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By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.

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By Joel Francis

In the two months since Chris Cornell’s latest album, “Scream,” appeared on store shelves it has been mocked by Trent Reznor, bashed by critics and ignored by fans.

There’s only one problem with this: the album isn’t all bad.

This is not to say that “Scream” is a masterpiece that will make fans forget “Superunknown;” it is a flawed album. But the biggest problem lies not with the album, but Cornell’s fans. The hard rockers who grew up with Cornell in Soundgarden and backed by Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave are unwilling to give his collaboration with hip hop producer Timbaland a chance.

Timbaland made his name in the ‘90s working with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. He cemented his radio-/club-friendly reputation this decade through collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls. None of these names are likely to impress Cornell’s hard rockin’ fan base.

The album bubbles, shakes and bounces with a consistency that surpasses Timbaland’s 2007 vanity project “Shock Value” and harkens back to his glory days with Elliott. Thanks to inventive interludes, the songs flow from one to the next, never letting the energy or mood flag.

And for a dance album, Cornell’s songwriting is strong. It’s hard to imagine many club bangers – “Hey Ya” aside – working well stripped to acoustic guitar and vocals, but it’s not difficult to envision Cornell performing “Ground Zero,” “Time” or “Long Gone” unplugged.

If this had been a Madonna album the public couldn’t buy (or download) enough copies. When Lil Wayne straps on a guitar and he’s praised for expanding his sound and showing artistic growth. Why can’t rockers do the same?

“Scream” is far from perfect. Lyrics have never been Cornell’s strong suit and he comes embarrassingly short several times on this album. Next to the rhythm, the chorus is the most important element of a dance song, and Cornell flunks badly on “Part of Me.” “That bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight time with multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals is the most egregious crime, but hardly the only offender. At other times, you can imagine Cornell and Timbaland standing in awe over a track they’ve created only to realize they need to add a melody and lyrics.

The dirty little secret is that Chris Cornell is the Roger Daltrey of his generation. Like Daltrey, he is one of the most powerful, dynamic and expressive voices in rock. Unfortunately, also like Daltrey, he’s only as good as the guitarists backing him. Supported by Kim Thayil in Soundgarden or Tom Morello in Audioslave, Cornell was great. Timbaland is obviously not a full-time replacement for Thayil or Morello, but he was a bold and inventive choice for foil on this project.

Although “Scream” is a pop album, it is not a naked bid for crossover success. Judging by the studied calculation of Cornell’s previous two solo albums, he knew the risks he was taking. Although “Scream” will be too rocky for the clubbers and too clubby for the rockers, it is an interesting leap that deserves a better fate and a second listen.

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(Above: Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, 1974.
All photos by George Kalinsky, courtesy of www.georgekalinsky.com.)

By Joel Francis

In his 34 years as Madison Square Garden’s official photographer, George Kalinsky has forgotten more games, concerts and events than many people could see in several lifetimes.

Kalinsky, who estimates he has shot more than 8,000 events, can be forgiven for having no memory of Bob Marley’s next-to-last performances in 1978, because what he remembers more than makes up for any lapses.

“November 28, 1974. Don’t ask me how I remember that, but I do,” Kalinsky said with a laugh. “Elton John was playing the Garden, and he surprised everyone by having John Lennon join him onstage. Those three songs they did together turned out to be the last time John Lennon performed before he was shot. The moment I captured won’t be there again.”

Several of Kalinsky’s favorite moments are on display for a current exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “Live From Madison Square Garden: From the Lens of George Kalinsky” opened May 1 in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall and will run through January 2010.

“I’ve always tried to paint with light,” Kolinsky said. “Shooting against a plain black background is not the most creative, but it’s what you usually see. These performers spend millions on lighting and effects. I always try to capture that as part of the atmosphere of the performance.”

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The atmosphere for the Rolling Stones’ Garden concert in 1969 was a frenzy. The show was one of the first arena rock concerts and the pandemonium was captured and released on the Stones’ great live album “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.”

“That was the first time I saw a buzz, a reaction like that in the audience. Everyone wanted to be onstage and the crowd started gradually pushing forward,” Kalinsky said. “I went under the stage and went on in the back and got some amazing shots.”

