These are the kinds of tracks that birthed In My Ear — as a concept and a blog. Songs so good — songs that just absolutely bury themselves into my brain — that I want to talk about them. Share them in a way I do: by writing about them. Share the wonder they bring me.
Brasstracks are trumpeter Ivan Jackson and drummer Conor Rayne, friends and collaborators from their short-lived days at Manhattan School of Music. Together as a duo since 2014, Golden Ticket is the lead single off their same-titled debut full-length LP, which came out two weeks ago.
It’s jazzy, soulful, funky, and, above all, joyful. That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
Earlier this summer, Los Angeles rapper Buddy dropped the single Black 2 — a follow up to his standout 2018 collaboration track Black with A$AP Ferg and another in the increasingly long line of musicians (especially Black artists) stepping up with important, insightful, and absolutely bomb records reflecting this current moment in history and protesting police brutality, racial injustice, and white supremacy.
Everything about this track is tight and on point. From the album cover (a direct homage to the famous Life Magazine photograph of Malcolm X pulling back the hotel curtains with his left hand and holding a machine gun in his right)…..
…to the hypnotic, endlessly catchy, and ironically upbeat beat (in direct contrast to the message of the track)….
….to the rapid-fire lyrics calling out white America’s systemic racism and it’s persistent appropriation of Black culture without commensurate compensation or representation.
My shit black-owned
If you ain't a n*gga, then you can't say "n*gga
It's a black thing (It's a black thing), yeah
Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (Right Thing), uh
Don't step on my Nikes, just got these
Go rogue for the neckpiece, n*gga
Yup, in my white tee (Yup)
Know you wanna be just like me, huh?
'Til the police wanna lock me up
Everybody wanna be black, don’t nobody wanna be a n*gga, uh
Feel like Malcolm X, peekin’ outside my window
Everybody wanna be black, but don’t nobody wanna be a n*gga
Political messages aside, this is just more great music and content from an artist who has stayed busy after his 2018 breakout record Harlan & Alondra and continues to grow artistically. Or, as he also raps on this track, “Finally got a pot I can piss in / Workin’ overtime, and you can tell if you listened.” This year, he’s released an additional single to Black 2 and a collaboration EP Janktape Vol. 1 as continues to steadily carve out his own brand of hazy, melodic, West Coast funk driven hip hop.
In the two weeks since this record dropped on July 10, I have listened to it everywhere and in every state of mind. At night, immersed in my headphones and raging from the day’s news. In the kitchen, quietly distracted while making dinner. At the table, eating that dinner and listening to my kids’ exploits. In the car, running errands and cruising with the windows down on a hot day. In the morning, reading James Baldwin with coffee and feeling heady and philosophical before starting the workday.
At all of those moments and in all of those moods, it works. It works every single time.
Dinner Party is the debut self-titled album of a new collaboration and supergroup of jazz , soul, and hip-hop luminaries: Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit) — with significant contributions from Chicago R&B vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Phoelix. The sheer amount of talent and artistic chops among this group is astounding, as are the connections to each other as lifelong friends, collaborators, and influencers of modern musical art and culture.
From those connections and resultant mutual respect comes an album that is remarkable for its skill, craft, and restraint. This is an utterly smooth, peaceful-sounding record. It’s brimming with ideas, not egos. First Responders nods along with a warm neo-soul groove backed by a tight beat track. LUV U blends jazz-fusion with 80s electro-funk. From My Heart and My Soul is spacey and atmospheric. But, throughout, Martin, Washington, Glasper, and Douthit manage to mesh their individual talents into a cohesive musical statement; a commitment to a singular, overarching vibe of relaxed self-assuredness.
In the spirit of Marvin Gaye (a hero and artistic touchstone for them all), this is also the most modest and quietly powerful protest record you are likely to hear this year. The breezy melodies and lush production of Sleepless Nights and Freeze Tag ironically belie dire lyrics speaking on police brutality and America’s disregard for Black lives.
