[Music] The Life of Pablo – Kanye West [2016]

tlopAlbum: The Life of Pablo

Artist: Kanye West

Released: 14 February, 2016

Rating: 6.5/10

If music is truly a reflection of its maker’s mind, then perhaps it really shouldn’t come as such a surprise that Kanye West’s latest effort, The Life of Pablo, is more mess than masterpiece. In an era where excellence in the genre is found in thoughtful, intricately assembled albums (To Pimp A Butterfly) and in powerful, avant garde production (Dirty Sprite 2), Kanye West’s confusing attempt at creativity misses both marks. The Life of Pablo, in truly Kanye fashion, draws parallels between figures as bafflingly disparate as Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar and Kanye West. The train of thought is clear; Kanye wants to show the constant struggle between his material and spiritual sides; a fight between his body and soul. It’s an interesting idea and if executed properly could have given the world another glimpse into Kanye’s infamously troubled psyche. Tragically, all the album amounts to is lost potential and a garbled message. The album is more experimental than any of West’s previous efforts, with a variety of styles and sounds deployed – and as is the case with any experiment, the results aren’t always pleasant. The trouble is that the album’s nature and diversity, along with the confused ideas Kanye infuses into it, leaves the album feeling scrambled, patchy and forgettable. Yet, for all that there are still bright spots to be found in The Life of Pablo even if most of the album is destined to be endured instead of enjoyed.

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[Music] Dopium – U-God (2009)

dopiumAlbum: Dopium

Artist: U-God

Released: June 23, 2009

Rating: 5.8/10

Good but just never good enough seems like the perfect way of describing U-God, his music and his career. Even when the legendary Wu-Tang Clan was at the height of its fame, U-God was never its most prominent member. In a collective filled with some of the most talented artists the genre had to offer, it seemed that he never had what it took to truly distinguish himself from his contemporaries. Unfortunately enough, he ended up just being known as that guy with the deep voice and his first solo album, Golden Arms Redemption, was lost in the torrent of Wu affiliated albums that saturated the hip-hop market in the late 90s. If you think that his 2009 release, Dopium, was created just to keep him even marginally relevant, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong but you would also be selling the album short. Dopium bears some of the hallmarks of the group’s early efforts but amazingly, none of the lethargic malaise that has tainted their more recent efforts. There are some solid bangers in this album and while U-God himself tends be stood up by his more talented guests, the album as a whole is altogether better than anyone would expect from a rapper long forgotten by the mainstream.

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[Music] Since I Left You – The Avalanches

SILUAlbum: Since I Left You

Artist: The Avalanches

Released: November 27, 2000

Rating: 8.6/10

The line between plagiarism and homage is an oddly blurred one in art. What constitutes theft and what inspiration? It is a distinction that The Avalanche debut and, to date, only album Since I Left You dismisses by taking the art of sampling to its logical extreme. Not a note in the album is ‘original’; borrowing from over 3500 other pieces, Since I Left You, depending on your point of view, is either an abomination, a series of cheap parlour tricks, or an honest, original work of art every bit as worthy as the pieces it is cobbled together from. These views are surprisingly not mutually exclusive – it is possible to think of the project as an unnatural musical bastard redeemed only by its aesthetic brilliance or to support the concept behind the album’s creation while not particularly appreciating the album’s musical qualities. Regardless of where you stand, the sheer creativity and resourcefulness the album showcases is indubitably impressive.

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[Music] Graduation – Kanye West (2007)

graduationAlbum: Graduation

Artist: Kanye West

Released: August 20, 2007

Rating: 7.7/10

“Stadium status”, Kanye declares on his third studio album, Graduation, and it’s hard to disagree. Influenced by his year touring with U2, Graduation is West’s attempt at creating an anthemic sound that he felt hip-hop lacked. He has arguably had mixed success in that regard, but musically, West once again produces a home run. Gone are the warm, homely soul samples from College Dropout and Late Registration; they have been wholly replaced by a much wider musical palette. Much of the range that the album offers comes from Kanye’s increased use of samples from the electronic, rock and house music genres. It’s all very new but at the same time, it’s arranged familiarly; it’s a little like walking into your home and seeing new furniture in the old arrangement. Lyrically, it feels like West has stepped back a little and simplified his style – it’s a shame since his delivery on Late Registration was dramatically better than on College Dropout and it would have been nice to see the trend continue. The new style fits the music better though, even if there moments in which it feels like the idea was better than the execution.

