A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
Record Label: Jive / BMG
Release Date: November 9 1993
For the last 30 years or so, hip-hop and rap music have been quite prevalent in the mainstream consciousness. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, it all depends on a few things, such as your taste, your feelings towards the controversies and scandals that artists in the genre have caused, and things of that nature. This critic thinks it’s a good thing, not because I’m a diehard fan of the genre, but because it’s a good thing to have many different types of music in the mainstream for many people to digest and get into. It would be boring to have one or two genres dominating the radio, and for awhile, that’s how it was. It’s not really like that now, but I digress. Throughout these last 30 years or so, the genre has also been evolving. It went from talking about hats and “walking this way,” to political, social, and economic ideas and subject matters. Sure, there also has been “gangsta rap” and talking about the “hood,” along with drugs, women, cars, money, police, etc, etc, and honestly, that stuff can be talked about well.
For example, I picked up two hip-hop albums from the 80s and 90s, those albums being Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and A Tribe Called Quest’s third album, Midnight Marauders. This review will focus on the latter, but to make a point, it’s worth noting how different these albums are. Most people have this idea that hip-hop is all about the same materialistic and misogynist ideas, but it’s not. While Public Enemy is more known for being political in terms of their lyrics, Yo! Bum Rush the Show wasn’t. It was very silly, and a record that would lay the groundwork for a group like Wu-Tang Clan, who did the same thing, but in a much darker and better fashion on their debut album, released six years later. As for A Tribe Called Quest, they weren’t violent or threatening, but they ranged from being silly, and about trivial things to being more politically and socially charged. The sole reason I got third album Midnight Marauders was because it came out in 1993, which is the year I was born, so I thought I’d start with that and see how hip-hop was during that year. So how did that go?
Well, while I can’t say I was really into Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, I really enjoyed Midnight Marauders. It’s definitely one of the best hip-hop albums I’ve heard, and ultimately, there are many reasons why. The group is unique instrumentally, lyrically, and vocally. They’re essentially everything that works in a hip-hop group, and the idea behind Midnight Marauders is really interesting as well. The album begins with a short little intro track, called “Midnight Marauders Tour Guide,” and a woman by the name of Laurel Dan, and she plays this robotic tour guide to guide us, the listeners, through the album by appearing at the end of songs to just say something real fast, and at one point, at the end of the track, “Award Tour,” she says this: “Seven times out of ten, we listen to our music at night, thus spawned the title of this program. The word maraud means to loot, and in this case, we maraud for ears.” In other words, the album’s title comes from listening to this album at night and how the group wants to get your attention and loot your ears. It’s a clever idea, and because of that, I most often listen to the album at night.
I want to save my favorite things for last, so let’s talk about the instrumentation of this LP first, shall we? No, that’s not to say I don’t like it, but I would have to say the instrumentation is my least favorite part of this LP. A Tribe Called Quest does have unique instrumentation, however. They’re part of the groups/artists who use jazz in their beats and samples, and embracing the free-flowing aspect of the genre. Of course they still use choruses and hooks, but the songs feel much more natural because of the jazzy instrumentation. Songs like “Sucka N*gga,” “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” and “Keep It Rollin’,” have instrumentation in the background that’s jazzy in nature and it works quite well. Using this kind of instrumentation, along with “beats” and whatnot, does make for a very interesting album and listen. There isn’t necessarily anything else that sticks out about the beats and instrumentation, but their jazz-rap aspect really does help.
Moving on, there’s a reason I waited awhile to talk about the individual members, because they’re part of why I love this album so much. Composed of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad (there was a fourth member, Jarobi White, but he left after the group’s first album in 1991), A Tribe Called Quest does make use of each member. Muhammad handles the production, and does a great job with it, while Q-Tip and Phife are the MCs of the group. These two rappers are absolutely wonderful. Right from the start on album opener, “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” it shows how great both Q-Tip and Phife are. Both rappers have very unique voices, with Phife having a rather deep voice while Q-Tip’s is a bit higher and raspier. On tracks like the one I just mentioned, “Electric Relaxation,” “Award Tour,” which got the group their highest charting single at the time, and “Sucka N*gga,” they show their skills off and it’s just wonderful. Their flows are great and they’re certainly talented rappers. I do enjoy how there are two rappers, unlike on Public Enemy’s debut, there was only one, Chuck D, and while he wasn’t bad, hearing his voice for the whole album got sort of dull after awhile. Sure, there was Flavor Flav, but he should have stuck to being a hype man.
