Kate Tempest – Holy Elixir

Kate Tempest’s new record The Book of Traps and Lessons feels like one of the most important artistic and political statements out in the ether today.

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.

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Concert Special! — Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, featuring “The Love,” Asase Yaa Entertainment Group

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 60 spanned 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.”

The Call by Ronald K. Brown from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

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.

Featured Image: Paul Kolnik

Loyle Carner — Looking Back

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 .

Photograph: Dean Chalkley/The Observer

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.”

I love this track and I love this entire record.

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Some Things I Missed in 2018 (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote a preamble for this little series. If you missed it and simply cannot move forward without context (I feel you), check out the post and the artists featured in Part 1 — Abhi the Nomad; Benny the Butcher; Elisapie; Flohio; Ivy Sole.

If you’re ready to get after it, here is Part 2: another handful of artists who released new music in 2018 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:


So I knew about Leikeli47’s 2018 release Acrylic when it came out and I listened to it then. But, I set it aside too quickly and I’m making up for lost time now. Leikeli47 is one of those artists (and Acrylic is one of those albums) that took me a while to process and feel. I chalk that up mostly to the influence and use of trap beats and sounds throughout the record. I’m not a big trap fan. Setting that aside, though, Leikeli47 is pure, uncut, straight fire…and once you’re in with her, you’re in. Her talent is off the charts. She has endless swagger. Her raps are tight, smart, and sassy. And, there is a lot to draw out of this latest record (her second full-length) because it is at once enormously fun and incredibly serious (centering as it does the lived experiences of black women and black womanhood).


I heard MorMor’s single Pass The Hours many weeks after it’s December 2018 release, but I haven’t really stopped listening to it since. A couple of days will go by without a spin, sure, but like an addict, I’m back for more soon enough. I didn’t know about MorMor before hearing this track, but it hooked me onto him immediately. The song is a total mash-up of styles, but manages to sound timeless to me. It blends bedroom pop cool with easy-going, soulful 70s vintage folk guitar melodies and glittering 80s synths near the song’s tail end. Meanwhile, Mor Mor’s voice has shades of Art Garfunkel in the verses and a Marvin Gaye-inspired falsetto in the chorus. It feels like a nearly perfect song.

Rayana Jay

Rayana Jay’s Do That is another late 2018 release single that didn’t land for me until the first part of 2019, but has been in steady rotation since. A new discovery for me, everything about Rayana Jay‘s performance on this track is just so incredibly smooth and warm. Her buttery voice sounds effortless and takes center stage, riding over a thick downbeat, great keyboards, and a slightly choppy electric guitar. It’s all the smooth, soulful goodness of 90s/00s R&B and she is completely in the cut with that vibe on this song. Rayana Jay just dropped a new EP last week, Love Me Like, so there’s new stuff to listen to that I won’t miss this time around.

Ryley Walker

I honestly don’t know who comes out better when I listen to this track: Ryley Walker for adapting and covering it or Dave Matthews Band for writing it in the first place. I know a lot about the latter artist; not much at all about the former. This track allow me to revisit a band and rediscover a song that I haven’t listened to in years, while discovering an artist whose normal work — a highly experimental fusion of psychedelic prog-rock, folk, jazz rock — likely wouldn’t have grabbed me. Walker’s family straight-ahead version of Grace is Gone (released in November 2018 as part of a full-album cover of The Lillywhite Sessions, DMB’s infamous “lost” record) hit me like a depth charge. Walker brings the original, haunting, wounded lyrics to the forefront with a gentle voice, quiet melody and bass guitar accompaniments, and the soft backing rhythm of a simple shaker. The song takes on added weight in light of Walker’s own struggles with addiction and depression, which recently caused him to cancel a spring European tour.

Sonámbulo Psicotropical

Another credit to NPR here — this time to Alt-Latino host Felix Contreras for featuring this killer band, which fuses African rhythms with traditional and modern Latin American melodies and beats into a self-defined (?) new genre “psycho tropical.” Sonámbulo Psicotropical includes band members from Costa Rica, Cuba, Colombia and El Salvador and so they pack in a ton of culture and influences into their sound. What drew them to me is that their music is just so damn funky and so much fun and so full of life. Afrujo — one of the lead tracks off their 2018 EP Domitila y Su Jardin — is my young daughter’s new favorite song, so, thankfully, I get to listen to it all. of. the. time.

