New Music: Migos – Culture II

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2017 in hip-hop was the year of the Migos. The year began with the continued success of their hit song “Bad and Boujee” after its intense meme-ification. They followed it up with the highly successful and fantastic album, Culture. The album kept the Migos in the limelight all year. They stayed busy, whether beefing with Joe Budden, member Offset’s engagement to Cardi B, appearing on the Quality Control: Control the Streets Vol 1., Without Warning, and Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, or being featured in a seemingly uncountable number of singles. Needless to say, the follow-up to Culture was a significantly anticipated release for the trio. Unfortunately the album only continues to feed the narrative that sequels are never as good as the original.

Culture II is a continuation of the Migos sound that was heard on previous album. Each member comes through with their trademark flows and ad-libs, even adding new ones to their growing repertoire. The vast majority of the album heavily features member Quavo, but the Migo that stands out the most is Takeoff. Between Quavo’s project with Travis Scott, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, and Offset’s project with 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Without Warning, hip-hop has been overwhelmed with their voices. The fact that Takeoff hasn’t been in the limelight as much as the other two makes every verse of his sound refreshing and unique. Standing out amongst the 24 tracks seems a difficult task when the album is so Quavo heavy, but on tracks like “White Sand” and “Notice Me” Takeoff delivers.

Despite being one of the few remaining rap groups in a time where most rappers appear as a solo acts, the Migos recruited top notch talent to appear alongside them. 21 Savage, Drake, Gucci Mane, Travis Scott, and Post Malone are only a few of those who provide their unique voices to the album, sometimes with a full verse or just a simple hook. The song “Walk It Talk It (feat. Drake)” is guaranteed to become a hit due to Drake’s presence and an infectious chorus. Not only did the Migos bring in top features, but they surrounded themselves with incredibly talented producers. As expected, many of the tracks were produced by DJ Durel and Quavo, with a few contributions from “Bad and Boujee” producer Metro Boomin. Two songs in particular are produced by surprising collaborators. “Stir Fry,” produced by Pharrell, and “BBO (Bad Bitches Only),” produced by Kanye West and Buddha Bless, are two of the finest moments in the dense tracklist.

Even though the Migos brought in a lot of talent to assist them in this album, Culture II is just is far too long. At 24 tracks in length, with no skits, the album has a runtime of an one hour and 45 minutes. The length begs the question of whether the full album is worth listening to, considering the same amount of time could be used to watch Disney-Pixar’s Oscar Nominated film, Coco. The extremely long length would be more palatable if the album were sonically unique, but many of the beats feel cut from the same cloth. The Migos only slow the pace down after 20 songs when they get to tracks “Notice Me (feat. Post Malone)” and “Made Men.” Not only are many of the tracks sonically similar, but there are many moments that feel phoned-in by the trio. The song “Open It Up” is nearly the exact same melody and chorus as “Deadz” from their previous album. Songs such as “Beast” are lyrically forgettable when repeating boring hooks like “She a lil beast (beast), she a lil, she a lil beast (beastie)”. Quavo’s influence as a producer is evident, as he raps the chorus in most of the tracks, which only makes the album feel more repetitive.

Even though the album’s long length and repetitive lyrics make it a chore to listen through, there are still the bones of a great album within the tracklist. If the trio and their management had stressed quality over quantity, they could cut the album down to a fantastic 43-minute album. Below is a better tracklist, where a majority of the filler tracks have been cut out.

  1. Higher We Go (Intro)
  2. Narcos
  3. BBO (Bad Bitches Only) [feat. 21 Savage]
  4. Auto Pilot (Huncho on the Beat)
  5. Walk It Talk It (feat. Drake)
  6. Stir Fry
  7. White Sand (feat. Travis Scott, Ty Dollar $ign & Big Sean)
  8. MotorSport (feat. Nicki Minaj & Cardi B)
  9. Notice Me (feat. Post Malone)
  10. Made Men

Culture II could’ve started off 2018 as another great year for the Migos, but the album just inundated hip-hop with too much of the group instead. However, modern listeners may not be looking for an album thats diverse and works a single piece of art. By throwing out twenty some odd songs, the Migos are asking that they get lucky and one lands a spot on top of the charts. This method may be more successful than producing well thought out cohesive albums and provide the group with lasting relevance throughout 2018. Industry forecasters expect Culture II to be the No. 1 album of the week ending Feb 1st, so perhaps quantity truly is better than quality.

Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun (1968)

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The summer of 1967 would go down in history as the Summer of Love after the counterculture in San Francisco was thrust into the spotlight. During that summer and until the end of 1967, some of the most experimental albums in Pop music would be released. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and Big Brother and The Holding Company would become household names. Established groups like The Byrds and The Rolling Stones would reflect their own experiences with psychedelics in releases that year. Amongst the groups that would capitalize on pop culture that year, the Grateful Dead would not have a major release during that time. Having not entered the studio to begin recording their follow up until September of 1967, The Grateful Dead’s second studio album, Anthem of the Sun, wouldn’t be released until July of 1968. However, the Dead’s new approach to their sophomore follow-up would prove to be their most innovative during the psychedelic era.

In 1967 after the release of their self-titled debut, one major change that occurs within the Grateful Dead was a lineup change. Mickey Hart, a drummer and percussionist, joins the group after meeting Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann at the Fillmore. With the addition of another drummer, the Dead’s ability to jam had grown and it shows on their approach to Anthem of the Sun.

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Grateful Dead at their home at 710 Ashbury St. in 1967. (L-R: Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, Pigpen McKernan, & Phil Lesh)

When entering the studio, the Dead had a more clear vision and determination for the album. In order to share with listeners what the experience of seeing the Grateful Dead was like, they devised a plan to blend both studio and live recording into each of their tracks. This vision produced five tracks, all written by members of the Dead which blend the sounds of studio and stage. This mixture proves to be exactly the kind of record the band needed to release. Anthem of the Sun clocks in at over 30 minutes long, despite containing only 5 tracks.

Side one on Anthem begins with “That’s It for the Other One”, which at the time was the band’s most ambitious foray into writing. The song begins structured, with Garcia singing softly over the melody, with a tone that invites listeners to come aboard. As the song breaks into the improvisation and back to structure, Weir comes in, singing lyrics that visualize a dream-like acid trip where he harkens back to Neil Cassidy and the Merry Pranksters. He narrates his own journey that led him to singing for the listener when he describes hopping on the bus Furthur that would eventually lead the band to playing at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. The song invites the listener to hop on that same bus as it careens through the four part track and ends in overwhelming, bizarro studio sounds.

The song then transitions near seamlessly into “New Potato Caboose”. The track feels more like an extension to the previous song pulling the listener back into reality. The clean and tactile sounds of guitar and bells are inviting, but then the song makes multiple odd tempo changes both in the “blood red” section and when they break into harmony, before returning the the tactile sounds again. When the track finally breaks into the jam after the third chorus, it’s a muffled start before Garcia’s guitar breaks through like a light in the dark and begins to guide the band through the improvisation. This section is really where the interplay between Hart and Kreutzmann is first prominent. The track ends abruptly with Pigpen’s organ and the final track on side one busts in. “Born Cross-eyed” is the shortest track on the album and the only “radio-friendly” tune. However, the experimentation on the track in both structure and instrumentation make it incredibly un-”radio-friendly”. The dark toned chorus is near impossible to hum. The rest of the group’s back-up singing and harmonies float in and around Weir’s voice making it difficult to tell who is the lead on the song. It breaks down into this wild organ-lead carnival tune that crescendos with spanish-style horns. The track oozes of influence from other bands at the time, sounding like The Byrds at some moments and the Jefferson Airplane at other times.

Side two begins with “Alligator” the first time Pigpen sings lead on this album. The melody is lead by the interplay between guitar and Phil Lesh on the kazoo. When the track breaks into the chorus, underneath layers of guitar, kazoo, and percussion, there is a melodic clarity by the piano. A third of the way into the song, it breaks down into an incredible drum jam with Hart and Kreutzmann and contains a great moment where Weir tells the audience, “Come on everybody, get up and dance”. “Alligator” really gets going once Garcia finds his groove amongst the drums and then prompts Lesh’s bass to kick the rest of the band in. By this point the song barely feels at all like the song it started as, but it works as being the best representation of who the band was in late ‘67 and early ‘68. Unlike “That’s It for the Other One” it doesn’t feel like a semi-planned studio track, it gives off the feeling of pure improv played at its finest. As a note, “Alligator” is the first track where Robert Hunter receives writing credit, which would be the first of many in his long career as the Dead’s lyricist. The track also leads right into the final track “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” which feels like a blues jam right when it starts. The live sound of Pigpen’s microphone, mixed with the call and response of Garcia’s guitar or Weir’s voice put the listener right into the club there with them. The drums continue to push forward at a lightning pace as the listener can hear the tape speed up and whirl out of control. Returning, the jam feels lost and like no one is on the same page. However when everything feels erratic and lost, Garcia once again punches through the noise and brings them all careening towards a crescendo of feedback. Out of the rubble, is a mess of feedback akin to Jimi Hendrix humping a speaker at Monterey Pop Festival. Though upon first listen it sounds like noise, it becomes clear that the Dead were truly experimenting here. They produce sounds that belong in a distant future, a reality where humans live amongst the stars. The end of “Caution” acts as the transcendent crescendo of the album, sounding like it would fit it into the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Kubrick, the Dead don’t let Bowman wake up in a room. They leave the listener out in sonic emptiness as if they’ve reached the end of the universe and nothing was there.