As the group”s name and album title suggest, this record feels like you are being invited to something special. An intimate gathering to chill around a table, talk about meaningful things, talk about changing, be real, be honest, and vibe out to what’s playing on the stereo.
There is no single soundtrack for the moment in America we are in right now. But, my bet is that there is at least one Run the Jewels track on nearly every playlist that sets out to capture, reflect, or otherwise document in music what’s going on (RIP Marvin Gaye).
Killer Mike and El-P are back with the fourth installment of their Run the Jewels partnership. And, true to form, they are laying waste to the structures of power and privilege in this country. The police. Capitalism and the wealthy ruling class. The current President. The government surveillance state. The prison-industrial complex.
Greater hip-hop heads than me know the solo career lineages of Killer Mike and El-P, respectively, and the development of their sound over time. Full of individual swagger, political rage, and raw-sounding, industrial beats, they’ve always channeled “heavy” hip-hop. The hard-edged, rock-and-metal-tinged sound of Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, EPMD, etc. Few rap outfits active today traffic in that vein, none as consistently raucous, inventive, and tight as RTJ.
RTJ4 is packed with standout moments and standout tracks. walking in the snow is an deeep track: a visceral diatribe on police brutality and violence and, from Killer Mike, some of the most on-point social commentary on racism, modern media, and white privilege/inaction from anyone, anywhere. the ground below is as much a hip-hop track as it is punk anthem, with a middle-finger straight up to haters and some of the most deft lyrics on the record. ooh la la is somehow both woozy and a stomper at same time. But, I’m picking the opening track to feature here — yankee and the brave (ep. 4) — because it comes hard out of the gate and sets the tone for all that follows: an unrelenting barrage of tight raps, focused fury, and pounding, funky beats.
RTJ just keeps getting better. And, with this new record, they’ve created a modern classic.
Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just asmuch new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — normally culminating (except in 2020) with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist fire hose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own highlights from SXSW (even the festival that wasn’t this year), but before the traditional flood of spring/summer releases starts.
Preamble over. Part 1 was last week. Here is Part 2 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2019 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year, along with a full playlist of Parts 1 and 2.
An Ohio-raised singer and songwriter of Ghanaian descent living in Los Angeles, Kwesi has a beautiful, distinctive voice (traces of John Legend) and a great talent for blending elements of soul, R&B, folk, pop, and electronic music into soulful, catchy, honest, searching songs. I’ve been following Kwesi (formerly Kwesi K) for years. He released two fantastic EPs in 2013 and 2014 (Pronouns and Lovely, respectively) and, since then, has written/produced songs with others and personally released a series of singles — including Neck Tattoo, which slipped by me last year but is a (typically, for Kwesi) beautifully wrought song with heart and humor in equal measure.
Credit to NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga for this one. He featured Lambert and his 2019 record True in some year-end retrospective or another and I immediately sought out the album. It is magical. Lambert is a contemporary classical/classical crossover pianist and composer from Hamburg, Germany. He has a clear gift for melody and a seemingly effortless ability to construct modern melodic lines and rhythms on a classical piano framework. True is a spare record with more solo piano and trio work than orchestration, but the songs still manage to sound grand and, often, cinematic. I love the track Vienna; a mysterious-sounding song with a whiff of venom (absolutely perfect for a spy thriller soundtrack) that pairs Lambert’s deft, nimble piano playing with a hypnotic beat and scratchy percussive elements. It just sounds so fresh.