Your Smith

I don’t always go for 80s-style pop tracks, complete with Casio-keyboard-produced handclaps, but I went for this one. Hard. Your Smith (who formerly performed as Caroline Smith) included this track and three others on her debut EP Bad Habit, released August 2018. Debbie is an incredibly infectious, endearing, breezy, and confidently cool track; a song whose lyrics talk about love/hate relationships and whose music calls to mind a hand-shot, quirky, music video of high-school misfits rocking out, not giving any shits, and taunting the jocks.

Some Things I Missed in 2018 (Part 1)

We just passed the quarter pole of 2019 and, as the music world gears up for the spring/summer release cycle and tour season, I’m looking backward.

2018, you say? Whaaaa? That was so. long. ago!

Yeah, but see….it kind of wasn’t. And, given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — culminating with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist firehose 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 SXSW highlights.

Preamble over. Here is Part 1 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2018 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:

Abhi The Nomad

While my attention was focused on Naji’s new record at the end of 2018 (deservedly, IMO), I missed the effort of this fellow trafficker in electronic-forward R&B. Abhi The Nomad’s full-length debut record Marbled is more pop-polished, but there is a similar use of warped beats, sonic playfulness, and tight production. This is one of those albums where the music (bright, often bouncy, with an overall pop sheen) belies some heavy themes and lyrics. There are a lot of layers here.

Benny the Butcher

An MC from Buffalo who has been lighting up guest tracks, collaboration records, and a handful of his own singles/EPs since 2016, Benny the Butcher dropped a monster album Tana Talk 3 in late November 2018. Benny is a clear descendent of the East Coast street rap tradition; gritty, sharp, sometimes dark/bleak beats tamed by raw, direct raps chronicling (not glorifying) his inner-city come up. Tana Talk 3 is a statement record; there is such flexing power to it.


Full credit to NPR’s All Songs Considered crew for turning me onto Elisapie during their build-up to and coverage of SXSW. I was completely new to her as an artist (especially as one who is not deeply rooted in the folk music scene) and as an activist. The depth of purpose and of personal power in Elisapie’s music is palpable and her 2018 release The Ballad of the Runaway Girl — her fourth solo album — is as vast and sweeping in its vision and musical influences as it is a deeply personal exploration of her own identity and representation of her Inuit heritage.


What is going on in London, man?! That city is doing R&B/soul better than most of the U.S. right now and it’s coming for rap too. Y’all know how gaga I am over Little Simz; well, here comes Flohio, another fiery, hyper-talented, London-based female MC is who is not playing. She released an EP and a handful of singles in 2018, including Watchout where she sends shots across the bow of any doubters and even flips moments of vulnerability to go harder, “I’ve been struggling to be myself/So why the fuck would I wanna be anybody else.”

Ivy Sole

Quoting from a write-up I did for Where the Music Meets, “Blend mainstream R&B, the 90s- and 2000s-era Brand Nubian-style hip-hop, a rich voice reminiscent of Indie.Arie, and sonic traces of both the Philly sound where she lives now and the gospel and soul afforded by her upbringing in Charlotte, NC, and you get a sense for Ivy Sole’s warm soundscape and easy flow. She released her first EP three years ago at age 22 and has been building her sound, her following, and her chops to her full-length studio album release, Overgrown, which dropped in September 2018.”

Little Simz (again) – GREY Area

A month ago, I featured Little Simz’s single 101 FM ahead of the release of her record GREY Area. That single was dope. The three other advance singles were dope. I was excited for the full album.

Fast forward to last Friday, March 1 when GREY Area dropped — and I promptly, and completely, lost my shit. This record is beyond In My Ear; it’s in my brain and my damn bones.

The album is next level. The rhymes and wordplay are masterful. The diverse beats are perfectly matched with Little Simz’s delivery, cadence, and her fire. It’s nostalgic. It’s political. It’s personal. It’s rhythmic and melodic one minute, and then bruising and dissonant the next. It’s anthemic, hopeful, confrontational, brash, and reflective.

It’s a statement. And, I am here for it.

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Featured Image: Jeremy Cole

Little Simz — 101 FM

As only the immortal James Brown could say it, “Good god.” This track is straight fire.

Hell, what’s crazy is that *all* of the pre-released singles off Little Simz’s upcoming album GREY Area, due out March 1, are equally, mind-blowingly ridiculous.

I am new to Little Simz and, man, am I glad to be here. Her rhymes are quick and tight with a welcome raw edge; her flow is easy and endless, and she’s backed by some insanely good beats. 24 years old hailing from Islington, England, Little Simz released her debut album A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons in 2015 at age 21 — following the release of four mixtapes and five EPs — and a sophomore album in 2016! Oh, and she’s also a well-know actor in England. I’m not that productive now at age *ahem,* much less in my damn twenties.

