirping high end, and a moody, minimalist piano line, by the time the listener is treated to all the elements coexisting in the mix a sensuality that seemed momentarily jettisoned has returned, though the drum-and-bass beatdown at the end makes it clear that this is distinctly more floor-focused affair. A truly nasty acid run kicks off the menacing "Currents" with Converse showing off his bass drum programming skills in the track's opening moments, switching between two kicks of differing velocities to create a stunted groove, like a rocket yearning to take off. The somber middle pads and heartfelt high end drone continually butt up against and weave in and out of one another to create something of a techno chamber piece in the visage of Arvo Pärt, the producer employing long, minimal melodies that unfold gradually, guarded in the promises of bliss it contains within. As Converse begins modulating the parameters of the acid line, the track's rich tapestry soon comes loose in the wind, getting caught up and spread across the prairie.
So I don't know about you, but when I still see the cover of The Shape, my mind immediately goes to "trashed Animal Collective album cover circa 2007." But as the not-quite four-to-the-floor drum sequence and the decidedly cheerier, almost joyful arps of "Dorje Ngodup" kick in, Converse starts to fill in some of the imposing space he's created within his tracks so far with a melodic medley that calls to mind some of AnCo more tribal-sythn moments. All of this creates a busy yet open vista for Converse's trademark sweeping cosmic pads to rest upon, it struck me that we're getting a decidedly more jammier producer on this record. Named for the artist Converse was communicating with during the recording of this album, soliciting Ngodup for insight who would send an original piece of visual art in return, the colorful yet limited palette of the cover mirrors the music inside. Considerably brighter, Converse is still a producer transfixed by the space in between the notes as well as the sonic space he creates with his rhythmic matrix. Employing the type of moody two-note vamp that would be right at home on an early Kompakt record, Converse forgoes that label's streamlined rhythmic groove for a rhythm box approach on "Threshold;" the beats present at the outset of the a track giving way to mutations that ultimately circle back to their host rhythm, mirroring the hues and shading that Converse provides.
In a way quite similar to the Nídiai album, Converse doesn't show all of his cards until we get to the album's second disc and the comparatively brief, five-minute cut "Position of Home" whose blown-out kicks and obtuse melodic lines comprised of endlessly running sets of thirds establishes a hypnotic, entrancing effect. Converse judiciously lets some of the hot air with the cooling cascades of the chords that dominate the mix for the track's second half, moving fully at the producer's own sense of time and movement. Clocking in at twice the run time, "Tolerance" signals the third and final act of the album, featuring two sprawling tracks that, when combined, comprise twenty-eight of the album's seventy minutes. A levitating synth chord announces the track and then disappears, reappearing and establishing the turnt-up-but-mellow vibes of the track, a dynamic that can be argued to be the animating element for much of Shape. And while the album seemed to lack both the rich instrumentation and emotional depth of Meditations, it's in the album's closing act that Converse finds his sweet spot and finally makes that connection with the listener that he had been threatening to throughout. Riding on a bed of sumptuous chords and a cybernetic acid line, like a dial-up modem tuned to just intonation, the track grooves along ever so lovely, the minimal melodic elements supplemented with electronic gurgles playful drum sequencing, and a live quality to the central loop, which ultimately unspools in the track's closing moments. Regaining composure, the kick drum lines up proper with the melodic dial up, kicking into a closing coda with icy woodwinds injecting a synthetic-organic element that plays out until the song's conclusion.
