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ALBUM REVIEW: Ab-Soul “These Days…”

Those familiar with Ab dash Soul may consider him the elusive and otherworldly member of TDE. Always donning sunglasses and frequently a fitted cap crown, Ad-Soul can fade into the background for those unfamiliar. His past projects have included themes uncommon in mainstream rap – outer space, conspiracies and the like. But with the spotlight on TDE (arguably because of Kendrick‘s stellar debut album and guest verses), everyone is paying attention to Ab-Soul like never before. ScHoolBoy Q released an amazing album in Oxymoron. The newest signees, SZA & Isiah Rashad both released impressive projects, See.SZA.Run & Cilvia Demo, respectively. After a little public angst over his project not being released (see: Twitter), Top Dawg of Top Dawg Entertainment pulled the trigger on the promotion for Ab-Soul‘s latest release. Check my review for These Days… below.

Before I talk my shit, let me start with being honest. I never really liked Ab-Soul‘s brand of hip-hop. Not that I thought he wasn’t a talented rapper, I just couldn’t totally get jiggy with his previous releases – Long Term Mentality, Control System. But, I have a new appreciation for him after listening to These Days…, perhaps even for the obvious reasons. I could relate to the material more. The production is more familiar to TDE and the left coast sound. Additionally, his content is more accessible. I was impressed by this album and I plan to revisit previous releases.

The album features a seemingly random menage of features: Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco, Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Ravaughn, most of TDE, and more. J.Cole even makes an uncredited ad-lib appearance courtesy of a track he produced. But Herbert Stevens IV makes them all work. In an interview with Life+Times, Ab-Soul shares that he wanted this album to have something for everyone, and he achieves this perhaps getting slightly lost in the struggle to appeal to various listeners. The album opens with “Gods Reign” featuring the airy vocals of SZA, clearly the reference point for the album artwork and the stand-in for a title track for the album. Ab-Soul gives us a peek into where his head is at now after the death of a girlfriend and a binge of various drugs. However, it doesn’t sound tortured or particularly sad mentioned with enlightening baby mamas and booking tour dates. Check it below.

The first half of the album features production and content familiar to original Ab-Soul fans including “Dub Sac,” a soulful two-part track detailing personal drug use and the effects of the drug game on his family and upbringing. SZA makes an uncredited airy appearance that reminds me of a different time in west coast rap music. Lupe Fiasco and Rick Ross both make appearances in the first half of the album, with the latter’s appearance much more impressive. But then again, when is the last time Lupe Fiasco impressed anyone.

The weakness in the album comes with the odd inclusion of an alter-ego Jimmy (aka The White Ab-Soul) and the overused “Migos-flow.” Like, why? Right as you start to side-eye the project, Kendrick Lamar shows up for a jazzy mid-point interlude prime to make you salivate for Kendrick‘s sophomore album. “Sapiosexual” includes a credited SZA appearance but it seems juvenile and outdated. I was under the impression we were done with the fuck-your-mind analogies in the early 90s (see: dead prez “Mind Sex”). The second half of the album continues to be lyrical, yet slightly uninteresting until “Ride Slow” featuring the always entertaining Danny Brown. Definitely not a fan of Danny Brown, but I’m always intrigued by his inclusion on “traditional” rap beats. And then the album closes with Ab-Soul rapping acapella in a battle with another rapper (battle rapper, Daylyt) showcasing his play on words, overall lyrical dexterity, and what appears to be the camaraderie within TDE.

Perhaps Ab-Soul‘s album suffers from sequencing issues. The overall flow of the album is sporadic with the most interesting tracks occurring before the Kendrick interlude. Is this an instant classic? Nah. But it’s a decent rap album and I’m impressed by Ab-Soul‘s latest project. I expected accessible music, but I still prefer the cerebral mood of Control System. Ab-Soul‘s need to please so many different listeners has me wondering what type of artist he would be if he only made the music he wanted. There are lyrical gems reminding me that Ab-Soul is a lyricist first, but tracks like “Sapiosexual” and “Twact” leave me wondering what’s on the cutting room floor.

