Thursday, June 19, 2014

Top 90 Albums of the 90's: 50-41

#50 In My Lifetime: Vol 1 - Jay-Z (1997)

After having his debut considered an instant classic, his sophomore album was Jay-Z's first venture into making true "mainstream" hip-hop.  Biggie died between the new releases, and Jay was eager to take up the throne as the new King of New York, even going so far as to enlist Puffy.  The production is flashier and covered in a distinct layer of polish compared to Reasonable Doubt.  The album suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, though.  Jay made his name with gritty, hood-friendly content and that bleeds over somewhat into Vol. 1.  The glossy radio beats don't compliment them as well.

#49 No Need for Alarm  - Del the Funky Homosapien (1993)

Del got his opportunity to venture out on his own, without Ice Cube's shadow looming over him, for the first time with No Need for Alarm.  Not having that established presence looking over his shoulder was a double edged sword for Del.  He was able to abandon the G-funk conventions that held back Brother George and create his own style, clearly influenced by some of his New York underground contemporaries.  On the other hand, No Need for Alarm sometimes feels aimless.  There's little rhyme or reason as to why these tracks are being put on an album together, most of them are just braggadocio tracks with no real substance behind them.  Del excels in this facet, though.  I don't know if there's anybody in the world who could come up with a more effective hour's worth of rhyming compliments for themself.

#48  Enta Da Stage - Black Moon (1993)

Enta Da Stage tends to get overshadowed by fellow 1993 release Enter the Wu-Tang, as far as it's impact in reviving the East Coast hip-hop scene after America became enamored with G-funk in the late 80's and early 90's.  While it definitely didn't see the same level of sales as Enter the Wu-Tang did, I would argue that it's better withstood the test of time.

Buckshot is an MC that I can't believe didn't get more famous in the 90's  He was only 18 when Enta Da Stage was being recorded, and while his subject matter was limited, it was a more cynical and personal look at hood life than what most other MCs were putting out.  The dark, grimy production accents the cynical, angry lyrics perfectly.

#47 Funcrusher Plus - Company Flow (1997)

This album has the distinction of being the launching pad for two separate record labels.  It was the first release by Rawkus Records, which would shortly after make a name for itself as the the home of Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, and Mos Def.  A couple years down the road, Company Flow's front man El-P would launch Definitive Jux, and proceed to dominate the early 2000's underground scene.

Funcrusher Plus is a definitely rough around the edges, but it shakes so many conventions that I'd definitely believe that it's intentional.  The beats are jagged and arrhythmic, and the lyrics are dense and erratically delivered.  It's just weird enough to work, though, and if you're a fan of the Def Jux style, it's a must listen.

#46 Bizarre Ryde 2 The Pharcyde - The Pharcyde (1992)

The Pharcyde ere clearly cut from the same cloth as their fellow West Coast underground notables from the early 90's.  Sonically, it'd be hard to differentiate it from an early Hieroglyphics release.  The production style is similar, and they feature a similar style of seamlessly trading braggadocios verses between the multiple MCs.  Bizarre Ryde gets a bit bogged down in immature humor at times, but overall it's an album that is a fun listen, with a few moments are legitimately worth a laugh the first few times you hear them.

Also, it scores bonus points because the carver art features the least discrete depiction of a vagina to ever make it by censors.

#45 The Diary - Scarface (1994)

Scarface was clearly the most talented member of Geto Boys.  When the group fell apart after We Can't Be Stopped, he showed quickly after that he was competent as a solo MC with 1991's Mr. Scarface Is Back.  He came out with a unique blending of East Coast and West Coast styles that made him one of the most influential gangsta rappers of all time.  He perfected that style with 1994's "The Diary".  What makes this such a strong release aren't standout tracks or really anything exceptional from a technical point of view, but the consistency of it.  I, honestly, couldn't name a single track on this album because I listen to it end to end without skipping a track every time.

#44 The Main Ingredient - Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (1994)

The theme of The Main Ingredient is that Pete and C.L. were scaling back their sound; distilling it down to it's most basic key component, a main ingredient, if you will.  Pete Rock's slow, smooth beats are the primary appeal here.  They're full-bodied and satisfying without ever being imposing.  C.L. Smooth holds his own, too.  It's kind of unfortunate that he doesn't get more credit, to be honest. He's got a narrative style of rhyming that was on par with anybody else out at the time.

#43 Step In The Arena -Gang Starr (1991)

It sounds a bit dated now, but relative to what else was coming out at the time, Step in the Arena was a pinnacle of both subject matter and production.  Guru's got a much more mature perspective of what was going on in the ghetto than anybody else at the time had.  Premo is his typical, outstanding, self.  He flexes his scratching muscles here, creating a style which would eventually  become his signature sound.