Clocking in at a monstrous eighteen minutes, "Magnetic" occupies the entirety of the album's D side and serves as a comprehensive summary of much of the record's musical motifs and emotional thematics. Aside his hailing from Texas, Converse's music begs for comparison with Convextion's as few other producers outside of Detroit or Chicago, at least in the states, are orchestrating such rich cosmic tapestries to transport the listener to somewhere beyond, be it in space or the depths of the id, both producers utilize similar yet wholly distinct approaches. Converse in particular seems eager to carve out a space for analog cosmic techno that hasn't been done in a truly novel way since Detroit's second wave. And to achieve his aesthetic vision, he's appeared to have developed a brand of techno that owes as much to dub as it does Detroit. Gone are the distinctive earworms of Meditations, replaced with some of the most immaculately-programmed kicks I've heard in ages--and please note what an utter cliché it is for a techno producer to get lost in the programming of the kick, as if the entirety of the genre can be cracked open through a single quarter-note bass note. Nonetheless, Converse displays an impressive range of taut, staccato kicks and seismic, booming hits that come into full relief on "Magnetics." Featuring one of the album's many simple yet effective minor note melodies in the middle, punctuated with an EKG-like beep, the producer sends his bass kicks into an absolute tumult, nearly suffocating the listener with the lack of space found between the notes before, having built and brought back down the energy like a pro, he unleashes the type of room-destroying kick that can make a far lesser producer's career in and of itself. Of course, we're still only five minutes in to this minimalist yet tastefully adorned odyssey and while Converse doesn't exactly add in any significant new elements, he expertly tweaks the sounds present in the mix to lull the listener into fully acquiescing their own sense of time, embracing Converse's economical cosmic techno.
Karen Gwyer - Rembo
As carefully crafted as The Shape of Things to Come is, the fact that techno producer Karen Gwyer recorded her latest full-length Rembo for the tenacious Don't Be Afraid label. Having already released one of this year's finest albums through Differ-Ent's (DJ Bone) It's Good to Be Differ-Ent, a 3xLP odyssey into Detroit techno and electro, Gwyer's album can be seen as the desert to Bone's multi-course meal. Since releasing two full-lengths in 2013 that showcased the producer's dexterity at manufacturing both dancefloor bombs and crafting eloquent ambient elegies, the producer has honed her craft over a trio of exeptional EPs for Nous, Alien Jams, and Don't Be Afraid, stretching out her machine-made funk well past the ten-minute mark. While no track quite matches the focused, trance-inducing marathon that is "Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telephase" and the album lacks the heavy stylistic diversity of Needs Continuum, I've found myself returning to the album after an extremely promising first listen that yielded a number of disappointing returns in the week to follow. And I'm certainly not condemning Converse for his belabored frugality. But a continued push on the album has shown a certain off-the-cuff charm that is lacking in so many recent dance music full-lengths, be it the over-calculated productions and edits that make up the entirety of Daphni's Fabriclive 93 or Umfang's one-take jam sessions that could benefit from a few more ideas and a lot less hype.
Take the ambient, sci-fi synthscapes of opener "Why Is There a Long Line in Front of the Factory" for instance. It fades into what sounds like a jam that has already been gestating for some time, an eternally descending arpeggiation providing the backdrop for an eerie, Dr. Who-ready melody while a steady kick and fleetingly muffled snare hit marinate in the background, it not quite their time to shine yet. The whole thing could seemingly continue on for twice its three-and-a-half minute running time, but Gwyer suddenly pulls the jam to a full stop to make way for the neck-breaking melody and steady beat of "The Workers Are on Strike." The transition can be a bit jarring at first, but as the listener begins to explore the track's various elements--a saucy 16-bit-like melodic punctuation, a give-and-take between a sweeping bass note and tense pad, the continuous drone seemingly holding the whole contraption together--the illustrations of Rube Goldberg come to mind. But unlike those overly complex machines designed to complete simple daily taks, Gwyer might not skimp on the amount of competing and conjoining ideas present across Rembo, but rarely does a note feel wasted, a track over-extended.
As the conversational, question-and-answer titles suggest, Gwyer's album is almost a poem to everyday life, recorded at her home while pregnant with her first child. One can't help but wonder what ordinary and not-so-ordinary experiences from that week found their way into the album's eight high-momentum tracks. At the same time, one also must wonder what assumptions one would make given an entirely different PR logline. And while we're big on discussing context here, there's something to be said for not allowing your musical experience to be dictated for you. A music review needn't be a neat-and-tidy English paper, providing sonic support for the theses put forth by the artist's or label's press team, wrapping everything up in a bow. Rembo both is a testament to the wild, bombastic, and unpredictable side of techno while also firmly acknowledging the genre's formalist tropes without being beholden to them. Thus we have the fairly tame turn-up jam "Why Don't You Make Your Bed?," a track that introduces a rabies-ridden bassline into the mix and creates a space for it to do its thing, Gwyer gently accentuating the beastly bass with soothing, Detroit-derived pads and a sparkling, meandering top line that never take center stage. It's thus a bit of gas that the playful, wandering melody of "It's Not Worth the Bother" provides a bouncy rejoinder that could actually be described as "fun," Gwyer injecting a much-needed dose after the preceding bass beatdown.
