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(Above: Thievery Corporation gets the whole room jumping by firing “Warning Shots.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Dance ensemble Thievery Corporation took fans around the world and through its considerable catalog during its inaugural performance in Kansas City on Wednesday night at the Midland.

Although Thievery Corporation functions as a duo in the studio, onstage CEOs Rob Garza (turntables and keyboards) and Eric Hilton (guitar) expanded the board to include a horn section, a full rhythm section and a division of vocalists. Boston MC Mr. Lif brought a hard energy to “Culture of Fear” while mid-Atlantic Rastafarians Ras Puma and Sleepy Wonder imported Jamaican riddims and patois to “Overstand” and “Amerimacka.” Nearly every singer was onstage jumping around during the powerful “Warning Shots.”Many of the best moments, however, belonged to the women. “Garden State” soundtrack staple “Lebanese Blonde” featured Natalia Clavier’s silver tongue paired with Hilton’s sitar. French singer LouLou delivered a spellbinding “La Femme Parallel” in her native tongue. LouLou also was featured in the most organic moment of the night, when Hilton and Garza strapped on six-strings for the ballad “Sweet Tides.”Despite the globetrotting nature of the night, many of the songs featured similar downtempo beats and relied on textures to keep them fresh. As the band moved through trance, bossa nova and dub, detours into reggae, hip-hop and dancehall were welcome. “Vampires,” an anti-International Money Fund screed set to Afro-Beat, was especially energetic. I’m not sure whether the political message got through, but it was hard to find anyone not dancing.

The small crowd fit comfortably on the first three tiers of the Midland floor. The engaged crowd made the most of the ample space, letting the music inspire large, sweeping dances with plenty of room to move around. With no backdrop and a basic light show, Thievery Corporation relied on its music to inspire the audience, and it definitely worked. The constant movements seemed to close in the cavernous room and make it feel more full and energetic.

With the band and audience in complete simpatico, it seemed a little soon when the musicians called it a night after nearly two hours. It felt as though the spell could have lasted all night, especially given how long many fans had waited. It took 15 years and seven albums for the band to finally find Kansas City. Hopefully it won’t take that long for it to come back.

Setlist: “Web of Deception,” “Lebanese Blonde,” “Sol Tapado,” “Take My Soul,” “Liberation Front,” “Culture of Fear,” “Overstand,” “Radio Retaliation,” “Illumination,” “All That We Perceive,” “La Femme Parallel,” “Amerimacka,” “Vampires,” “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter,” “Unified Tribes,” “Assault on Babylon,” “Warning Shots.” Encore: “Sweet Tides,” “The Richest Man in Babylon,” “Coming from the Top.”

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(Above: Wiz Khalifa’s “Rolling Papers” did not make TDR’s Top 10 list, but was one of its most-played and -enjoyed albums of 2011. Don’t hate, dance.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every music dork with a laptop is publishing their Top 10 list right now, but who else does it in haiku? Enjoy.

The Black Keys – “El Camino”

Building on “Brothers,”
pair trades blues for classic rock
with pal Dangermous.

The Roots – “undun”

Best band on TV,
builds challenging song cycle,
from flatline to birth.

F*cked Up – “David Comes Alive”

Like being hit with
a sledgehammer while feet are
ticked with feathers.

Big K.R.I.T. – “Return to 4Eva”

The South finally
joins the Native Tongue movement.
Backpackers rejoice.

Stalley – “Lincoln Way Nights”

Thoughtful baller makes
Intelligent Trunk Music,
blue collar portraits.

Wild Flag – “Wild Flag”

“Portlandia” star
pairs with fellow grrls to make
punk for NPR.

Raphael Saadiq – “Stone Rollin'”

Soul sound moves to ’70s.
Norman Whitfield, Sly Stone
Don’t call it neo-soul.

Hanni El Khatib – “Will the Guns Come Out”

Raw rock on Stones Throw
Does Elvis, Louis Jordan
by J. White, Stooges.

M83 – “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

Two mine catalog:
Gabriel goes orchestral,
Frenchman goes retro.

Wilco – “The Whole Love”

Band finally brings
live energy to LP.
Best since “Ghost,” “Sum. Teeth.”