#42 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill - Lauryn Hill (1998)

Another hip-hop hybrid album from another former Fugee, Lauryn Hill made her solo debut in 1998 to rave reviews, and absurd sales.  She promptly exiled herself from the music community, and has yet to produce another record.  It still stands as the highest selling hip-hop album by a female artist by a tremendous margin.
The production is heavily R&B and Reggae influenced.  The lyrics focus heavily on the concept of love, not surprising given that the album came in the wake of the birth of her first child, and her breakup with Wyclef Jean and the Fugees, in general.  The first handful of tracks really outshine the rest of the album, unfortunately.

#41 93 'til Infinity - Souls of Mischief (1993)

'93 til Infinity stands out to me as the strongest release of the early California underground scene.  Listening to the four of them effortlessly trade verses back and forth is a real treat, very reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest's great albums.  The beats don't really stand out, but the rolling basslines and jazzy samples serve as a great backdrop to Souls' freestyle rhymes.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Top 90 Albums of the 90's: 60-51

#60 The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory - 2Pac (1996)

Released just a couple months after his death, Killuminati is considered 2Pac's last studio album.  The story behind the title is that 2Pac occasionally went by the alias "Makaveli", after Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli.  Machiavelli supposedly at some point in his life faked his own death for seven days in some sort of convoluted revenge plot.  The implication of Pac's label giving the album such a title, and having the cover image be an illustration of 2Pac on a cross (another resurrection reference) was that 2Pac wasn't actually dead, and would be returning at some point.  To this day, there are those out there who believe that 2Pac will come back some day and save hip-hop, or something.

So the cover art and title are really stupid and unabashedly exploitative, what about the music?  It's some of Pac's best.  He goes back to his roots somewhate here, defaulting back to the type of content that made him famous. G-Funk style beats and aggressive delivery of strongly worded lyrics.

#59 Doe or Die - AZ (1995)

AZ had been the only guest Illmatic, an album that has gone on to be considered by most to be the best hip-hop album ever recorded.  His outstanding verse on "Life's a Bitch" put the spotlight squarely on him to release an album of his own.  Expectations were too high, unfortunately, and Doe or Die was considered somewhat of a disappointment by those expecting a second Illmatic.  It's an outstanding album in it's own right, though.  AZ isn't quite the MC that Nas is, but he's got the chops to hold his own against anybody in the world.  AZ wasn't the main problem with Doe or Die, lackluster production keeps it from making the leap to all-time classic.

#58 We Can't Be Stopped - Geto Boys (1991)

This album is probably known for it's cover art than it's actual musical content.  It notably features band member Bushwick Bill sitting on a hospital gurney after suffering a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face, which cost him his right eye.

As far as subject matter goes, it sticks pretty tight to the standard Geto Boys fare; gangsta shit, and hood life.  It's what Geto Boys do best though, and they arguably did it it better than anybody in the early 90's.

#57 Death Certificate - Ice Cube (1991)

Often times when an artist debuts with a classic album, they find themselves saddled with unrealistic expectations for the followup to that album.  Listeners expect an artist to be able to create something even better once they've established themselves and have more resources at their disposal.  Most wind up being considered disappointments.  Nas, Snoop Dogg, and Raekwon all wound up being victims of their debut's success.

Ice Cube was in a similar boat in 1991.  AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted had been considered a smashing success, and listeners were eager for a followup.  Cube absolutely delivered.  Death Certificate features better rhymes, a more impactful delivery, and funkier beats.  You'll notice AmeriKKKa's most wanted landed a few spots higher on the list, though.  The content of Death Certificate really weighs it down.  The vitriol becomes exhausting to listen to. Whether it's directed at NWA, or Koreans, or just the condition of the urban poor, this album is just anger end to end.

Also, it's pretty weak that he waited until after his first release had been successful to make a real beef track towards NWA.
#56 Moment of Truth - Gang Starr (1998)

It's an unfortunate rarity it hip-hop for artists to maintain a high level for as long as Gang Starr did.  Moment of Truth was their fifth album in just under ten years, and it still manages to sound fresh and new.  Preemo seemingly expanded his sample source pool drastically in the years between Hard to Earn and Moment of Truth. Guru is also on top of his game here, having updated his delivery a bit.

#55 A Prince Among Thieves - Prince Paul (1999)

Concept albums have been a thing in hip-hop for a long time, but few albums before, or since A Prince Among Thieves have dedicated themselves to telling a clear, coherent narrative.  It's more like musical theater than it is a concept album.   The plot largely happens via a series of skits, with the actual songs serving more as interludes to introduce new characters or set the stage for the next part of the story.

