There isn’t a better guilty pleasure than a little gangsta rap. I knew it even as a wee pre-teen, as I transitioned from the warm and fuzzy A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets, to the hard as nails Ice Cube and Eazy-E. At the age of twelve, I would stroll down the streets still donning my Kurt Cobain plaids and tight jeans, and listen to Eazy-E’s It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa on my brand new Discman. Nothing made a ninety pound middle-class white kid feel tougher. With all the lyrics well memorized, I would follow along with Boyz N Tha Hood – “Cause the boys in the hood are always hard. You come talking that trash, we’ll pull your card. Knowing nothing in life, but to be legit. Don’t quote me boy ’cause I ain’t said shit.” Something about Nicki Minaj’s delivery of the chorus of Beez in the Trap takes me right back to the flow of those lyrics. With its Drop It Like It’s Hot catchy minimalism, Nicki flexes and postures like a young Eric Wright. This isn’t conscious hip hop, and this isn’t money boasting hip hop, this is some ol’ school shit-talking rap. Makes me want to crack open a Big Bear, wear my hat low, and wipe the dust off the old Discman.
Welcome to the Night Sky, the third studio album from the Nova Scotian indie band Wintersleep, was a masterstroke. The group took meat and potato rock music and carried it to dizzying heights with their East Coast influence and keen observations of mental health and the human condition. There aren’t many songs as truly satisfying as Search Party, Oblivion, and Miasmal Smoke & Yellow Bellied Freaks (my girlfriend’s personal favourite). It is a staple album that will always be seen as brilliant and enjoyable. That is why I had a difficult time swallowing the follow up record New Inheritors, as Paul Murphy tried a different voice, and the band attempted a new aesthetic. So the moment I discovered they had released a new single on their website, I protected myself from disappointment by opening my mind to a non-Welcome to the Night Sky sound. And I am glad I did. In Came the Flood washes away that Night Sky feel with something altogether new – a pulsing, forward-momentum indie gem. It sprints off the starting block with tumbling drums, sparring guitar and bass loops, and vocals that stretch out into infinity. And it doesn’t let up until the very last seconds. It sounds a little like the Battles’ Tonto and Sigur Ros’s Gobbledigook had a baby that grew up to be a respectable radio rock song. A far cry from the album that made them famous, but we can’t stay under the night sky forever.
Canadian hip hop artists tend to have a different background story than their average American counterpart. Shadrach Kabango, aka Shad, was born in Kenya of Rwandan parents. Raised in London, Ontario, he eventually earned a business degree from Wilfred Laurier University, and is currently in the great Van City, Vancouver, earning his masters degree in Liberal Studies from Simon Fraser University. I know what you’re thinking – “isn’t that Ol’ Dirty Bastards life story?”. It is that level-headed background that makes his lyrics so easily digested by both young kids and the older crowd. Shad’s lyrics are socially conscious, educated, and most refreshing, self-depricating. But in Rose Garden, it isn’t his lyrics that make it a winner, it is that undeniably catchy and serotonin releasing loop – “I didn’t promise you a Rose Garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gonna be some rain sometime”. Taken from The Three Degrees cover of (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden, the loop is the primary reason this song has such a high play count on my iPod. It is the soul sample every rapper wish they had. Lucky for Canada, Shad got it first.
2009′s Post-Nothing by this Vancouver duo was a refreshing piece of alt-rock gold. Singles like Wet Hair and Young Hearts Spark Fire felt new but incredibly nostalgic all at the same time. It was raw, energetic, and epic sounding music. And all from two guys, a guitar, and a drum-kit… kudos. Fortunately, Brian King and David Prowse don’t break from formula on their new song The House That Heaven Built. It is fast, intense, fist-pumping, and forever-young rock. I think it’s a good sign that we still have artists who are so willing to continuously pour all their passion into their music.
Fellow label-mate (and plain-old mate of James Blake), Robert McAndrews, has created an ode to the wonderful voice of Karen O. Under his producer moniker Airhead, he has released what is a wonderfully deconstructed meditation on the Dull Life lyrics “We’ve seen the nightmare of your lies…” and “Iron bars, everything…”, mixed with the “Wait” from Maps for good measure. The relationship with James Blake is evident in the song’s presentation, with its behind-the-beat drums and gaps of silence. However, the guitar and build feel more like an intro to an Explosions in the Sky tune, giving it a bit more flesh than your average Blake track. It’s marvellous.