Standout Tracks: Gods Reign, Hunnid Stax, Nevermind

Skippable Tracks: Twact, Sapiosexual

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MUSIC WORLD: My Review of Kanye West’s “Yeezus”

The anticipation for Yeezus mirrored that of any other Kanye West release. Kanye conducted a mostly viral marketing campaign consisting of surprise listening parties, public video projections, and no real single release. Articles were written about how Rick Rubin was called in to help Kanye strip the sound down. Kanye ranted about how he transcended a genre of music. Ahead of the release, we were treated to “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead,” and “I Am A God.” And then the album leaked. Check my full review below.

Let me begin by stating the obvious. The “singles” we received ahead of the official leak release are misleading. They in no way represent the whole sound of the album. Honestly, if the album sounded like “New Slaves” or even “Black Skinhead,” I would’ve felt like Kanye was trying something truly innovate and interesting. Almost like a punk-rap genre of music. But instead, we get an album with a background echo, autotune, and a random Buju Banton clone shouting incomprehensible Patois.

The album opens with no warning. The first track, “On Sight” almost sounds like a radio-rip. But I guess this is what Rick Rubin was referencing when he said that Kanye wanted a stripped down sound and they actually ended up “un-producing” a lot of tracks. Kanye premiered a rousing performance of “Black Skinhead” and it still stands out as one of my favorite tracks from the album. The energy of that entire song is captivating. And in the grand scheme of the album, it shines.

After listening to the entire album a few times, I’m still surprised by the amount of autotune that Kanye (and Chief Keef) utilize. It removes the potential freshness of the album. In fact, “Bound 2” sounds like a track that could’ve easily fit into Late Registration. Not because of autotune, but because of the soul sample backtrack. Not quite the progression I was seeking after hearing the lead “singles” from Yeezus.

My favorite tracks from this short project are those that don’t sound like anything that anyone else in hip-hop could or would do right now. “I’m In It” is an early favorite because of the sound and feel of the track. The content is typical comical Kanye West, but the way this track makes me feel is EVERYTHING. I feel the same way about the production on “Blood on the Leaves.” Kanye sampling C-Murder’s “Down 4 My Niggas?” Love it! It’s almost subtle but so recognizable. And to layer that with a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” who else would do that or think of that? Only Yeezus.

Kanye comes off as a true Gemini. He doesn’t know what he wants to express and as such, this album is all over the damn place. We’re new slaves but he then goes on to mention putting his fist in a woman like it’s Civil Rights. I just can’t. I wish he would’ve let this album cook a little more or came with more tracks reminiscent of the first 4. Album about nothing? Kinda. I struggled to write this review because after listening to this entire album 8+ times, I’m still not sure how I feel overall about the project. There are tracks that I absolutely love (see below), there’s sounds that I wish were more prominent, but as a whole, this album feels so disjointed. Take a few tracks and make that super forward punk rap album. Then take a few others and make a trap album. And then put “Bound 2” on Late Registration. What do you think? Help me out here!

Standout Tracks: Black Skinhead, New Slaves, I’m In It, Blood on the Leaves

MUSIC WORLD: My Review of Brandy’s “Two Eleven” + Download Link and Breakfast Club Interview

Brandy‘s sixth album, “Two Eleven” hit stores, iTunes, and Spotify today. Anchored by the success of her lead single, “Put it Down” featuring Chris Brown, fans have been eagerly anticipating her return to music. Ahead of the release, I listened to the full album and my full review and a download link are below.

Prior to pressing play on the full album, a number of tracks had already been circulating. It’s clear that Brandy is confident and happy after listening to the entire album. If you enjoyed Afrodisiac (her best album, to me), then you’ll likely find some delight in this project as well. You’ll find Brandy crooning about love and happiness, no Al Green. The album opens with the previously released track, “Wildest Dreams.” It finds her talking about finding the love that she’s been looking for. This standout track is set to be her next single.

The album continues with the same feel, heavy bass and stellar songwriting. Sean Garrett is to thank for that. This album feels fresh and new, yet familiar. Brandy toes outside of the box just enough to pique our interest. But this album is rooted in R&B more than a lot of her counterparts’ recent albums (except Elle Varner). Timbaland is noticeably missing, from a production standpoint. Bangladesh helms the majority of the album’s production. But it works. Brandy‘s raspy voice is on full display in the best way possible with tracks like “No Such Thing as Too Late” and “Without You.” After listening to the entire album, I actually think “Put it Down” is one of the weaker tracks on the project. I don’t mean that to say that song isn’t the jam, I love that song! But in the grand scheme of the album, she has better tracks.