Getting the audience’s reaction to the band was the key to recording the moment, Kalinsky said.

“I think a huge part of the story is the people and how they react,” he said. “There may not be too many pictures in this exhibit of the crowd, but I always try to include them. Every audience is different, just as a circus is different from a track meet and hockey is from basketball. The audience is a reflection of the performance.”

The crowd at a 1974 Bob Dylan performance played a key role in a shot Kalinsky called one of the top two or three photos he’s taken.

“Dylan is Dylan, the hair, the body language, all of it connecting and seeing the audience reach out to him is beautiful and telling,” Kalinsky said. “With him, the words are so important; when I look at Dylan I try to capture the aura of the man.

“I want to get a little closer to see what his face looks like,” Kalinsky continued, “and how it shows the years, not in terms of getting older, but the years of performing with the audience and how that bond grows stronger and stronger.”

fullscreen-capture-562009-35709-pmbmpDylan played a key role in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at the Garden. Shooting both of those shows not only taught Kalinsky that music was the true universal language, but showed him how far the Garden’s stage extended.

“I was in a cab recently and the driver was from Bangladesh,” Kalinsky said. “He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40 years old, but he said in the hearts of his family and friends in Bangladesh they would never forget Madison Square Garden. They weren’t there (at the Concert for Bangladesh), but they’d never forget because that’s where people learned to help his country and family.”

Events at the Garden, Kalinsky said, “become part of our culture and part of our world. It wasn’t long ago we had 9/11 and that concert. Even if you weren’t there, you were there because everybody in the world tuned in to the Concert for New York City.”

What stands out in Kalinsky’s mind from that show isn’t the defining performances from Paul McCartney, the Who and artists with ties to the Big Apple like Jay-Z and Bon Jovi, but a moment backstage with Billy Crystal before he was about to go on.

“I asked him how does he project his talent when the audience is in tears and police and firefighters are holding up pictures (of their missing loved ones)?” Kolinsky said. “He said the hardest thing to do was be funny in the face of an audience who had lost so much.”

Although Kalinsky’s relationships and reputation allowed him backstage that day, he acknowledged access has been almost completely shut down from the early days when he would take pictures of Elvis Presley in the dressing room before his first Garden concert or Sly Stone’s groomsmen getting ready before Stone’s onstage wedding in 1974.

And just as backstage has become more restrictive, the window for taking performance photos has been confined to the first three songs. That doesn’t bother Kalinsky, though, because digital technology and automatic lighting systems within the camera let him do as much with those three songs as he could in an entire show in the days of film.

“However, in terms of taking pictures it always comes down to the eye and the moment,” Kalinsky said. “You have to recognize the moment and snap the picture. This is the most important aspect, whether you are shooting a concert, sporting event or portrait setting. It’s what I’m always looking for.”

Kalinsky’s duties have also given him a window on the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, Knicks games, scores of the world’s top athletes and personalities. This diverse shooting background has provided enough photos to fill eight books and exhibits from the Museum of Modern Art to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.

“The Garden stage, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, the Pope or LeBron James, brings out the best in every performer,” Kalinsky said. “Every day I walk into the Garden I say what a privilege it is to be part of this arena and the best stage in the whole world.”

(Below: A recent portrait of the Red-Headed Stranger.)

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Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

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Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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(Above: Raphael Saadiq runs the “100 Yard Dash.”)

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Raphael Saadiq’s latest album, “The Way I See It,” is draped heavily in the sounds of Motown and Philly soul, but don’t call it a tribute album.

“Boyz II Men did a tribute; I wrote a bunch of songs,” Saadiq said about his all-originals album. “This was not intended to be a tribute album. It’s more like a secret love letter to the people I love.”

People like the Funk Brothers, Motown’s now-legendary stable of musicians, and the other unknown musicians who “took music to the level where it is today that I can come out and do this,” Saadiq said. “It’s not just about Smokey (Robinson) and Stevie Wonder, but a bunch of people we don’t even know about.”