Now we’re down to my favorite part of this album, and it’s the lyrics. Even if Phife and Q-Tip are good rappers, what they say needs to matter just as much, and it certainly does. The lyrics on this album are some of the best I’ve heard in hip-hop. They don’t try to be “gangster,” even though that can work well, but instead, they speak about what they know. This album showed a bit of a progression for the group, talking about more “urban” topics, such as just a day in the life of a guy in the “hood,” I guess, with the track, “8 Million Stories.” It’s a rather silly track that just simply talks about the crappy stuff happening in someone’s day. It’s full of little punchlines and jokes, but it’s got a serious undertone in the track. You believe this guy’s story and how awful his day’s been. We’ve all been there, so there’s a good thing you could relate to him. But on the other end of the spectrum, a track like “Sucka N*gga,” which I’ve mentioned a few times, talks about one of the most taboo ideas in this genre – the “n-word.” As a dumb white guy, I’m not the guy to be saying who and should not be using that word, if we should at all, but this song talks about why it’s used and how it’s become of a word to express affection and not hatred. It’s not saying that we all should use the word, or anything, and it even has a point to say that it’s rather embarrassing, but people still say it, and rappers have begun using it in their songs, so it’s not going away. It’s a really interesting song, since I’ve hardly seen rappers tackle the n-word like that.
Midnight Marauders is a record that’s certainly worth giving a listen to, whether or not you’re a fan of hip-hop. Don’t expect shallow and stupid lyrics about drugs, money, cars, and women, but more politically and socially charged hip-hop with some sillier songs in there. Even those songs are done quite well, and feature some great lines. There were many points in this album that I was impressed with the wordplay and this album has aged fantastically. It’s a little younger than myself, and it doesn’t feel like it’s 20-years-old. It’s still just as relevant as it was when it came out, and there’s a reason this group is still regarded as one of the best of the genre. Give it a listen for yourself, if you’re curious about getting into “old school” hip-hop.
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Public Enemy – Yo! Bum Rush the Show
Record Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 1987
When you think of popular rap groups from back in the 80s and 90s, who comes to mind? For me, it’s usually NWA, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy. There are a lot more, but those four are the first ones I was really acquainted with, and had any idea of their existence. And to be honest, these are the only four rap groups whom I’ve heard albums from. I won’t pretend to be the biggest hip-hop expert, but I would like to get more into the genre. Hip-hop has a very fascinating history that spans decades. It’s not just about “gangsters” rapping about drugs, money, and women, but a lot of other things. I won’t deny there aren’t rappers who do that, but it’s not as common as people tend to believe. I’ve heard the debut albums from both NWA and Wu-Tang Clan (the former of which I’ve ordered a copy of, so I can listen to that more, and the latter of which I dug up again and finally reviewed), but the last two groups I mentioned I’ve wanted to hear albums for awhile. I hate for this review to sound like a subliminal message or advert for a company, but the electronics store, FYE, has a really good hip-hop selection (along with a good “metal” selection and “pop/rock” section, which is basically everything that’s not metal and hip-hop). And while I had never really looked at it before, I’d always walk by and it would mesmerize me.
Well, after getting copies of N*E*R*D’s debut album, In Search Of, and Outkast’s Stankonia in that section, I decided to get some “old school” hip-hop albums. Those two were from the early 00s, but I wanted to go a bit further than that, I settled on two records – A Tribe Called Quest’s third album, 1993’s Midnight Marauders, and Public Enemy’s debut album, 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. The former album I’ll certainly be covering, but the subject of this review is the latter. I have wanted to listen to Public Enemy for a long time. My local Barnes and Noble had one of their albums, but I never bothered to take a listen to it. I figured that Yo! Bum Rush the Show was their debut, and sure enough, I was correct when I looked it up later. But aside from that, I didn’t know much about this group going into this LP. All I knew was that they were pretty influential in hip-hop during the early 90s, and that Flavor Flav was a part of this group before he went into the reality television circuit. I went into this album with a completely open mind and not sure what to expect, so how did it go?
I’m happy to say that it went rather well. I can’t say I love this album, or it’s the best hip-hop album I’ve heard, but for a debut, it’s not bad. It’s definitely not amazing, but it’s what you’d expect from a debut like this. This isn’t the record that got Public Enemy noticed, that was actually sophomore album, 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (which is the album I saw at Barnes and Noble, for the record), and I would be lying if I couldn’t hear why. This album is quite “rough around the edges,” as I say sometimes, and it’s a lot more lighthearted than It Takes a Nation, so it went largely unnoticed by the mainstream. Critics loved it, but it didn’t get the group the kind of fame they got with their sophomore album. Yo! Bum Rush the Show is an album that definitely has some good things about it, but it’s also got problems that are quite hard to overlook. At least for me, anyway.