GREY Area cover art
Photo Credit: Jeremy Cole

But, back to 101 FM. It’s an infections, head-nodding-bobblehead-style track; up-and-down-up-and-down in time with the steady, fast-paced beat like your head’s on a tight spring. There’s a sample on loop throughout that anchors the song; a (stereotypical?) Chinese/East Asian-sounding melody played that sounds like it was played on a vintage Casio keyboard (like the one I had as a kid) and pulled from an 1990s-era video game. It fits the general nostalgia of the track, with Little Simz rapping about growing up and coming up (“We used to have dreams of getting out the flats / Playing PS2, Crash Bandicoot, Mortal Kombat”), making inside jokes and references to friends, and tracing the arc of years of grinding and her music-making life.

Just based on the four songs pre-released thus far, GREY Area is already guaranteed a spot among my top albums of 2019. No doubt. I can’t wait for the rest of the record to drop on March 1 and, meanwhile, will be digging hard into her back catalogue.

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Lost Ones – Nina Simone & Lauryn Hill (Prod. Amerigo Gazaway)

On the cusp of a new year, one more track for 2018…..from The Miseducation of Eunice Waymon, the latest record in DJ and producer Amerigo Gazaway’s series of mash-ups, remixes, homages, and imagined studio sessions with legendary artists — this time Ms. Nina Simone and Ms. Lauryn Hill.

Amerigo Gazaway

It is a fitting way to close out 2018. Blending the past and the future. Modern-day, clear-eyed, bumpin’ new music that blazes forward while paying homage to the history on which today and tomorrow are always built.

Cheers, y’all. Bring on 2019.

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It’s that time of year when schedules get stretched beyond recognition, late nights and little sleep take their toll, and I start to feel as if I spend the days and weeks locked in battle trying to wrestle time to the ground. Breaks in the action are to come by.

Hum is one of them. Three minutes and six seconds of pulsing, pounding,  gritty-but-joyful hip-hop, with a heavy, dank bass line that depth-charges at 30 seconds and is big enough to crawl into and hide out from the rest of the world for a bit. It calls to mind the bass line on Dead Prez’s Hip Hop; just a massive thrum. And, it sets the stage perfectly for NIKO IS’s trademark gravely voice and dexterous, creative, multi-lingual vocals.

NIKO IS has been one of my favorite underground and emerging artists of any genre over the past few years. Since releasing his incredible full-length debut Brutus in 2015, he’s been busy putting out a series of EPs and guest tracks. But, I’ve been anticipating a follow-up LP; Hum is the lead track off that album, Uniko, released on November 30. 

This track showcases all that makes NIKO IS so dynamic; bars for days, endless flow, absolute command of the mic, keen rhythmic sense, and an talent to meld together a vast array of cultures and musical traditions anchored East Coast rap and the sounds of his native Brazil. You cannot help but pay attention when he starts to spit. His tone and words crackle with purpose and urgency and an endless energy for the world around him, with all of it’s beauty, messiness, and diverse colors. 

Ahhhh, I’m so excited to have new music by this guy.

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Featured image by @mmiikkeeyy 

Masta Ace & Marco Polo — Breukelen “Brooklyn” (feat. Smif-N-Wessun)

Looking back on my 2018 posts (it’s December, baby, time to reflect!), I’m thinking I’ve underrepresented hip-hop as a genre given how much I listen to it…and how much good shit came out this year. Hell, just this past month!

Hip-hop is vibrant, man. Hip-hop is hummin.‘ There was so much content released this year, it was impossible to keep up, especially for this lowly non-monetized, side hustle blog. But, even a small sampling (say, perhaps, in the upcoming In My Ear 2018 Playlist?! Teaser!) showcases a dynamic, eclectic musical art form brimming with talent, ideas, and creativity–not to mention mind-blowing lyricism, bracing emotion, thick beats, soaring instrumentals, and point-blank political statements.

In the midst of all of that terrific and exciting clatter, original MC Masta Ace’s A Breukelen Story (produced by, featuring, and dedicated to underground East Coast beatmaker and producer Marco Polo) offers a calm in the storm for old rap souls and anyone with an ear for 90s vintage NYC hip-hop. Easy flow, robust album concepts and lyrics, and laid back, straight-ahead beats paired with spare instrumentals (especially piano). Throwback? Sure, but it sounds fresh and tight. It’s authentic, genuine, and eminently professional, so it fits right in — and even stands out — among all of the other artists doing their thing this year with beats and soundscapes that are relentlessly, excellently pushing hip-hop forward. 

The entire record just vibes, no more so than on this track–an homage to the BK.

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