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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
When Black Thought dropped his EP Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 last Friday — his first side project outside of fronting The Roots for nearly 30 (!) years — there was just no doubt I’d be featuring it this week.
And, I’m not even going to write much of an introduction. I don’t feel like adding context about the artist or giving a nod to the backing production or digging into the emotive content.
I just want you to do what I’ve been doing all week — kicking back and letting Black Thought’s seamless, hookless, break-neck rhymes envelop me.