Prince Paul's production does an excellent job establishing the atmosphere of every scene, and a myriad of guest MCs are cast to play individual roles in the story.  Kool Keith, in particular, plays a very convincing crazy arms dealer in "Crazy Lou's Hideout" and "Weapon World".  The main weakness of this album is that the two lead characters, Tariq and True, are played by two relative unknowns, and they often times are shown up by the guest appearances.

#54 Innercity Griots - Freestyle Fellowship (1993)

Aceyalone, we meet again.  Freestyle Fellowship, was a group consisting of Acey, fellow Haiku D'Etat member, Myka 9 and two gentleman who, unfortunately, have largely been lost to history in Self Jupiter and P.E.A.C.E.  Production wise, it's undoubtedly the best album Acey has ever been on. It's got an energy about it that later releases just lacked.  The energetic, even frantic verses that Freestyle Fellowship drop here really showcase the versatility that they had even this early in their careers.  The fact that this release came so early on in their careers is what ultimately holds this album back somewhat, though.  Acey and Myka 9 are both rappers who trended upwards in their abilities over time. So while the beats are actually pretty decent for a change, the rapping itself isn't quite on the level of All Balls Don't Bounce or Haiku D'Etat.

#53 AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted - Ice Cube (1990)

After a messy breakup with NWA, the pressure was on for Ice Cube to deliver a quality solo album.  AmeriKKKa's most wanted shows that his grievances (namely, that he wasn't being paid enough considering how much of the work load he was bearing) with NWA were completely warranted.  While NWA floundered and eventually broke up without their lead vocalist, Cube's career would blossom into one of the West Coast's best.  One of my favorite aspects of AmeriKKKa's Most is the contrast in production style from Cube's NWA work.  The Bomb Swuad's beats really do a great job showcasing Cube's lyrical talents, which were a step or two above anybody else on the West Coast at the time.

#52 Capital Punishment - Big Pun (1998)

Big Pun really stands out from the crowd of late 90's MCs because of his rapid fire, high rhyme density flow.  The fact that he weighed in at almost 700 pounds made his already insane breath control all the more impressive.  Putting very lyrically dense bars over beats that were essentially club bangers ended up being a winning formula for Pun, and Capital Punishment got him a reputation of one of hip-hop's great young artists.  Unfortunately he was dead of a heart attack within a year of it's release, and a really great followup album never happened.  Despite his exceptionally short career, at least Pun can put on his resume that he's one of the few people who have straight up outperformed Black Thought on a track. ("Super Lyrical")

#51 One Day It'll All Make Sense - Common (1997)

If Common didn't have such a strong discography, this album would get more credit nowadays than it it does.  As it is, it often get's overlooked in favor of his other classic releases.  More so than any of Common's other albums, One Day It'll All Make Sense will have a lasting impact on the listener.  Com's fears and concerns about the responsibilities of becoming a father are palpable.  The production is a bit lacking compared to most of Com's other releases, though.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Top 90 Albums of the 90's: 70-61

#70 The War Report - Capone-N-Noreaga (1997)

Even with Capone serving jail time for a decent percentage of the recording, The War Report still wound up as a surprisingly great album.  I'm not one who generally is a huge fan of "hardcore" hip-hop, but I can't help but bob my head to this album. Tragedy Khadafi turns up on probably half the tracks on the album, including the standout "Calm Down" alongside Nas. This album often gets credited with more or less killing mafioso rap and bringing hardcore back to hip-hop's forefront.

#69 One For All - Brand Nubian (1990)

One For All has all the strongest qualities of In God We Trust, without the Islamic extremest rhetoric weighing it down.  That's not to say there aren't definite Five Percenter themes here, quite the contrary, they're everywhere.  Grand Puba's Brand Nubian just aren't as overtly militant or inflammatory.  This album is actually pretty light and fun.

#68 Stakes is High - De La Soul (1996)

Stakes is High showing up this high will probably be a surprise to some, but I maintain that this album gets underrated.  Prince Paul leaving the group was definitely a major blow, but it by no means mortally injured De La.  Stakes is High is a great album because De La was one of the groups to recognize that the popular hip-hop at the time wasn't healthy for the listeners, the artists, or the genre, and that hip-hop would soon be faced with an identity crisis, and a choice would need to be made as to what direction the genre would go.  The model of just having not particularly skilled MCs throw violent threats at each other from across the country wasn't sustainable.  Stakes is High is an album that put the whole hip-hop and general music industry on blast, and they were completely right.  The context is what makes this album great more so than the actual technical aspects.

Oh, and this is also Mos Def's debut.

#67 The Carnival - Wyclef Jean (1997)

This release feels a little out of place on the list, since it incorporates so many of the non-traditional hip-hop influences.  It probably dedicates less time to rapping than any other album on the list.  The Carnival often times feels like... well, a carnival with all the different musical influences it's trying to incorporate.  I wouldn't be surprised if Wyclef had wanted this album to be significantly longer than it ended up being, there's almost too much variety here.