Man, Lettuce have been doin’ it for almost 30 years! Crazy. A funk band formed in the early 90s by Berklee College of Music undergrads, Lettuce has been holding it down since then with a potent and lasting blend of funk, soul, jazz, electronica, hip-hop beats, and jam band chops. Having personally seem them perform (mostly in their early years), they are a true force live and their musicianship is off the charts. They released Elevate in 2019, their seventh studio album, and are quickly following that with a new record Resonate, dropping this Friday, May 8. Elevate has a spacey vibe to it, including on their cover of one of my favorite songs, Tear for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
Anyone who follows me here or on Where the Music Meets knows I am a big, big Roy Kinsey fan. To learn more about Kinsey — for my money, one of the most interesting, innovative, authentic, and talented voices in hip-hop right now — start by checking out my two-part interview with him for WtMM from earlier this year and then dig into his two most recent records — Blackie (2018) and Kinsey: A Memoir (2020). Each of them are absolute fire….as is this single She/Her that Kinsey released in 2019 , spitting his trademark smart, bracing raps over a stripped-down looped piano riff and synth bass line.
Coming loud and hard out of Shreveport, LA, Seratones offer a potent blend of rock, gritty soul, funk, and R&B that — similar to The Black Keys — sounds thoroughly modern, even as it draws straight from classic 1960s/1970s sounds. Frontwoman AJ Haynes seems borne from Stax Records’ stable of artists, even as she wails over modern synth arrangements. A band that I am desperate to see live, Seratones is totally addictive.
A new discovery for me, Wiki is straight NYC hip-hop. A grizzled veteran at the age of 26, Wiki (the stage name of Patrick Morales) fronted a famed NYC underground rap trip Ratking before moving on as a solo artist. His 2019 release Oofie is his second full-length solo record. Wiki sounds like a brash rapper and he is; quick-witted and quick-tongued, nimble with a verse and a confident boast. But, lyrically, this record strikes a rueful, disillusioned, often bitter tone. It’s a cutting, visceral critique of self and of his career in the churn of the music business. Still, Wiki’s talent and skill shines through the record’s sense of resignation, like on the excellent, woozy track Grim and also on Promises (featuring In My Ear favorite duendita).
Another discovery for me and another vocalist who utterly transfixed me from the moment I heard her. UK singer-songwriter Winnie Raeder’s voice arcs and lilts and aches with grace and a burning intensity. She released her debut EP in 2019, From Here, as well as the gorgeous single She — one of the more touching, quietly brutal, and haunting songs of love lost that I’ve heard.
Now she says / All she wants is / All that I'm not
Now she says / She don't need it / Or feel it enough /
It's not what she wants
I’ll admit that I’ve totally slept on Vampire Weekend in recent years. I loved their first record and than mellowed on them a bit. I always appreciated how distinct their brand of indie pop sounded even as they absolutely blew up and I admired their musicianship and ideas. But, their ensuing records just never grabbed me. Not surprising, then, that their 2019 release Father of the Bride (their first without founding member and talented songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij) passed by me without much attention — until I heard the sweet lil’ song Stranger that brought me back to all that I like about this band. Undeniably catchy; sonically sunny, but lyrically/emotionally complex; genre-bending with those core Afro-pop influences; and just a really great, fun, unique sound.
Your Old Droog
Again, like with the Kaytranda record I featured in Part 1, Your Old Droog dropped his new record Jewelry in late December, so it’s been a feature for me more in early 2020 than the last weeks of 2019. Remarkably, Jewelry was Your Old Droog’s *third* release in 2019! Man put out three of his five full length-records last year alone! The Ukrainian American, Brooklyn born-and-raised rapper (the name “Droog” comes from a Ukrainian word meaning “friend”) has a voice and flow often compared (sometimes confused) with Nas. He’s also a frequent collaborator with, among others, the previously mentioned Wiki and underground rap royalty MF DOOM. A private artist (following in the footsteps of DOOM), Droog has said that Jewelry elevates and celebrates his Jewish heritage. Setting aside that interesting theme for the record, I’m just totally hooked on his flow and the flute loop on the first single from the album, BDE.
A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..
Brother Ali. This man right here is one of my favorite rappers, musicians, artists, poets, thinkers, and human beings.
And, of all the #10YearThrowbackThursday tracks I’ve featured thus far, this is hardest to get my head around that it came out ten years ago. Ali’s style and flow from then still feel so fresh now. And, unfortunately, all of the topics he raps on (the complicated nuances of racial and cultural identity; persecution of Black people; persecution of poor people; politics and power; etc.) remain pervasive and insidious today.