The beatless dramatics also prepare the listener for the steely-eyed mania bubbling up from beneath "Why Does Your Father Look So Nervous?" Anchored by a stuttering, anxious bass pattern and a pronounced melodic anchor that almost seems out of place at first, the track is the album's masterclass in Gwyer's attempt to move past the warm-up slot and bang out a peak-time set while retaining her own individual sensibility. Sure, she's heavily informed by the language of Detroit techno--how could she not be?--yet there is chilliness, an overcast vibe to the album found in such errant elements as the aforementioned melodic anchor, a loud two-note punctuation played on an exaggerated accordion. The track goes full-on icy in its second half as a morse-code of a high-end rhythm-melody ushers in a brief bass motif that signals shit's about to get real as the track barrels through to the finishing line. Splitting the difference between UK broken beat and US acid box rhythmic assault, the drums on "He's Been Teaching Me to Drive" basically steal the show here, at least until the melodic stream that Gwyer patiently builds moves itself squarely to the forefront and suddenly we're in the passenger seat with with producer, barreling purposefully on a blinding night drive, the stars following us across the plain while the drums create a language all their own.
The last side of the album serves as the post-peak comedown, of sorts, though Gwyer is certainly not done raging quite yet, she's just seeking out dreamier pastures in which the clustered bell hits of "Did You Hear the Owls Last Night" can unfurl alongside an earnestly emotional and effective mid-line. Continuing the album's brisk coda is the bucolic sci-fi ambience of "Yes, But I Didn't Know They Were Owls." Featuring a chord progression reminiscent of Air's "Kelly Watch the Stars," the album's closing track showcases what could be a conversation between melody and rhythm, the latter rattling on continuously but with restraint while the latter both holds court while giving the other space to breathe. Ultimately, it is this deft interplay between melody and rhythm that provides Rembo's defining, animating tension, an album undoubtedly informed by the tradition of Detroit tradition without being precious or overly reverent. After all, the "rules" of techno are ultimately about finding ways to break them while keeping people dancing.
It's impossible not to draw parallels between Gwyer, born in Detroit-adjacent Ann Arbor, Michigan and having moved to the UK some time ago and the fact that Nídia was born in the Lisbon suburb of Vale da Amoreira before moving to Bordeaux, France, in 2011 at the age of fourteen. Both were born in areas on the margins of where the action was happening--Ann Arbor long serving as the suburban, University-ready bastion of Detroit techno while Lisbon has been the focal point for the Angolan immigration of citizens and music that the Príncipe--before moving away from them, recreating these local sounds in different geographical environments. What this ultimately means for the music itself is impossible to say without knowing the most personal of details--which are none of my goddamn business. But wheresa Nídia feels at times willfully and wonderfully obtuse, a hardcore manifesto about a new and ever-evolving rhythmic movement that both utilizes and builds upon traditional rhythmic templates, Rembo is the neighbor who invites you in for tea, which turns into drinks, which turns into a night dancing to records. It doesn't so much sneak up on you as it does ring the doorbell, dispenses with formalities, and gets down to business in an oddly charming way. And most importantly, both present both known and--to many--unknown strategies for redefining what makes something funky. It's not so much a stank emanating from either album, but there's both sound like an alien transmissions from the planet funk, richly colored chords and groove-filled drum-and-bass interplay that both confounds and compels one to get down.