#66 Tical - Method Man (1994)

Method Man was dubbed the member of Wu-Tang who had the most popular appeal in the wake of Enter the Wu-Tang.  As such, he was tasked with being the first member to put out a solo release.  Even though it's not held in quite the esteem as some of the other Wu solo albums that followed it, it'd be hard to argue that Tical wasn't a smashing success.  This record features some of RZA's best beats, which Meth attacks with a level of ferocity that you wouldn't expect given his public persona.

#65 Word... Life - O.C. (1994)

As you read through this list you'll probably start to notice a theme.  A lot of the lesser known albums are from 1994.  A glut of extremely popular and acclaimed albums being released that year made it so there are a handful of great albums that tend to not get much recognition, simply because they were and still are overshadowed by the likes of Tical, Illmatic, Ready to Die, Resurrection, and The Diary.

D.I.T.C's O.C. is one of the artists who saw probably their best work fall through the cracks somewhat.  O.C. is a very solid MC, and the production is outstanding.  Unfortunately, the track "Time's Up" is really all Word... Life get's remembered for these days.

#64 I Wish My Brother George Was Here - Del the Funky Homosapien (1991)

First off, I'd just like to thank Ice Cube for making this album possible.  Del is Cube's cousin, and the knowledge that he'd be looking over Del's shoulder during the production is what got Del his first record deal, at the tender age of 18.

Now that that's out of the way... I feel like this would have been a better album if Ice Cube hadn't been involved.  While Brother George is still significantly wittier, funkier, and funnier than anything the West Coast was producing at the time, it still comes off as a fairly conservative release when compared to future releases by Del and his crew.

#63 Don't Sweat the Technique - Eric B. & Rakim (1992)

Out of the Rakim releases that actually get talked about, Don't Sweat the Technique seems to be considered the weakest.  I wholeheartedly agree, Rakim just isn't quite on the same level here as he was on Paid in Full or Follow the Leader, he's still great, just not quite legendary.  It's important to note that there were two members of Eric B and Rakim, though.  Despite getting top billing, Eric B's contributions are often overlooked.  I would argue that this is Eric B's best album.  That is enough to put it above 18th Letter and Let the Rhythm Hit Em.

#62 Live and Let Die - Kool G Rap & DJ Polo (1992)

Kool G Rap is a guy that shows up in most top 10 MC of all time lists, and I still think he's underrated.  His rhyme schemes were years ahead of their time and, as such, his music holds up way better to the modern ear than does that of his late 80's and early 90's peers.  His biggest weakness is that he wound up being too influential to future MCs.  Vivid depictions of committing felonies became a hip-hop cliche, and extensive use of internal rhymes became the norm by the mid 90's.  Live and Let Die falls a little bit on the list because of how long it runs, the shtick starts to wear a bit thin by the end.

#61 Stress: The Extinction Agenda - Organized Konfusion (1994)

Oh, look, another underrated 1994 release.  Stress is a noticeably darker album than Organized Konfusion's debut.  During my first couple listens of Stress, I really did miss the lighter, poppier tracks, but going back and listening to it now, I have no idea why.  Part of what makes Stress great is that little it of extra grit, it keeps OK from straying too far into weird just for the sake of weird territory.  This is really that earned Pharoahe Monch his reputation as one of  hip-hop's premier lyricists, he's downright jaw dropping at times.  In fact, my biggest complaint about Stress would probably be that next to Monch, Prince Po's verses feel very amateurish.  The disparity in their abilities is too apparent; it's distracting.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Top 90 Albums of the 90's: 80-71

#80 Soul on Ice - Ras Kass (1995)

Before he had even released an album, Ras Kass had already made a name for himself via a series of standout features.  He brought a level of lyricism to the table that nobody else who was popular on the West Coast really had at that point, so his debut album, Soul on Ice was highly anticipated.  Long story short, it didn't really sell and Kass's career wound up being a flop.  Despite poor sales, Soul on Ice is still an album held in high esteem by lyrical purists, with good reason.  You can only do so much with barely serviceable beats, though.

#79 Hard to Earn - Gang Starr (1994)

For whatever reason, Gang Starr decided to abandon the level-headed thoughtful themes that got them such acclaim n their first couple releases, and instead make an album with a significantly harsher tone.  Personally, I like Gang Starr a lot better when they're not trying to act hard.  DJ Premier absolutely carries this album, though.  I don't know if he's ever been better than he is on Hard to Earn.  Listening to his beats is more than enough reason to give this album several listens.

