A couple weeks ago I went down to Austin to experience my first SXSW Music Festival. There was a lot of bullshit going down but it was matched by all the unexpected experiences I had while down there. I'm being vague because my full day-by-day log of the festival lives over at Frank 151 (Read it!). Before you get into the recap, check some of the photos I snapped at the many showcases I went to.
1. Kelela- Cut 4 Me: What makes Cut 4 Me special is its production—it isn’t set up to be sang over yet it’s being contrasted with lyrics about failed relationships. The choppy sounds that give Bmore Club and D.C. go-go are more suited for warehouse dance parties but Kelela maneuvers through them with ease.
2. Kanye West- Yeezus: Kanye didn’t come to the table with a completely unheard-of sound, but for nerve and and being abrupt, he does get some points. Weird video game synths, industrial beats and an elevated level of fire and passion are the keys to this record. And even without his routine soulful samples, he’s still telling stories.
3. B L A C K I E- ONLY 4 THE REAL:Houston’s B L A C K I E is a fixture in the underground punk-rap scene with a small internet following. So naturally, his album, ONLY 4 THE REAL, was easily overlooked. But his pro-feminist practices in the pit, motivational sermons and healthy aggression are some of the year’s real gems.
4. Various Artists- Saint Heron:The first record from Solange Knowles’ label, Saint Records, Saint Heron is a masterful display of what modern-day R&B is and where it can go. The compilation features eleven artists including Jhene Aiko, Kelela, Cassie and Solange, who closes out. Atmospheric, foggy production topped with echoey vocals at its finest.
5. Migos- YRN:Champions of trap right now. Access to Zaytoven on-demand. Flows that haven’t been tapped into, and that would otherwise be annoying as fuck, slice through the insane production.
6. Drake- Nothing Was The Same:Albeit a douchey coming-of-age soundtrack for a bitter dude who’s always getting fronted on, Nothing Was The Same is Drake at his most polished. There’s more umph behind the rhymes, his confidence is at its height and his producer Noah “40” Shebib has never been so in sync with him.
7. Abdu Ali- Push + Slay:Some shit most of our music brains haven’t experienced yet. Categorizing it—damn near impossible. Rapping, creepy nasal chanting, harmonizing and screaming cut through the bass heavy beats. The theme of triumph vs desperation, mixed with extreme passion drive this where it needs to be.
8. Shy Glizzy- Law 2:Genuine street tales with the best voice in the rap game since Lil’ Boosie. Shy Glizzy, who seemed lost at times in earlier work, uses his nasal tone as an instrument over the slapping, trap-friendly beats. A collection of hard luck stories help you feel his desperation to make it.
9. The Weeknd- Kiss Land:Hazy, drugged out sound and echoey vocals crafted a modern classic with The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. On Kiss Land, his sound’s mystery has transitioned to a combination of gloomy and climactic. The crying victim and “too complicated for love” thing is getting old but the sound is still flawless.
10. Asaad- #COLDBLUE:Though much darker and cutting than usual, Saudi hasn’t spit like this in two years. It feels like a big audition; he’s showcasing his full repertoire of auto tuned crooning, flowing over soulful beats, diss tracks, endless bars. “Holy Matri” is one of the year’s best tracks. Feels like Asaad is onto something big.
11. Da Mafia 6ix- 6ix Commandments:It’s been more than a decade since this many members of Three 6 Mafia have been together but they show no signs of rust on their comeback tape, going by Da Mafia 6ix. Koopsta is creepy as fuck. DJ Paul has the best intros ever. Gangsta Boo and Lord infamous are still spitting like crazy. Just like old times. Even Juicy J put giving out twerking scholarships on pause to come hold it down on the outro.
12. Prodigy & The Alchemist- Albert Einstein:In 1999, The Alchemist produced two songs for Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik. Since Mobb’s gotten on shaky grounds, duo-member Prodigy & The Alchemist picked back up on collaboration with this year’s Albert Einstein. Alchemist’s syrupy slow beats topped with sci-fi and horror-movie sound effects has Prodigy sounding more menacing and effective than ever.
13. Chief Keef- Almighty SO:Keef is doing a lot with his voice; most of this tape isn’t strict rap. In place of spitting, a lot of times, he’s flowing and harmonizing. Yeah, he’s mumbling his way through raps, but he’s engaging. The autotune packed emotion is one of the key things to take away from the tape.