He plays most of the instruments on the album himself, but Saadiq recruited two Funk Brothers to help him get that classic Motown sound. Jack Ashford’s tambourine has graced classics like “Nowhere to Run” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Paul Riser, who arranged the strings on Saadiq’s album, has worked with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

“I brought Jack in because he added a sound I couldn’t have had without him,” said Saadiq, who performs Wednesday at the VooDoo Lounge. “With Paul Riser it was the same thing. You can feel the energy when they walk into a room.”

Having Stevie Wonder play harmonica on one song was ultimate validation. Saadiq even went so far as to introduce his guest like Wonder introduced Dizzy Gillespie on his 1982 hit “Do I Do.”

“Seeing Stevie walk into a room and play is something I’ve never gotten used to,” Saadiq said. “Having him play on this was a stamp of approval. I’ve worked hard for a long time to have him come play (on my album).”

The former Tony! Toni! Tone! singer, who named his first solo album “Instant Vintage,” is more worried about being called “neo soul” than being pigeonholed.

“Everybody knows I hate the term ‘neo-soul,’ ” Saadiq said. “If someone was playing the blues they’d want an old soul. I don’t want a new soul — then I’d sound like somebody on the radio today, which I hate.”

On an album with so much — ahem — old-school soul, Jay-Z’s guest spot on the final track, a bonus remix, probably surprised many listeners.

“That was Q-Tip’s idea,” said Saadiq, referring to the former MC of A Tribe Called Quest. “He was like, ‘You should put Jay-Z on this record’ and then went and got him, because I didn’t know Jay like that. Some people didn’t like it. They’re probably neo-soul fans. I did this for the other people.”

More on Raphael Saadiq from The Daily Record:
“The Way I See It” album review
“The Way I See It” caps the Top 10 albums of 2008

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The last time The Daily Record watched a complete Grammy Awards show, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” won Album of the Year. This year, though, we got suckered in by the promise of seeing Radiohead. (Have they won a Grammy? Wikipedia says yes.) This presented the perfect opportunity to do one of those running diaries like Bill Simmons does for ESPN. We not may be as successful, but the official wife of The Daily Record was glad her husband’s snarky comments were bypassing her ears and going straight online, where she could ignore them more easily. Enjoy!

7:00 U2′s new song sounds like Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

7:02 The lyrics to their new song “Get On Your Boots” appear on a large video screen behind the band. I wonder if this is what all the presenters will see on their Teleprompters.

7:09 Whitney Houston comes out to present the award for “Best R&B Album.” Forget Botox – cocaine must be the secret to a younger looking face.

7:10 Seriously, Houston looks like she has been stored in the freezer next to Ted Williams for the last 10 years.

7:12 The Rock is as good a comedian as he is an actor.

7:17 Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban paying tribute to Al Green is like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney giving props to Barack Obama.

7:21 First commercial break. High-powered bloggers use this time to make snarky comments about commercials too. Unfortunately, The Daily Record has no corporate sponsorship. We’ll use this time to do glamorous things like take out the trash and recycling, pull stuff together for work tomorrow.

7:26 For a second, I thought Chris Martin was Paul McCartney sitting at his Magical Mystery Tour piano.

7:28 Let the haters hate; Jay-Z is still great.

7:29 How come Coldplay get to play two songs? I wonder if Joe Satriani will come out. Probably not.

7:30 Coldplay’s Beatles motif is reinforced with their Sgt. Pepper jackets.

7:33 Although representatives insist that all Grammy performers will not perform to a backing track like Bruce Springsteen did at last week’s Super Bowl, you have to be suspicious. It’s not like the music industry is a bastion of integrity.

7:34 Why does “country” singer Carrie Underwood rock harder than “rock stars” Coldplay?

7:35 I have no idea what Carrie is singing. I think it’s something about how long it took to get her legs waxed. Damn them’s some shiny gams!

7:36 Carrie’s guitar player looks like Lita Ford’s daughter.

7:38 Why does Sheryl Crow, 46, look younger than LeAnn Rimes, 26?

7:39 Congratulations, you’ve won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We will now honor you with a 15 second black and white video clip. Why not let the recipients perform?

7:48 Hey, Coldplay just acknowledged my Sgt. Pepper’s joke!

7:49 Man, Kid Rock really, really likes Bob Seger.