Jay-Z - 4:44
It's in the name of highlighting lesser-known artists that I'm placing Jay-Z's stunner of a comeback album 4:44 at the end, but make no mistake: This is probably my favorite album of July 2017 and a strong contender for a spot on my end-of-the-year list. And yet, only a week ago I was talking to a record store owner who being the type of soul who will give anything a listen, I asked him if he had heard the new album yet. Listening to him, I heard every reason, every gripe, every excuse I had thought prior to getting asked to review the album for the site Gathering of the Tribes. After all, like myself, he had grown up with the Jay-Z of "Big Pimping" and "Hard Knock Life"--TRL-primed fodder that showed an early willingness by the rapper to become not just a rapper, but a pop star, the type of male rap idol who could duet with the ascendent queen of pop Beyoncé while retaining cred amongst male fans because, after all, he was hitting that, right? It just didn't feel for me as I wasn't particularly interested in learning more about his private family life or of the belief that a forty-seven year-old near-billionaire could author such a relevant, probing, and funky album--and many of the diehard Hov fans I know were wary at best about the prospect of listening to this, the thirteenth studio album, released by Jay-Z over the past two decades who had long ceased being a particularly relevant rapper.
The artist born Shawn Carter virtually admits as much, if not far more, over the course of the album's initial ten tracks, which has since ballooned to around thirteen with "bonus" tracks that actually aren't second-rate songs compared to the lean ten tracks released to Tidal subscribers exclusively on June 29 and which will be reviewed here. 4:44 raises some serious questions about an album's format, the politics of streaming, and the very status of the blockbuster rap album in a post-Pablo and Lemonade world. Both albums took the sampling endemic to hip-hop to new levels of meta-awareness, though not quite reaching the wordless poeticism of a Jlin. Still, Pablo was a beautiful mess that in trying to capture the power and culture of gospel music through rap--something that Chance the Rapper straight up did without making a fuss about it on Coloring Book--became perhaps one of the first "encyclopedic pop" albums of our time. Just take a track like the "bonus" cut "Fade" that is the Chicago House homage song we all knew Kanye West was going to do at some point, cramming Fingers Inc., Hardrive, Ms. Barbara Tucker, and Rare Earth alongside the repurposing of Aaliyah's "Rock the Boat." Or Lemonade's "Hold Up" in which Bey sings a tweaking--by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend--of the chorus from Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps" over The Beats' cover of "Can't Get Used to Losing You," originally sang by Andy Williams with additional assistance from Father John Misty. And as we all know, this hive mind pop collage can 100% work, with Yeezus still the gold standard regarding this approach. The issue I have with both Pablo and to a lesser extent Lemonade is that beneath all the production credits and backstory, both artists seemed to be courting listeners through a sense of instant familiarity in both the tracks and the lyric to the nth degree. Or at least in a way I feel is still a rather new and gestating development in the album's not-so-long history.
Following nearly two decades of making rather easy calls when it came to his career, culminating in the career nadir of Magna Carta, what was there left to expect from Jay-Z. Returning to that disgust with which my friend spoke of Carter, even though at that point I had firmly decided that 4:44 was the raper's most significant full-length statement since The Blueprint and my personal favorite since Reasonable Doubt, the anger that crept into his normal, even-keel voice reflected a real frustration felt by many rap fans my age, one that the rapper seems surprisingly aware of. As he raps on the title track, “I apologize, often womanize/Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes/Took me these natural twins to believe in miracles/Took me too long for this song/I don’t deserve you."
While the “you” in the above line is likely the artist’s wife and paramour, the queen of pop herself Beyoncé, it could also very well be the rapper’s audience who might be feeling a bit taken for granted following the past few years. And yet here we are, talking about a Jay-Z album with actual interest in 2017. The years following 2013’s Magna Carta have coupled his artistic hollowing out with a very public cracking in the facade of the marriage of two of the most important symbols of black success and family life in the world. Also, while he didn't reach Diddy levels of re-branding goofs by dropping the hyphen for the last album, it speaks volumes that he quietly put it back for this album; it wouldn't be so symbolic if the album wasn't actually good. If Magna Carta saw Jay-Z truly divesting from the realities he had so viscerally relayed on Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint--a process of diminishing returns that had been ongoing for most of this century--4:44 is the artist putting all his emotional chips on the table and giving them an extended thirty-six minute interrogation. No songs about Tom Ford. No ego-stroking Nirvana sample.