The good things are pretty simple – primary MC Chuck D, real name Carlton D. Ridenhour, and DJ Lord, the man behind the beats aka the DJ of Public Enemy. Chuck D is not the best rapper I’ve ever heard, I’ll make that clear, but I do really his laidback, old school kind of flow. Comedian Donald Glover, whom is also a rapper under the guise of Childish Gambino, made a joke in his 2012 standup special, Weirdo, where he mentions how old school hip-hop has artists and albums just as bad as the newer hip-hop that people claim to hate, because these old school rappers first started talking about really trivial and stupid things, such as buying a new hat. While that joke could apply to this LP, to some degree, Glover does an impression of an old school rapper and it sounds like Chuck D. He’s just got a lot of energy to him, and in songs like “Sophisticated Bitch,” “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” and “Public Enemy No. 1,” his rhymes are pretty solid. He’s not hard to keep up with, but he’s also not too slow, or jarring to listen to. He’s just fine as a rapper. Nothing amazing, but not really awful, either. As for the instrumentation, that’s just great, too. The production and instrumentation on this LP is the best thing about it. While a group like Wu-Tang uses more “organic” instrumentation to make their beats, Public Enemy were totally the opposite. There are samples galore throughout this album, and it works quite well. None of them are really obnoxious or awful in the slightest. I could totally “get down” with the beats, as the kids surely still say today.
As with every album, there are some problems I have with it. For starters, the lyrics really bug me at times. On one hand, they are pretty good at various places, such as “Sophisticated Bitch,” “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” and a few other tracks, but a majority of the songs are quite repetitive in tone, mainly just bragging about how great they are and how they’re, well, “public enemies.” Most of the lyrics on this album are kind of boring to listen to, since they bring up the same ideas over and over. Secondly, my biggest problem is Flavor Flav. His role in the group was the “hype man,” basically getting people excited for the song and to bring some energy to the group and song. Well, I don’t like him very much. His voice is kind of grating and he doesn’t really bring much energy. He even raps on a few songs and his flow is mediocre at best. He’s not the only thing that brings it down for me, it’s definitely the lyrics overall, but when you have boring/mediocre lyrics combined with Flavor Flav rapping, that doesn’t make for a pleasant combination. And there’s just not much to this album, or their shtick. At least with Wu-Tang Clan, theirs was that they are a shaolin kung-fu type of clan, and they played into that for their debut album. This doesn’t have any other interesting things about them other than their “public enemy” status. They’re not public enemies if I don’t even know who they are, so the idea just seems silly to me. I don’t have any reasons to believe that they’re public enemies and they don’t come off as threatening, either. They just come off as silly to me, and I have a hard really believing them. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, but I can see why this album was ignored by the mainstream, for the most part. I am happy I heard it, but I probably should have started with their sophomore album, however.
Overall rating: 8/10
Front Porch Step – Aware
Record Label: Pure Noise
Release Date: November 12 2013
I’m not the first guy to admit that I don’t really like the “white guy with acoustic guitar” genre. No, it’s not really called that, but that’s what most people call it now, so I’ll just on that bandwagon. It’s more of the singer-songwriter, folk, and acoustic styled music that’s slowly been getting popular again. It’s got some prevalence in the mainstream, but even aside from that, it’s a genre that’s just never done much for me. I guess I see its appeal, but most albums I’ve heard in this genre are dreadfully boring. I don’t mind acoustic material, especially when it’s done well, such as acoustic versions of songs, but most of the time, the vocals and lyrics are the focal point of the record in question, so if you have a terrible or decent vocalist and/or terrible or decent lyrics, the instrumentation had better step up. Most often, it doesn’t, and having standard acoustic jams for 40 minutes just doesn’t cut it for this critic. I’m not saying I don’t like simplistic music that is pretty minimal in its approach, because it can work, but for me, it doesn’t work often. I like albums that really stand out, and are the complete package, and just because the focal point of an album are on its lyrics and vocals, doesn’t mean the instrumentation gets a pass at being lackluster. In all honesty, I just have a hard time latching onto these bands and artists, but even though, I don’t care for it, does not mean others can’t. And in fact, there are always exceptions, so I do listen to this stuff from time to time. Sometimes, I make a nice discovery. There have really only been two albums in this genre that I’ve really enjoyed this year alone: Ray Lamontagne’s Supernova and Front Porch Step’s Aware. To be fair, Aware did not come out this year officially, but physical copies did, and that’s how I was able to hear it.