7:58 Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are performing together for the first time, but they won’t let the guys playing acoustic guitars and bass onstage with them.

7:59 It’s really bugging me that they won’t let the band perform onstage. What were they told? “OK, here’s the deal. You four will sing backing vocals, provide rhythm support, fine, you’ll carry the whole thing – but we don’t actually want anyone to see you do it.” Was there not enough crawlspace under the stage to stuff them in there?

8:02 A seated Tylor Swift just said “If you’re 19, or even older, it’s still a thrill to stand on the Grammy stage.” Man, she is going to have a long time to be depressed.

8:03 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss just won AWARD. But even better news is that they’re working on a new album together.

8:05 This is why we don’t need a Whitney Houston comeback. Jennifer Hudson is both more talented and a more substantive person.

8:15 What the? Stevie Wonder is jamming with the Jonas Brothers. Half the audience is wondering who the old dude is and everyone else is wondering what he’s doing playing with them. Thing is, it doesn’t sound half bad. Then again, I’m a sucker for Stevie’s vocoder trick.

8:16 Any excuse to hear “Superstition” is a good thing. I’ll never buy a Jonas Brothers album, but I thank them for this moment.

8:17 Seriously, you know your songs kick butt when Disney-sponsored tweener heart-throbs can’t screw them up. Not even Celine Dion could ruin this moment.

8:19 I hear Blink 182′s next album is going to be a tribute to Def Leppard.

8:20 Do Coldplay have to mention the Beatles every time they take the podium? Pretty soon Ringo will be onstage with them refusing to sign autographs.

8:27 Don’t forget, Craig Ferguson writes all his own material.

8:29 Am I the last person on Earth to be hearing “I Kissed A Girl” for the first time right now?

8:30 Why is Katy Perry dancing in Carmen Miranda’s headdress? This segment must be sponsored by Chiquita.

8:31 Am I the only person on Earth to feel like he hasn’t missed anything by not hearing “I Kissed A Girl” until now?

8:32 I don’t know the song Kanye West is doing with Estelle, but “808s and Heartbreaks” is really growing on me.

8:33 Kanye is taking this ’80s fixation a bit too far. Next year he’s going to come out wearing a Huxtable sweater.

8:41 I don’t care how long he keeps wearing it, that earring is never going to look natural on Morgan Freeman.

8:45 Sean “Puffy” Combs, Natalie Cole and Herbie Hancock are on hand to present “Record of the Year.” One of these things is not like the other (in a good way).

8:46 Natalie Cole’s dress looks like a last-minute compromise from the outfit Lil Kim wore on the MTV awards a few years back.

8:47 Plant and Krauss just won again. Robert Plant might have the most successful post-supergroup career of all time. OK, maybe Paul McCartney – but Plant’s taken more chances.

8:53 They just gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dean Martin. I guess we now know why they don’t have these winners perform, but why’d the take him so long for Martin to get this award? He’s been dead for awhile, but he certainly had the sales and popularity when he was alive. Maybe next year they’ll finally get around to honoring Bing Crosby.

8:54 I’m not sure why M.I.A. had to secede the stage so quickly. How cool would it have been if Mick Jones and Paul Simonon came out to do “Paper Planes” with her?

8:55 Kanye, Jay-Z, T.I. and Lil Wayne’s performance together is being called a “historic hip hop summit.” The tour kicks off next month in Yalta.

8:57 M.I.A.’s polka-dot pregnancy outfit is sponsored by Buddy Guy’s guitar.

9:00 I can’t believe I’ve sat through two hours of this show … and still have 90 minutes to go.

9:01 If I were going to have Dave Grohl drum with Paul McCartney I’d give him something a little meatier than “I Saw Her Standing There.” Maybe “Band on the Run” or “Helter Skelter.” I’m just saying.

9:10 Feed just went out as John Mayer was accepting an award. I guess my TV isn’t much of a fan either.

9:11 Jay Mohr and LL Cool J is one of the most awkward pairings of the night. Then again, Jay Morh and anyone is an awkward arrangement.

9:15 Sugarland and Adele aren’t really performing “together for the first time” as promised, but “one right after another.” Eh.

