Album Review — Jay Electronica’s ‘A Written Testimony’

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica finally arrived. Years of delays and mystery around one of rap’s most promising young artists at the end of the 2000s and early 2010s is over and now A Written Testimony is here. If you’re not familiar with Electronica, read this summary of the wild and unpredictable path of his life. Electronica signed to the legendary Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation nearly a decade ago. Now on his debut album Hov himself makes an appearance on nearly every single track. Imagine having one of the all-time bests in hip-hop as your side man on your debut album. That’s crazy! But it fits with Electronica.

The album opens with “The Overwhelming Effect,” which serves more as a vignette than song as it’s a monologue from Minister Louis Farrakhan set to a beautiful sounding instrumental. That’s one important thing to note up front with this album: for better and for worse, Electronica’s faith, The Nation of Islam, has a noticeable influence throughout. I don’t really want to give my opinion on the faith itself or any other religions for that matter, as I respect all people’s beliefs. So any commentary I have regarding the religious influences on this album are strictly from a musical standpoint (just like my criticisms of gospel music and Kanye’s latest album in the past on this blog). So as far as an opener, it’s fine and I guess gives a dramatic buildup. But I would always rather hear bars to open a rap album.

“Ghost of Soulja Slim” opens not with Electronica rapping, but Jay-Z. And I have to say Jay-Z sounds as hungry and fiery as ever on not just this song, but the whole album. His bars are catchy, have something to say and get right to the point. When Electronica makes his appearance about halfway through the song, he matches Jay-Z’s bars himself. But the song drags on too long with it’s instrumental at the end and the use of the clip of the kids cheering is really annoying. I feel like this song would have been better as the introduction track, as it doesn’t really have a point and has more of an introduction/demonstration feel to it.

“The Blinding” sees the Jays joined by Travis Scott. And it’s obviously a mainstream/streaming play with Scott’s inclusion. But it’s one of my favorites on the album, as Electronica opens up about the making of this album, the pressure of the buildup of the release and how he never wants to let his daughter down. Despite it’s shortness and Scott being kind of shoehorned in, the song does well at telling a great story and giving the listener an appropriate insight into rap’s biggest enigma. “The Neverending Story” has a fun and spacey sound that envelopes the listener from the beginning and I’m not surprised that it was The Alchemist behind this smooth beat. It’s perfect for Electronica to lay down some of his most clever wordplay on the album. I particularly enjoy these lines: “Spread love like Kermit the Frog that permeate the fog/I’m at war like the Dukes of Hazzard against the Bosses of the Hogs.”

Next is “Shiny Suit Theory,” a song that came out years earlier. I’m glad it’s included though because I love the bouncy horns and glimmering chimes that drive the beat of this song. Electronica himself produced this song and it sounds great. Once again this is a song that gives an insight into Electronica’s thinking and a conversation he had with P. Diddy before dropping his album. The bars from both him and Jay-Z are tight and don’t waste any time in getting to the points they’re making. I enjoy the dramatic production on “Universal Solider,” but the bars feel too same-y to me throughout and the over-reliance of religious references doesn’t work for me. And once again I think the song carries on a bit long like “Ghost of Soulja Slim.”

Jay-Z spits absolute fire over great production from Electronica on “Flux Capacitor.” He goes on the defensive over his deal with the NFL and again I love how in the latter half of his career he’s maybe dropping some of the best bars of his career. It’s unfortunate for Electronica though he’s getting out-rapped on his own song and album, but that’s what happens I guess when you have an icon as a sideman on your album. “Fruits of the Spirit” feels more like an interlude than song but it’s still one of my favorite moments on the album. The soulful production of No I.D., one of my favorite producers in hip-hop, and Electronica rapping his ass off (with a sweet Thanos reference to start the song) makes me wish this was a full-fledged song.