My overall review of the album, it’s definitely solid! I rate this album a solid 3.5/5 stars.

Standout Tracks: Wildest Dreams, So Sick, Do You Know What You Have

Skippable Track: Without You

You can listen on Spotify for free or download HERE. 

Brandy also stopped by my favorite morning radio show, The Breakfast Club, to promo her new album. Per the usual, the interview was entertaining. Check it below.

MUSIC WORLD: My Track-by-Track Review of “Cruel Summer” + Download Link

Yeah, it leaked. Are we surprised though? I’m actually surprised by how unimpressive the project is as a whole. The internet was abuzz after the G.O.O.D. Music collaboration album, Cruel Summer, leaked almost a week before release. The conglomorate only provided 12 tracks to be judged by. It features the expected contributors: Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T, Common, CyHi Da Prince, Common, John Legend, Teyana Taylor, 2 Chainz, and Kid Cudi. There were a few surprises with features from R. Kelly, Raekwon, and Mase, to name a few. Maybe Kanye is a victim to his own hype. But check my track-by-track review of the album below.

1. “To the World” – Kanye West x R. Kelly: why did it take so long to get these two on a track together? Egos, perhaps? The overwhelming consensus of the song is that it sucks. I don’t think it’s that terrible though. I kinda like the whole, “Fuck You” attitude of the song. I’m not sure about the “Lil’ Drummer Boy” beat drops and the random ass appearance of Teyana Taylor. As a whole though, the song is full of typical Kanye West one-liners. Appreciate it for that, at least.

Editor’s Note: You’ll quickly see I’m not the biggest fan of Little Miss Taylor. Carry on 

2. “Clique” – Kanye West x Jay-Z x Big Sean: Jay-Z proves why he’s still the best at what he does (see: his entire catalogue).  Big Sean provides a good verse and an annoying hook (see: “Ass”). Kanye West’s girlfriend is a superstar all from a home movie (see: Kim Kardashian). But we all knew this right? Cool song bros.

3. “Mercy” –  Kanye West x Big Sean x Pusha T x 2 Chainz: Niggas still hating on Big Sean. I don’t get it, I think he’s proven himself. Anywaydoe, “Mercy” was good the first time I heard it and it’s still good now. It’s one of those rare songs that gets played incessantly and I’m still not sick of it. Stellar and memorable verses from all parties involved. And it flows nicely following “Clique” and introducing “New God Flow.” Loved this video though.

4. “New God Flow” – Pusha T x Kanye West: this clearly a Pusha T song. And remember when Kanye said he wanted to make stadium music? Well it’s really apparent on this track. That whole call-and-response is so “concert ready.” On the radio though? It doesn’t really translate. Aside from that, Pusha T proves why he’s an asset to G.O.O.D. Music, again.

“I think it’s good that ‘Ye got a blow dealer/ A hot temper, matched with a cold killer/ I came aboard for more than to just ride with him/ Think ’99 when Puff would’ve had Shyne with him.”

5. “The Morning” – Pusha T x Common x CyHi Da Prynce x Kid Cudi x D’banj x Raekwon x 2 Chainz: Whew that’s a long list of features! It’s also the first time we hear CyHi, Common, and Kid Cudi on the entire project. Production is great. The sample is great. And Raekwon opens the track with his typical “I’m-from-New-York-so-I-gotta-spit-on-the-mic” flow. Then Common and Pusha T deliver. 2 Chainz is forgettable. Aw shit, a beat change! How surprising! (read: sarcasm). Kanye spits sounding like he recorded this in the backseat of his Maybach. This track is just… blah.

6. “Cold” – Kanye West x DJ Khaled: I liked it when it dropped as a single. I still like it now. Honestly one of the strongest tracks on the album. It flows nicely from the snoozefest that is “The Morning.” Moving along.

7. “Higher” – Pusha T x Mase x The Dream: The Dream has been delighting me recently. Love “Dope Bitch” and “Extremely Blessed.” He and Pusha T reunite and for a head nod song. Then Mase shows up. I’m confused by Mase, forreal. Did he always sound prepubescent when he rapped? Or is my memory just fucked up? But he could’ve kept that verse. Is he still preaching? Yeah, go back there. Moment of silence for that mu’fucka.