Read more haikus

Top 10 albums of 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2009

 

Top 10 Albums of 2008

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(Above: Jay-Z and Kanye West battle sharks and charm the Sprint Center crowd during a recent “Watch the Throne” tour stop in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Hip hop superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West titled their first joint album and tour “Watch the Throne,” but they could have just as easily called it “Where’s the Recession?” Seats near the stage commanded $200 while many seats in the upper deck went for $50. The asking price on tour T-shirts at the concert was $45.

That’s a lot to ask of fans in these times, but the deep-pocketed mass (12,000) that crowded into the Sprint Center on Tuesday night got a lot of bang for its buck. The gigantic main stage looked like a sleek aircraft carrier, completely bare, save a DJ and pair of multi-instrumentalists hidden in the back.

A smaller stage set at the back of the floor. The main stage was flanked by two gigantic screens. A dozen flashpots, including one above the stage, walls of light and the best laser show this side of Pink Floyd completed the visual extravaganza. Topping it all off was nearly two and a half hours of music encompassing three dozen songs, two-thirds of which were Top 40 hits.

West and Jay-Z appeared  on opposite stages. As the duo opened with five songs from “Watch the Throne,” the stages below each performer grew, elevating each man on a two-story cube of video screens.

After the initial run of duets, the two alternated pairs of mini-sets, never intruding on the other’s material, but often appearing to back each other up, as on “Run This Town” or “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.” A healthy sprinkling of “Throne” tunes ensured Jay-Z and West were never apart for long. By the end of the night the crowd was treated to 10 of “Throne”’s 16 songs.

Because there was no band, the songs stuck close to the original arrangements. This also meant that the rappers were the only people onstage. It takes a lot of showmanship to carry an audience alone for that long, but the number of hits, he amount of charisma and overall spectacle kept the crowd on its feet, dancing and waving with each beat for the entire set.

For the most part, the lack of live instruments didn’t hurt the material, but there were a few moments that were obviously strengthened by the supporting musicians, such as the guitar solo on “U Don’t Know Me” and keyboards on “Made in America.”

The tag-team of hits also contrasted the two performer’s styles. Jay-Z was more straightforward, wearing street clothes and devastating with his phonetic dexterity and intricate cadences. His big moments were frequently punctuated by pyrotechnics. West, on the other hand, wore a black leather kilt over his black leather pants and performed in near darkness, surrounded by lasers.

Each style brought its own high points. Jay-Z overpowered the crowd during “Public Service Announcement” and “On To the Next One” and had the house singing on “Empire State of Mind” and “Jigga What.” West’s best moment was an extended version of “Runaway” that found him standing atop a red cube on the second floor singing about his mistakes and ruminating on love. Completely invested in the moment, West dovetailed “Runaway” into another emotionally revealing number, “Heartless.” Later, West’s perfectionism got the best of him when he twice halted “All of the Lights” to fix a lighting cue.

For most of the night the set functioned like an meticulously calibrated mixtape, with each song setting up and naturally leading into the big number. Somehow the playlist got stuck on repeat during the night’s final song. Not only did the main set end with three runs through “N****s In Paris,” but the pair returned for two more takes as an encore. When the two left the stage for the final time it set off a series of sparklers across the state, but those fizzled in comparison to the fireworks delivered throughout the night.

Setlist: H.A.M.; Who Gon’ Stop Me; Otis, Welcome to the Jungle; Gotta Have It; Where I’m From; Jigga What, Jigga Who; Can’t Tell Me Nothing; Flashing Lights; Jesus Walks; All Falls Down; Diamonds from Sierra Leone (remix); Public Service Announcement; U Don’t Know; Run this Town; Monster; Power; Made in America; New Day; Hard Knock Life; Izzo (H.O.V.A.); Empire State of Mind; Runaway; Heartless; Stronger; On to the Next One; Dirt Off Your Shoulder; Give It To Me; That’s My B***h; Good Life; Touch the Sky; All of the Lights; Big Pimpin’; Gold Digger; 99 Problems; No Church in the Wild; N*****s In Paris. Encore: N****as In Paris.

