The Ones that Got Away: Other Good Music in 2011

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here are a few other albums that I think deserve your attention from this past year. If you missed my top ten, head over to the Mockingbird Blog to check it out.

Return of 4eva-Big K.R.I.T
Big K.R.I.T. is a rapper’s rapper: he makes his own beats, writes his own songs and releases song-heavy mixtapes for free. The reason Return of 4eva didn’t find a spot on my top ten was due in part to the sprawling nature of the album. With 21 songs on the album, some of them just don’t measure up to the others. K.R.I.T. is at his best when his raps are personal and socially conscious, and those tracks are the ones that carry this mixtape along and make it stand out. One such song is Dreamin’ where K.R.I.T. tells his life story, his smooth flow sliding over a laidback beat, which acts as a counterpart to the personal and relatable final songs of the mixtape Free My Soul and Vent. However, the two best songs on the album find K.R.I.T. commenting on the perception of hip-hop and African Americans. American Rapstar’s chorus is a hard-hitting condemnation of the hip-hop lifestyle and what it engenders, while Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism’s (it’s an anagram) quiet piano and shimmering horns mask a potent social commentary about race.

Metals-Feist
The newest album from Canada’s Leslie Feist is beautiful and heart-rending, and would have made my top ten save for a few songs I just really don’t enjoy. However, Metals is home to some of the most beautiful songs I heard this year: Cicadas and Gulls, Graveyard and Bittersweet Melodies. And bittersweet this album is, filled with Feist’s tender voice ruminating on a broken relationship, emotional and fragile. It is a certainly a cathartic piece of art and more than worth your time.

Lasers-Lupe Fiasco
If you know anything about Lasers, you probably know about Lupe’s problems getting this album released and the eventual compromises he had to make with his record label. When Lasers is good, it’s very good; however, when it’s bad, it’s some of the worst music Lupe has ever put his name on. For an artist who thrives on his nerdy persona, slick, over-produced songs like Out of My Head and Break the Chain just don’t work. Fortunately, songs like The Words I Never Said, The Show Goes On and All Black Everything find Lupe at his best and are welcome additions to his best songs.

The Whole Love-Wilco
Shortly after arriving in Texas, I went on a Wilco kick and finally listened to some of their older albums like Summerteeth and A Ghost is Born. This minor obsession culminated with my purchase of The Whole Love, which is a perfectly good album, but can’t compare with albums like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It simply doesn’t have the same consistency as those albums, however it still boasts some fantastic songs like I Might, The Whole Love and the twelve minute album closer One Sunday Morning.

The next three albums definitely would have found a way onto my year-end list had I listened to them in 2011. Alas, I can only give them my stamp of approval now, and hope if you haven’t already checked them out, that you do so ASAP.

Bon Iver-Bon Iver
While I often have no idea what Justin Vernon is singing about, his music conveys emotion with such ease that it is hard to not be swept away. In that manner, Bon Iver reminds me of a Terrence Malick film: poetic, abstract and transcendent. Art like this is not immediately accessible, especially if you’ve never listened to Bon Iver before, but it’s worth the effort to appreciate.

Camp-Childish Gambino
I’ll come right out and say it: this is not an album for those easily offended. Donald Glover, known for his role on NBC’s Community, is also a very good rapper, and Camp showcases those skills much better than previous mixtapes he has released. Musically, the albums stands out, with luxurious soundscapes on the softer songs, and hard-hitting beats that let Glover’s explosive flow stand out. Lyrically, Camp reminds me of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as songs like Outside, L.E.S. and That Power are achingly personal, while others (Bonfire, Sunrise) are straight-up battle raps, pointed at Gambino’s haters. Despite some of these ill-advised jabs, Glover often takes aim at important social issues, which makes Camp an engaging, if paradoxical listen.

Helplessness Blues-Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues is a big album, asking big questions about life and love, and doing so with such grace that it never feels overblown. The folkish Americana played by the group transitions in between upbeat and slower tempos effortlessly over the course of the album, and often even mid-song, creating a musically well-rounded album. Considering that themes of purpose and growing older carried through the album, Helplessness Blues feels like a coherent work of art, not just a few scattered songs.

Positive Hip Hop: Lupe Fiasco

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Lupe Fiasco dropped his  first record, Food and Liquor, he made a big impression upon mainstream hip hop. It wasn’t just the way he rapped, his smooth flow traipsing across chill, laid-back production, but what he had to say that really put his name on the map. Make no mistake about it, Lupe has skills and uses them abundantly at times, but he has carved out a niche for himself in the mainstream by commenting on real issues with a ferocious intensity that is balanced by his nerdy personality.

Often, if you aren’t expecting it, Lupe’s commentary on social and political issues comes out of nowhere. His first two singles from Food and Liquor, Kick, Push and I Gotcha, were breezy and uplifting, showing off Lupe’s love for skateboarding and video games and his propensity for story-telling. The third single, Daydreamin’, is a completely different story, a hard-hitting satirical look at the current state of hip-hop as opposed to the actuality of the streets. Lupe strikes this balance between light-hearted storytelling and songs dealing with political and social issues on all his albums, but probably manages to do it the best on his debut.

American Terrorist, a song from Food and Liquor, is one of Lupe’s most politically-charged songs as he suggests that perhaps the true “terrorists” are the Americans who keep getting richer and richer while ignoring the poverty around them. Continuing in this theme is Words I Never Said, from Lupe’s newest album Lasers, a song that calls out everyone as Lupe lampoons the news media, the school system and those not practicing their religion seriously. He raps in the first verse, “Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts/If you think that hurts, then wait here comes the uppercut/The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up/Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.” This is only the start of the many issues Lupe addresses in this fascinating, polemical song.

While Lupe does often comment on political issues, that’s not all he focuses on. Being a committed Muslim, Lupe also spits about religion, doing so in a clever, thoughtful way. Also, like most conscious emcees, Lupe focuses on the state of the hip-hop scene, commenting on its shallowness and lack of deep conversation on important topics. Dumb It Down, from his second album The Cool, features Lupe spitting some rather complex verses, while a guest chorus encourages him to “dumb it down” because “he is going over other people’s heads.” I love satire, so this song is an absolute gem, as Lupe carries on what he began with Daydreamin’.

Another song off of The Cool which I find interesting is Little Weapon, a song that deals with children perpetuating violence from a variety of perspectives, drawing special attention to the plight of child soldiers in Africa. Some of the lyrics are particularly devastating: “Now here comes the march of the boy brigade…/The struggle’s little recruits/Cute, smile-less, heartless, violent/Childhood destroyed, devoid of all childish ways/Can’t write they own names/Or read the words thats on they own graves.” The lyrics help create a picture that hopefully creates awareness of the many horrible abuses of human life that were and still are occurring in Africa.

Lupe Fiasco is a complex rapper, going from up-beat positive songs like one of his new singles The Show Goes On to emotionally taxing, contemplative tunes like Hip Hop Just Saved My Life. In this way there is a little bit of everything in his music, a recipe that makes for a great all-around artist. A mainstream artist with independent tendencies in his music and socially conscious lyrics, Lupe Fiasco stands out as an impressive emcee who I hope continues to make music for a long time.

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