8. “Sin City” – John Legend x Teyana Taylor x CyHi Da Prynce x Malik Yusef x Travis Scott: If Teyana sticks to singing hooks and they sound like this, I may reconsider my petition to get her dropped from G.O.O.D. Music. CyHi though… I have so much hope. I just don’t see how he aligns with the team. He’s like the forgotten bald headed step child. .

“She rode a broom on the sand, that’s a sand-WITCH.”

What yo? Go back to the Ivy League. Malik Yusef gets more love B. We’re 8 tracks in and no album track has been awe inspiring.

9. “The One” – Kanye West x Big Sean x 2 Chainz x Marsha Ambrosius: Here goes “Lil Drummer Boy” again. But the always angelic Marsha Ambrosius sings Teyana Taylor under the table. Love the featured artists of the track. They don’t disappoint either. Kanye references Scott Disick and shit. He’s officially a Kardashian. I love how Big Sean is always putting on for his city. Then this year’s comeback kid, 2 Chainz, lays his typical punchline flow while expressing how far he’s come. Nice.

10. “Creepers” – Kid Cudi: the only artist to get his own track on the entire project. If you’re surprised, you shouldn’t be. Kanye has put his full energy and endorsements behind Kid Cudi. I feel like he’s almost like Kanye’s cooler, younger brother. All that aside, if you like Kid Cudi, you’ll like this track. If you don’t, you probably won’t. I fux with it.

11. “Bliss” – John Legend x Teyana Taylor: damn, she’s back. This time she ruins a perfectly good John Legend track. Remember how some genius got rid of Rick Ross and Dr. Dre’s verses from “3 Kings” and presented a Jay-Z only track with just his verse and named it “1 King?” Yeah, I need that. And I need new John Legend music. Stat.

12. “I Don’t Like (Remix)” – Kanye West x Pusha T x Chief Keef x Big Sean x Jadakiss: This is the song in which we learned that lesbians aren’t legit unless they use a strap on. Kanye doesn’t like that. We learned that Chief Keef got tatts on his arm because that’s life. Big Sean is high class, but surrounded my lowlifes. Jadakiss doesn’t like running out of work. And that’s our lesson for today, boys and girls.

So my overall impression of the album? 3/5 stars. And that may just because I rock with Kanye so hard cuz I don’t honestly see myself adding any of the album cuts to my regular rotation.

Give us 5 more tracks. Sprinkle in a little more Common. And delete all Teyana Taylor contributions. As far as collaboration albums, MMG’s Self Made Vol. 2 boo-boo’d all over this. Don’t believe me, play them back to back and compare. What do you think though?

If you still want to download it, you can cop it HERE. 

MUSIC WORLD: My (Extended) Review of Big Sean’s “Detroit” + Download Link

Much to the delight of Big Sean fans, the charismatic MC tweeted that he’d be releasing a new mixtape at the beginning of September. One of the few “Freshman Class” of rappers that’s still making GOOD music (pun intended). He’s consistently shown his growth and this project is no different. Riding the high of some high profile features (see: “Mercy” and “I Don’t Like Remix“) and number one singles (see: “Dance (A$$)” and “My Last”), Big Sean offers a mixtape of original beats ahead of his studio release. Check my official extended ass review below. If you wanna get straight to the point, scroll down to “In Summary….”

From the opening, you can tell the overall feel of the mixtape is going to be smoother than his album Finally Famous. The first track feels natural and is followed up by a feature from J. Cole. He rarely disappoints, and this contribution is no exception. We’re pleasantly surprised by the first interlude featuring Common. He takes the time to discuss his experience with Detroit, most notably the now infamous J. Dilla. It’s a pleasant story and who ever complains about hearing Common‘s voice? Not I.

By simply naming the mixtape “Detroit,” it’s clear Big Sean is putting on for his city. The sound reflects that most noticeably in “How It Feel.” The song could’ve easily been played during the “Player’s Ball” episode of Martin. His pre-released visual for a snippet of the song reflects this mood as seen above. Young Chop provides the next track which features a slew of Detroit natives: Say It Ain’t Tone, Mike Posner, Early Mac, and James Fantleroy. If you’ve never listened to Say It Ain’t Tone or Early Mac before, thank Big Sean for introducing you.

