The Beat Report: How I learned to stop worrying and love The Roots

By KYLE KERSEY

In case you didn’t know by now (or haven’t been paying attention, which, I mean, fair enough), The Beat Report is a bi-weekly music report on some of my favorite new stuff music has to offer. It will also will feature retrospectives on great albums celebrating anniversaries this year. No genre is off limits. Everything written about is recommended and encouraged. And if you don’t know, now you know.

Something New: Ariana Grande – “Thank U, Next” (Pop)

Let’s talk about the chart-topping elephant in the room: It’s similar to last year’s “Sweetner,”, an incredibly clean pop album that checks all the boxes: it’s catchy, it’s energetic, it’s … catchy. Oh, and it’s vulnerable. Very vulnerable. “Ghostin’” stands alone as the zenith of vulnerable pop, a ballad that runs over a sample of the now-deceased Mac Miller’s “2009” and bring more emotional weight than a cynical music critic such as myself would like to admit. “Bloodline” is, as the hip kids are saying these days, a “bop.” Same for “Fake Smile.” Clean, electronic pop has never been my cup of tea – and the leaves aren’t changing anytime soon – but I have to give props to a mainstream pop album that dares to be this reflective. Not necessarily my thing, but fans of Grande and the modern pop scene will treasure this like no other. (“Fake Smile,” “Bloodline,” “Ghostin,” “NASA,” “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”)

 

Theon Cross – “Fyah” (Jazz)

A month back, I wrote praises of the London jazz group Sons of Kemet, picking out the prevalence of tuba and rhythm as major reasons for why the album was so enjoyable. Well, it just so happens that their tuba player, Theon Cross, just released a solo album that mimics many of the cues that made “Your Queen is a Reptile” my favorite jazz album of last year. Slightly less attitude than his group work but with – you guessed it – an even larger emphasis on the low brass and rhythm (he uses his tuba like a bass guitar on “Radiation”), “Fyah” (a dialect interpretation of “fire”) is an energetic piece of afro-jazz that acts as a suitable companion piece to “Your Queen is a Reptile.” Nothing’s sexier than the low belch of a tuba. (“Activate,” “The Offerings,” “Radiation,” “Panda Village)

 

Boogie – “Everything’s For Sale” (Hip-hop)

Boogie makes his internal struggle clear from the get-go, declaring “ain’t no point in using weapons / ’cause I’m at war with my reflection.” Within all this, he’s keenly aware that he’s not the first rapper to reflect on his mental health – even hinting the genre might be oversaturated with them – but on “Everything’s For Sale,” his long awaited debut album (though he has three mixtapes), Boogie sets himself apart in his soulfulness. His voice, like a nasal Chance the rapper, suits the subject, bordering on whiny but never crossing the line. Most rappers are technically skilled. Few understand the importance of soul. It’s easy to see why he warranted a signing to Eminem’s Shady records (Em has the most tone deaf feature on here), as well as a cosign from Kendrick Lamar himself. Boogie identifies with many of the themes Kendrick explores “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and “Damn,” like placing artists on a holier-than-thou pedestal and the idea of self-destruction as a result of a negative environment. And while I won’t put him in the same class as Kendrick – he’s not the preeminent MC of the millenia – he does these weighty topics justice. (“Tired/Reflections,” “Silent Ride,” “Soho,” “Skydive,” “Live 95,” “Time”)

 

Something Old: The Roots – “Things Fall Apart” (20-Year Anniversary / Hip-hop)

Millennials will recognize them as the backing group for Jimmy Fallon’s iteration of “The Tonight Show.” But before they were backing-up Mr. Youtube-clickbait himself, the Philadelphia-born collective were at the center of a New York music scene bursting with creativity. Sharing time at Electric Lady Studios with genre greats like J Dilla, Mos Def, D’Angelo, Common and Erykah Badu (all of whom are worth checking out in their own right), “Things Fall Apart” was the most sonically stimulating album of its time, paying homage to jazz greats without being musically beholden to them. It’s an album that flew in the face of the trendy (and regrettable) “bling” rappers like puff daddy and ever-popular gangster rap of DMX. Nothing in hip-hop was this diverse, this musically experimental, this thoughtful (pun intended). Praise Questlove for the incessantly funky beats. Praise Black Thought for the spiritually fulfilling and the politically savvy bars, an MC that embodies the phrase “conscious hip-hop.” While other rappers are focused on crafting rhymes, the Roots focused on crafting songs. Oh, and the album artwork is just the best. (“Dynamite,” “The Next Movement,” “Double Trouble,” “Don’t See Us,” “You Got Me”)

 

Pavement – “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” (25-Year Anniversary / Rock)

Storming out of the ’90s scene at the big S – that’s Stockton, California, not Seattle, mind you – Pavement’s second album is their best: a barrage of alternative rock (see Weezer’s “Blue Album”) and indie sensibilities (termed slacker rock by the haters) that cemented not only the band, but the indie-darling status of the Matador Label that produced it. In one breath, Stephen Malkmus (the lead songwriter for those not in the know) will spill a poignant maxim like “you gotta pay your dues before you can pay the rent” or grapple with the end of the “rock ’n’ roll era.” The next, he’ll refer the Stone Temple Pilots as “elegant bachelors” and ask if they’re “foxy to you?” He’s wittier than any slacker has any right to be, mocking the mainstream rockstar aesthetic on the lead single “Cut Your Hair.” He’s also catchier than any slacker has a right to be. I’d question whether he’s a slacker at all if he didn’t mention riding a skateboard. All mid-’90s slackers rode skateboards. That’s their tell. (“Silence Kid,” “Cut Your Hair,” “Gold Sounds,” “Range Life,” “Fillmore Jive”)

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