Posts Tagged ‘Jay-Z’

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Thoughts on The Voice: Audition Round 4

February 20, 2012

Image from Mil on Flickr, used under Creative Commons

25 contestants picked, 23 to go! Will this be the last of the blind audition rounds.

Contestants’ Notes

-I wondered when I would hear a Black Keys song on a show like this. Ducky has the right kind of blues-rock swagger in his rendition of “Tighten Up.” He had a few vocal dips and dives in there as well. It’s too bad that he gets no turns (and the Sweeney Todd look isn’t helping either.) Keep at it, dude!

-Jonathas (wow, 2 one-named performers in a row!) does a pretty good Usher impression on “U Got It Bad.” His voice sounds just like him and he can do the power belting with no problem! He even does a few Ursh-inspired dance moves, which turned out to be a winning play. The coaches can’t see him, but the crowd can, and that burst of applause on his floor slides was just the right thing to get turns from Cee Lo and Christina. Both could be good fits for Jonathas, since they have treaded in R&B and dance pop, but ultimately Xtina is smoother and a better fit for that kind of style.

-I don’t go for midtempo rockers like “Mr. Know It All,” which is what Monique Benabou sings. She throws out lots vocal moves, especially the up and down runs, but for me it’s all show and little go. It’s enough to score a turn from Christina, but I won’t be rooting for her unless she does something more uptempo.

-When I first heard “The Lazy Song,” Bruno Mars was performing it on Idol. I recall that it sounded pleasant. Naia Kete kicks it out for audition and does a pretty good job of capturing its casual exuberance, in spite of her straining voice. Her hippie tip isn’t my bag, but she’ll fit well on Blake’s team. That folksy singer-songwriter thing reminds me of Dia Frampton at best or a more competent Xenia at worst. She ends up picking Blake and I predict that she’ll make it past the battle rounds.

-I give Erick Macek points for taking “Free Fallin’” in a slightly different direction, melody-wise. Unfortunately it feels way blander than the Tom Petty original. This is something your youth pastor busts out at a church retreat without being aware of the slightly druggy undertone in the song. To summarize, he brought no edge! See ya!

-When Charlotte Sometimes first hits the stage, she sounds so bland and mumbly she pulls a convincing Lana Del Rey impression. Eventually she picks herself up, but replaces the bluh-bluh-bluh mumbles with pitchy, snarly signing. I suppose you could tell that she was trying hard and I give her props for doing dynamic in that crummy song “Apologize,” (stupid Ryan Tedder) but I was shocked that she got four turns. Blake compared her to Xenia, which he meant as a compliment, but it’s more of an ominous sign to me. Will history repeat itself in a Naia vs. Charlotte rivalry on Team Blake?

-OK, Tony Vincent is off to a great start simply because he sang a Queen song and it wasn’t “Somebody To Love,” one of the most done-to-death audition pieces I have ever heard. Instead, he went the stadium route with “We Are The Champions.” His only problem was that his vocal reach exceeded his grasp and he couldn’t quite hit those Mercury highs. I hope that he will overcome his twitchiness and nerves and bring the pain on Team Cee Lo.

-Stop singing from your throat and start singing from your gut, Anthony Evans! Unless you’re singing The Bee Gees or Curtis Mayfield I need to hear at least a little low register from you. But if you’re doing “What’s Going On,” you have to fill the whole song, not just the high parts! It’s like Andy Samberg’s Shy Ronnie on the mic. Anthony did get a turn from Xtina, so maybe he’ll pick up a few tricks from her.

-Jamie Lono is a low-key, high-voiced guy with an acoustic guitar. Shit. Four notes into “Folsom Prison Blues,” he gets a turn from Adam, who probably needs a few more Javier Colon Clones on his team. However, Cee Lo wins him over. To his credit, Jamie kicks out more snarl and menace than last year’s winner ever did. He’s likable enough, but he’ll have to work really hard to avoid being just another chotch with a guitar.