#78 A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing - Black Sheep (1991)

Black Sheep is a group that often gets overlooked because of the company they kept.  It's hard to stand out when you're crew-mates with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.  Nevertheless, while the MC's of Black Sheep weren't really exceptional from a technical standpoint, they brought a lot of energy and smart, humor to their tracks, kind of like an early 90's Little Brother.  Self-depreciation is a major running theme, even on the intro skit, they go out of their way to point out that they're the least popular members of their crew.

#77 The 18th Letter - Rakim (1997)

This was the first time Rakim had released an album since 1992's Don't Sweat the Technique, it signals a significant change in tone from his previous releases.  Ra sounds noticably more aggressive than on his 80's classics, likely due to this being the first time he was recording an album without long time collaborator Eric B.  Eric B's presence isn't really missed, and getting to hear an MC of Ra's caliber work with the likes of DJ Premier and Pete Rock is a treat.

#76 People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm - A Tribe Called Quest (1990)

Before The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders catapulted Tribe into hip-hop legend status, there was People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, their exceptionally long-titled debut album.  It's a light-hearted, positive affair that didn't get much fanfare at the time because the listening public wanted to hear gangsta stuff.  It's a smooth, jazzy affair that features Q-Tip and Phife trading verses back and forth with the occasional guest stopping by to add their $0.02.

#75 Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop - Diamond D (1992)

Stunts is one of the early classics from Lord Finesse's Diggin' in the Crates Crew.  Most of the rapping is nothing to right home about, and a handful of the tracks probably could have been left off, but the production is excellent end-to-end.

#74 Runaway Slave - Showbiz & A.G. (1992)

.... and released on the same day, from the same crew is Showbiz & A.G.'s Runaway Slave.  A.G. is really what elevates this album above Stunts.  He rhymes effortlessly over Showbiz's sometimes cacophonous beats.  Showbiz himself isn't a slouch on the mic, either.

#73 Buhloone Mindstate - De La Soul (1993)

Buhloone Mindstate falls in a weird spot spot where it is so universally considered under-rated, that I would argue that it's a bit over-rated.  It's a tighter, more focused effort than their iconic debut and sophomore albums, but in doing so, they lost a bit of what had made De La unique and interesting. Nonetheless, it makes great background music, and "Ego Trippin' Part 2" is an iconic track.

#72 Doggystyle - Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993)

Much like Dogg Food, Doggystyle's biggest flaw is that it doesn't bring much to the table that we hadn't already seen on The Chronic.  The beats are what Doggystyle is most known for, while the lyrics are generally considered to be a weakness.  I can't entirely disagree with that assessment, I don't feel like adding Talib Kweli caliber lyricism to Doggystyle would have added much.  It's an album that's meant to be felt rather than listened to critically.

#71 All Balls Don't Bounce - Aceyalone (1995)

What do you know? Another Aceyalone project with outstanding vocals and decidedly mediocre production.  However, unlike on Haiku D'Etat, All Ball Don't Bounce's production at least features plenty of variety, so it doesn't turn into quite as much of a drag by the end.  

Top 90 Albums of the 90's: 90-81

Despite the mid to late 80's commonly receiving the title of hip-hop's "Golden Age", I've found that the vast majority of people who consider themselves to be hip-hop heads consider the 90's to be the strongest time period in hip-hop's history. The 90's is sacred territory in hip-hop, so making a list of the "best" albums is going to inevitably lead to at least some controversy. Someone's favorite album undoubtedly won't make the cut; I'm sure there are a few albums on here that I like way more than most. By the time this whole thing is over, I'm sure no one will be satisfied. On that note, let's get to ranking shall we?

#90 It's Dark and Hell is Hot - DMX (1998)

He's mostly of a punch-line now, but early DMX had an energy about him that I don't think anybody has ever managed to successfully replicate. He was intimidating and imposing on a level that nobody else in the rap industry ever really has been. It's Dark and Hell is Hot is all about anger and violent impulses. It's an album that I rarely find myself sitting down and listening to cover-to-cover, but individual tracks turn up on my playlists pretty regularly.

#89 Dogg Food - The Dogg Pound (1995)

This is one that most probably would have expected to see a bit higher on the list. It's considered one of the essential G-Funk albums, right alongside the likes of Doggystyle, and The Chronic. So what lands it in the late 80's rather than further up, alongside its compatriots (spoiler alert)? Basically, that it came later. The Chronic was revolutionary, Doggystyle epitomized the genre, by the time Dogg Food comes out in 1995, it just starts to feel like the west coast is recycling old material. It's still a good album, it's just hard to give it much credit when all Kurupt and Daz needed to do was follow a format already laid out for them.