9:17 Oh, here’s Sugarland. She added that one essential line at the end of the song.

9:23 Gwyenth Paltrow is wearing a mirror ball. Dance party!

9:24 Radiohead is performing with the USC Marching Trojans. Man, first those guys get to play with Fleetwood Mac and now they’re backing up Radiohead. I wonder which was more rewarding.

9:25 Someday, future generations will worship Radiohead like we celebrate the Beatles.

9:27 Is it still Radiohead when it’s just Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood? Survey says, who cares? Radiohead in any form is better than anything else we’ve seen tonight.

9:28 OK, better than everything except Carrie Underwood’s legs – but I’m still not buying her album.

9:30 If you are still reading this, you are officially my new best friend. Please leave a comment to receive a special prize.

9:34 Justin Timberlake is performing in a coat and scarf. How did he know snow was in our forecast?

9:35 The stocking cap on T.I.’s head looks like a reservoir tip.

9:36 I don’t think switching back and forth between two distinct songs should count as collaboration. It’s more like a musical debate where the listener always loses.

9:38 Recording Academy president Neil Portnow rejected the traditional tirade against music piracy to talk about MusiCares and promote a Secretary of the Arts cabinet position.

9: 42 Portnow is done, but I’m kinda bummed he didn’t bring up piracy. I had a great line to use when he did: “Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is still talking about music piracy. This guy is slower than Rapidshare.”

9:44 Not even Smokey Robinsons sings the Four Tops as well as Levi Stubbs. Rest in peace, Levi.

9:45 It would be cool if the producers rounded up the remaining Funk Brothers as backing musicians for this Four Tops tribute.

9:52 Neil Diamond is singing “Sweet Caroline” and millions of Red Sox fans are crying because their season hasn’t started yet. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, boys.

9:54 Am I the only one that finds it kind of sad that Diamond’s expansive catalog has been reduced to just one song? And that “Sweet Caroline” is that song? It’s like if people only remembered Bob Dylan for “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”

9:59 Paying tribute to Bo Diddley are Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer and Keith Urban (because you know if any two performers have influenced Urban’s style and career its Al Green and Bo Diddley). Best rhythm in rock and roll.

10:00 I make that joke earlier about Buddy Guy’s guitar and he shows up here playing a gold top Les Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him rock a since his days on Vanguard.

10:08 Allen Toussaint is supposed to appear with Lil Wayne with Robin Thicke. I bet those two would be surprised to learn that Toussaint has written more hits than both of them combined.

10:10 I wonder why the producers haven’t rolled out one of those “for the first time ever” duets between Thicke and Timberlake? Probably because no one could tell them apart.

10:11 Allen Toussaint with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Terence Blanchard falls just short of topping Radiohead for best musical moment of the night – but it’s close. No American city makes more consistently fun music than New Orleans (although a case could be made for Memphis).

10:14 Will.I.Am just congratulated Obama. Who could have seen that coming? Next year, Will.I.Am will receive a record number of Grammy nominations for his album “Obamania: Songs About Barack Obama, Because I Love Barack Obama by Will.I.Am (for Barack Obama).”

10:24 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss are performing with T-Bone Burnett. Krauss’ hair keeps blowing back. Now I know why Justin Timberlake was wearing a coat and scar earlier.

10:25 I love “Raising Sand” as much as the next person, but that album came out in 2007. Why are the Grammys acting like it’s a new release?

10:26 The Grammys operate on such a loopy nomination calendar that a band’s previous and forthcoming albums can both be eligible at the same time.

10:27 The producers rightly made a big deal of T-Bone being on stage, but there was no mention of Buddy Miller holding down rhythm guitar. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to give Buddy props for being a spectacular musician.

10:28 Album of the Year goes to “Raising Sand.” If it wasn’t going to be “In Rainbows” this is where it should have gone. (Seriously, does anyone else find it odd that both of these albums were released 16 months ago?)

10:30 Robert Plant started his career in 1968. You can fill a matchbook with a list of all tonight’s performers and honorees we’ll still be talking about 40 years from now.

10:32 Stevie Wonder is playing us home. See you in seven years, Grammys!