-Dylan Chambers had some good opportunities to wow the coaches on the Mark Ronson/Amy Winehouse version of “Valerie,” but he was just too bleary and messy to really make an impression.

-Nathan Anderson sounded like he was mixed way too low. Project, dude!

-Luna Searles does Ethridge, which means immediate Beverly McClellan comparison. She’s no Beverly McClellan, so…adios!

-Adam Lasher lazily growls his way through Nickelback. How does he fare? As Jay-Z once rapped “So Poof! / Vamoose, sonofabitch!

-David Gray’s “Babylon” is a pretty neat song with its quiet-loud dynamic and shoutalong chorus. Justin Hopkins could have gone note-for-note, but he throws in a few little belting runs that might have come across as self-indulgent on a lesser performer. Justin’s moves make the piece feel more energetic in the live setting. Way to score the Cee Lo turn, dude!

-Nicolle Gaylon could stand to maybe tighten up her singing on “You Save Me,” but she still did pretty well. While I didn’t know the song, her performance reminded me of when someone does a slow-burning karaoke song really well. The end result is, for lack of a better word, human connection. If your nerves can fuck you up and you still come off as relatable, you are a good performer.

-Ashley De La Rosa got only a five-second clip, but she sang “Shark In The Water,” when it feels like maybe 500 people in America know who V. V.  Brown is. That takes guts! The few seconds the show featured sounded good, too. Christina gives a turn, so good for Ashley! I hope she doesn’t end up as cannon fodder during the battle rounds

-5-second clip victim Jordan Rager sounded like Scotty McCreery with the bass turned down. He had energy but he’ll be a human shield on Team Blake during the battle rounds.

-Karla Davis did “If I Die Young.” It sounded like your garden variety acoustic jam. She seemed ok, but she’ll be a human shield on Team Adam during the battle rounds.

-Alyx didn’t even get 5 seconds of show time for “Just Like A Pill” and Blake picked her. This show needs to work on its pacing.

-Eric Tipton kicks out “You Make My Dreams” and he sounds solid. His range isn’t as dynamic as some of the other contestants, nor is he packing the raw power that the other contestants have. He fails to earn any turns, and the coaches attribute it to sounding too close to the Hall and Oates original. I get where they are coming from.

-OK, we have another Adele performance, this time from Mathai. She takes on one of the livelier numbers from 21 – “Rumour Has It,” and she scores turns from Adam, Blake and Cee Lo. Adam gave it up 8 seconds in, before she turned on the power. To Mathai’s credit, she really conveyed both the righteous defiance and the playful vengeance in the song and nailed most of the runs too! You go, player!

And now a summary of tonight’s winners, in the order they were announced:
-Silky smooth R&B karaoke
-Lots of power, crummy music
-Hippie Dia Frampton
-Xenia Mk II, Now With More Lana Del Rey
-Rock Opera Man
-All Treble Gospel
-A Guitar Guy I Don’t Want To Yell At?
-Engaging Adult Contemporary
-Tell Me More About Piano Country….
-R&B Cannon Fodder With Good Music Taste
-Country Cannon Fodder
-Acoustic Cannon Fodder
-Pop Rock Cannon Fodder
-Fun Adele Impersonation!

And we have one more audition round to see 9 more picks! I can’t wait for this round to be over!

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Review: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

December 30, 2010

Buy it and stream clips on Amazon

Summary: Hip-hop’s most successful eccentric since Kool Keith uses every trick in his book to bang out 13 catchy and difficult songs about the continuing journeys of a man made weak and unique by his conflicting desires.