#88 Business As Usual - EPMD (1990)

Business as Usual is an album that gets kind of a bad rap sometimes for not being good as their debut, Strictly Business. I can't argue with that sentiment. Strictly Business could make a strong argument for being the best album of the 80's, though. The defining characteristic of Business as Usual is the number of samples it uses. I don't think there's a track on this album that doesn't feature at least one, several feature five or more. Also, Redman makes his debut on the album's second track, so there's that.

#87 Ridin' Dirty - UGK (1996)

Any album that came out the South in the mid 90's deserves to be recognized. Other than Geto Boys, there really hadn't been any artists from the region that had scene much success, at the time. Ridin' Dirty is one of a handful of albums that came out the South all around the same time, that managed to catapult a relatively unknown scene onto the national stage at a time when East Coast - Wast Coast rivalries were dominating the headlines. While other prominent southern acts at the time were making names for themselves by being weird, UGK took a more traditional approach; some minimalist, groovy beats, with two MCs trading verses about money, clothes. and hoes.

#86 Haiku D'Etat - Haiku D'Etat (1999)

Aceyalone is an MC who will never get enough credit. He's a stronger rapper than almost all of his west coast underground compatriots, but has never seen the same level of success or acclaim as guys like Del the Funky Homosapien or Gift of Gab. Haiku D'Etat is a super group consisting of Acey, and fellow MCs Mikah 9 and Abstract Rude. It features some of the most technically adept rapping to be found on this list but, much like pretty much everything else Aceyalone has ever been a part of, it kind of falls on it's face from a production standpoint. It tries to carry a relaxed, floaty vibe throughout the whole album, by the end it just winds up being more boring than anything.

#85 Do You Want More?!!!?! - The Roots (1995)

Black Thought, ?uestlove, and co. have been putting out great albums for so long at this point that it's kind of bizarre to imagine them as young upstarts needing to prove their worth to their label. The pressure didn't seem to get to them, though. In fact, my biggest criticism would be that they spend too much time just nonchalantly grooving with no real rhyme or reason.

#84 In God We Trust - Brand Nubian (1993)

Grand Puba leaving Brand Nubian signaled a major gear shift for them. In God We Trust carries a decidedly more militant tone than their first release, and laced throughout are references to Five Percenter rhetoric that will be seen as extreme by most listeners. Even if the inflammatory lyrical content doesn't suit your fancy, In God We Trust is worth a spin just for the fun, jazzy beats.

#83 Let the Rhythm Hit Em - Eric B. & Rakim (1990)

It doesn't get quite the acclaim that Eric B. & Rakim's 80's releases did, but Let the Rhythm Hit Em is still commonly regarded as an all-time classic. Honestly, the biggest thing holding this album back is that there aren't any tracks that really stand out from the crowd. It's a good cover-to-cover listen, but no one track is going to be stuck in your head after.

#82 Return to 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version - Ol' Dirty Bastard (1995)

It often gets overshadowed by the other great 90's Wu-Tang releases, but Return to 36 Chambers is a personal favorite of mine. RZA really outdoes himself with the production, but ODB is the unquestioned star of the album. His distinctive half-sung, half-rapped delivery is what ODB is most known for, unfortunately is lyrical prowess often gets overlooked.

#81 Steal This Album - The Coup (1998)

If you've never heard the track "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Grenada Last Night", go do that as soon as possible, you can thank me later.

While "'79 Grenada" is the clear standout track from Steal This Album, the rest of the album is fantastic, as well. Boots Riley will probably rub some the wrong way with his Communist political beliefs, but even the coldest of Cold Warriors will find themselves bobbing their heads for most of this album". The Coup has always has a penchant for riding the line between humor & entertainment value, and scathing social commentary, or even openly militant rhetoric. It takes a master of his craft to make violent political upheavel sound this fun.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Deltron 3030 - Event 2 (2013)

Yesterday, in my Marshall Mathers LP 2 review, I wrote briefly about the risks that go into making a sequel album.  Basically, what it comes down to is an artist putting more of their reputation at stake in exchange for more hype leading up to an album's release.  I just so happen to be reviewing another sequel album today, Deltron 3030's Event 2.  Event 2 is the 2013 sequel to Deltron 3030's self-titled debut album, which came out in 2000.  The original Deltron 3030 is regarded as an underground classic.  Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I cite it as my personal favorite album.  As such, I've been waiting with bated breath for the group's second release.  Work apparently was being done on it as far back as 2004, but it was continuously delayed for any of a grab-bag's worth of reasons until 2013.

When the narrative behind an albums release is continuous delays spanning the better part of a decade, upon release, the obvious question is whether or not it was worth the wait.  If you had asked me back in October, when it was released, my answer would have been an emphatic "no". I may have even gotten a little mouth froth on you, such was my disappointment.  I even set out to write this review back then, so that I might enlighten the world to the travesty that was Event 2.  Luckily, laziness prevailed and I've come to appreciate Event 2 a bit over these last few months.