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Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center

Fiasco Friday sparks Howard Beale moment

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 (Above: Hearts of Darkness are one of the biggest bands in Kansas City and a tough act to follow.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As a live entertainment, hip hop has a bad rap (sorry). The genre’s main criticism – no one’s actually playing instruments – becomes especially acute onstage. While great MCs can deliver a stirring performance backed only by a DJ, the two-turntables-and-a-microphone set-up is the hip hop equivalent of going unplugged. The safety nets are removed and the MC’s skills (or lack thereof) are on full display.

Although he has brought a live band the past several times he’s come to Kansas City, Snoop Dogg decided to forgo live instrumentation for his performance Tuesday night at Crossroads KC. Backed by a DJ, trio of dancers, two hype men and three gentlemen whose job it seemed was to hang out onstage, Snoop delivered lethargic readings of his most celebrated hits.

Ironically, Snoop undermined his set by making fans wait more than an hour by listening to a playlist from his catalog. The rap stars belated appearance seemed almost superfluous in context. After listening to pre-recorded versions of his music for so long, having authentic vocals over more pre-recorded tracks didn’t seem that special anymore.

Stage problems also hampered the evening. During the first song, “I Wanna Rock,” the lighting rig gradually started lowering in front of the stage. Unfazed, Snoop and his ensemble continued to perform, nearly obscured. When it happened a second time, however, Snoop stopped the show and addressed the stage manager.

“Why does this (stuff) always happen when Snoop Dogg come on?” he asked.

A spate of hits, including “P.I.M.P.” and “Gin and Juice” got the crowd dancing, but the performance seemed like high-spectacle karaoke or an infomercial with a great chorus. With his DJ doing nothing more than cuing backing tracks and shouting over the songs, Snoop would have been better served dumping the entourage and hiring a live rhythm section to breathe some life into the numbers. Although the crowd responded enthusiastically, the result was nothing that couldn’t be easily found at any of the city’s best hip hop dance clubs.

Opening act Hearts of Darkness didn’t do Snoop any favors. The 70-minute set by the local Afro-beat ensemble may have carried on too long for casual fans, but the interplay between the group’s large horn section and several percussionists kept the crowd dancing despite the withering heat. A cover of Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” blended well with the 15-piece band’s original material.

A half hour into Snoop’s set – and more than three hours after Hearts of Darkness took the stage – I succumbed to the weather and the hour and headed for home. The decision may sniff of Old Man Syndrome, but it turned out to be the right call: Snoop himself called it a night less than 30 minutes later.

The high point of the Doggfather’s set was watching the teenagers outside the venue, dance and party on dumpsters across the street so they could see over the fence and watch the rap celebrity. The group was having so much fun they even got a shout-out from the stage. But it’s hard to feel shortchanged when you haven’t paid anything in the first place.

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A Black Friday blowout
Review: Lupe Fiasco 

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(Above: “Go To Sleep” is one of many new songs rapper Lupe Fiasco has completed for his new album, “Lasers.” Despite submitting the album to his label two years ago, a release date of March, 2011, was just announced last week.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Today hundreds of young music fans will protest outside the headquarters of Atlantic Records in New York City as part of Fiasco Friday. A similar rally will also take place in Chicago.

The gatherings started as an frustrated discussion on an internet forum over Atlantic’s two-year refusal to release an album by rapper Lupe Fiasco. Inspired by success stories of similar incidents with Wilco and Fiona Apple, this new generation of fans want major labels to respect their voices.

“Lupe is just one part of a larger issue,” said 17-year-old Matthew LaCorte, one of Fiasco Friday’s organizers. “I would like Atlantic to stop interfering in the creative process of its artists and to help get a more positive message – a message like Lupe’s – on commercial radio.”

Tall requests, to be sure. Artists complaints of label meddling can be found in ever era of the music industry, and are a major reason why artists from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the Eagles have divorced themselves from major label. Complaints of commercial radio playlists have increased – while overall listenership has decreased – since the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed single corporations to gobble up more and more of the national spectrum.

 

Rapper Lupe Fiasco.

 

“Our goals mirror Lupe’s L.A.S.E.R.S. manifesto, which he posted online,” LaCorte said. “We want to alert people and tell the message of Lupe Fiasco, who’s music has a drastically different message from what you hear on the radio.”