Fun Facts

  • While it was in development, the album’s original title was Good Ass Job. Then the whole hijacking Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech happened (not the first time), there was a public backlash, and Kanye had to go think about how things were going.
  • Kanye released about 25% of this album for free as part of his “G.O.O.D. Fridays” promotion, where he gave away a different new free song, every Friday (though sometimes they wouldn’t really drop until Saturday). “Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil In A New Dress,” (which are all next to each other in the album track listing), were all part of the promotion. If you want to check out the album without dropping $10-13, many of the songs from the promotion should still be up on his website. You can get several cool songs that didn’t make the album (my favorites are “Chain Heavy” and “Christian Dior Denim Flow”) as well get a taste of the overall aesthetic of the album, which these songs share.
  • This occurred to me on a recent trip to the National Gallery of Art in D.C.: One of the recurring images West uses in the album’s artwork, promotional campaign, and related live performances is the ballerina, though upon several listens of the album I did not catch a single mention of ballerinas or dancers. Another artist who used frequently used ballerinas as subjects was the French semi-impressionist painter/sculptor Edgar Degas. Degas and West actually have a few things in common. Both derived their early works from the art of others (Degas drew several hundred copies of Italian Renaissance art; West built his best beats from old soul samples). Both are associated with specific genres and scenes (Degas with impressionism, West with mainstream hip-hop via Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella), but neither produced work that quite fit into those communities and sometimes distanced themselves from those networks. Both expressed anti-social tendencies in interacting with the public and both seemingly encouraged public perceptions of them as misanthropes. Degas died friendless due to his hostile tendencies and anti-Semitism. West has pulled some jerk moves in the 7+ years he has been in the limelight, but nothing so dire or unforgivable. (all Degas info from Wikipedia)
  • Note: I haven’t seen West’s 30+ minute “Runaway” video in its entirety, but one reason for its length is that it contains music from a good chunk of the other songs on the album. As such, I haven’t linked to previews for all of the songs.

Ups

  • On the production side of things, Kanye relies on the moves that helped make him a top producer and fuses them together with just enough variety and novelty to avoid rehashing. He goes back to sampling old R&B records, though there’s far less of his signature chipmunking. Occasionally he reaches for a higher-profile rock sound, like when he samples King Crimson on “Power,” but that’s no “oh snap!” moment like when he rapped over Daft Punk back in 2007. He uses lots of vocal processing, but it isn’t cleaned or robotic. It’s more like when his voice is pitched low and pasted onto itself to create an otherworldly feeling on “Dark Fantasy,” or on “Blame Game” when it’s panned around the stereo mix to sound like voices in his head (seriously, it’s quite the trip for your earbuds), or when he does an Imogen Heap impression at the start of “Lost In The World.” And sometimes, Kanye doesn’t process himself at all. He’s gotten more confident in his singing ability that he can go out on stage and lead a singalong or hold his own with John Legend. Meanwhile on the beat side, West rarely uses the same kind of drum track twice. For example he sticks to the basic drum samples on “Runaway” and “Dark Fantasy,” uses some off kilter rave beats on “All Of The Lights,” puts the lo-fi drum track way back in the mix on “Gorgeous,” and finishes the album off with some reverbed tribal drumming on “Lost In The World.”
  • One of the recurring themes in Kanye West’s work is duality. Lyrically the album continues the familiar West themes of gratification vs. guilt (“So Appalled,” “Gorgeous”) professional braggadocio vs. personal failure (“Runaway,” “Blame Game”), and challenging social conventions vs. buying into them (“Hell Of A Life,” “Dark Fantasy”). Longtime West listeners know he likes to use homonyms in his raps and unpack the multiple meanings of a word (which often results in a simultaneously clever and annoying habit of rhyming words with themselves). Considering that, there’s a reason “Power” and “All Of The Lights” and “Monster” are right next to each other on the album since those three songs each turn on their keywords. “Monster” is one of my favorite songs on the album. On its surface it’s an incredibly catchy dancehall-esque party track with West, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj celebrating their monster talents as MCs and the power they hold as professional entertainers, but as Jay-Z illustrates when he compares himself to a sasquatch, a ghoul and Godzilla, monsters are often feared and hated as a consequence of the powers they hold. The song celebrates that paradoxically ugly beauty.
  • As has been pointed out elsewhere, the only really double-take moment on the album is Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster.” Minaj stands out because as a fairly new talent she comes out hard, seamlessly morphs her voice into her array of characters like she’s Hank Azaria, keeps up her flow, sounds like she’s having a good time, and just plain kicks ass. Otherwise, most of the guests hold their own with few really stinking up the joint.
  • Overall Kanye mixes up his tricks (for both production and choice of guests) enough that nothing feels like a gimmick. On this album, it’s clear that West has an idea of what he wants to say, and he will arrange the elements in such a way that nothing overshadows the meaning of the song. The songs really cohere in a tapestry and aim for a consistent good over a series of moments.