"Banjo, what got you so upset on your first listen?" you're probably asking yourself.  It was something that I touched on in yesterday's Marshall Mathers LP 2 review.  Namely, finding the sweet spot where your sequel album manages to capture the same tone or feel to the previous installment, without coming across as a copy.  My initial reaction to Event 2 was that it was just a worse version of Deltron 3030, a cheap knock-off, the Dr. Thunder to Delton's Dr. Pepper.  In retrospect, I may have overreacted.  Event 2 definitely adheres too closely to the formula of the original album, with a few tracks that are just shameless knock-offs (looking at you, "The Return") but it's a very respectable album in its own right, as well.

Del the Funky Homosapien had been floundering for ten plus years leading up the release of Event 2  Conflict with his record label kept him from releasing anything for the entire middle third of the 00's. Once that was sorted out, he put out a slew of releases to lukewarm, at best, receptions.  As somewhat of a Del fanboy, I was hoping (but not particularly optimistic) that he had just been squirreling away his best verses to use on Event 2.  After all it, it is the sequel to his most popular and most highly esteemed project.  I can't speak to how long it actually took Del to write and record his verses for Event 2, I can confidently that he sounds better here than he has on anything since Full Circle, in 2003.  The bored, monotone, drawling vocals that made so many of his 2008-2012 releases such boring chores to listen to has been greatly dialed back on Event 2.  Del actually sounds like he's enjoying himself somewhat, again.  He still doesn't carry quite the same exuberance that he once did, but rather than sounding bored or disinterested, it feels more like he's just relaxed, somewhat.  He feels comfortable.

Much like in Deltron 3030, Event 2 features the vocal talents of several others besides Del.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt catches us p on what all has happened in the universe since between the two albums on the album's introductory skit.  David Cross and Amber Tamblyn appear in a pair of skits featuring a married couple griping about all the "conveniences" that future technology has brought, while not-so-subtly taking jabs at the lifestyle and mannerisms of Millenials.  Celebrity chef, David Chang's skit is definitely the worst of the bunch.  The concept of having someone talk about the future of how food is prepared and what the tastes of the general public are was sound enough, it just sounded like it hadn't been rehearsed.

As far as musical guests, The Lonely Island get a track all to themselves smack in the middle of the album (much like Paul Barman did in the original) where they play the role of a group of old men who burst into verse about how much better it was "Back in the Day".  It's a track that would be a lot funnier were it not for the ham-fisted attempt to make it about the plight of the homeless tacked on at the end.  Other stand out musical guests were Rage Against the Machine's Zach De La Rocha, and actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  Winstead shows surprising singing chops on her two appearances, handling the choruses on two the album's standout tracks.

Dan The Automator is someone who I, honestly, haven't kept particular track of as of late.  I couldn't testify as to what hes been up to since the last Handsome Boy Modeling School album back in 2004.  As such, I was a bit concerned about the production coming into my first listen.  I will never again question the credentials of Automator.  Even when I completely despised and resented this album, I couldn't help but acknowledge that the production was top shelf.  A big part of what made the original Deltron 3030 such a success was the the tone set by Automator's beats.  They did more to establish the setting of the album than Del's vocal's ever could; the crowded cities, the ever-present threat of government agents, the limitless vastness of the galaxy in which the story takes place... none of it would have been nearly as engrossing if not for Automator.  No other producer could have made Deltron 3030 a more effective album than Automator did.  To put it shortly, Automator hasn't lost a step.  The environment he's portraying is a bit gloomier, and the situation our protagonists face is a bit more dire now than it once, but he captures that just as well.  Some of the beats come across as a bit Jetson-y in 2013, that is, the way people thought that the future (today) would sound in the 60's, whether or not that was a conscious choice by Automator, I can't say.

Therein lies the biggest fault in Event 2.  Where Deltron 3030 told the story of a scrappy group of freedom fighters and their adventures through a futuristic dystopia, Event 2 throws all of its eggs squarely into the social commentary basket.  Yes, Deltron featured a hefty helping of social criticism, but it was a side dish to the journey, itself.  The commentary was interwoven so that it was a part of the story, it wasn't intrusive.  Event 2 tackles social issues in a much more heavy-handed way.  With the story taking a back seat to the message, Event 2 loses a major part of what made Deltron 3030 so successful, the fun.  Yeah, there are a handful of chuckle-worthy skits dispersed throughout the whole affair, but they feel out of place when wedged between tracks about the loss of childhood innocence and the Earth being reduced to a barren wasteland largely due to corporate greed.