Both albums are quite different, but they’re still pretty good. The former album is a folk meets psychedelic-rock and it’s quite interesting for most of the album. It’s nothing that blew me away, but it was still a lot of fun, very atmospheric, and memorable. It was rather unique, and I really appreciated it. As for the latter album, and subject of this review, I had wanted to listen to Front Porch Step for awhile. As the brainchild of vocalist, lyricist, and guitarist, Jake Mcelfresh, Front Porch Step is an acoustic meets pop-punk solo project. Imagine every acoustic version of a pop-punk song you’ve heard, and just imagine 12 of them in a row. That’s essentially what, Aware, the debut album from Mcelfresh is. That makes it sound insulting, but in reality, that’s actually an interesting combination. The two best things about this album, thankfully, are his vocals and lyrics. I say thankfully, because if the focal point is on vocals and lyrics, they need to deliver and they do here. Mcelfresh does have what I’d call a pop-punk style of vocals, and they’re great. He can actually sing pretty well, and his lyrics are great, too. Two tracks that really stuck out to me were “Drown” and “I Can’t Say I’m Okay.” The former track is about a very bitter breakup, and aside from the lyrics, one can still hear the pain in Mcelfresh’s voice. The latter track is the same kind of idea, but instead of a breakup, he’s talking about his grandmother who passed away and how he wishes that she was there with him. Anyone who has lost a loved one can surely relate to that track.
While I would say I do love this album, it’s got some problems, as most albums do. The thing is, these are pretty big. I do enjoy Mcelfresh’s lyricism and vocals throughout the album, but to be completely honest, this album has a formula, as most albums in both pop-punk and the singer-songwriter genres do. It’s just a three – four minute song of Mcelfresh playing his guitar and singing “feelsy” lyrics. If you like that enough for 41 minutes, that’s fine, but not every song reaches the heights of “Drown” and “I Can’t Say I’m Okay,” so it’s a bit boring at times. Not totally, since his delivery is still enjoyable, but it can be a problem sometimes. The instrumentation is also insanely lackluster a majority of the time, too; he is a good guitar player, but there’s not all that much else to this album. The thing that definitely makes it enjoyable is in the lyrics and vocals, and while I’d say that’s enough to warrant multiple listens, the boring instrumentation brings it down for me ever so slightly. I would have enjoyed this album more, had he actually brought some pop-punk instrumentation, instead of just writing standard acoustic jams. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing worthwhile about it, either. This album could lose its sheen if you aren’t fond of the singer-songwriter genre. What works for me is that I do enjoy pop-punk, but there are so many times I can listen to acoustic versions of pop-punk songs. The lyrics and vocals are good enough to make this album work, and if you like acoustic versions of pop-punk songs, pop-punk, and/or acoustic/singer-songwriter material, definitely give this a listen.
Favorite songs: “Drown”& “I Can’t Say I’m Okay”
RIYL: The Wonder Years – The Upsides, I Call Fives – Self-titled, and any singer-songwriter you can think of
Overall rating: 9/10
Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other
Record Label: Hopeless Records
Release Date: July 8 2014
Artists/bands who attempt to do something different or unique, whether it’s unique in general or unique to the artist/band themselves, face a rather interesting dilemma. I’ve written about this before, but fans can either be quite accepting or be just plain cruel towards artists who try something different. Take a look at Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, for instance. Not many people know this, but after Fall Out Boy went on hiatus, Stump released a solo EP in early 2011, entitled Truant Wave. He followed it with a solo record, Soul Punk, that was released at the end of that year. The catch is, it wasn’t Fall Out Boy. It wasn’t pop-punk, or even “punk” whatsoever. It was a pop/R&B record with rock influence. Fans didn’t react too kindly to Stump’s change in sound. From what I’ve heard, fans would only go to his solo shows to berate him and tell him that they liked him when he was fat (for most of his tenure in Fall Out Boy, Stump was rather overweight, but lost all of the weight after the hiatus, becoming much slimmer), and very demeaning things like that. In fact, that led to Stump just disappearing for awhile. He posted a lengthy blog post about it and went radio silent, so to speak, for a long while. The thing is, Soul Punk is a fantastic record. Sure, it was different from Fall Out Boy, but it was a logical progression. It wasn’t supposed to be a Fall Out Boy record. I had wanted to hear a solo Patrick Stump record for a long time, and when I got my chance, I was blown away. Fans have come around to his solo work a bit more now, but for a long while, fans hated it. It’s a shame, since he was/is one of the biggest vocalists in pop-punk.