In part, the 14-point manifesto declares an end to glamorizing negativity in the media, promotes environmental responsibility, individualism and political accountability, elevates substance over popularity and calls for the end of war and a “processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption and waste.”

But it will take more than T-Pain’s ubiquitous and chart-topping auto-tune to make these lofty goals part of any mainstream discussion.

“I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the rally,” LaCorte said. “I know we’ll have lots of signs and so some picketing. I’m planning on giving a speech, and I know we’ll have lots of chants and rally calls based on Lupe’s music.”

Oh, and Fiasco will be personally participating in the New York rally. In late September, Fiasco tweeted “well if y’all there…I guess I gotta be there too!”

“This started because we all wanted ‘Lasers’ to come out,” LaCorte said. “Last week Atlantic finally gave us a release date of March 8, 2011, so in a way we’ve succeeded. Fiasco Friday will be both a celebration of our success and a chance to protest issues we feel still need to be addressed.”

Fiasco is hardly the only rapper facing label resistance right now. Last week Nas raged against Def Jam’s refusal to release the second volume in his “Lost Tapes” series as part of his contract.

“Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago,” Nas wrote in his open letter. “I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my way because since day one I have been my own man.”

LaCorte said he was fine with Nas’ perspective. But when the original petition calling for ‘Lasers’” release was ignored by Atlantic, he knew it was time to make a bigger noise.

“Having fans protesting is not good for business,” LeCorte said. “But if we fans do this – petition, boycott, make phone calls, send letters and stand up for the musicians we admire – if we make our voices heard, there will be a change.”

Keep reading:

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: “How to Rap”

(Below: Howard Beale’s ever-relevant rant from the 1976 film”Network.”)

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 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

Keep reading:

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

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(Above: If you want to hang with Mos Def, Eminem and Black Thought, you’d be advised to do your homework first.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most common criticism of hip hop are, one, it’s not music and, two, anyone can do it. While the first complaint is purely subjective, it would be difficult to think anyone could agree with the second conclusion after reading “How To Rap.”

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Paul Edwards has assembled a comprehensive primer for aspiring microphone magicians. Incredibly concise, Edwards and his subjects cover nearly every conceivable topic, including rhyme schemes, recording and performing, in 340 pages.

A diverse palette of interviewees matches the range of topics. Edwards culls insight from conscious rappers like Gift of Gab, underground MCs such as Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif and gangsta rappers like the Clipse. Legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (who also provides the introduction), also lend insight. Local music fans will be delighted to read TechN9ne’s contributions.

At first glance, the text seems obvious. Much of the first section on content and styles should already be familiar to anyone with an interest deep enough in hip hop to pick up this book. Once the overview is out of the way, however, the book offers fascinating insight.

The flow diagram demonstrates how MCs line up their lyrics against the beats. The product is surprisingly similar to traditional notation and demonstrates how much forethought is put into delivery. This complexity is reinforced in the chapter explaining different styles of rhyming, rhyme schemes and placement. The pattern diagram ties these concepts together, allowing lyricists to illustrate how the syllables fall in their lyrics, pointing out repetitive patterns or other accidental traps.

Edwards stays out of the way, letting the artists break down each step in their own way. Not only does the reader learn this information firsthand, but receives several different perspectives on the process. Most of the time this format serves well, but sometimes Edwards’ narrative is repetitive. He frequently sets up a topic, only to have the first quote echo that statement. Edwards does a good job of editing the quotes, pruning the “you know what I mean” while maintaining each performer’s voice.

While a lot of the biggest names dropped frequently dropped among the pages – particularly Eminem and Dr. Dre – are absent, several of their collaborators, such as Lady of Rage, Devin the Dude and Royce da 5’9”, are able to provide insight in the missing legends’ creative process.

“How To Rap” lives up to its title, providing a meaty background on all facets of the vocal side of hip hop, while being slim enough to be stuck in a back pocket or jacket as the MC embarks upon the journey. Call hip hop what you like, but there’s no doubt it takes a talented person to do it well. Edwards’ book should arm the aspiring with the necessary tools for the scene.

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Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

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