DISPOSABLE MUSIC AND WHAT COLDPLAY COULD LEARN FROM THE BEATLES
“U2 are now very close to irrelevance” Bono says in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. A sad statement. Especially to one of the many people who hold Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby so close to their hearts. But it may also be an understatement. No Line In the Horizon was the nail in the coffin of U2 as avant-garde artists, as most songs sounded like a re-hash or a desperate attempt to sound thirty years younger (Get On Your Boots). A far cry from the band that embraced their maturity and need for evolution in the game-changing Achtung Baby. Irrelevant, yes, to new listeners of U2, but also to the devoted masses that wanted to hear the band grow with them.
I have a special place in my heart for eighties female soft rock. I have no bones about admitting that Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere and Seven Wonders get heavy rotation in my car. Or that ‘Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry can be the soundtrack to my household chores. Or that Bon Iver’s cover of I Can’t Make You Love Me just made me miss Bonnie Raitt. There is something blissful that comes from the warm sun in the afternoon when it blends with nostalgia from an old eighties song you found soothing in your youth. Ironically enough, these three sisters, who are far too young to even have faint memories of the eighties, were able to give me the same vibe with their track Go Slow. Atmospheric synths wash over the grand echoing drums and the three soft harmonies. It is a mellow slow-burner that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the radio in 1990, playing after Cocteau Twin’s Iceblink Luck, as you make your way back home to watch the premiere of Beverly Hills, 90210.
As fast as the term “conscious hip hop” became part of rap vernacular, nobody wanted to be associated with it. Lupe Fiasco went pop, Big Boi reverted to a pimp, and now Common picks fights. Kendrick Lamar doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed with Talib Kweli, and Wale warns his listeners “I ain’t trying to be conscious” as a disclaimer to one of his most intelligent songs – The Kramer. First of all, the fact that an individual would want to disassociate themselves with being “conscious” is somewhat comical, because the logical antonym would be “ignorant”. I imagine they see the title of “conscious” as the fastest way to see record sales plummet, maybe that is why Lupe made the empty-minded Lasers album, and Wale became a baller in the uninspiring Ambition album. It is a sad state of affairs. But what were we to expect? The greatest representative for success in the rap community is Jay-Z, a smart man who chose to glorify his drug dealing days to become a mogul. He got the fame, he got the fans, he got the most beautiful musician as his bride, and he got more money then he could ever dream to spend. How is a conscious MC to survive? Luckily, however, when Wale got started he let the content of his character put him on the map. Wearing his mind on his sleeve, he wrote The Kramer on his fourth mix tape – the Seinfeld inspired Mixtape About Nothing. Wale’s lyrics have never been more sharp, as he eloquently describes the sensitivity around “the N word”. Much like A Tribe Called Quest’s Sucka Ni**a, Wale battles with his usage of the word – “And P say that I should stop saying ni**a. But if I did, what would be the difference?…There’d still be ni**as out killing… and still be white people still out to get us… and still be lazy and paranoid ni**as”. But he sounds the most perceptive as he describes the experience of the white youth who idealize hip hop. An example of a group of white students trying to emulate their rap heroes by using the lingo, and how their black classmate feels hurt and alienated by the usage – “The things they say went a little too far, he couldn’t tell the difference between an A or ER”. It is poignant and thoughtful, and remains one of the strongest statements of Wale’s skills. In fact, it is the conscious songs that remain the strongest statements of most rappers. So I plea with the Wales, Lupes, and Kendricks of the hip hop world – fight the urge to go “ignant”, and use your conscience to transcend the gangsta persona that holds hip hop’s true potential back.
Over five years ago, The Shins gave us all the gift of Wincing the Night Away. The way Sleeping Lessons opened felt like you were falling magically, like Alice, into the mind of James Mercer, and when you landed you found yourself surrounded in the colourful and wonderful world of The Shins. And the Alice and Wonderland comparison seems appropriate, as every Shins album read like a children’s story. They were innocent and playful in sound, but the lyrics were always true enough to offer a universal moral at the end. That world is a fun and comforting place to be, and five years was far too long to be away. But don’t fret, today we can all put our pyjamas on again, curl up under the sheets, and let Mr. Mercer put on his reading glasses and open up another adventure. Port of Morrow is here, and we will chase red rabbits once more.
It is a beautiful sunny day in Calgary, Alberta. Tiny white clouds are scattered in the big blue sky, the sun is bright, and the temperature is sitting at 11 degrees celsius (which is quite nice for winter in Canada). A perfect day to welcome the coming of spring. All that is needed is a stroll through the snow-free streets with some happy summery tunes. Phoenix would be perfect! What? Phoenix hasn’t released anything new since the brilliant Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix? No problem muchacho, we got D-D-Dance. This track sounds a hell of a lot like the French four-tet, and I got no beef with that. Because it’s a great sound, and now is the perfect time to have it. And this Swedish happy-time band pulled that sound off sooo well.