The same can be said for Dan “Soupy” Campbell of The Wonder Years; he’s another big pop-punk vocalist who just recently tried something different. He didn’t exactly go for the pop/R&B side of things, but instead, having a more stripped down acoustic/folk sound, unveiling his new band, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties and their debut album, We Don’t Have Each Other. The interesting thing is, while fans didn’t like Soul Punk, I’ve seen fans drooling over We Don’t Have Each Other. It’s a bit surprising to me, since both pop and folk are quite different from pop-punk, but I guess a part of me gets why fans would like this. They don’t necessarily dig it for the sound, but Campbell himself. These diehard fans will eat up anything this guy does, but I’ve always thought he’s rather overrated. Not a bad vocalist, per se, but certainly not the best. His voice has a very limited range, and he tends to rehash the same vocal melodies on tracks, and his lyrics can either range from great (check The Wonder Years’ third LP, Suburbia, for proof. That’s the only Wonder Years album I actually enjoy from beginning to end) to painfully boring or pretentious (sophomore album The Upsides is a perfect example of this). Because I wasn’t that big of a Wonder Years/Campbell fan, I can’t say I was that interested in this album, either. I’m not usually a fan of singer-songwriter stuff, too, but I have been listening to the debut album from Front Porch Step, Aware, a lot these last few weeks. That’s an acoustic album as well, and there’s a pop-punk edge within that record, so I thought maybe that this one would have a similar idea, since Campbell is a pop-punk vocalist. I ended up giving this LP a couple spins, so what did I think?
We Don’t Have Each Other is okay, I suppose. It’s certainly nothing all that amazing or even worthwhile, but like with everything Campbell releases, his fans will be all over this. Heck, even if you’re a singer-songwriter/folk/acoustic fan, you’ll enjoy this just fine, too. I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t see why people like this, but I’ve listened to enough of this stuff to know it’s just not for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t listen to it, however. That does not mean I shouldn’t at least give it a chance, and I kind of wanted to like this album because I know Campbell’s at least a solid artist. The difference is, while Patrick Stump could pull off a pop/R&B sound with his booming vocals and penchant for catchy hooks and melodies, I don’t think Campbell can pull off a folk style. The ingredients are here for a good record – fellow pop-punk frontman turned indie/folk singer Ace Enders produced this LP, so it was in the right hands. If anyone could help Campbell with his vision, it’s Enders. And really, he’s the only thing redeeming part of this LP. His production is really solid, and everything comes in quite clear and fantastic. The record sounds nice, so I’ll give that, at least.
It all goes back to Campbell’s vocals that really bother me. It’s funny because I reviewed the new Ed Sheeran album, X, last week, and my problems were the exact opposite – Sheeran’s voice is great, but the instrumentation was horribly bland and whenever he did try to experiment, it didn’t necessarily work. The instrumentation on We Don’t Have Each Other is actually really nice, with some touches of alt-country, Americana, and even some horns flashing up at a few points in time. But Campbell’s vocals just don’t work all that well. They don’t work well for me, at least. I’ve always found Campbell to be a solid pop-punk vocalist, but not a good vocalist overall. He’s amazing for the genre, sure, but not in music overall. He’s no Patrick Stump, and people act like he’s the messiah of vocalists, and he’s just not. His range is so limited that it’s hard for me to pick out specific tracks on anything Campbell does, because his vocal melodies sound so similar, it just becomes grating. And while he does do something different, it’s mainly instrumentally and lyrically.
Vocally, he still sounds exactly the same as I did on The Wonder Years’ last LP, The Greatest Generation, and it’s quite bothersome. That record is pretty good, don’t get me wrong, but his vocals were always the least favorite part of that band for me. I could never get into his vocals, and I still can’t get into them here. They aren’t bad, per se, but just so lackluster, there’s nothing interesting about them. And isn’t the whole point of folk/acoustic music to have the singer being the focus of the record? For me, it’s a problem when the frontman can’t even hold his own for a whole record. I don’t really want to hear Campbell’s boring vocals for 40 minutes straight on a folk album. On a pop-punk record, he can get away with it, because it’s a more energetic sound that his vocals are much more attuned to. On here, they come off rather odd and boring. Even the lyrics follow the same pattern. He’s talked about a concept of this album, which was writing each song about something/someone different, and while the concept in theory is interesting, it doesn’t sound all that interesting in execution. The lyrics will either work for you, or they won’t. And for me, they really don’t. There wasn’t anything memorable or truly worthwhile. And he’s a good lyricist, but not all the time.
