It's been over a year since I've attempted to review something that isn't a rap album. Occasionally, I get bored of hip hop, especially the newer stuff, so I'm going to give this series another shot, and whether it survives is dependent on reader response. So let me know what you think.
Four years after the release of his debut, New Sacred Cow, Kenna Zemedkun, known simply as Kenna for musical purposes, was finally able to drop his follow-up, Make Sure They See My Face, thanks to his friendship with both halves of production duo The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), who eventually signed him to their vanity imprint Star Trak Entertainment after his original deal with Flawless (Fred Durst's record label) fell apart.
New Sacred Cow was chock-full of Kenna's New Wave sensibilities updated for the new millennium, but as was to be expected with anything that sounds even remotely different, it failed to sell any copies. The project's lack of success was even documented by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, where it was determined that (surprise, surprise) the musical tastes of those within the industry don't jive with those of the general public: no matter how good the music may be (and New Sacred Cow tested well), the mainstream prefers to be spoon-fed generic crap that sounds just enough like everything else to not be too demanding on the subconscious.
The only trait that New Sacred Cow carried that meshed with pop culture was Chad Hugo's wall-to-wall production, which made the album sound like Depeche Mode as filtered through The Neptunes by way of UNKLE. Which is probably why I liked it so fucking much. Undeterred, Kenna repeats a similar formula for Make Sure They See My Face, his long-delayed sophomore effort that throws Pharrell Williams a bone (he also had a hand in naming the album) and even features production work from Kenna himself, although Chad still manages the majority of the project.
Due to the Star Trak connection, Kenna was marketed to a younger audience, specifically those who still watched MTV unironically, but Make Sure They See My Face still failed to connect with the mainstream, with radio airplay eluding our host yet again. However, critical acclaim helped give the project a much higher profile than New Sacred Cow, and the songs contained within have held up a bit better than its predecessor.
Yeah, I just gave away the ending of my review. What of it?
This was a pretty interesting was to start things off. After nearly a full minute of setting the stage with low ambient sounds, Chad Hugo's drum machine kicks in, and Kenna refuses to look back, as he makes proclamations about love and other catastrophes over an instrumental that is alive and full. You could use this as your alarm clock in the morning and you would feel ready to face the day: it's sonic caffeine. Not bad, Kenna. Not bad at all.
2. OUT OF CONTROL (STATE OF EMOTION)
Kenna enters the clubs with the help of this bombastic Chad Hugo beat, which sounds more soulful than the entirety of the last Clipse album, even though this is all noise and no real heart. Kenna strains his voice in order to be heard over the instrumental, but it's okay: this kind of ode to love and anarchy is intended for dance floors, not quiet dissertations. This wasn't bad, but it's a bit of a letdown when compared to “Daylight”.
3. LOOSE WIRES / BLINK RADIO
The instrumental sounds too closely related to Gwen Stefani's “Yummy”, which makes sense, as Pharrell Williams produced both. With “Loose Wires”, Kenna pulls Make Sure They See My Face out of the 1980s and into the present day, and his vocals make the transition seamlessly, even if some of the lyrics are fairly bland. The skit “Blink Radio” immediately follows, and it is completely and utterly useless, as is to be expected. Why are there skits on this album, anyway?
4. SAY GOODBYE TO LOVE
This was the single (the only one, as far as I know), and it is probably the most commercial song on here, and I only say that because I was once informed by a fellow blogger that MTV played this song during an episode of The Hills. (Not that I watched the show or remotely give a fuck, but can someone explain why Heidi and Spencer are even remotely famous? Who out there really cares about their lives? They just seem like a couple of assholes.) Pharrell provides a club-ready beat that owes a lot more to N.E.R.D.'s previous work than it does to 1980s New Wave/synth pop, and Kenna adjust accordingly, with fun results. Yeah, I just used the word “fun”.
5. SUN RED SKY BLUE
A simple guitar loop pairs up with some hard drums for another excursion onto alternative radio. Like with most New Wave songs, the lyrics are almost beside the point (which is why I don't really touch on them throughout this write-up), but when they appear alongside such a searing bit of musical scenery, they acquire a level of depth that they don't entirely deserve. (Say the title of this song out loud. Right now. I can wait. Sounds kind of stupid, don't you think?) But I loved this song all the same. Can't have music without the actual music part, after all.
6. BAPTIZED IN BLACKLIGHT
This song was merely alright, but I needed a breather, so I'm okay. Chad's low-key rumble of an instrumental, mixed with the noise coming from the factory that manufactures the intolerance to Kenna that most Americans are equipped with, results in a track that simply isn't engaging enough. Kenna's lyrics are also inconsequential, although I'm still liking the voice itself. Moving on...