Downs

  • For an album where many of the tracks are over five minutes long, there aren’t too many duds here, though a few songs unnecessarily meander. While some songs are fine in the extended length because there’s enough varied content within (West raps and sings in “Blame Game,” there are maybe five guys sharing time on “So Appalled”), I can’t justify the length of others. The sore thumb is the extended outro of “Runaway.” Though West’s super vocoding is cool the first time around, it almost doubles the length of the song. In a concert setting I understand. The purpose of a musician noodling onstage for 5 minutes is to (1) show off his/her technical prowess and (2) give everyone else in the band time to go get a drink of water backstage. In a studio setting though, this just comes off as pointlessly indulgent.
  • Devil In A New Dress” reminds me of some of the weaker moments in The College Dropout with its lethargic pace, vanilla soul sample, and ridiculous rapping (though it’s worth at least one listen when Rick Ross shows up at the end and does the musical equivalent of scenery chewing).
  • Maybe I’m misinterpreting things, but a recurrence in the lyrics seems to be the porn star/stripper (juxtapose those lyrics with the ballerina pics). When West fixates on sex, he does it in a puerile, visceral, and sometimes creepy way, similar to Goichi Suda’s work on the Killer7 and No More Heroes video games. While West admits this and sometimes criticizes himself for his behavior (mostly on “Runaway”), the subject matter can still be as adolescent as a crunk song (“Hell of a Life”) and as resentful as an emo song (“So Appalled”). Chris Rock’s post-coital outro on “Blame Game” is as ridiculous as Rick Ross’s appearances on the album, but the narrator’s fixation on all the things his woman does in the bedroom makes it seem even crasser (though it makes sense coming from Rock, a comedian who has been incredibly sharp and funny when riffing on race and class issues but has demonstrated a somewhat misogynistic view when making jokes concerning men vs. women and relationship dynamics). I don’t know, maybe the sheer ridiculousness of the way the ribald subject matter is conveyed is meant to show how shallow that kind of fixation is and cast the protagonists in the light of depravity (kind of like the aforementioned video games). Then again, it’s unfair to single out West and co. for acting like teenagers when so many artists in pop culture (music and otherwise) do the same thing. At least West undercuts the objectification celebration in the lyrics with bleak beats to show something is amiss. I guess my point is that I sometimes felt uncomfortable, and maybe that was how I was supposed to feel.

Conclusion: MBDTF is very much a return to form for Kanye West in terms of both lyrical themes and production style. It’s denser and more difficult than his earlier work, though I feel there are fewer actual duds on this album than on his last two. I’ll admit that it’s difficult to root for Kanye or the way he conducts himself in public. I can understand a reluctance to buy the album in that one could make the argument that buying the album is enabling the asshole. However, I feel that here he has made an interesting record chock full of introspection and cultural criticism concealed in a baker’s dozen of club bangers. This is one of my top albums of 2010.

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Retro Review: American Gangster

August 2, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The biggest name in hip-hop, one album into his return from retirement, makes a concept album synthesizing his biography with the Ridley Scott movie.