Of course, Hov didn’t just get to this point of his own volition, even if his actions were ultimately the prima causa. Lemonade reflected the pristine perfectionism that suffuses Queen Bey’s work for better and worst. In contrast, the roll-out of 4:44 on the other hand, has been decidedly and wonderfully confused, almost messy--a welcome contrast to the majority of overly-calculated blockbuster releases. Last fall’s videos of Lupita Nyong’o and Mahershala Ali and news of an NC-17 film helped plant the seed that the album would be co-released with a visual component. What has come instead is basically a weekly installment of new videos being released, followed by a "footnotes" video that sure sounds funny typing it out right, but goddamn, those videos lowkey might be the most important thing to come out of this album.
Due to my Tidal trial subscription lasting a week before I downloaded a copy of the album--sorry Hov, but a million dollars worth of game isn't always worth $9.99--I've only gotten to seen a few of the glorious "footnote" containing a series of interviews with black men both famous and not, including Chris Rock, Will Smith, Kendrick Lamar, and many others, speaking on the themes of each song, be it the effect of one's ego on others in "Kill Jay-Z," our country's history of systemic racism on "The Story of O.J.," or how black women view and treat women. Each video contains the kind of honesty that can only exist in conversations usually held behind closed doors and just the handful I've seen are nothing short of essential viewing for every human. It might not have the pizzaz of Lemonade's smashing of cars and fire hydrants, but it's absolutely the type of content that shouldn't be locked behind a paywall or teased in forty-five second snippets. And while it's a bummer that this material can't circulate on social media the way it should be able to, having listened to 4:44 enough times, I get it. And I also don't. And that seems like a totally reasonable reaction considering the grander narrative Hov paints over the course of the album.
At a tight ten tracks, Carter doesn’t seem too eager to indulge himself in the way he’s done pretty much this whole century, as is made instantly clear on the “ego death” symbolized by opening salvo “Kill Jay-Z.” “Kill Jay-Z” is the album’s ‘shocking’ opener, an emotion-filled lucid dream that Carter has described as the killing of the ego. And while Hov urges himself to let go of the ego before acknowledging his fulminating role in the famous 2014 elevator fight between himself and sister-in-law Solange following the Met Ball. That such a personal moment came on the heels on the pageantry of the perennial celebrity circle jerk spoke to the star’s seeming descent into typical masculine self-destruction. What keeps “Kill Jay-Z” from descending into a confused tantrum is the razing of the unaware bravado that had appeared to have swallowed the artist whole, but rather than simply turning the lens inwards, Carter takes his newfound insights through which to look at larger cultural trends. Yes, his mentions of Eric Benét’s infidelity and Future watching his child be raised by football star Russell Wilson can at first seem like petty jabs, but as the listener begins to get used to this new Jay-Z, they also are confronted with the broader racial context that Carter interrogates, framing his asides as more general concerns to whom he attaches a recognizable name (hey, we didn’t say the new Jay-Z was above fishing for clickbait).
Though you might not find me playing "Kill Jay-Z" on its own, within the context of the album and the nine tracks that follow, it serves as almost as a meeting and confounding of expectations as the juicy reveals are coupled with an earnest self-questioning that only picks up steam with each following track. Of course, part of what makes 4:44 such an immediate stand-out is that the coherence in Carter's lyrical content is reinforced by the thoughtful workman-like beats. Produced by Kanye West mentor No I.D., Carter thankfully dispenses with the penchant of most rappers, himself included, to work with the latest and hottest beatsmiths in search of a more consistent, if not especially challenging musical palette. The album’s musical backing can feel overwhelmingly safe as the producer employs the type of rote rhythmic sample splicing that’s not far removed from a big studio version of a late 90s West beat tape. However, while some might gripe that the album plays it safe musically, letting its star inhale all the air, the samples and voices used serve almost as supplemental footnotes, adding a sense of historical depth and layered meaning to the album. Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak” helps to provide the swirling female vocals that give “4:44” much of its heft with the wordless harmonizing intermittently switching to whole lines and a chorus featuring the self-defeating admission "I'm never going to treat you like I should" adding a considerable heft to the song's overall effect. Meanwhile, whether or not his sampling of Sister Nancy's "Bam Bam" on the appropriately-titled "Bam" is a swipe at Yeezy who also sampled the song on Pablo, that's all background chatter as the artist makes the most of the rather chintzy beat, pontificating about the way real life informs rap and vice versa with a poeticism that draws lines from Birth of a Nation to Bobby Shurmda's interminable lock-up.
