Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What We're Listening To - Frank Ocean's nostalgia, ULTRA.

I had put off listening to Frank Ocean for some time. I don't really dig much of modern R&B, and his association with shock rap collective Odd Future just kind of turned me cold. We have plenty of hypersexed crooners rocking the airwaves right now.

But his crooning on Watch The Throne piqued my interest, especially his notes on Made In America (maybe they can book him for the MLK Memorial dedication later this month in DC). It was tender and pure, and at the very least deserved a longer look.

nostalgia, ULTRA. is a near flawless debut album with pitch perfect singing, brand name production, smart lyrics and a groove that won't quit. it is challenging in the most desirable way possible.

Frank Ocean (nee Christopher Breaux) released it for free on his tumblr in February after Def Jam signed and ignored him. Since then, critics have heaped huge amounts of praise on it and Def Jam is scrambling to figure out how to give it a formal release. The album, while not only great, is a perfect picture of everything that's wrong with major labels.

Ocean has a keen ear towards what makes good pop music. He's penned a song for The Beebs (which doesn't disqualify him... people's gotta eat). But there're no R&B throwback covers here. He adds new lyrics and soul to Coldplay's Strawberry Swing, adds more sex to MGMT's Electric Feel, and ups the despair and indulgence of Hotel California. Even Radiohead's Optimistic makes a cameo (if only to serve as his foil that "bitches" would rather listen to Jodeci)

But on the original tracks, the boards are turned over to super producers Tricky Stewart and Midi Mafia (behind hits like Umbrella, Single Ladies, 21 Questions). But that only serves to make them radio friendly for your ear. Ocean is an artist with much on his mind and his lyrics go beyond just being sexy. They're thoughtful, humble and incredibly self aware. Songs For Women is a peek inside his head on his music and why he does it. Lovecrimes is backed by Nicole Kidman's tirade from Eyes Wide Shut

Novacane could be your newest sexytime jam (put it on random with Washed Out and you've got an all night party), a compelling story of girl he met at Coachella and the incredible high she gives him. And if there's any doubt his voice isn't the real deal, We All try is magnificent.

Ocean isn't as corny as Drake and not as earnest as Bruno Mars. He's more nimble and intelligent than Trey Songz, and not as overt or agressive as Chris Brown. Hopefully nostalgia, ULTRA and Frank Ocean mark the turning point for sensual, thoughtful contemporary R&B.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What We're Listening To - JAY Z and Kanye West's Watch The Throne

The long awaited collab of hip-hop's two reigning titans arrived this week, after fits and starts and a lock down so tight no one heard it until they said so.

And it's good. Not great by any stretch, but it shows Jay-Z back in good form and Kanye finding the sweet spot he hit on MBDTF and keeping it going.

When H.A.M. dropped, I was admittedly not impressed. That gaudy single art, the lackluster lazy rhyming, the trash heap beats. Then came the threat of a full collab album, something Jay has quite frankly never been able to pull off. Need I remind you of Best of Both Worlds AND Unfinished Business? Not to mention Collision Course and The Dynasty.

And Kanye, notoriously a weak rapper, has been growing lyrically and eating Jay for lunch. Where Jay killed it on Diamonds from Sierra Leone, Ye destroyed it on Run This Town and Haters.

But here we are, and in a weird bit of alchemy, all these elements that together should make a miserable album instead create a solid experience.

They've invited a ton of friends to come lamp: Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver. It is an album that is singularly Kanye's vision in its scope, size and production. Prime example: they paid nothing short of a trillion dollars to clear Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness. It was 100 percent worth it and shows the two at their most comfortable. No hooks, horns and an Otis Redding that go nowehere, it feels simultaneously fresh and a throwback to early Kanye. Gotta Have It samples a skittish James Brown, with some assist from the Neptunes, you can tell this is going to be a party.

Jay-Z over his entire career has never dreamed this big (his masterpiece The Blueprint is remarkable for its restraint and smoothness). And at times he gets swallowed in. You would think New Life, a RZA coproduced track sampling Nina SImone would be perfect. And the idea is great: two guys rapping to their unborn children. But Jay doesn't do sentimentality (exception: Song Cry), and Kanye never sounds sincere (I find it hard to breathe in when the next track is That's My Bitch).

But when it shines, it burns bright. Niggas in Paris is possibly my favorite track on the album, built off of frantic rapping, a tapping high hat and synth, and some nonsense half bits from Ye and Jigga.

What is the end to this collaboration? These two have been appearing on each other's records for a solid decade now, so this is nothing new. I'm glad to see whatever falling out they had has been resolved. Ye still is looking up to his Big Brother, and in some ways, Jay-Z still needs Kanye to stoke that fire and hunger. But where this album leaves us I'm not quite sure.

Buy JAY Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne from Amazon's MP3 Store