Monthly Report: July 2015 Albums
1. Future - DS2
Rap has always been fickle, but it's been interesting to see in the last few years how an artist's buzz can wax and wane in incredibly quick and strangely subtle ways that you have to be really paying attention to really comprehend. Big Sean and Nicki Minaj also had career dips on their 2nd major label albums and then got back on track with the 3rd, but it was really dramatic with Future. It's always been this way; LL Cool J had one of the most storied comebacks in rap history ("don't call it a comeback" notwithstanding) but it wasn't that he stopped having hits, he just needed to get some momentum back. The same thing happened with Future (in this analogy, "Move That Dope" is "Jinglin' Baby"), and you have to give him some credit for how quickly he turned things around with the mixtapes. I wasn't the biggest fan of the tapes -- Beast Mode was my favorite but I wasn't playing any of 'em around the clock, they were just kind of refreshing after Honest ironically felt like Future not really being himself. This album just feels so confident, though, Metro Boomin isn't really my favorite member of his production team but he really went in here, everything sounds so full and bold, the drums and synths getting an even harder edge than on the tapes. The album starts out a little lacking in variety but by the end you start getting outliers like "Blood On The Money" and "The Percocet & Stripper Joint" and "Kno The Meaning" that tie it all together pretty well. Here's the Spotify playlist I put all the 2015 albums I'm listening to into.
2. SiR - Seven Sundays
This is an R&B record from an industry songwriter dude who's worked with Tyrese and Jill Scott and went off and made his own music. And it's really lovely stuff, there's a warmth in his voice and the production feels gentle and homespun without going into any trendy alt R&B thing. `
3. Damond Blue - Blessonz
Writing about local and independent artists, you try to time your coverage to release dates but it rarely works out. I ran a City Paper story last year about this album on the premise that it was about to come out in November. 8 months later, it's finally here, and I'm just glad it's out. I saw Damond Blue for the first time when he was a teenager in the group Yung Huslas, and it's been great to see him come back and grow into one of Baltimore's better rappers. The album has a lot of pretty big guests (Bun B, Fat Trel, King Los, Young Moose) but Blue is really the focus, the storytelling track "Eddie" is probably my favorite. Listen to it here.
4. Diablo Flamez - Duct Tape & Coffee Grounds
The place where I first saw Damond Blue perform 10 years ago, Club 429, is also where I first saw this guy named Diablo perform an incredibly catchy track called "Jail Flick." Soon after, his production team Darkroom Productions released a mixtape inspired by "The Wire" called Hamsterdam, and that eventually snowballed into them doing music for "The Wire" and "Jail Flick" being featured on the show. I was always looking forward to Diablo making an album back when all that was happening, but for some reason it never did, so I'm glad he finally got one together, it's dope. "Same Way" is my favorite here, dude has such a great voice and unique flow. Listen to it here.
5. The Bird And The Bee - Recreational Love
Since the last time The Bird And Bee released an album of original material, one half of the band, Greg Kurstin, became a Top 40 hitmaker, and he's had singles by Sia and Beck and Kelly Clarkson on the radio in the last few months. Before, they were making quirky electro pop on Blue Note Records, but it's maybe even more odd that they're now on Rostrum, the label that launched Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. This album is delightful, though, it feels like they learned something from doing an album of Hall & Oates covers and the hooks are stronger and more immediate than on their earlier records.
6. Eleni Mandell - Dark Lights Up
Eleni Mandell is in a group, The Living Sisters, with The Bird And The Bee's Inara George and she's been consistently releasing great, unique records since the '90s and really never gets the attention she deserves. In fact I didn't even realize until this album was announced that she released another one last year that I never heard about, so I still need to catch up. This one is a little more jazzy and cozy and relaxed than my favorite stuff from her, but it's still charming stuff with great playing and production. "China Garden Buffet" and "Butter Blonde And Chocolate Brown" are the kind of textured, writerly songs that make Mandell one of my favorite lyricists out there.