I enjoy the different, clinky sound of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and the inclusion of The-Dream as a feature is a great choice on a chiller, smooth song like this one. The bars from the Jays aren’t bad for the most part either. It’s just too long at six and a half minutes. The bars that are bad though is where Electronica raps: “It could be in Lagos, or Seattle, or Chicag-y/Hotel lobby Grammy after-party, it’s whatev-y.” It’s cringe-y and dumb-y. I do not understand why he felt the need to just randomly add y’s to these words other than trying to make his bars flow together better. Despite this baffling choice, Electronica redeems himself in a big way on the closing song of the album, “A.P.I.D.T.A.” Over gorgeous production from Khruangbin (who you know I’ve absolutely praised), Electronica absolutely pours his heart out over heartfelt bars about the loss of his mother. It’s heartbreakingly touching and beautiful personal song from Electronica that shows why his debut album has been so hyped. It’s without doubt the best song of his career.

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica does not live up to it’s lofty expectations and hype, but A Written Testimony is nevertheless a pretty good album. The production is definitely the strongest point of this album, as a cavalcade of all-star producers and Electronica himself create some exciting and interesting sounds throughout the whole album. The bars on this album are mostly good despite some bumps along the way and the overuse of religious imagery. More than anything I’m glad that Jay Electronica is finally releasing music and I think on his next album we’ll see something even better from him. But for now this is a solid debut.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review — Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats’ ‘UNLOCKED’

This was a project I heard about and got immediately excited and then I completely forgot about it. But I’m glad I was paying enough attention to still catch it when it dropped, as seeing Denzel Curry, one of the best rappers in the game today, teaming up with producer Kenny Beats, one of the most promising up and coming producers in hip-hop, had me excited at the potential of this team-up. And after listening to UNLOCKED, the duo definitely lives up to the hype.

Two things I have to point out before getting to the music: the album art is fantastic and a perfect reflection of what you can expect when listening to this project. It also has a heavy CZARFACE influence, as it looks like something you would expect for album art on one of his records. The other thing I have to point out is this was allegedly made in just 24 hours by Curry and Beats, which makes what they create on this short project even more impressive. 

Opening track “Track 01” serves more as an intro, as it features a sample of a PSA and some beats before giving way to “Take_it_Back_v2.” And right away Curry’s furious and forceful delivery takes control, spitting off bars with authority. The beat is sinister and modern, but you can also hear the boom bap influences that permeate throughout this song and the entire album, making for a captivatingly grimy appeal. The bars are humorous and flow together really well, as I especially enjoy the word interplay in the line “You fell in love with kali ma, but now it’s time to take your heart.” 

“Lay_Up.m4a” continues with the hard and funny bars. The most memorable line: “Surfboard body ass boy with your fish tits.” It’s such a fun, shit-talking flex song with some appropriately eerie, ominous beats lurking in the background. “Pyro (leak 2019)” is very much along the same lines, featuring some clever bars around Cee Lo Green. It’s a pretty short song though and that’s probably the biggest complaint I have with songs on this album. This is definitely an album where you need to hear it all together and not broken up to get the full effect of each song.

“DIET_” sees Curry brilliantly channeling Busta Rhymes, sure to bring a smile to anyone who enjoys this style of rapping. This is also the best and most complete song on the album, as everything just ties together perfectly. Curry attacks the beat and it has the best bars on the album too: “One man, ichiban, fresh outta Japan/Do as I command” and “And I don’t like Pixar, mist-er/I am the master, I came through like a (wait a minute).” The latter bar in particularly highlights how great Curry’s flow and approach to bars makes what looks awkward on paper, work so easily and smoothly in execution.

“So.Incredible.pkg” and “Track07” feature my favorite beats on the album, as they’re both smooth and surrealistic. It’s why I enjoy hearing Kenny Beats project: you’re going to get some sounds that you don’t normally hear in a lot of hip-hop projects nowadays. This different and fresh approach, while also drawing from previous influences in hip-hop, is why he’s quickly become one of my favorite producers in the genre today, as I wish more producers would “go out there” with their sound like Kenny Beats.

The album closes with “’Cosmic’ .m4a,” another song where Curry’s rapid delivery is right on point with memorable, hard-hitting bars. I harp on Curry’s delivery once again because it’s so key to what makes this album great. The songs themselves don’t have any big messages and are essentially bangers that focus on delivering fun bars. So many hip-hop albums are like this today and many are largely forgotten because the delivery just flat-out sucks. But Curry brings so much aggressive passion and rawness in his voice, along with his choice of diction in his delivery makes what would be an average banger into something that’s truly memorable. And this big reason is why UNLOCKED is the first great hip-hop album I’ve heard in 2020. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ZUU (an album I’m ashamed I omitted from my best of 2019 list), this is yet another high-quality project from Denzel Curry (and another great one from Kenny Beats too).