So, that brings us back to our original question.  Was Event 2 worth the wait?  Not in my opinion.  It just doesn't hold up to their first release.  Does that make it a bad album?  Absolutely not.  The biggest mistake that Deltron 3030 made with Event 2 was billing it as a sequel.  They tasked themselves with having to pick up a story where they left off 13 years beforehand.  That story shifting in tone somewhat and coming off a little disjointed was inevitable.  Event 2 remains an atmospheric album featuring some of the best production I've heard in years, and a legendary MC in his best form in over a decade.  This album didn't deserve nearly the hate that I, and many others gave it on release.  Unfortunately, first impressions are hard to forget, so Event 2 will likely wind up being an album that never gets the appreciation that it deserves.

Best Tracks: Nobody Can, Melding of the Minds, The Agony, Look Across the Sky, Do You Remember

Overall: 82/100

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Eminem - Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)

For artists, sequel albums are a double-edged sword.  On one hand, billing an album as a sequel to a critical or fan favorite generates more hype for a release than it otherwise would have gotten.  On the other hand, you're basically challenging your listeners to compare it to the previous release.  If the album holds up to those comparisons, it can be a huge boon for the artists career.  Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2, and Nas's Stillmatic both stand out as cases where sequel albums gave a much needed bump to their respective artist's faltering careers.  However, if a sequel isn't well received, it only functions as a shining example of how far an artist has fallen since their peak.  It can be a death sentence for a career.  Warren G, and Twista come to mind as artists who have fallen into irrelevance following a poorly executed sequel album.  Eminem decided to throw his hat into the sequel ring with 2013's Marshall Mathers LP 2 (MMLP2).

One of the hardest parts of creating a good sequel album is managing to capture the tone and sound of the original without coming across as a just a knock-off, there's a relatively narrow sweet spot that needs to be hit in order to be successful.  Stray too far from the original, and fans will accuse you of just using the name as a cash grab and resent you for it.  Stick too close to the formula and your album will be regarded as just a worse version of the original and panned by fans, if not necessarily critics.  Em treads dangerously close to the former issue with MMLP2.

Were it not for the track "Bad Guy" and the album being named Marshall Mathers LP 2, I may have never caught on that it was supposed to be a sequel.  There's a few nods to the original scattered throughout, but the overall sound doesn't come across as being any more influenced by the original than Em's previous couple of albums.  It uses the same garbage rock influenced beats that plagued Recovery and, once again,  inexplicably features a healthy serving of Eminem trying to sing.  The presence of someone like Rihanna as a featured artist also strikes me as something that the Eminem of 2000 wouldn't have done.

The one saving grace to MMLP2 in the "hitting the sweet spot" department is that it's a noticeable throw-back to the original Marshall Mathers LP (MMLP) as far as subject matter, when compared to his previous few releases.  He finally moves on past the mopey recovering drug addict narrative, and goes back to the topics that made him famous in the first place: self-depreciation, ridiculing of the entertainment industry, and his shitty childhood.  After having his last album be primarily about how much he's changed and how hes trying to be a better person, reverting back to his old subject matter comes across as somewhat insincere, though.  What used to come across as exorcising personal demons or just venting frustrations now feels more like shock value for shock value's sake.  That being said, Em's rhymes are on point from a technical standpoint.  The fact that he is still able to impress with his verses this far into his career, is really a testament to his credentials as one of the greatest to ever pick up the mic.  Even if his flow is awkward, even clumsy at times, his wordplay is as good as it's ever been... even if he does get shown up by Kendrick Lamar on "Love Game".

The thing that weighs this album down isn't Eminem, it's everything around him.  MMLP2 is an album that is desperately trying to adhere to the current pop culture conventions while pretending to resent them.  For whatever reason they decided it would be a good idea to bring in Rick Rubin, who apparently thought that the best way to capture the sound of the original MMLP was to use a bunch of very recognizable samples from thirty to fifty year old rock songs, despite MMLP featuring nothing of the sort.  Whoever keeps telling Eminem that he's a good singer needs to go away.  Songs like "Stronger Than I Was" are borderline unlistenable.  Even the tracks where he just sings the hooks become instantly worse for it.

In short, Marshall Mathers LP 2 still has many of the same issues that held back his previous couple releases.  Looking back at the Recovery review I wrote a few years ago, most of those same criticisms are still very valid. Em is still a horrible singer.  The presence of major pop artists still feels like a betrayal (even if his Rihanna collabs are pretty good).  His pop culture references are still outdated.  His choice of samples is still questionable.  He's still showing flashes of greatness with his verses, though and it still gives me hope that Em has another great album in him, if he can ever manage to get the right people around him.  MMLP2 just isn't that album.

Best Tracks: Rap God, Monster, Bad Guy

Overall: 70/100