Kaytranada: 99.9%

999Summer has officially arrived. In the past week, some of the biggest artists in the world released new music: Beyonce, then Drake, Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, James Blake… and relative newcomer Kaytranada. Kaytranada is a name you should get to know fast. A frequent Major Lazer collaborator and astonishingly well-established producer, 99.9% is Kaytranada’s debut LP. A jazzy, electronic tour de force, Kaytranada and his onslaught of special guests combine for a trippy album that is perfect for summer patios and the sun-soaked hip-hop playlists of bars and clubs.

Ready for some more name dropping? Kaytranada’s first album features Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, The Internet’s Syd, Little Dragon, BADBADNOTGOOD, AlunaGeorge, Goldlink, Karriem Riggins, River Tiber, Phonte, Shay Lia, and Graig David. That’s right. This thing is stacked. And yet Kaytranada himself stays at the absolute forefront, blending his instrumental tracks with guest features in a way that really draws attention to the production. And Kaytranada’s production is fire: a varied mix of club, hip-hop, and electronic production with elements of jazz and soul and the occasional world sample.

…And funk. This album is incredibly funky and so so fresh. Check out “Lite Spots” coming in at track 13 for a little taste of Kaytranada’s musical sensibilities when it comes to sampling and production. This shit is almost better than Jamie xx (but what is that sample??). Kaytranada arrives on the scene sounding like he was made to make beats for people; as though he should be producing albums for rappers like Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, and Goldlink, all of which he’s brought in here. “Glowed Up” is .Paak’s best feature to date, and he’s done a lot of them, from Snakehips to Domo Genesis.

Vic Mensa’s feature on “Drive Me Crazy” is similarly some of his best work to date, as he only has a handful of singles out, the most notable being “U Mad (feat. Kanye West) and “Down On My Luck.” Goldlink and AlunaGeorge similarly shine on “Together,” and River Tiber and Karriem Riggins sound phenomenal on “Bus Ride,” probably the album’s jazziest and most experimental instrumental track. “Weight Off (feat. BADBADNOTGOOD)” is another fantastic jazzy interlude (and a rare but pleasant appearance of real instruments on an electronic album).

99.9% is a goldmine. This is just a taste of what Kaytranada’s got to offer here, from tracks like “One Too Many (feat. Phonte),” “You’re The One (feat. Syd),” Leave Me Alone (feat. Shay Lia),” and “Bullets” (feat. Little Dragon).” The features on this album showcase some of the best emerging and established artists in the hip-hop and electronic music communities. Kaytranada’s debut is a force to be reckoned with, and you should soon expect to hear these songs in hipster bars and clothing stores. This week’s barrage of new music has provided a perfect start to the summer, and Kaytranada is poised to rise up like the sun.

Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.

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out a little less than a year ago, on March 15, 2015. The impact it’s had on black music over the past year is incredible. It arguably helped to bring jazz music back into the mainstream, and created success for jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Thundercat. Even an album like Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution wouldn’t be able to achieve the kind of success (both critical and commercial) that it can now, arguably, without TPAB. It only makes sense that a year on, Lamar should release what is essentially the To Pimp A Butterfly demos: untitled, unfinished and unmastered–the raw b-sides and outtakes that didn’t quite make the album.

It begins with a sexual spoken word intro over some light jazz before Lamar steps in. From the outset, “Untitled 1” establishes untitled unmastered. as an extension of TPAB; the backing track sounds familiar, and Kendrick’s rapping style matches that of the album. “Untitled 2” quickly rose to the top of the charts, and there’s a reason: it’s easily the most bass-heavy track on the album, and in some ways more so than anything on To Pimp A Butterfly. On it, Lamar swaps styles effortlessly, imbuing it with a sense of political commentary in the line “World is going crazy / Where did we go wrong?” while maintaining his terrific sense of pacing and the dialectic between the political and the personal Lamar.

“Untitled 3” is a major standout. Here, Lamar only gets more political, but through a philosophical lens, in which he imagines the definition of success through racialized groups of people. “The asian” sees success as coming from within, and worries about Lamar’s health; “The indian” understands power as being in the land (“Longevity’s in the dirt”), and tells Lamar to invest; “The black man” is motivated by sex (“A piece of pussy / That’s what the black man said I needed to push me”) and talks about living in the jungle and “playing in the peach;” “The white man” wants to make money off him (“Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99”) and causes him to “put a price on [his] talent.”

“I hit the bank and withdraw,” Lamar repeats as the track reaches its climax. “Put myself in the rocket ship and I shot for the stars,” he says, referring now to his personal success. On the song’s outro, Lamar validates “the black man’s” desire for sex as a basic need for reproduction: “Tell em we don’t die / We multiply,” and affirms the survival of the species. Running underneath the surface is a commentary on black extinction, both culturally and ethnically, as blacks are being shot everyday, but are also struggling to hold onto their culture, as black music is appropriated and taken over by the dominant culture.