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Eminem’s ‘Music To Be Murdered By’

I can’t recall the last time I’ve listened to an album and upon the very first listen getting more annoyed with each passing song. But this new surprise album from Eminem fits the bill. At 20 songs long and over an hour long, it’s an absolute pain in the ass to listen to this album. It’s not fun nor interesting. The themes on this album are so cringy, corny and off-putting that I could barely muster a few listens. Eminem’s Music To Be Murdered By is an album so terrible that I’m not really sure where to begin with all of the things I hate about it.

Keep in mind I enjoyed his previous album (which was also a surprise) Kamikaze. Perhaps I should also preface that maybe I’ve just reached a point where I’m just tired of Eminem and his schtick because he does things on this album that at this point in his career he’s already done a million times. He takes beating a dead horse to a new extreme. For example, songs like “Leaving Heaven” and “Stepdad.” Both songs see him complaining about his dad and stepdad respectively (the latter also features a horribly clunky and forced hook). And I understand that it must have been difficult to have such a rough upbringing. But Eminem has already done tons of songs about these issues. He says nothing new about these subjects that we haven’t already heard from him. Complaining about his family, critics and life in general feel like the only three topics he can rap about. There’s just no adapting or growth; he’s complaining about the same things at nearly 50 as he was in his 20s.

Then we get to the bars on this album. Now Eminem has always had issues creep up of dropping corny and just nonsensical bars that make no sense (see Revival). But this feels even worse at moments on this album. And again maybe this is just me reaching an age where Eminem’s humor and bars no longer appeal to me. But please tell me with a straight face that these are “fire” bars:

“Game ov-over, Thanos on you H-Os/On my petty shit but I don’t paint toes/Get the plunger ’cause Marshall and MA go plumb crazy/Call us Liquid Plumber ’cause even Dre know.”

And yes I’m well aware of the wordplay at the end with the Dre line, but it’s not clever. Why do I want to hear bars about toilets too? I could spend hundreds of words going over all the bad lyrics that plague this album, but I’m not in the mood for this painful exercise as listening to this album was enough of a chore. What makes these lyrics stand out even worse is having features from artists that never fail to deliver clever wordplay and lyrics like Black Thought, Royce da 5’9″ and Q-Tip.

But I haven’t even covered the worst thing about this album. The worst moment on this album is “Darkness,” a song that you think starts out as your typical song from Eminem about being depressed about fame. But then it reveals itself to be an exact recounting of the night of the Las Vegas shooter at the country festival, with Eminem imagining himself as the shooter. Now here’s why this song fails on so many levels: For one, it’s incredibly disturbing and tasteless (not to mention exploiting tragedy for profit). Secondly, Eminem fails to make any point with this song. He just does an exact recounting of the incident and then at the end raps some vague lyrics about gun control and clips of the media play. No point of substance is made. It feels shallow and tries way too hard to get across a message, even though it fails to do this while also failing to be a quality song.

This is my big problem with the political and message songs in general nowadays. Modern artists want to tell us and preach to us these messages, instead of focusing making a quality song that shows us the message. Messages are just so ham-fisted with no regard to the quality of the song and begs the questions of why someone would want to willing listen to a song like this. It’s also pretty hard to get a serious message across about shootings when throughout the rest of the album and in previous albums Eminem would make light of these incidents and casually drop references to them to craft “clever” wordplay. It comes off as fake, insincere and trying to have your cake while eating it too. And Eminem wonders why people don’t take his message songs seriously.

What’s even more bizarre is while parts of this album is Eminem being your woke Twitter friend, the other is him being a callous, edgy teenager who surfs the dark web all day and thinks dead baby jokes are hilarious. As I said before it makes it hard to take anything he raps about seriously on this album, but also makes for a weird and disorienting listen. It’s almost as if Eminem wants to keep his old crowd while also trying to desperately win over socially conscious young people. He bitches about the critics and some listeners not liking him and his music, yet he tries to win them over too. Eminem can’t pick a lane and make up his mind.

