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Posts Tagged ‘Fugees’

 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.

All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”

The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.

Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”

Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.

The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.

Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.

Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.

“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.

Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.

Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”

If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”

The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”

“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.

The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.

The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”

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As “Sesame Street” celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, The Daily Record examines five of the show’s greatest musical moments.

Johnny Cash – “Nasty Dan”

Twenty years after “Cry Cry Cry” appeared in jukeboxes, Johnny Cash was singing with Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. “Nasty Dan” appears on the classic 1975 record “The Johnny Cash Children’s Album,” but Oscar is the perfect foil for the number. Cash enjoyed his fifth season spin on the Street so much, he returned to Jim Henson’s world of Muppets. In 1980, Cash hosted an episode of The Muppet Show. Cash was also the inspiration behind the 1990s Sesame Street character Ronnie Trash, who sang about the environment in Cash’s classic boom-chicka style.

The Fugees “Just Happy To Be Me”

The Fugees immortal sophomore album “The Score” was one of the best-selling albums of the 1990s, but it wasn’t exactly kid-friendly material. Somehow, though, the divisive Elmo took a shine to the group and invited the trio to appear in his 1998 TV special. Although “Ready or Not” could have been adapted to a song about playing hide-and-seek, the Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean opted to cover a newer song in the Sesame Street canon, “Just Happy To Be Me.” Jean has returned to the Street several times since, but Hill and Michel are perpetually M.I.A. This once prompted Snuffleupagus to hollar “Where Fugees at?”

Stevie Wonder – “1,2,3 Sesame Street

Stevie Wonder between albums and at arguably at the peak of his career when he appeared on the Sesame Street in 1973. In a rare Sesame Street-Soul Train crossover moment, Wonder and his full band performed his recent hit “Superstition.” He then returned with the original number “1,2,3 Sesame Street,” starting a new talk box fad at kindergarteners across the country.

Itzhak Pearlman – Easy and Hard

This isn’t as much a song as a lesson with the greatest classical violinist of his generation. Itzhak Pearlman was no stranger to Sesame Street when he appeared in this 1981 clip. Polio is all but forgotten today, but the message on disabilities and talent still rings true.

Cab Calloway – “Mr. Hi De Ho Man”

Cab Calloway earned the nickname “The Hi De Ho Man” after his signature song, “Minnie the Moocher” became a hit in 1931. Half a century later, Calloway converted his handle to a greeting and performed on Sesame Street with the perpetually contradictive Two-Headed Monster. Calloway’s guest spot occurred during a late career resurgence. After spending almost a decade as a has-been, Calloway was back in the spotlight, thanks to his role in “The Blues Brothers” film. The movie was directed and co-written by John Landis, who was good friends with Muppeteer Frank Oz. Oz, who voiced Grover, Bert and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Yoda, appears as the guard who returns Joliet Jake’s belongings at the beginning of “The Blues Brothers.”

Ray Charles – “The Alphabet”

This bonus clip is from Ray Charles’ second stop on the Street in 1977. Although he’s just singing the alphabet, there are few artists who could make 26 letters swing so hard.

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Above: Norah Jones strolls through Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” at the 2008 Bridge School Benefit concert.

By Joel Francis

When Beyonce sang “a diva is a female version of a hustler” she probably wasn’t thinking of Norah Jones.

Jones has made her name with impeccable background music that is tasteful to a fault and straddles the line between folk and jazz. It appears she saves the more interesting facets of her personality for her side projects with the Little Willies, El Madmo, a punk one-off, and her burgeoning side career as hip hop chanteuse. Jones’ appearances with Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Wyclef Jean and Q-Tip prove there may be more than a little hustler in her after all.

“Take Off Your Cool” with Andre 3000 of Outkast, from “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”

Jones was a little more than a year removed from the massive success “Come Away With Me” when this number appeared. Both camps took shots from a surprised public. Andre 3000 was blasted for pandering by working with the reigning adult contemporary queen and Jones was flamed for lowering herself to the low level of hip hop. Of course, the final result proved all naysayers wrong.

Anchored by a finger-picked acoustic guitar, the gentle production wouldn’t out of place on Jones’ own album – that is if Jones’ stuffy supporters could get past Andre 3000’s greasy come-ons.

“Any Other Day” with Wyclef Jean, from “The Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant”

This song, which first appeared on the Hurricane Katrina relief charity album “Come Together Now,” has more in common with the Dave Matthews Band than the Fugees. Wyclef Jean’s acoustic guitar leads the way, but it is essentially Jones’ showcase. She affectingly croons the story of someone trapped by a storm, while Jean drops in a faux-Bob Marley patois.

A quick glance and the writing credit explains Jones’ prominence. The song is a true collaboration, with Jones and her then-boyfriend Lee Alexander sharing authorship with Jean and his producer Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis.

“Soon the New Day” with Talib Kweli, from “Ear Drum”

Even so-called “conscious rappers” aren’t above desires of the flesh. This celebration of one-night stands is draped across producer Madlib’s backdrop of smooth ’70s soul. As Talib Kweli boasts about his conquest, Jones’ voice surfaces like the first rays of dawn gently forcing their way into the bedroom through the closed shade.

Although Jones is essentially limited to one line, she makes the most of it, adding heart and emotion to Kweli’s calculated braggadocio. But don’t mistake Jones as the conscience of the story – there is no remorse from either party. She clearly enjoyed it just as much as he did, just in a different way. Despite their disparate deliveries, the two voices work naturally together – neither performer sounds of his (or her) element.

“Soon the New Day” is a stand-out tune on a great album that should have been a single.

“Life Is Better” with Q-Tip, from “The Renaissance”

This cut is essentially a jam, with Q-Tip and Jones giving props to hip hop pioneers like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Leaders of the New School and, of course, Tip’s close friend J. Dilla. Jones gets the song to herself for the first two minutes and she makes the most of it. It’s fun to hear her away from her natural reference points singing of hip hop songs “banging for you” against a thumping bass line and jazzy sample. Tip’s verse is a roll call of his favorite artists.

Jones’ strong performance in her most urban setting to date makes one wish she’d take similar chances on her own albums. But if she’s not willing to alienate her own audience, it’s nice to see her spreading her wings elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when she shows up on the next Snoop Dogg album.

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