A true collaboration between the producer and rapper, their sample selection reveals a judicious selection deep and not-so-deep cuts whose message help to augment the rapper’s own lyrics, sampled female vocals often forming the foundation for Carter to make his most striking observations. On the Alan Parsons Project-sampling “Kill Jay-Z,” Parsons’ vocals are pitched up enough to make him either sound female or at least androgynous, a notable choice on the album’s opening cut. And the few distinctly males voices on the album come courtesy of the like of Stevie Wonder and Frank Ocean, artists who have a sensitivity and fragility to their vocals like few others. Of course, samples aside, Steve Wyreman of No I.D.’s Cocaine 80s collective provides almost all the live instrumentation on the albums, from drums to keys to bass and guitar, further enriching the lush-yet-sparse instrumentation.
It’s on early album highlight “The Story of O.J.” that we get our first listen to how post-ego Jay-Z raps: with a goddamn purpose. Are there many rappers other than Kendrick Lamar or older rappers like Prodigy (RIP) that could so poetically articulate four hundred years of systematic oppression and its effect on a black man’s psychology in under four minutes? “O.J.” also sees Carter utilizing a newly-found (or rediscovered) comfort level with the power of restraint, perhaps best articulated early on when the rapper repeats the song’s title character’s infamous line of “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” with a simply “O.K.” that evokes feelings of frustrations, bemused curiosity, and beleageured acceptance in two syllables. He employs a similar trick in this controversy-courting couplet: “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at strip clubs? Credit/You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? Here’s how.”
Putting aside Carter’s own comments on his willing use of stereotypes within his music to reveal greater truths for a minute, it bears worth noting that he juxtaposes this admittedly insidious and harmful portrayal of Jewish-American citizen with a rather broad swipe at black men, who are generally portrayed by politicians on both sides of the aisle as being more eager to spend time at strip clubs than with their families or building a real financial future. One can’t help but feel that Carter is playing with such insidious characterizations of entire cultures to compare how two marginalized communities within America have chosen to pursue financial freedom, a point he himself makes in the following “Financial freedom my only hope/fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke.” This is a forty-seven year-old wealthy man who quite literally came from nothing both sharing his own past financial mistakes--the line about his failure to cash in on the DUMBO, Brooklyn property-value boom still elicits chuckles fifty listens in--and looking to the future to plot a course for himself, his family, and his people.
Yet, his past hasn't faded from the rearview mirror and it's on "4:44" where we get perhaps the album's most exquisite momentBut even more noteworthy is the video for the song, directed by TNEG Production, which is comprised of Malik Sayeed, Elissa Blount-Moorhead, and Arthur Jafa. Feeling like a whirlwind tour through recent black history as presented through Vines, videos, and even an iconic clip from the Lemonade visual album, the chaotic cultural collage is given an emotional anchor by the raw emotionality dancers Storyboard P and Okwui Okpokwasili in which they both move intently, but never interact. Footage of Mr. and Mrs. Carter dancing and smiling on stage but hardly ever at one another in the video’s second half serves as an open-ended parallel that seems to articulate the many moments of unknowing, and those of silent understand, that permeate any relationship.
For as restrained and wizened as Hov comes across on 4:44, he doesn’t mince words or relegate them to an opaque reference when taking issue with someone. Take Kanye West for instance, a rapper whom Jay-Z ushered into fame and who called out the rapper during one of his twenty-minute tirades that became the clickbait-ready centerpieces of his Life of Pablo tour dates. West is one of the few others to appear in the otherwise self-centered “Kill Jay-Z” as Carter raps “”But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye/You gave him 20 million without blinkin’/He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?” And while West remains a constant target throughout the course of the album, Londell McMillen, Prince’s former attorney who represents his estate gets the lionshare of “Smile”’s second verse in which Hov recounts a meeting with the purple one who promised that Tidal could stream his music, only for McMillen to sue Jay-Z and Tidal once they did and now Apple and Spotify are the only streaming services where you can hear Prince. With Jay-Z clearly at a place of peace with himself and having confronted his own hypocrisies, he clearly has little patience for those who still aren’t practicing what they preach.