Out of all the tracks on Make Sure They See My Face, this is the song I hear most frequently, as it has been included in the easy-listening music package that gets piped in to my day job, which isn't known for its clever choices and indie street cred, by the way. That doesn't mean this song is for an elderly audience, though, as it is quite good. I'm fully convinced that “Static” receives this level of consideration because Kenna's first self-produced effort for the project sounds so fucking relaxing, like Thom Yorke on horse tranquilizers after pairing an entire turkey with a fifth of Jameson and watching the director's cut of The Thin Red Line. Kenna's confusion as to whether he wants to stay or should he go is captured perfectly in this melancholy and haunting track: only the very end, which reminds me of The Steve Miller Band's “Fly Like An Eagle”, is a miscalculation. Otherwise, once again, this is quite good.
8. PHANTOM ALWAYS
This song sounds destined to be played during the end of the final act on any given show on the CW, or maybe even ABC Family. Positioning “Phantom Always” immediately after the equally lethargic (I mean that in a good way) “Static” wasn't the best move, though: it drags the energy of Make Sure They See My Face down tremendously, and this song lacks all of the positive traits that the rest of the project carries by the bucketful. So no, I didn't care for this song. Fun fact: “Phantom Always” features The Social Network's Justin Timberlake on background vocals. They didn't help.
9. FACE THE GUN / GOOD LUCK
My understanding is that “Face The Gun” was a throwaway track leaked by Kenna himself to appease his fans during the time when he was having trouble convincing his label to release Make Sure They See My Face, and it was so well received that they worked it into the final product. Thanks to Chad's instrumental, the song is upbeat and catchy, and it acts as a well-constructed bridge between Kenna albums. “Good Luck”, the interlude that follows, is strange and unnecessary, though: Kenna and his backup give listeners a reprise to the hook on “Loose Wires” that makes that earlier effort sound much more depressing than it originally did.
10. BETTER WISE UP
This sounds like a Radiohead song circa the Kid A / Amnesiac studio sessions. Which isn't a bad thing for me, as I love those albums, but if you're a Pablo Honey or an OK Computer guy, consider yourself warned. I wouldn't be surprised to hear Thom Yorke covering Kenna's disparaging commands that make up this song, as this is tailor-made for his sensibilities. Kenna's impression is pretty good, and Chad's production switches up just before listeners can complain about getting bored. The closest comparison I can come up with for this song is UNKLE's Yorke-featured “Rabbit In Your Headlights”; if you like that song, you'll also like this one.
11. BE STILL
Chad and Pharrell bring the 1980s New Wave aesthetic and the new millennium's club-ready rhetoric respectively, but when Kenna is left to his own devices, such as on “Static” and on this track, he aims to...apparently be considered for a slot on the soundtrack to the next film in the Twilight series. That's not to say this is bad: I enjoyed his emo-rock a great deal. I just prefer the more upbeat songs to this one-sided conversation Kenna has with a lover. If you like acts such as The Postal Service or maybe Jimmy Eat World, this will be right up your alley. If you still like Owl City's “Fireflies”, then you need to get the fuck off my blog.
12. WIDE AWAKE
Chad Hugo proves that he is the guy who handles all of the melodies for the Neptunes, as “Wide Awake” displays a maturity that Pharrell's current output couldn't reach even with a stepladder and a pair of stilts. Kenna and Chad finalize their bid for alternative radio (as no rap station would ever look in their direction) with what sounds like a low-grade Deftones song, and I mean that in the best possible way. This was a pretty fair ending, I think.
The UK also received a bonus track, “Rockaway Life”, which was both written by and features Justin Timberlake. I'm not really sure why the label didn't think that affixing a sticker on the front of Make Sure They See My Face's jewel case that said “Featuring Justin Timberlake” might possibly help Kenna move more units. It seems like a no-brainer to me. Anyway, as of right now, I haven't yet heard that track, so I don't have any opinion on it. If you've heard it, let me know in the comments below.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I remember reading a review of Kenna's Make Sure They See My Face that criticized the artist for finally releasing the album at the exact moment that everyone stopped giving a fuck about him, as if that was somehow Kenna's fault. The hell? Isn't a review supposed to help the reader determine whether an album is worth their time and money? For what it's worth, Make Sure They See My Face is entertaining as hell, and it would slide onto radio station playlists with ease today, if any of them grew a pair. Kenna's lyrics rarely stray from the “love song” path, which make most of his verses sound heavily influenced by The Cure and Depeche Mode. But the music is truly what makes this project work: with the push of a button, listeners can switch back and forth between the clubs and the quieter teen movie moments. Chad Hugo (and, to a much lesser extent, his Neptunes partner Pharrell Williams) crafted these beats with the fingers of a master puppeteer, and Kenna delivers on his promise of giving his fans a natural extension of New Sacred Cow. If you're into this sort of New Wave-new millennium amalgamation, then Make Sure They See My Face is pretty fucking awesome.
BUY OR BURN? Sure, Kenna will never be a platinum-selling artist, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't deserve to be. You should buy this album and give him a shot. Once again, it's entertaining as hell, and it's probably cheap to find these days, too. It's worth it.
BEST TRACKS: “Static”; “Daylight”; “Wide Awake”; “Be Still”; “Better Wise Up”; “Sun Red Sky Blue”; “Face The Gun”; “Say Goodbye To Love”