The Preacher is one of the standout tracks for me off the record Us, Ali’s fourth studio album when it came out. It’s an album chock-full of stories. One of Ali’s endearing gifts is his clarity as a storyteller. He populates his raps with richly-wrought characters and imbues his music with an abiding humanity.
But, as any good storyteller will tell you, it’s all in the delivery. And, Ali delivers straight fire — to me, he is a perennially underrated talent who can go toe-to-toe with any rapper in sheer skill, freestyle, and vocal dexterity. On The Preacher, he sets asides the stories, makes himself the subject, comes out of the gate hot, and doesn’t let up for the entire 3:23.
Y'all been violating the rapper code/
Can't just walk around here acting bold/
Got to earn respect to brag and boast/
Skills get you that not swag and clothes/
Chin might get tapped, I crack your nose/
Fall back before y'all collapse/
Me, I'm an artist all a y'all are acts
Man, I wore this track out.
Brother Ali is marking the anniversary of Us as well with a special edition vinyl you can order. You can also find him touring (well, he was before and expects to be back out after the COVID-19 pandemic) on the 2019 release of his seventh studio album, Secrets & Escapes.
Released two weeks in the end of August/early September, I have fully folded myself into these two remarkable records — Rapsody‘s Eve and The Highwomen‘s self-titled deubt. They are both worthy of an individual post and many more words added to the glowing reviews and public response they’ve already received (and which are well worth your time reading).
But, I immediately and instinctively wanted to write about these records together — not just to make the sorts of connections across styles that I love to make (I love me a diverse playlist!), but to elevate their artistic similarities and the moment in time these albums occupy in their respective genres.
In the context of a music industry that remains largely a man’s world, women are killing it artistically. The vast majority of the most creative, innovative, intelligent, compelling, and stone-cold talented artists I follow are women. And, they are regularly carving out space for others to be authentic and brave and brash and truthful toward the powers that be.
All of that feels even more real with these two records because they are demanding recognition and space in the especially deeply male-dominated cultures of country and hip-hop music.
Both Eve and The Highwomen offer expansive (vs. reductive) perspectives on feminism, female identity, sisterhood, and community, but they firmly ground those perspectives in the current cultural realities of their genres. Rapsody claims the multitudes of black womanhood while speaking frankly on her personal journey to claim her own ground as a female MC in the hip-hop community. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris of The Highwomen speak to and for women directly, but with a vintage twang and through familiar topics that have animated country musicians for generations (love found; love lost; love scorned; love spurred; family; death; faith).
Both records match the diversity of their perspectives with a range of styles and musical influences. Diverse samples and beats (e.g. the sample of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight in Cleo) pair with live instrumentation on Eve, while a sparkling, fresh blend of classic country, Americana, folk, and vintage rock invigorate The Highwomen.
And, both records are grounded in stories. Rapsody titled each song on her record after trailblazing black women (living, dead, or, fictional), but then plays with what each of those figures represent — metaphorically or literally.
Similarly, each song on The Highwomen is a tightly-told, beautifully narrated vignette, none more so than the opening track Highwomen. Weaving together four stories of women facing persecution in their time. The first verse talks of a Honduran asylum-seeker who died trying to cross the border; the second of a healer burned at the stake in the Salem witch trials; the third of a Freedom Rider; the fourth of a female preacher.
Easily among the best albums released in 2019, these are powerful statements from female artists determined to center and assert their personal stories and the stories of others.
Not one to shy away from tough topics or fear speaking her peace or shirk the weight of a storyteller’s responsibility to hold good and evil, truth and falsehoods in close companionship, Tempest focuses her angst, intellect, philosophizing, and fury on everything that — in the quiet moments of the day or night — unsettles you too. Rising authoritarianism. Massive economic and social inequity. The foreboding of feeling trapped in a system you don’t have access to or even a handle on. Humanity outpacing the world’s resources. Climate change. An age of technological advancement and social disconnect. The sense that things are deeply, fundamentally flawed.