14. Chance The Rapper- Acid Rap:One of rare occurrences when someone is trying to come off as eclectic and it works. Acid Rap is rap, jazz, blues and spoken word all at once. There’s nothing new being offered here. It’s soulful rap and he sounds like so many distinguishable rappers wrapped in one...but it works out.
15. Matic 808- Yeezus: The Baltimore Club Edition:The first Baltimore club record I’ve been excited about since middle school. Matic made this shit fun again. The hilarious loops of Kanye’s most memorable lines like “Hurry up with my damn croissant!”, signature “ay”’s in the background, and bumping base make a more danceable version of Yeezus
16.M.I.A- Matangi:Nothing out of the ordinary for M.I.A, which is still better than the vast majority of shit. She continues to do what makes musical artists dangerous: creating meaningful, politically charged content and placing atop the best danceable production that’s out.
17.Marian Mereba- Room For Living Remixes:An up-and-coming singer out of Atlanta, Marian Mereba takes the atmospheric trend in R&B and layers her strong and calming vocals on top, in contrast to the airy, echoed voices that most of the genre's songstresses display right now. Each track is remixed by guest DJ's so, like Kelela, they double as dance songs. Her voice is amazing.
18. The Underachievers- Indigoism: Rap that rappers like. Issa Gold and AK reach back to their Brooklyn roots with the heavily-90’s influenced style in their raps. They also take it back to psychedelic rap, filled with hallucinogens, Egyptology and do-the-knowledge themes. If none of that gets you, the stamina they display by tightly packing words in each bar will.
19. Earl Sweatshirt- Doris: Somehow this album seems like it’ll hit way harder in the next decade. It’s free of hits and the run-on sentence flows are tailor-made for stoner kids eating chips on the couch playing Xbox. Earl’s unique and unconventional delivery of jam-packed bars make this album special.
20. Death Grips- Government Plates:This was a fairly disappointing record when you pit it against earlier Death Grips work but their give-no-fucks attitude and refusal to do the expected works here in patches. The first track bangs then there’s a scattered amount of gems within the album, which is 75% instrumental. Still, those instrumentals are insane.
21. Danny Brown- Old:Arguably the year’s heaviest rap album. It paints a vivid story of Danny Brown’s troubled past—mostly due to drugs (what he’s seen others do and what he’s done to himself)—and the chilling realization that he’s still an addict. Solid production that loses value because of his intentional compartmentalizing of his two extremes.
22. Tyler The Creator- Wolf:This album is a helluva lot more cohesive than Goblin, but its impact is minimal in comparison. A good deal of songs, especially in the album’s middle, start to sound the same and the Neptune’s influence is a bright red blinking light. Tyler’s vulnerability in “Answer”, his brashness is “Jamba” and his willingness to take the backseat in “Treehome95” are highlights.
23.Cabalerro- Laisse-Nous Faire Vol. 1: Cabalerro is one of French rap’s most polished newcomers. His production is a mixture of 90’s boom-bap and fresh samples from European classical music. He proves that he can flow anything thrown at him here. If you don't speak French, the sound and his style will still keep you engaged.
24. A$AP Rocky- Long.Live.A$AP:Some of the year’s best production, without question. But as the year went on, the absence of lyrical creativity gradually drop this album’s stock. “Suddenly” and “LVL”, where he’s talking about semi-personal stuff, shine the brightest.
25. The Internet- Feel Good:Typical musical from The Internet which, if nothing else, is the best background music in the world. Syd’s content is getting stale but the smooth production and harmonies are A1.
Bonus List: 10 Albums I Really Wanted to Like But Didn’t, Outside Of A Few Songs:
1. Blood Orange- Cupid Deluxe
2. Pusha T- My Name Is My Name
3. SZA- S
4. OG Dutch Master-Blue Light District
5. Young Thug- 1017 Thug
6. Gunplay- Acquitted
7. Sky Ferreira- Night Time, My Time
8. A$AP Ferg- Trap Lord
9. Kid Cudi- Indicud
10. Yo Gotti- I Am
It took me a while to let this dude fully in—probably because I was fanning out too hard on Death Grips for a while. But nonetheless, Houston's B L A C K I E has a contagious agro-approach to his brand of noise rap. When the tape's intro —"Girl In The Front"—hits, the intensity of his industrial production, the "listen up" assertion of speech and the "no bullshit" kind of empowerment doesn't dip throughout the entire project. He's especially on fire on two tracks, " B L A C K I E...is a wasteland" and "Revolutionary Party Vol.2 (Sex, Drugs & Illegal Activity)". The latter is a constant chant of "No time for fear" woven through by more-conventional spitting than B L A C K I E usually delivers over harsh synths. "B L A C K I E...is a wasteland" is the tape's hardest-hitting track; it's a big confessional "Fuck the world" coming at everything fraudulent. As the beat halts for an a cappella, he says, "I get pissed and piss on critics that get rich pitching bullshit with false lyrics/ Leave a lipstick on the tip of dicks of fraudulent major label dipshits with no spirits". It ends with a "LOVE MYSELF, I WANNA HATE THE WORLD." chant. Yeah, it's giving crazy energy. Really, ONLY 4 THE REAL is a firm, "This is how punk-rap is done". Go listen.