Can we take a moment and talk about Juicy J‘s comeback? Dude went from near obscurity following Hustle & Flow to making one of the biggest tracks of the summer and is now featured on one of the most anticipated mixtapes of the year. Anywaydoe, Big Sean’s unique double-time flow that is equally tongue-tying and enunciated is on full display in this song. Oh yeah, King Chip makes an appearance as well.

Young Chop provides another “drill” beat for Big Sean, this time featuring French Montana. It’s nice to hear some quality rhymes over a Young Chop beat instead of just hearing “…I don’t like!” over and over again. Kudos to Sean and French for showing the possibilities of this type of production with “Mula.”  The stories of Detroit pick back up with Young Jeezy. I would’ve preferred a feature from him, but I liked his banter about strip clubs and real niggas. Kendrick Lamar makes a surprise appearance on “100” which also featured Royce Da 5’9. If track starts off slow and you skipped past it, go back! Both Royce and Kendrick offer introspective verses about their lives and where they want to be in the future.

Chris Brown appears for what could be every 20-something man’s anthem, “Sellin Dreams.” This song made me laugh, though it isn’t comedic at all. The truth of the song in conjunction with my experiences made this song entertaining. Check it below.

“We had that independent love, you tried to bring a label in. Girlfriend? Man, I already got one. You need a good guy and I’m already not one.”

The pace and quality of the mixtape kinda diminishes with the song “I’m Gonna Be” featuring Jhene Aiko, “FFOE,” and “Do What You Gotta Do” featuring Tyga. Each are forgettable and you really won’t miss much by skipping em. But LOL at Snoop Dogg (editor’s note: I don’t respect the name change to Snoop Lion) saying ,“It’s so cold in the D” during his story time interlude. “RWT” is just as good as the preview. Coupled with the Hit-Boy produced “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” Sean makes up for the previous three lackluster songs. Those serve as the official ending for the mixtape. There are two bonus tracks though. One is the previously leaked “Life Should Go On” featuring Wale. It’s cool. The track with Wiz Khalifa? I would’ve preferred an early leak of “Clique” with ‘Ye and Jay.

In summary…

The shit is cold. I’m a little surprised Meek Mill didin’t make an appearance, but it still feels complete without it. I love that he reached back to the D for some more “local” artists. Big Sean continues to prove why he’s one of (if not THE most) exciting member of GOOD Music.

My favorite tracks: Higher, How It Feel, 100, Mula, Sellin Dreams

You can skip: I’m Gonna Be, FFOE, Do What I Gotta Do

Download the tape HERE. What do you think?

MUSIC WORLD: My Take on Elle Varner’s “Perfectly Imperfect”

Elle Varner is best known for her infectious (or annoying) song “Refill” which served as her follow-up to her debut single, “Only Wanna Give It To You” featuring J. Cole. Despite the radio’s inscessent need to replay “Refill” ad nauseam, I still really liked the song. It was fresh and catchy. I especially appreciated the raspiness of Elle Varner’s voice. So I pressed play on Perfectly Imperfect.

I first downloaded Elle Varner‘s mixtape “Conversational Lush” and found it to be good, but not anything that I went back to listen to. In stark contrast, Perfectly Imperfect has been replayed multiple times since I first listened all the way through. This album feels vintage and fresh at the same damn time. With R&B so focused on sounding either uber hip-hop or crossover ready with Euro dance influences, this album is a great reminder of what R&B can truly be.

With only 11 tracks, I was left wanting to hear more from this freshman artist. I wasn’t sure if she was responsible for the majority of her writing, but via Twitter (the best place next to Google to get an instant answer), I received confirmation that she does indeed write her own music. And you can tell. As a young woman, I relate to the experiences she shares with her listeners.

My overall conclusion: 8/10. Elle Varner uses her voice as an instrument inflecting feelings through notes and pauses. Her songs reflect where most 20-something women find themselves. She discusses accepting her body, finding love, making love, partying, and self-reflection. But she doesn’t sound sad, she sounds aware. This album has set Elle Varner up to be around for a while without depending on what’s hot to sell her sound.

It’s hard to pick standout tracks, but my first mind tells me the following: Not Tonight, Sound Proof Room, Damn Good Friends.

Wanna hear for yourself? You can listen on Spotify, buy via iTunes, or download HERE. Enjoy!