Fun Facts

  • This is Jay-Z’s only “concept album.” It has a rise-and-fall story that compares the ol’ Goodfellas/Scarface trope with the limited shelf life of the pop musician. Given some of the Kingdom Come reviews, it’s understandable why Mr. Carter would be thinking of his commercial and/or critical mortality.
  • Consequently, it is also Jay-Z’s only album that he is not selling on ITunes (he is selling it on Amazon though). He wants the listener to hear the record from start to finish, just like AC/DC!
  • This is the second Jay-Z album to be released with an acapella version. Remember how many crummy “concept” The Black Album mashup albums came out 6 years ago trying to be Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album? Even I tried my hand at one back in 2005.
  • Finally, the intro features King Driis himself, Idris Elba. At the time, he was best known in the States for his role on The Wire, but he booms over Chris Flame’s atmospherics in his native Hackney accent. Damn he can do a voiceover!

Ups

  • Hate on Diddy and his antics all you want, but the man knows his way around a high profile sample and a cinematic sound. “Pray” stomps with swagger and symphonic pomp and the guitars rage just enough to be badass. “No Hook” feels like a ganglord pontificating over his empire when Jay-Z flows over the slow burn music. Heck, even the Marvin Gaye sample on “American Dreamin’,” enhances the song’s wistful/wishful tone.
  • You can always count on the Neptunes to make some good beats. “I Know” has this peppy bounce to it, and Pharrell’s chorus is nothing if not infectious. Later on, “Blue Magic” features some cool minimal organ backing and some early 90s, 2 Unlimited-esque keyboard stabs and manages to hold the whole thing together.
  • Two words: Just Blaze! Though he chips in only one track, “Ignorant Shit,” the music is some of the catchiest modern disco this side of the Freemasons.
  • Though he has the gall to wrap up his biography with a big-budget crime drama given all of the legitimate money he has earned over his nearly 20 year music career, at least Jay-Z has the humility to end the main part of the album with the gangster’s fall and the rapper’s irrelevance on “Fallin’.” It speaks to his self-awareness.

Downs

  • I fell asleep listening to some parts of the album. “Sweet’s” hazy 70’s ambience and minimal beats had me struggling to stay focused. “Say Hello” runs too slow for its own good. Even Jay-Z sounds like he is yawning his way through the verses on that song.
  • Sometimes the good parts just don’t come together: “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” features a Lil Wayne guest verse and a very, very dirty beat, but unless you’re a native New Yorker, there’s not much to really draw you in lyric-wise.
  • Beanie Sigel’s turn on “Ignorant Shit” is reminder that while Jay-Z is one of the most successful rappers of all time and he helped break both Kanye West and Just Blaze, he has never found a good protégé: Memphis Bleek, Foxy Brown, Tierra Marie, Young Gunz, and yes, Beanie Sigel. Does he make a bad label manager, a guy who picks talent to make himself look better by comparison, or just a guy who wants to give the people he cares about breaks?
  • Finally, the spoken-word outro from Beyonce starts to sound eerily like she’s preaching the church of Hov. Maybe she’s just going all “Jesus Walks,” but I call it like I hear it.

Conclusion: I find it ironic that Jay-Z would think of this record as a conceptual whole when execution-wise it is so hit-and-miss. Maybe if he got one, two producers to do the whole album, or punched up some of the downtempo tracks with DJ Shadow, RJD2, or Eminem, then we’d have a better overall album. Nevertheless, this is good for maybe 8-10 tracks if you’re feeling generous. Good thing you can buy the individual mp3s!

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Declaration and Defense

July 21, 2010

Image from zen @ Flickr

What is people’s deal with trying to declare stuff dead? I mean, I understand why a performer like Jay-Z would declare “Death of AutoTune,” to separate himself from the younger, up-and-coming performers who have used the plug-in and establish himself as a more “classic” artist (btw AutoTune is still alive like GLaDOS, Hov). It was basically drawing a line in the authenticity sand, a branding ploy. That’s cool.

