Kanye West – ye

I used to love Kanye West – it’s true. Through his 1st four albums he never failed to entertain me, make laugh, and with 808 & Heartbreak, make me feel real emotions. I wrote him off before most people (how’s THAT for know it all hipster statement) and was bewildered as he increasingly became more outlandish. I was also baffled at the accolades he received for each album that was released – I’d give them cursory spins and write them off, never to listen to them again. I was wrong. In recent months, Kanye West has come out as a Donald Trump supporter (or did he?), questioned the role of slavery in US history, and pretty much turned off a large majority of the audience who loved him. I’m not sure if it is all an act or if these are legitimate feelings. But I couldn’t shake the notion that people turning their back on Kanye West now were overlooking the bizarre antics and statements he made during his peak popularity. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. But from the moment I played ye I was entranced. This is the sound of a man hurting inside. Confusion. Poetry. Maybe because it coincided with losing a friend to suicide, I’m not sure – but ye hits me in a way that no Kanye album has for years. Continue reading

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DJ Jazzy Jeff – M3

It’s hard not to think of DJ Jazzy Jeff as the partner of The Fresh Prince – aka Will Smith. The late 80’s and early 90’s featured a near constant stream of radio and MTV hits from the duo. Once Will Smith broke into television, he made sure DJ Jazzy Jeff – aka Jeffrey Townes – had a constant presence on his hit show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The Fresh Prince started putting out records under his new name (some of them still featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff), and DJ Jazzy Jeff put out two critically acclaimed records and an impressive amount of mix tapes. The last decade or so has found Jeff DJ’ing throughout the world, producing records, and reminding the world that he is one of the world’s premier DJ’s – setting moods, scratching, and mixing with an expert ear. M3 marks his 1st album in 11 years and is the final chapter of the Magnificent trilogy. It just may be his finest solo work yet.

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Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock

Planet Rock

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

The early days of hip hop collided with the early days of electronic music and no other artists encapsulated the era like Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. Bambaataa embraced the groundbreaking eerie synths used by Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra and married the sounds to rhymes that were positive in nature. Produced by Arthur Baker, Planet Rock stands as the pinnacle of the sound & vision Afrika Bambaataa brought to music. Kraftwerk are a huge influence on this particular song – the TR-808 (and heartbreak) beat is based on the song Computer World while the melody is the synth line from Trans-Europe Express. The only other song I can think of that uses a sample to such stunning effect is the remix of Busta Rhymes Fire it Up that incorporates the Knight Rider theme. Planet Rock peaked at #4 on the soul charts and #48 on the Hot 100 – but has proven to be influential far beyond its modest chart positions. Hip-hop, dance, electronic, and trance all owe a huge debt to Afrika Bambaataa. The founders of Kraftwerk – Ralf Hütter & Florian Schneider – were later added as principal songwriters after reaching a settlement with Tommy Boy Records. Lyrically, this is a far cry from the later days of misogyny and violence in hip hop – in fact, the song is positively inspiring in places. With the perfect beat and infectious melody married to the perfect words, how can you go wrong? “You gotta rock it, pop it, ’cause it’s the century / There is such a place that creates such a melody / Our world is but a land of a master jam, get up and dance / It’s time to chase your dreams”

 

 

LL Cool J – Mama Said Knock You Out

ll-cool-j-mama-said-knock-you-out

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

It’s hard to believe, but Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J is fast approaching its 25th anniversary. Even harder to believe, LL Cool J is still in his 40’s for a few more years. In 1990, LL Cool J was trying to figure out his place in the hip hop community. 1989’s Walking With a Panther had been a commercial success, but a critical failure. Even worse, LL Cool J’s peers were critical of the “softer” love ballads that peppered the album. LL discussed his plight with his Grandmother – lamenting the rise of gangsta rap and his insecurity in light of harsh words from several up and coming rappers. His Grandma replied “Oh baby, just knock them out!”, which fueled the inspiration for the title track from his 1990 record, Mama Said Knock You Out. Raw and aggressive, the song is a an absolute classic. In some ways, it is an updated version of LL’s 1987 single I’m Bad. LL Cool J spits out the words as if he is being chased by the Devil himself, the music equally frantic. Samples scattered throughout the song are courtesy of James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, and the Chicago Gangsters. As if this song wasn’t impressive enough coming from a seasoned 22-year-old music veteran, LL Cool J delivered a performance on MTV Unplugged that managed to outdo the studio cut. The immortal words “Don’t call it a comeback / I been here for years” still bring me joy to this day. The song hit #17 on the US charts and earned Todd Smith aka LL Cool J a Grammy.

Will Smith (featuring Mary J. Blige) – Tell Me Why

will smith

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

It goes without saying that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince are one of the greatest hip hop acts to ever hail from the city of Philadelphia, PA (The Roots would obviously be in that select group). At some point The Fresh Prince changed his name to Will Smith, started a movie career, and continued rapping under his new name. The highlights on his solo records for me were when he invited DJ Jazzy Jeff to scratch on a handful of tracks. None of his solo records gelled the way the DJ Jazzy Jeff &The Fresh Prince records did until the 2005 release of Lost and Found. Notable guest appearances (Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg), relevant musical backing, and smart lyrical content make up most of the tracks on this record. Tell Me Why is my favorite on the record, and one of the highlights of The Fresh Prince’s career. The track was originally targeted as the 2nd single from the record but was scrapped in favor of Party Starter – a shame, as Tell Me Why has an emotional core that would have possibly appealed to radio programmers. The song relies on The Fresh Prince’s storytelling flow, throwing us right into an attempt to explain the insanity of 9/11 and war to a child. The track builds as it progresses, with The Fresh Prince becoming more agitated and emotional as he asks someone to explain the unexplainable:

  • the death of hip hop icons Jam Master Jay, Tupac, and Biggie Smalls
  • the death of Smith’s infant brother Sterling
  • Nelson Mandela’s ordeal
  • The saga of MLK and Malcolm X
  • The hate crime committed against James Byrd Jr.
  • The death of Reginald Denny

By the end of the verse Will Smith is practically shouting his rhymes, anger and frustration bleeding through. Resignation in the words “Please what am I supposed to say to my kids when they say ‘Why?’, Mary J. Blige’s backing vocals coming to the front of the mix with the final “Why”, and orchestra swells lending the track an otherworldly emotional resonance. This is a perfect song. Here’s hoping The Fresh Prince will return one day.

Eminem – Berzerk

Eminem_-_Berzerk

Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? Every album released after 2002’s The Eminem Show has featured Eminem rapping in different styles, rarely returning to the carefree freestyle form of his earlier records. Don’t get me wrong, I liked most of the later records – it just seemed like that era had been laid to rest. The rapid fire rhymes of yore had been replaced with earnest pop rap and cumbersome rants – both styles fearing a much slower vocal tempo. I hadn’t fallen off of the Eminem bandwagon, I simply had adjusted with the times and accepted who he had become. That’s why the 1st single from the forthcoming Marshall Mathers LP 2 is such a surprising delight.

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