Aching legs, pounding head I can’t wait for the weekend I’m staying in bed In the mouth of a breaking wave In the mouth of a breaking storm Shaken, thinking something is coming The sky’s an unusual colour The weather is doing unusual things And our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons So where is the good heart to go but inwards? Why not lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? All I am are my doubts and suspicions I against you against we against them This is how it begins And this is how it will end.
~Three Sided Coin
As I listen to this record, I am in awe of how much Tempest’s sharp poetry and intricate wordplay speak to that part of me — deep inside my head and in my gut — that wrestles with the great questions of our time. I relish in the places this record takes me because it feels like I am engaged in a dialogue at the root of things. How do we make it through all of this?
Holy Elixir is a standout track for me because it displays Tempest’s expansive imagery, the complexity and directness of her poetry, and the musicianship that deepens the impact of her words. She levels-up her patented blend of spoken-word/hip-hop fusion, creating a pulsating, atmospheric soundtrack with rich, dank electronic beats and stripped-down, piano and string arrangements.
There are no answers here. But, Tempest’s way of articulating her own questions and of naming what we are facing feels galvanizing. I am not buried in despair; not buoyed by hope. Rather, I am steeled for the fight. And, for joining in common cause with those who listen to this album and nod their heads to the rhythms and the rhymes of an artist who is looking behind the curtain of the world around us.
Last night, I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the first time. This morning, I am still transfixed and in a bit of a fog; still caught up in the artistry, grace, power, and emotion of the performances. Marking the 60th anniversary of the company, Ailey 60spanned decades. There were classic pieces choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself in the 1960s to the music of traditional hymns and spirituals (the famous “Revelations”), modern pieces danced to funk, disco, and hip-hop of the early 1980s (“Stack-Up”), and a visceral, highly charged performance choreographed incredibly by Robert Battle in 2003 to an incredibly bold and modern original composition for orchestra by John Mackey (“Juba”).
Each were beyond remarkable.
Musically, however, I was particularly taken with the selections for the newest piece, a beautiful blend of modern and African dance completed in 2018 and titled “The Call.”
It features three distinct pieces of music, the last one titled, The Love from the album Drum Love, which is the soundtrack to a play of the same title featuring the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation drummers led by Yao Ababio and Osei Ababio. I got lost in this music and the dancing was so well-choreographed to it; all fluid movements, deeply soulful, patient and quiet, while conveying strength and pride.
Two solid weeks of a mixture of vacation and work travel put a dent in my blogging schedule, but I’m back…so let’s get after it!
A bunch of great music has come out since my last post, but Loyle Carner’s sophomore album Not Waving, But Drowning is a stand out. His 2017 debut record Yesterday’s Gone completely floored me and remains one of my favorite albums from that year. Carner blends intelligent, thoughtful lyrics with deft flow, well-crafted, soulful beats, and a low-toned delivery touched with a very characteristic (to this American) South London accent.
All of that continues on this second album, which, like the first is a true record: chock full of captivating songs that are thematically and sonicially cohesive. Carner gets even more introspective and candid here — and matches that inner searching with a hushed sound, generally consistent tempo, and sparse beats, often just with just a simple beat/bass line and piano/keys. There are breaks in the reverie (the single You Don’t Know is a great listen), but generally this is a steady, hushed head-nodder that strips away noise to focus attention on lyrics that Carner seems intent on conveying .
There are love songs honoring both his mother and his girlfriend. Songs about living with ADHD, vulnerability and masculinity, and feeling generally lost in the world. Songs about identity, like Looking Back where Carner puts pen to paper on his experience as being mixed race. In an interview with Apple Music about this song, he says,
“I don’t know if I ever really had a black conscious before. I wanted to, but I didn’t know if I was allowed to have one. Being too white to be a black kid and too black for a white kid at school, it’s something I think about a lot.”