But knocking consumer devices? That just serves to push people away from a way of interacting with their stuff in which they are comfortable. Game consoles? Desktops? For your information, I just bought a desktop and I love it: cheap, big screen, not sitting on my legs overheating, etc. Likewise, I don’t and won’t trust cloud computing game services like OnLive until there is a legal guarantee that the server will stay up no matter what, because I want to be able to work digitally or play video games no matter what, even if a server crashes or Comcast decide to be jerks. Plus local gaming means instant gaming with no lag. Until the United States pulls a South Korea-like overhaul of its broadband systems (and it has far more pressing problems that it needs to solve first), reliable media activity service models will not be viable. You know who benefits from that hype? Phone companies.

But today I’m here to defend a music format: the Compact Disc. CNN has an article up called “Is the Death of the CD Looming?” The article cites the declining sales of CDs compared to the increase in digital album sales in the past year. I don’t disagree with this data, and the overall trend with how we consume information and media seems to be all-in-one devices streaming info over the internet. But I would hope that physical media still keeps getting made.

In the mid-2000s when I was a DJ at a radio station, I had to defend the CD format against the other dance music DJs who were often vinyl purists. Now I feel like my format is getting heat from the other side. I feel like I need to defend my choice, so here’s why CDs are a good format.

  1. They are physical without being cumbersome: I like physical media. I like something I can hold in my hands. I like packaging and liner notes. I like looking at a big media collection. I like grabbing a stack of CDs to play in my car. While vinyl has an artier quality to it and carries that air of authenticity, its size and durability make a large stack of them much harder to carry. Their size makes them portable. Vinyl is not portable.
  2. They are physical which can become high quality digital. For straight-up pure audio quality, vinyl is the best format to go, but they are tethered to the record player. CDs can be rocked on boom boxes, DVD players, and car CD players (which seem pretty common). They can also be ripped to a computer as long as it has a CD/DVD drive and you can get mp3s that sound great. Vinyl ripping, while possible, is much more difficult to get really good stuff. Your records can’t be scratched, you need good needles and/or cartridges, and your turntable has to be hooked up to your computer in just the right way. It’s possible, but it’s a hassle if you’re anything short of an audiophile.
  3. Not everything is up on the digital marketplace. Licensing deals, industry politics, and collapsing labels force iTunes and eMusic to take stuff off of their stores all of the time, which is so crummy. If I need to find a busted-up band or a mid-90s film soundtrack, I know I’ll have a much better shot of tracking things down at a good used music store. And I want to own my music, not keep paying some company money until my internet goes down or they go down and I lose everything in the end.
  4. CDs will be your backup discs. In 2008 my hard drive, which held all of the music I acquired from 2002 to 2006, crashed into an irreparable state. The cost to recover the data was too much for me, but luckily I could simply re-rip anything that I originally acquired on CD. Twas not the case for my iTunes purchases (and they make you re-buy anything you want to re-download). If you don’t have a spare hard drive around to be your backup disk, CDs will be there for you.

In short, I liken buying CDs to moving to the suburbs vs. the city or the country. In the country, there is untouched nature, open space, and freedom to move around. However, there’s no people, not a lot of places to go, and not a whole lot of stuff to really do. Plus the only internet you can get is dialup. Vinyl is the country: pure, simple, high quality, niche, and difficult. In the city, there’s a lot to do, places for all kinds of interests, a wide variety of resources at your fingertips, and the feeling that one is on the cutting edge. The clubs and the broadband are in the city. However, sometimes it feels like there are too many people in the streets, there are more thugs and muggers, you rent property, and it feels like no space is truly your own. Digital music is the city: diverse, quick, overpopulated, and dangerous. The suburbs are in between: more amenities than the country via big box stores and malls, more space than the city through neighborhood planning. CDs are the suburbs:  versatile, good quality, there are a lot of them, there’s some risk of damage, and there’s a sense of blandness. They’re in the middle, with all of the comfort and lack of risk that entails. Like the suburbs, CDs get a bad rap, but there’s a reason for how they got to where they are in the first place.

I don’t mean to come across as some luddite or oldster. Every music format has its advantages and disadvantages. I just think that every music consumer should have multiple options to how they buy music and support artists. Don’t hate, don’t exclude, and unless you’re a coroner, don’t declare things dead.