On tracks 4 and 5 he extends these themes, and eventually treats them humorously in the outro to “Untitled 7.” “Untitled 5” is soulful and smooth, and sounds the most finished of all the songs on the album, bringing up the question of why he didn’t include it on TPAB.  Track 8 is from his most recent performance at the Grammys, and is fleshed out here, offering a catchy and compelling conclusion. Perhaps the best thing about this project, though, is what it does to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. When Kendrick Lamar can drop a brilliant 8-track album of TPAB demos out of nowhere, it makes TLOP, a forever-streaming Tidal exclusive, and its creator, the abominable West, irrelevant. Lamar has proven again and again that he’s Top Dawg of the rap world, and with untitled unmastered. he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

homepage_large.1192269bSometimes we have to separate the artist from the art they create. This is not an unfamiliar concept in music. Think Michael Jackson, or even David Bowie, who was thought by many to be a Nazi supporter for a number of years, and people still liked his music. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo is objectively a good album, and its breadth of features give it an immediate place in pop culture, but it’s not practical, or even that well thought through. Kanye has said that there are no longer even plans to release the album physically; rather, it will only be available through Jay-Z’s (awful) streaming service Tidal, forever streaming, a somewhat fitting place for an album on which none of the tracks have the replay value needed to become mainstream radio hits. There are, nonetheless, a few standouts. “Famous” is probably the most radio-friendly song on the album, sampling Sister Nancy’s classic “Bam Bam,” though it’s ironic that its also the track that most obviously perpetuates misogyny in the music industry, and it doesn’t give itself much of a chance with the opening lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.” The Life of Pablo works better as a concept album of sorts. Is the title an allusion to the Cubist painter Pablo Picasso? Or to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar?

Kanye has often referred to TLOP as a “gospel album,” and he certainly sets that up with the opening track “Ultralight Beam,” which prominently features Chance the Rapper. The Yeezus himself, however, doesn’t appear until the following “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” when he breaks the track’s gospel intro with the awkward lyric “Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’mma feel like an asshole.” By the time we get to “Pt. 2” there is little left of the gospel theme TLOP sets out with, and Kanye has fully returned to his position of autotune singer and backseat producer. The sheer number of people involved in this album makes it worth the listen, as Kanye used a think tank approach to get a number of people in a room together to create each song.

However, it causes the album to feel somewhat idiosyncratic, and it doesn’t hang together well as a whole. This is perhaps in part because Kanye kept changing it up until the very last minute, adding 5 tracks after “Wolves” that don’t seem to fit in at all. The inclusion of “No More Parties in LA (featuring Kendrick Lamar)” is a saving move, as it’s easily the best hip hop song on the record. “Silver Surfer Intermission,” which directly follows “Wolves” is a call from Max B, the “wavy” rapper who was a major talking point of Kanye and Wiz Khalifa’s Twitter beef back when the album was briefly called Waves. The song “Waves,” which appears in the middle of the album, is itself extremely forgettable.

The day before the album came out, pharmaceutical bad boy Martin Shkreli tried to buy exclusive rights to it for $15,000,000 and then apparently made the transaction through BitCoin but later took to Twitter to express his outrage when the album came out and he didn’t know where his 15 million dollars had gone. One possible explanation for the Tidal exclusive and lack of a physical release is that Kanye actually made the deal with Shkreli (he is in debt $53 million, after all), and that Shkreli’s offer didn’t explicitly stop Kanye from being able to stream the album. It’s also recently been reported that Kanye asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion dollars to support various unspecified projects, but Zuckerberg’s camp has since responded and advised him against making such requests over Twitter.

At one point on “Feedback,” Ye raps “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” It’s a fair assessment of the “Kanye” Kanye recognizes in himself on “Freestyle 4.” And he still thinks he’s Yeezus as well, as is evident on “Low Lights,” in which it’s purposefully made ambiguous whether the female speaker is talking about Kanye or God. While Kanye’s extreme braggadocio and penchant for saying things that make him sound like an asshole cause many people to either love him or hate him, it is undeniable that he has created some of the most challenging music of the past decade, particularly in terms of production styles, and The Life of Pablo is no exception. Will it stand the test of time as an exclusive to a streaming site that not many people are going to be motivated to buy a monthly subscription to? We’ll have to wait and see.

Grammys 2016: Kendrick Lamar Performs New Song, “Alright,” and “The Blacker the Berry”

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Major talking points from the Grammys last night included Lady Gaga’s performance of a medley of David Bowie classics, Taylor Swift’s speech after winning Album of the Year, which seemed to hit back at Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar’s politically-charged performance of “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright,” and a new song, in which he came out shackled in chains and with a prison-style backdrop, only to change into an African bonfire, and then took to a dark-lit stage with a single microphone to perform the new track. At the end of the performance, a silhouette of the African continent appeared behind him with the word “Compton” written across it. Watch the high-energy performance below.

Kendrick won 5 Grammys last night, including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song, but lost out on Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 and on Song of the Year for “Alright” to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.” Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” won Record of the Year.

James Blake: “Modern Soul”

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Amidst all the Kanye West madness last night, James Blake shared a stunning new track. During his BBC Radio 1 residency, he played a new song called “Modern Soul.” Blake’s new album Radio Silence is slated to feature Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and none other than West himself, although it doesn’t have a release date yet. On “Modern Soul,” Blake contemplates his career and finds himself at a crossroads, singing “Because of a few songs” and “I want it to be over” over and over again, making for an emotionally raw excursion into electronic music that sits with some of his best songs to date.