That’s how I’d really describe this LP as well – nothing too memorable or worthwhile. For a folk record, it’s okay, I suppose, but if you’re not into that stuff, unless you have very few exceptions, you won’t care about this album whatsoever. If you love Campbell and/or folk music, you’ll like this just fine. I really appreciate this album more than I enjoy it. I can’t say I’m into it whatsoever, but it’s still got an interesting sound. Campbell did do something different, and I can respect that. Whether it was a good choice or a poor choice, that’s up for the listener to decide.
Overall rating: 7.8/10
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Record Label: Loud
Release Date: November 9 1993
It’s true what they say – Wu-Tang Clan is nothing to f*ck with. Not that I’ve learned this the hard way, by directly confronting Wu-Tang or any of its members, but by just listening to debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang, one can get an idea of why not to mess with these men. Enter the Wu-Tang is the definition of a landmark album, well, at least in my personal definition. A landmark album to me is one that progressed a genre forward, or was totally groundbreaking in some aspect, and Enter the Wu-Tang is groundbreaking in many ways: it was one of the first successful rap groups, it was a major player in hardcore hip-hop and “gangsta rap” of the 90s, and it also launched the solo careers of many of Wu-Tang’s members, who also released groundbreaking and classic albums. In other words, Enter the Wu-Tang is a record that deserves to go down in history for being one of the best albums of all time, but why is some suburban 20-something white guy writing about this album? Let me explain my history with this group, just to get an idea of my personal backstory with it. Last year, in 2013, I had purchased a copy of this LP after seeing it at Best Buy for around $7 or so. It was definitely worth that price, and I also got a Wu-Tang shirt at Target, too. I listened to the album a few times, but since I wasn’t familiar with this kind of music (I’m not too much of a hip-hop fan, but I have wanted to dive more into the genre, at least), and because I was trying to hone my skills as a reviewer/writer, I put this album on hold. Because of my “schedule,” with how many new albums are coming out, I haven’t bothered to go back to it.
Well, I did decide to get some “old school” hip-hop albums, well, at least early 00s ones, anyway. I got N*E*R*D’s 2002 debut album, In Search Of, and Outkast’s 2000 album, Stankonia, and both of those are quite legendary albums in hip-hop, so I decided that now would be a good time to look at more hip-hop albums. Along with looking at Enter the Wu-Tang again, I also got copies of Public Enemy’s 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 LP, Midnight Marauders. Fun fact: Midnight Marauders was released the same day as Enter the Wu-Tang. So now that I’ve been diving a bit more into this genre, I felt more confident to review it. I didn’t need to listen to it too much more, because I had listened to it many months ago and I still remembered it. As I mentioned in my preamble, this album is a landmark record, so it’s pretty clear to see how I feel about it, but the question is why? That’s not an easy thing to explain, but it can be done. I might not be the right person to talk about this LP, being that I’m not very familiar with hip-hop culture and the genre itself, but I like the music I’m hearing and after doing a bit of research, I feel confident enough to write about it.
The biggest things that really work in this album’s favor are the slew of rappers in the group and the sound itself. Those are pretty simple things on the surface, but in all honesty, Wu-Tang started something huge. They weren’t the only group who did, but if you’re the kind of person who complains about hip-hop lyrics being nothing about “drugs, sex, money, and cars,” blame Wu-Tang Clan. Most rappers who do this most likely got that from groups like Wu-Tang and Public Enemy. The difference is, these groups made “bragging” sound much better and much more original than some newer artists do. On Enter the Wu-Tang, some tracks, including “C.R.E.A.M,” and “Tearz” don’t glorify their lifestyles but tell it like it is. The latter track is about the famous saying, cash rules everything about me, and how it translates into their world, and the latter track is about the consequences of living this kind of lifestyle, including watching a friend die in a drive-by and having unprotected sex and dying of AIDS (which was hitting the US by storm at that time). Those are some pretty heavy topics for any artist to cover, but thankfully, instead of glorifying these types of things, Wu-Tang, for the lack of a better phrase, “keeps it real.” Of course, though, there are songs like “Bring Da Ruckus,” and the group’s debut single (and ultimately the first song I heard by them), “Protect Ya Neck” that do make the group sound menacing. You don’t want to mess with these guys and these tracks showed that.