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By Joel Francis

It’s hard to listen to Raphael Saadiq’s new album, “The Way I See It,” without thinking it’s a lost Motown gem.

The record blasts off with “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a song that recalls the finer moments of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Later, Saadiq channels the Temptations on “Keep Marchin’” and “Staying In Love,” which features an effervescent call-and-response over a great rhythm.

The horns on “Big Easy,” courtesy of the Rebirth Brass Band, couple with an incessant guitar and snare drum to create a frantic atmosphere as Saadiq sings “somebody tell me what’s going on/I ain’t seen my baby in far too long.” Think Holland-Dozier-Holland lost in Mardi Gras and you’re almost there.

Saadiq strays from the Motor City to channel the Sound of Philadelphia for “Just One Kiss,” a duet with Joss Stone. Stone shows more restraint on this number than she did on the album Saadiq produced for her last year, “Introducing Joss Stone.” “Calling” starts with a Spanish introduction over flamenco guitar before sliding into a great doo-wop melody.

“Never Give You Up,” another Gamble-Huff-flavored moment, is the stand-out track. The arrangement pulls the listener in before Saadiq’s smooth voice kicks in, and the magnificent, swirling chorus seals the deal. That Stevie Wonder’s cameo after the third verse does not feel forced, speaks to the organic vibe Saadiq has not only created here, but sustained over most of the record.

The only misstep is the album-closing remix of “Oh Girl” featuring Jay-Z. While he offers some of his most soulful rapping to date – at points Jay-Z is nearly singing – the hip hop intrusion breaks the spell and rudely slams the album into the present.

Despite this, Saadiq’s third album is the best of his career. “The Way I See It” is more focused than his 2004 sophomore effort, “Ray Ray,” and tighter than his bloated (but otherwise excellent) debut “Instant Vintage.” From the sound of the guitar and the echo on drums to the mix and arrangement of the backing vocals, everything is spot-on. Even the timing is right – most songs are between two and three minutes.

Motown tributes are a dime a dozen. What elevates “The Way I See It” above the score of old school knock-offs is that it goes beyond the paint-by-numbers approach to inhabit and invigorate the true spirit of the music.

Below: The video for “Love That Girl.”

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Hip Flop

By Joel Francis

Two of this year’s most anticipated hip hop releases were also its biggest disappointments.

In August, OutKast released “Idlewild,” the soundtrack to their first film and the follow-up to 2004′s Grammy-winning smash release “Speakerboxx/The Love Below.” Like all OutKast projects “Idlewild” is bursting with a million ideas. Unfortunately, few of them are seen all the way through. Tracks like “The Train” and “Morris Brown” fire on all cylinders and are a delight to the ears, but they are also the exception. At 78 minutes in length, the album is littered with songs like “Chronomentrophobia” that hint at something bigger but end before jelling. The worst offender of all is the aptly titled “Bad Note,” a 9-minute dirge that goes absolutely nowhere. Some judicious editing and persistence could have saved this project. Instead we’re left with an album that’s ripe for cherry picking.

If “Idlewild” fails because it has too many ideas, then the exact opposite problem plagues Jay-Z’s “Kingdom Come.”

Jay-Z announced his retirement from rap three years ago and has spent that time releasing two albums with R. Kelly and guesting on numerous albums. Instead of returning from his so-called sabbatical refreshed, Hova offers us absolutely nothing new. The Jigga-man used to justify his thug, but now he’s justifying his age (37) and rehashing the same tired rhymes about his wealth, his game and his momma.

Unfortunately, Jay-Z’s not the only one phoning it in. His lyrical lethargy is unfortunately compounded by production is even less inspired. Two cuts recycle the samples that gave us MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” over 15 years ago. Unfortunately, these tracks shine in comparison with the limp and lazy beats provided by the usually-reliable Just Blaze and Dr. Dre. Put it this way: when the best and most original beat on the album is provided by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, you know you’re in trouble.

I don’t want to hear Jigga sleepily tell me how “30′s the new 20″ any more than I want to hear OutKast’s Andre 3000 ape Cab Calloway’s schtick. While it’s regrettable that two of the most reliable and original acts in hip hop have misfired so greatly, it’s comforting to know we only have to wait until next summer for redemption.

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