7. Buddy Guy - Born To Play Guitar
I covered the Foo Fighters' big 20th anniversary concert for Rolling Stone last month, and one of the openers was Buddy Guy. He played late in the day and I kinda thought the crowd would ignore him, being the oldest guy on the bill and not even having any classic rock staples like Heart or whatever. But he just came out with incredible energy and that screaming guitar sound and everyone was on their feet, it was a great moment. I should really catch up on his older stuff, but the new album is good. I love hearing someone who's almost 80 and has no reason to make new music go out there and do something this lively, reflecting on his life with the kind of warmth and irreverence that he does on "Wear You Out" and "Turn Me Wild."
8. Gunplay - Living Legend
Timing is the most important factor in the success of rap albums now -- not hit singles, not the success of previous projects, not co-signs, just the matter of whether people feel like it's your time or a peak moment for you or if they think you're already part of the past. Gunplay had a moment around 2012-2013 when Maybach Music Group was launching major stars and it looked like he could be next, just off the strength of his vivid word choices and insane life. He was basically on the same level as Kendrick when they made "Cartoon And Cereal." So this album, which felt like it was never gonna drop, feels like too little too late -- even the single with YG and DJ Mustard is about a year behind when it might've made an impact. And it feels very much tied to the height of MMG as a brand a few years ago, compared to the last Meek Mill and Wale albums that felt like they had moved on to a more updated aesthetic. In spite of all this, though, this is a pretty solid album, captures a lot of what we liked about Gunplay to begin with. The Migos album only came out a matter of months after their buzz peaked, but it feels like it has way less of what people actually liked about them.
9. Lil Wayne - Free Weezy Album
In the last few months, Wayne seems to have finally lost the support of the weirdly loyal fans who tolerated the garbage music he was making most of the time in 2009-2012. In the last couple years I really think he's rebounded and is writing better than he was for a while, but again timing is everything in rap, and all that Carter III-era momentum has dissipated so it doesn't matter, he's been written off. This album is obviously not amazing, but I think it's better than it gets credit for, I like "Thinkin' Bout You" and "London Roads" and "I'm That N****" and "White Girl" in particular.
10. Sevyn Streeter - Shoulda Been There Pt. 1 EP
Sevyn Streeter's one of my favorite newish voices in R&B the last few years, and she really hasn't gotten a fair shake. She's had 3 good-sized radio hits now, but the biggest of them kind of got cannibalized by a remix with Chris Brown just as it was blowing up, and instead of releasing an album she's now on her second EP (which, judging from the title, will be followed by a third EP before there's an album). It's all aggravating, because she has such a dreamy voice, and she's written so many good songs for herself and others, she's the whole package, but the current climate is terrible for women in R&B. This EP only runs 24 minutes, but it has some great songs (including one of my favorite singles of the year, "Don't Kill The Fun"). And the interstitial skits really make it feel as cohesive and thought out as an album (they remind me, probably deliberately, of the interludes on janet.). I wish "4th Street" was on it, too.
Worst Album of the Month: Public Enemy - Man Plans God Laughs
I wasn't trying to be petty here, I checked out the album in good faith, because Public Enemy were amazing back in the day and this is certainly a time when political rappers have a lot to write about. Last year I participated in Rolling Stone's pretty diverse list of 2014's best rap albums, for which I was called out by name on Twitter by Chuck D for supporting "CORP low bar" music. But honestly I kinda wanted this album to kick my ass and make me feel apologetic to Chuck, and instead it just sounds awful. I don't know who these producers are that they got working on it, but the beats sound nothing like Public Enemy and even less like anything anyone wants to hear in 2015, and they just have no idea how to make Chuck's voice and flow sound good. Chuck D was one of the oldest rappers out when Public Enemy started, which means he's the first major MC to release an album at the age of 54 (he just turned 55 the other day), and I wish he could beat the odds and still sound great. Is it worse than the Confrontation Camp album that I panned in my embarrassing infancy as a music writer? No. But it's not much better.