Because the group was also, well, a group, highlight all of the different rappers on this LP was a great aspect, too. Each rapper is quite unique, and the rappers on here include Wu-Tang Clan “leader,” RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghost Face Killah, Raekwon, Method Man, and a few others. Each one brings a different flow to the table, and they’re all quite entertaining to listen to. Personally, I couldn’t quite pick each one out, minus Method Man, who does get an eponymous song on the LP all for himself, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who do have very unique voices, but the rest of the rappers on here are wonderful as well. And really, one of my biggest problems with this album is how many rappers there are. Not that it’s a horrible thing, because that does mean a lot of variety is on the album, but at the same time, it’s just too many names and voices to remember. It can be a bit overwhelming if you aren’t used to any of these rappers, and I’m not. Another problem I have, despite it being quite small, is how long this album is. That’s a problem that a lot of records have, and hip-hop is notorious for having very long LPs, a lot of songs being filler. This doesn’t have any filler, but instead, switches back to the members talking about various things, and none of the conversations are really that interesting or serve any purpose. They just come out of nowhere. There are various kung-fu samples used in this album, but that makes sense – Wu-Tang Clan is meant to be a “clan” in the same style of martial arts films, and they use that to their advantage. The little skits they have don’t quite make sense or at least, just don’t have any purpose. Despite that, Enter the Wu-Tang is a great album. Not exactly a “perfect” album, but whatever problems it does have are easy to overlook. If you want to hear where hip-hop came from, give this album a listen.
Favorite tracks: “C.R.E.A.M.” & “Protect Ya Neck”
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Outkast – Stankonia
Record Label: La Face / Arista
Release Date: October 31 2000
Because I’m usually listening to a handful of records at a time, whether it’s a “new” release or something from yesteryear, there are bands/artists I really want to get to that I just haven’t had the time. A couple of recent examples include post-hardcore band Vanna, and hard-rock/prog-rock band Nothing More. The reason I was able to really get into these bands was because they both just released new albums, so it was the perfect time for me to listen to them. In the case of Vanna, I’ve wanted to give them a listen for a long time now, but I just never had the chance. I had seen they released a new album, and decided to get it. I was sure I’d like it, so I took a chance on it. As for Nothing More, I’ve heard a couple of their records, but never had the chance to really dive into them, so I figured that getting a copy of their new LP would be a good idea. Honestly, I’m much more into Vanna than Nothing More, but the idea is still the same. It does help if a band has a new album out, so I can get a first impression of them, but what happens when there’s a band who hasn’t released any new material in years? How are you supposed to get into a band/artist who are inactive and haven’t released anything new in who knows how long? Especially when you’re a critic like me, who really only immerses himself in new releases, so most “older” albums have to wait.
Well, the thing that really helps is when albums are on sale in stores, so I don’t feel like I’m spending an arm and a leg to get an album, especially when it’s one that I want to hear. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that a handful of albums from hip-hop/R&B duo Outkast were on sale at FYE, and despite the regular price not being too bad, they were on sale for a nice fraction of that, so I knew I had to get it. Let me backtrack for a second, though. Last year, I found a copy of a greatest hits albums Outkast released called Big Boi and Dre Presents at Best Buy, but I was disappointed because I thought it was a regular album. I’ve always wanted to listen to Outkast. Heck, they’re regarded as one of the defining hip-hop groups and have had some hits that defined the early 00s. I did listen to it a couple times, and while it did feature some new songs (one of which won a Grammy, I believe), I wanted to hear a full album, not just a selection of songs, since that’s the kind of music fan I am. I tried to take my greatest hits album to FYE to get rid of it, but they wouldn’t take it, so that was a sign to get into this group finally. The album that stuck out to me was 2000’s Stankonia. Not only did the very odd name stick out to me, but I saw a couple of songs that I recognized, including “So Fresh, So Clean,” which was the song from the greatest hits album that I liked most. It was also featured in a History of Rap Music sketch with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake right after I heard it, and I just knew I needed to hear the whole album. The album also featured a couple more of their biggest singles, such as “Ms. Jackson,” and “B.O.B,” so for $5.99, which was the price of it, it was utterly a steal. Now that I’ve had the album for a few weeks, how did it go?
