November 24, 2015

So I'm Still Doing This: Max Checks In With XXL's 2012 Freshman Class

XXL dropped their annual Freshman Class list later than usual this year, and as such, I have followed suit with my ongoing series, which looks at the class of 2012 and what they have or haven't yet accomplished.  At least that's the excuse I'm running with: I debated internally for quite some time as to whether I should even bother, and when I finally decided to do it, laziness took a hold of me, so I suppose now's as good a time as ever to check in on the ten artists featured that particular year.

Insert your standard disclaimer about how I don't know if the series will proceed beyond this year here.

November 20, 2015

The Max-Approved Mixtape So Far: Tracks 21 - 40

I'm sure the reappearance of the Max-Approved Mixtape threw a couple of you for a loop the other day.  I hadn't intended on going that hard on the remix posts, but shit happens, and either way, these kinds of posts are a hell of a lot easier (and faster) to write than actual album reviews.  However, I really ran that "Respiration" post because I counted up my past offerings and realized I was one short of a full twenty, which leads me to today's entry.

As I did last time, I figured today was a great time to compile the last twenty tracks that made my custom playlist.  This also serves the dual purpose of reminding you two about the other stuff on the mixtape.  If you want to read my thoughts and/or stories regarding each selection, click on the links below.  Otherwise, I suppose you could just complain about the lack of Game reviews on the site, which, seriouslyNobody has ever complained as much about not reading about The Game than some of you two have on the blog this year.  But I digress.

Again, the tracks are presented in order of their post dates and not in their order of importance in my mind.

November 17, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: Mos Def & Talib Kweli (as Black Star) - "Respiration"

Artist: Mos Def and Talib Kweli (as Black Star) featuring Common
Title: "Respiration"
Producer: Hi-Tek
Album: Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but September 29, 1998 was easily one of the most important release dates in hip hop history.  I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but the stars aligned that day, making it far too easy for me to spend all of my expendable income at Best Buy, what with albums from Jay-Z, OutKast, Brand Nubian, and motherfucking A Tribe Called Quest dropping all on the same day.  But the lowest-profile project that hit store shelves that day came from a tiny-but-well-meaning upstart label called Rawkus Records, and it featured two rookies (basically) teaming up because of their shared ideologies, and also to bask in the shared spotlight.  I'm speaking, of course, about Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and their song "Respiration" was the track that hit me the hardest after having listened to all of them.  And yes, I somehow listened to all five albums that day.  Man, I miss having free time.

Anyway, "Respiration" is a three-verse ode to living in the Big Apple as run through an existentially melancholy filter.  After an introduction lifted from the classic documentary Style Wars, Kweli's Reflection Eternal partner Hi-Tek brings in a moody, melodic instrumental, over which Yaasin Bey Mos Def almost immediately launches into his observational tirade, looming on the rooftops like Brooklyn's Batman, "blasting holes in the night 'till she bled sunshine".  And I'm not just saying that because he actually references the Caped Crusader at one point; that shit was more of a coincidence than anything else.  "Respiration" includes one of my favorite performances from the rapper-slash-actor: the line, "The shiny apple is bruised but sweet, and if you choose to eat / You could lose your teeth" looks pretty corny when written out like that, but I've always felt is one of the more poetic ways for a rapper to warn the listener that life in the city isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Poetry is essentially what "Respiration" is: had it not been for Hi-Tek's (masterful) instrumental, this could have easily been one of those overlong spoken-word pieces that I can't stand.  It's amazing how a little thing such as music can change the context and scope of a performance.  The Mighty Mos is quickly followed by his partner-in-rhyme Talib Kweli, who was still pretty green in 1998, turns in probably one of his better verses of the album, kicking things off by "breathing in deep city breaths", shining a little bit of light on his future potential ("For trees to grow in Brooklyn, seeds need to be planted").  And since "Respiration" is poetry set to a beat, what better guest star could one get than Chicago's Common, who dwells on his own experiences in Chi-town, which correlate with the tales of both of his hosts, in that they're all depressing and bleak, but not without hope.  "Respiration" ends with an extended instrumental, featuring some great guitar work from DeChown Jenkins, that underscore the humanity that Black Star were trying to highlight.

"Respiration" is easily my favorite song on the album, one I still turn to today whenever I have to update my playlist.  I realize that there are official remixes for this song, and that a "remix" post might have seemed more appropriate, but I went the mixtape route because that's how much I love this shit, and I'm willing to bet that a lot of you two will agree.

I've included the official video below.  Although I dig the fact that "Respiration" was released as a single, I never heard it on the radio anywhere, and the video version is chopped down kind of significantly: one of the things I like about the original song is that the artists involved allowed the music room to breathe, running time be damned.

Do you agree or disagree with this selection?  Discuss below.


Mos Def & Talib Kweli - Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (review)

November 13, 2015

The Pharcyde - Labcabincalifornia (November 14, 1995)

Tomorrow marks the twenty-year anniversary of The Pharcyde's sophomore album, Labcabincalifornia, so I figured today would be the best day to run this review.  It's a project that has already seen multiple reissues, with the extra tracks, instrumentals, and whatnot that come with, but today I'm running with the original version, the one the Los Angeles-based quartet dropped in 1995, so if you're among the few who gets upset when I don't write about after-market bonus tracks, you'll probably want to leave your thoughts in the comments below.  Just a fair warning.

