Czarface & Ghostface Killah – “Czarface Meets Ghostface” (Hip-hop)
Sci-fi B movie camp is the setting for a Wu-Tang reunion of Inspectah Deck (the most underrated MC of the Wu) and Ghostface Killah (responsible for the Wu’s best solo material). 7L and Esoteric join Mr. Deck to complete the supergroup CZARFACE, adding equally goofy production cues and bars. Any album that opens with “Macho Man” Randy Savage cutting a promo on the group is bound to be quirky, a quality cemented with all the czar-based puns (the World Championship Wrestling Pay-Per-View Starcade becomes “Czarcade,” Harlem becomes “Czarlem,” the producers are called the Czarkeys as a reference to the Marquees, Jesus H. Christ). Thankfully it’s more “Invaders from Mars” than “Zaat” (for those not acquainted with old sci-fi B movies, I’m saying it’s not half bad), though it could benefit from a bit more Ghostface verses. The rappers are more complimentary than pugnacious. But even if there’s nothing intellectual to all this, it’s still fun to hear old hip-hop heads drop some bars. Hell, they sound like they’re having a ton of fun with this. Bonus to Esoteric for his hilarious verse on “Morning Ritual,” a contender for funniest of the year.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium – “South of Reality” (Rock)
A crutch in the musical dry season is name recognition. So, here’s Les Claypool and Sean Lennon – one of Primus fame and one of John Lennon sperm fame – teaming up for their second LP; a concept album where they pick apart those damn millennials for their dependency on electronics with the veneer of late-’60s psychedelia.
It may sound as though I don’t like “South of Reality,” but that’s not the case. There’s the requisite Beatles worship that comes with Sean’s heritage, but “South of Reality” (the song and the album) is more reminiscent of early Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd; more “Astronomy Domine” than “Come Together.” “Blood and Rockets” is a formidable and catchy lead single that might receive airplay on those desolate vessels known as rock radio. The chorus soars above the music like the elder Lennon’s voice on the verse of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The two share a distinct high, nasally voice.
Even when they get too on the nose with their critiques (see Lennon’s awkward Tinder observation on “Easily Guided by Fools”), the music was complex and interesting enough to hold my attention. Claypool’s exceptional bass skills beef up the rhythm section a la Geddy Lee of Rush, and he lends his trademark weirdness to the project, his vocal contributions like that of a mischievous goblin. None of this is fresh ground, of course, and throwback rock inevitably falls into one of two camps; imitation and inspiration. Thankfully, this album exists in the latter.
Nas – “Illmatic” (15-Year Anniversary/Hip-Hop)
Nas was never the same after Illmatic. His debut album stands up after repeat listens as perhaps the hardest hitting of the ’90s gangsta rap albums. At the very least, it rivals Wu-Tang Clan and N.W.A., an impressive feat considering those groups depended on a cast of colorful characters to carry their songs. Nas does this himself, perhaps the most technically skilled MC from the East Coast scene. One second he’s relaying the street apologetics like “Life’s a bitch and then you die / that’s why we get high / because you never know when you’re gonna go,” the next he’s rattling off gang stories worthy of a Scorsese film on “N.Y. State of Mind,” his crown jewel.
However in the face of what Nas became, “Illmatic” can also be a cautionary tale to young artists pushing musical boundaries while struggling to find mainstream acceptance. While everyone was fawning over Biggie, Tupac and that childish East-West rivalry at the 1995 Source Awards (a big deal at the time, mind you), Nas was being snubbed of all mainstream praise. According to Questlove, drummer of The Roots, “Nas’ body language that day told the whole story of where we were about to go. The more he got ignored for Illmatic, I literally saw his body melt in his seat. Almost like he was ashamed. He just looked so defeated.” He received very little airplay and, in a tragic story that seems to repeat itself more often than not, pushed his sound to fall more in line with the radio.
The result was a phenomenal debut that led to a less spectacular career; like being served delicious jumbo shrimp for an appetizer, followed up by a three-day old Big Mac as the main course and a melted tub of supermarket ice cream for dessert. But god damn, that shrimp was great.
Woods – “With Light & With Love” (5-year anniversary / Indie)
I was gripped by Woods early: morally crushing works of stripped down, intensely personal folk such as “Rain On” and “The Number” stand out among the sea of sad white boi music produced in the late 2000s. By contrast, I was soothed by “With Light & with Love”; a move away from the dark dreary freak-folk of “Songs of Shame” to brighter, more hopeful pastures. “Shepherd” is awash with warm rhythm guitars and some country-tinged slide guitar, while the title track is an 8-minute psychedelic odyssey that weaves through dense, funky musical passages. Jeremy Earl still sings with his trademark falsetto (full beard and flannel retained), but his message is one of love over nihilism.
Perhaps Woods’ shift toward the light was reflective of millennial society at the time. Their depressed existentialism fit right in with the economic collapse of 2009, as well as a new wave of millennials struggling to find their way in a world that obstinately viewed them more as an ungrateful nuisance than an asset. But by 2014, the world had changed; Obama promised hope, and the economy was coming back. And those same millennials had found their place in this world through technological innovation.
And Woods found its way in the music world, fully grown from their days of basement recording to owners of a thriving independent record label. Their newer music reflects that, sometimes for better (as with their followup “City Sun Eater in the River of Light”) and sometimes for the worse (the ever dreadful post-Trump election battlecry “Love is Love”).