To be honest, it went quite well. Stankonia isn’t exactly a record that I’d call one of my all time favorites, but it’s still damn good. There’s no denying that whatsoever. There are a handful of reasons this record really shot the duo into stardom, and the biggest one is that it combined many genres together, including pop, R&B, hip-hop, psychedelia, and funk. Each song on this LP is totally different, even if there are some duds. What makes the duds work is that they are still memorable in some way, but they just don’t particularly work for me. Despite the variety and versatile nature of these tracks, the album does flow quite well together, and that’s something I really look for in an album. Right off the bat, the album is around 73 minutes, and if the album is bland, boring, or overblown, it can really suffer in its overall experience. While Stankonia does have its fair share of tracks that I don’t care for, it’s still a consistent sounding album. That might be a hypocritical thing to say, that the album is diverse but still concise, and thankfully, some artists/bands can really make it work. Outkast is definitely one of them. Stankonia is a landmark hip-hop album because it brought their brand of Southern hip-hop (the duo is from Atlanta, which they reference a lot) to the masses and to the rest of the country. Southern hip-hop started becoming more commonplace and more accepted, especially when the dominant forms of hip-hop were the West Coast an East Coast movements. Southern hip-hop really didn’t have a voice until Outkast came along.
Just because an album is a groundbreaking release doesn’t make it good right off the bat. Don’t worry about that with Stankonia, because it’s really freaking good. The album’s name is a combination between “stank,” a slang term for “cool” or “funky” and “Plutonia,” which was a name of a city on a poster in Andre 3000’s, real name Andre Lauren Benjamin, room. The intro of the record has Andre referencing this, and it’s a really odd intro, but it serves as an interesting setup of the record. And Stankonia is meant to be a place where people can have fun, relax, and just have a good time. That’s really what the album is about, too. There are plenty of catchy, fun, and energetic tracks on here, all the while providing new ideas and genuinely being unique and original. The biggest difference from their earlier work is that Andre 3000 chose not to rap as much on this LP; he wanted to sing and his vocals have a more melodic edge to them, which work very well. I’ve always loved his singing, and he reminds me of rapper Childish Gambino, in the sense that they’re both rappers who double as really good singers and can really pull of that R&B sound. And Stankonia really does blur the lines between hip-hop and R&B at a lot of points in the album, such as the biggest hits on the record, “So Fresh, So Clean,” and “Ms. Jackson.” These are not only two of the biggest singles off the album, but two of my personal favorites. Other tracks, like “B.O.B,” “Gangsta Sh*t,” and “Xplostion,” are definitely more hip-hop influenced, but they work just fine. I love the jittery and frantic beat on “B.O.B,” actually, and both Andre 3000’s and other member, Big Boi (real name Antwan Andre Patton) have great flows on this track. There are even a few tracks that go a bit off the wall, such as the closing track, “Stankonia (Stanklove),” which is a psych-rock track in terms of how it sounds and how it’s structured. It’s a great closing track, and definitely one of the many highlights this record has to offer.
With everything that’s really enjoyable about a record, there are some things that just don’t work at all, and this album does have its fair share of songs that I just don’t care about, including “We Luv Deez Hoes,” “Humble Mumble,” and “Snappin’ and Trappin’.” These aren’t bad, per se, but they really just don’t do much for me. My biggest problem with this album is how long it is – 73 minutes. While there is around 51 minutes worth of stuff I do enjoy, there is still a huge amount of tracks on here that I just don’t care for, which is a bit of a problem. It may seem like a lot, but I should mention that the album has a lot of 30-second to a minute long interludes that are usually just spoken, and they really serve no purpose. The intro is the only one that has any purpose at all, but the others make no sense, or have no point to them, so I don’t bother with them. If those were gone, and the album was shortened up just a bit, it would be a bit more enjoyable. And if you can look past any duds you may find, the album is still wonderful. I can’t say it’s perfect, because there are songs I just don’t care for, but it’s still worth a listen, whether you’re a hip-hop fan, or just a music fan who wants to try something new or different.
Favorite tracks: “So Fresh, So Clean,” “Ms. Jackson,” & “I Call Before I Come”
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Photo Gallery by Kayla Surico (kayla-surico)
Location: Austin’s Coffee - Winter Park, FL
Date: July 25, 2014
You can view the entire set from this show here.
Listen to their music here!
Photo Gallery by Kayla Surico (kayla-surico)
Location: Austin’s Coffee - Winter Park, FL
Date: July 25, 2014
You can view the entire set from this show here.
Listen to their music here!