2. Cities Aviv- URL IRL
In the last quarter of 2012, Cities Aviv released one of the better projects of the year, on the low, with Black Pleasure. I still have yet to put that record on the back-burner but at the end of September (of this year) he dropped the first single from his Come To Life LP, "URL IRL"—a track that he produced which takes familiar sampling of soul/disco but instead of flipping that into rappity rap, he loops the sample, speeds shit up and makes rap that is actually danceable. To put it plainly, the song is fucking nuts. In what he describes as being a meeting between the digital world and physical being, "URL IRL" is a persuasion to wake up and realize what's really going on.
3. Kelela- CUT 4 ME
I'm just really happy that R&B is back. And no I don't mean back like "the good ole days". There are enough good artists in the genre now putting out quality material to have substantial discourse on the topic, which wasn't the case less than five years ago. We're really on a different wave in the 2010's—even if the better chunk of R&B artists are channeling 90's sexy, chill swag of Aaliyah, Total and R. Kelly. Truth is, they can't duplicate that era, even if that's what may be the motivation for some. Kelela did a great job with her debut album, CUT 4 ME, at exposing her influences all while fitting into a gap that wasn't occupied. Mostly all of her labelmates on Fade To Mind are DJ's and producers that specialize in meshing sounds from all genres and there's no difference in CUT 4 ME, except that Kelela is soulfully crooning over those sounds. "Enemy" sounds like it belongs in a video game or should be played at a rave, sans vocals, but somehow she made a way for it all to fit with fluidity. Here's to more weird R&B! This shit is so good.
4. Danny Brown- Old
What made XXX so good was the insinuation of carelessness throughout the album. At one second, DB was facing blunts and right after that he was giving a guide to how fucked up Detroit is and not far after, he was telling you he wouldn't conform to making radio songs. He did all of this while snorting Adderall. The seesaw effect was incredible; you didn't know what was gonna happen next, which made perfect sense for how his music sounded and how he looked. Old was an uncomfortable shift in pace. This time around (to both show people he could still rap the way he did before Fools Gold and to say "Fuck you, I did it" to those same people) he split his character in two. Neither side is bad; Danny Brown can rap his ass off and his delivery is entertaining enough to keep you engaged, but that becomes more difficult when he's forcing you to absorb only half of what makes him great at a time. The introspective, thoughtful Side A is a good insight into the root of his drug problems but it gets boring when you have to hear ten straight tracks of only that. Same with the wilder, "new" DB on Side B. We all like to drop Mollie and get high but bashing your head on a wall for nine tracks in a row after telling us how doing this shit is ruining your life and killing you, makes me uncomfortble as a listener and quite bored. Maybe that's the point? Maybe Danny is saying fuck everybody. But where will he go from here? My faves are "Torture", "Dubstep", "Clean Up" and "Smokin' and Drinkin'".
5. PARTYNEXTDOOR- Muse
I'm not fully proud of liking this song (LOL). Maybe because this dude's name is really PARTYNEXTDOOR and that he's basically Drake's attempt to have his own version of The Weekend signed to OVO, even if that version is a super poor-man's version. Going back to 90's-inspired R&B, this guy is all about reaching for that aesthetic, while still being heavily reliant on autotuning his voice (very now). He's your average Canadian singer that raps/rapper that sings (my assessment of "average" is solely based on The Weekend and Drake) about strippers, dudes who aren't cool as him and all that other passive-agressive jerk talk. But it sounds so good! I don't get it. My iTunes says I've played this song 128 times already and it just came out last week...WTF! Am I bugging?