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[Music] Be – Common (2005)

22662_02_Com_BK.qxdAlbum: Be

Artist: Common

Released: May 25, 2005

Rating: 7.3/10

Common’s sixth studio album, Be, should serve as a reminder to hip-hop aficionados that the genre does not need to be dark or grimey in order to be insightful or inspiring. Working with his close friend and, at the time, rising superstar, Kanye West, Be is a return to much missed form for the seasoned Chicago rapper. Common sounds like he’s rediscovered the joy in his music and has shaken off the chains that seemed to hold him down on his rather disastrous previous project, Electric Circus. Even as he explores themes like poverty and overcoming adversity, the energy in his voice and the lyrical spring in his step belie Common’s love for his art. He is complemented by West in the prime of his soul-sampling phase – indeed this album sounds very much like a mid-point between the latter’s The College Dropout and Late Registration. For once though, West’s production doesn’t, and perhaps cannot, steal the album’s thunder. There is a fiery ambition in the Common we see on this album but tempered by wisdom and maturity; when he talks about overcoming adversity and fighting through the tough times, he sounds like the real deal, like a man with first-hand knowledge of what it is like to pull yourself out of a slump.

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[Music] 2014 Forest Hills Drive – J.Cole

2014 FHDAlbum: 2014 Forest Hills Drive

Artist: J. Cole

Released: December 9th, 2014

Rating: 7.8/10

Even after a bunch of mixtapes and three successful albums, J.Cole still seems a little like the new kid on the block. It isn’t talent that he lacks, certainly, and at this stage, it isn’t experience either. Critics have a variety of names for that elusive quality – stage presence, star power, the x-factor – but by any name, its absence is undeniable. In more concrete terms, it is best encapsulated in Cole’s self-confidence and self-awareness and the effects they have on his music. Cole and by extension, his latest album, 2014 Forest Hill Drive, suffer at the hands of that self-consciousness. He is just slightly too aware of his contemporaries and predecessors and as a result, the comparisons are ubiquitous (and not always favourable) and result in him trying too hard to differentiate himself, not realizing that most of the truly timeless classic hip-hop albums were created when the respective artists ignored their competition and just did what they came to do. Still, while he hasn’t learned that one lesson, he has still improved considerably in other areas. If 2013’s Born Sinner bored you, then 2014 Forest Hill Drives might offer a refreshing change – the production is sharper and with much more bite while Cole’s flows are tighter yet more diverse than ever. This isn’t Cole’s magnum opus by any means, but in many ways, it’s a strong, positive step in the right direction.

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[Music] To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar (2015)

CoverAlbum: To Pimp A Butterfly

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Released: March 16th, 2015

Rating: 9.0/10

Much has already been said about Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly. It has been analysed and deconstructed over and over again, in an attempt to pinpoint the core of its message. The album’s brilliance isn’t really in the hard won wisdom it tries to share but instead in the vividness with which Lamar describes his journey of self-discovery and self-realization. The album’s message, for all its political charge and social consciousness, is a fairly simple one – rise beyond your environment to become the best you can be. The specifics of how that message is conveyed complicate the album, but not its detriment. Kendrick describes the effects that modern capitalism has had on him and his peers, using himself as a cautionary tale to keep them from the evils of ‘Uncle Sam and Lucy’ while using the metaphor of the butterfly to compare those who were able to overcome their environments to those who weren’t. The album’s title, a new take on Lee Harper’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, reveals Lamar’s lofty creative ambitions. To Pimp A Butterfly is not quite as literary as its iconic inspiration, but given the difference in medium, its impressively close; with its mix of jazz, spoken word and hip-hop, the album is concerned less with being definitively hip-hop and more with getting its message across.

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