One person he most certainly has patience for is his mother, Gloria Carter who apears at the end of "Smile" to read a tender poem in which she officially comes out to the work--after her son has already rapped "Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian/Has to pretend so long that she's a lesbian." But less you think Jay-Z is stealing the spotlight from his own mother, the entirety of the three minutes that lead up to Gloria's spoken words is a reflection on the facades society forces us to erect in order to fit in, even if it means being untrue to ourselves. Starting off the song with a couple of bars of typical masculine braggadocio, he suddenly pivots to mull over the brave faces put on by the mothers alongside a series of regrettable choices that ultimately led him to now truly reclaim a thrown he purported to occupy almost a decade ago.
The gospel-styled vocals featuring Bey on “Family Feud” provide an equally joyous and female-energized backing for Carter’s intimating of changed priorities--the “liquid gold” he raps about here is not champagne, for once, but breast milk. Of course, being the associative rapper that he is, he soon is talking about his famed acquisition of the Ace of Spades champagne and the need for his consumer base to play their role too, supporting black-owned enterprises such as his own rather than the white-owned Perrier-Jouët (let alone Cristal, whose owner’s racist comments is what led to Hov getting in the champagne game officially in the first place). What’s most impressive about the song, though, is how deftly it moves from the rapper’s own immediate family to the larger rap family, one that has been rife with feuds as of late as the older generation continues to bemoan the sing-song rap stylings of Lil Yachty and the gender-bending vocal yelps of Young Thug. Putting himself clearly on the side of letting people do their own damn thing and calling for unity over division, Carter might bemoan the youthful arrogance of Instagramming rappers using wads of cash as cellphones, but as he repeatedly asks, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.”
And he’s not just referring to himself and Mrs. Carter, but Diddy and other rap moguls who strive for success and approach life as a marathon, not a quick dash. Even on the largely inconsequential “Bam,” the visual accompaniment paints a far more layered portrait of the rapper’s use of reggae both in the song and within the broader history of rap, noting that it was reggae culture and its tradition of toasting and selecting that paved the way for hip-hop itself. And that, in a nutshell, is what 4:44 is all about. It’s about taking a sample, a line, or a perception and revealing the layers of meaning any topic of merit has, be it the genre of rap, the value of black ownership, and the importance of family. For as central as the themes of love, business, and family are to both rap and life as a whole, they’re usually depicted in pretty simplistic terms, be it Top 40 Rap or Country. Mainly, it’s important to be a good husband, smart at business, and a true lover, without any real qualification of the actual responsibilities each of these roles bring and the often paradoxical demands they make on one’s very being.
What’s perhaps most refreshing and impressive about 4:44 is that one ends both “Legacy” and the album with not just one message or “way” of doing things. Hov is too self-aware, or at least doing a damn fine job at pretending to be, at this point to believe what has worked for him will work for every black man or woman, let alone every human. But he’s starting out with the essentials: family, culture, history, legacy, heritage. He’s excited about the future and what it holds, but more than ready to hold up a mirror to our not-so-removed past to show the failings we continue to endure as Americans and humans. Even more important than aligning himself with his culture is the fact that Jay-Z has opened up a space for a creative and inspirational feminine energy unlike any other mainstream male rapper before him. It’s not a show or a superficial effort, though one could be forgiven for thinking so based off the album cover’s pink hue. 4:44 is the sound of a middle-aged rapper compelled by his own bullheaded decisions to come to terms with the feminine, a whole gender he had long ignored or taken for granted, in the process creating an empathetic, emotional, and relevant work of art informed by both his own and others’ experiences. It’s not just a one-man show, anymore. Sure, he’s been a gangster, a lover, even a business. But now he’s also a family man, all in, and far richer for it.