Overall, this album really feels like a learning process for the Grateful Dead. They begin to experiment in studio recording, much like The Beatles did in Revolver. However instead of building up slowly in odd sounds and instrumentations like The Beatles, they stuff a full semester course into a four-week summer program. The band tests out their ability to blend bizarre sounds into their already pastiche style by featuring such instruments as the kazoo, glockenspiel, chimes, and finally by using their own pre-recorded live performances as an instrument. The album is a strong release for the band that had been so heavily shoehorned in their prior album. It’s an absolute breakout for the young Bob Weir as a singer and songwriter. It’s a first-of-its-kind experiment that proves successful at blending studio and live recordings. Anthem of the Sun is the Grateful Dead pushing the sonic limits of eight track tape recording. The album reflects the groups misfortunes however. The Grateful Dead released their debut album too early to cash-in on the promotion of the San Francisco sound in the Summer of 1967. Anthem of the Sun would come out too late as most established Rock & Roll groups had already released their most experimental works and began to ditch the psychedelic sound by July of 1968. As the year rolled on and the post-Summer of Love counterculture clutched its hold tighter on American Pop music, the Grateful Dead would continue to search for their sound once more before the end of the 1960s.

New Music: Drake – Scary Hours

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Let’s be honest, Drake in the last few years has become quite the polarizing figure in hip-hop. As he continues to soar in worldwide fame and delve deeper into his dancehall tunes, hip-hop heads have become more and more disillusioned with the work he produces. After the mediocrity of Views (2016) and More Life (2017), any new Drake music feels bound to only feed the ever-growing feeling that his 2010-2015 prolific run is dead. Despite that the one thing that Drake continues to do well, is incorporate new sounds into (North) American hip-hop that become more commonplace amongst the genre. Drake’s increasing interest in putting UK-based rappers as well as UK Drill and Grime styles in his music could become the next big trend in American hip-hop, especially considering the success of Big Shaq’s comedy rap, “Man’s Not Hot.” Nonetheless, Drake’s latest singles only subvert the expectations of both mainstream and hardcore fans alike. 

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via @champagnepapi on Instagram

Drake’s first release in 2018, Scary Hours, is a two song single, reminiscent of the days when singles would come with an A-side and B-side. Needless to say, it’s quite a surprise based on his last two releases. The first song, “God’s Plan,” feels like a Views-era Drake song. He sings with autotune and uses that rapid Migos flow over the chorus. This style contrasts in the second verse, as the music cuts out, moves up an octave and reincarnates old Drake. The track, produced by longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib, contains a nice sweeping keyboard melody and a subtle, yet thick bass line. 40 does a great job improving a relatively boring beat with the perfect amount of interplay between the high-hats and bass to give the song more of a traditional structure.

The B-side single, “Diplomatic Immunity,” produced by Boi-1da and Noah Brongers, is a classic throwback to old Drake built upon a Wu-Tang Clan sample. Drake comes out with the elongated flow that made him famous, spending four minutes spitting bars about how he’s become larger than life and a force that can’t be brought down. The song lacks the traditional song structure and doesn’t force Drake to sing over a chorus. This old-school Drake style is a refreshing sound for longtime listeners who might have been worried that he had completely turned to Pop-Dancehall tunes. Boi-1da and Noah Brongers produced a fantastic beat with great timbre, separating the high parts of the drum track away from the bass. When the beat breaks down in the drum/bass solo and vocal sampling, it’s a welcome sound in the Drake catalogue.

Scary Hours is bizarre. These two songs don’t serve the new Pop-Dancehall Drake. Neither of these songs contain the beat or chorus to become club bangers. God’s Plan will get some Top-40 radio play, but that will be a reflection of Drake’s status as an artist and less of a reflection of his ability to make a catchy tune. What Drake manages to accomplish on these two tracks is tell his fans who were unsure about his last two releases that the “new Drake” is still the “old Drake,” and he will still drop bars, sing, and subvert expectations. Hopefully 2018 brings another Drake album, not a mixtape, and proves he’s still a great rapper, while still holding the title of a pop star.