November 10, 2015

Remixed For Your Pleasure: The Notorious B.I.G. - "Big Poppa"

(If you haven't already done so, be sure to visit my previous post and throw your shuffled playlist in the comments section.)

Odds are pretty good that if you regularly read this blog, you're at least somewhat familiar with "Big Poppa".  The second single from The Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album, Ready To Die, "Big Poppa" was a track aimed squarely at the ladies in the place that Biggie wanted nothing more than to bone down with after splitting a T-bone steak and downing some Welch's grape juice.  Producers Sean "Puffy" Combs and Chucky Thompson sampled The Isley Brothers' jam "Between The Sheets" expertly, redefining the instrumental loop for a new generation who would primarily connect it with Biggie's club exploits.  Even with the late Christopher Wallace reciting general concepts of come-ons as though he were an alien from another universe tasked with studying the female half of our species in their natural habitat ("..ask you what your interests are, who you be with / Things that make you smile, what numbers to dial"), and an extended guest vocal from Puff Daddy oozing sleaze by encouraging an anonymous female to gather her friends for some group sex in a nearby hotel room, ostensibly while Biggie is eating his T-bone steak, "Big Poppa" became the second huge hit from Ready To Die, earning considerable radio airplay, MTV spins, and essentially making Puffy look like a goddamn genius for signing Biggie in the first place.  Never mind the fact that Biggie still had yet to release an actual "street" single from the project at this point: Puffy was basically trying to cover all of his costs incurred for recording the project before letting his boy run wild.

Which is why it's kind of weird that Puffy had fuck-all to do with the song's official remix.

The official "Big Poppa" re-do was produced by Jermaine Dupri, whose presence isn't surprising: Dupri was once one of the biggest producers in our chosen genre, whether you like to remember that part of the timeline or not, and aside from that, he had already cultivated a working relationship with Wallace after working with him on Da Brat's Biggie-featured "Da B Side".  The instrumental aims for a different facet of pop radio, dropping the Isley Brothers sample in favor of the sound of late-1980's R&B, which isn't as iconic, but makes the song different enough to warrant its existence.  

Dupri's new instrumental apparently inspired Biggie to go back to the lab, as the remix contains some different bars randomly tossed in, so as to create more backstory for a tale that really didn't need one, leading to a completely new third verse that no longer features Puffy's lecherous ways.  Of course, Dupri takes his place, which is just as goofy, but your mileage may vary: I found myself actually missing Puff's vocals.  Both versions have their specific niches on radio flashback shows, and they both prove that, while he wasn't quite fond of doing them at first, The Notorious B.I.G. was actually pretty good at putting together radio-friendly tracks that broadened his overall appeal.  Still, I'm sure most of the two readers prefer that street shit from Biggie Smalls, of which there is plenty, but that doesn't take away from "Big Poppa".

I can't end this post without giving everyone the actual video for "Big Poppa, so I'll get that out of the way

GO WITH THE O.G. OR THE REMIX?  The original by a long shot.  The remix is only for curious heads who want to hear some new-ish bars from the late Christopher Wallace.  However, the single for the remix was the first place one could get a copy of the much-lauded B-side "Who Shot Ya?", so.


The Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die (review)

November 6, 2015

Let's Look At Each Other's Playlists Instead Of Me Having To Write A Review

As I try fruitlessly to get some actual reviews together from California-based artists, I figured now would be a good time to try to spark up another conversation between the two readers.  I'm a big believer of a person's musical taste speaking volumes of who they are, and if one were to take my iPod and put it on shuffle, one would see that I'm kind of all over the goddamn place.  I love how each song seamlessly flows into one another, even when coming from entirely different genres, as though curated by the best deejay ever.  Which, obviously, I kind of am when it comes to the music on my player, as are you all.

So, to lead into the weekend, I want you to grab your phones or your iPods, go to your music, hit 'shuffle', and write down the first ten tracks that come up in the comments below.  I think it'll be interesting to see where everyone stands.  No explanations are necessary: just jot down the first ten songs that pop up.  I've written mine below, and no, before you ask, there are no hints of future posts here: I still try to listen to music for fun, too, you know.

Masters Of Illusion - "Masters Of Illusion"
Joy Division - "Transmission"
Boot Camp Clik - "Had It Up 2 Here"
Holy Ghost! - "It Gets Dark"
Wu-Block - "Pull Tha Cars Out"
Fever Ray - "Keep The Streets Empty For Me"
The Smiths - "Asleep"
Action Bronson - "Falconry"
J-Zone - "I'm Fucking Up The Money"
Nas - "The Black Bond"

No surprise that my list is fairly East Coast-centric, which is another reason why I was trying the whole "California rappers only" experiment in the first place.  I could probably keep this going, but that's not the point, and this blog is self-serving enough.  Leave your playlists in the comments below, and maybe we'll all discover something new or new to us.


November 3, 2015

Reader Review: Blackalicious - A2G (EP) (April 30, 1999)

(Getting back to the Cali theme that it looks like I've abandoned, but damn it, it's still happening, Jay turns in a Reader Review for Blackalicious' second EP, A2G.  Leave your notes for Jay below, and in the meantime, I am actually trying to get back to this whole "review" thing, but time is a luxury I don't always have.)