It’s not like this album is completely devoid of any quality, as the production is good to decent in most spots and there’s not a bad feature, as each of his features brought much needed quality to the table. “Godzilla” with the late Juice WRLD is a solid song that shows off Eminem’s impressive rapid delivery and both men contribute some great bars. I like the Alfred Hitchcock inspiration behind it too. But the lingering and large issues that permeate nearly every aspect of this album make it hard to appreciate what little this album gets right. I didn’t even get into him doing yet another bad song with Ed Sheeran or his awkward romantic relationship songs that he never pulls off. Music To Be Murdered By is way too long and sees Eminem indulging in his worst tendencies, making for an album that left me highly annoyed and having no desire to listen to it again.

Grade: 2/10

https://open.spotify.com/album/4otkd9As6YaxxEkIjXPiZ6

Album Review — Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’

What can I say about Kanye West that you haven’t heard from somebody else already? There isn’t, so let’s just cut to the chase: his newest album Jesus Is King. With this new album Kanye goes gospel and has said that he’s done with secular music and he’s not swearing in it either (there is zero cussing in this album). Yeah I’m sure this will stick, just like when he dropped Yhandi like he said he would last year. Nevertheless, let’s roll with it. Jesus Is King opens with “Every Hour,” which prominently features the Sunday Service Choir. It’s a passionate and uplifting performance from the group and while as a standalone song it doesn’t really work, it does work great as an album opener. So Kanye does establish the right mood for a gospel album.

“Selah” is Kanye’s fiery proclamation of being a born-again Christian and him giving himself over to Christ. And this is great for Kanye. But as for the song: it feels like it never really leaves first gear. It has an epic opening with the pounding drums and the Sunday Service Choir singing “hallelujah” in the background. It truly makes the song feel like something big. But nothing big ever really comes. The bars range from decent to mediocre and puzzling (I have no clue what he means when he raps “Everybody wanted Yhandi/Then Jesus Christ did the laundry”). It’s basically a half-finished song, which is a common theme on this album.

This continues on “Follow God.” I love the sampling of “Can You Lose By Following God” by Whole Truth, continuing Kanye’s excellent knack at picking samples. The beat is catchy, as well as Kanye’s flow. But the lyrics go nowhere, as it’s just Kanye rapping about talking with his dad and then really nothing after it. “Closed on Sunday” may be Kanye’s most cringe-inducing track of all-time, as the writing reaches an all-time low for him: “You my Chick-Fil-A/You’re my number one with the lemonade.” This is Luke Bryan-level rapping bad. Not to mention the production is weak and too minimalist. And why is he weirdly shouting out Chick-Fil-A at the end? Any other restaurant and I would say Kanye was being paid to say it, but I don’t think Chick-Fil-A needs any advertising to convince people to eat there. It’s delicious and it sells itself!

“On God” is another short song, but this one actually feels finished. But the lyrics are so contradicting. On one hand, West is rapping about being so thankful for God and then on the other he reiterates being the best artist of all-time, complains about how much he pays in taxes and then tries to justify why he charges so much money for his merchandise (for $150 you too can have a Kanye/Jesus sweater!). In the words of his dad on “Follow God,” that ain’t Christ-like. Hence why so many people like myself are 100% skeptical of the “new Kanye.” Thankfully it finally gets better on “Everything He Needs.” Ty Dolla $ign is smooth as silk on the hook, as he usually is on features. The harmonies of West, Ty and Ant Clemons sound great and give the song an appropriate uplifting feel to a song about being thankful for everything you have. It’s a solid and complete track, which is an accomplishment on this album.

Clemons has another great feature on “Water,” as he sounds better over West’s production than West himself. The same can be said of the choir. But West’s bars are lazy and short and he doesn’t even feel necessary on the song. So you’re left with a good hook, production and an unbaked overall concept. Again. “God Is” is one of the best songs on the album and shows Kanye at his best. It’s a genuinely inspiring gospel song where Kanye brings a lot of passion with his vocals. If he could have brought this level of energy and focus over the entire album, it would have been excellent just like this song. And it once again is a great sampling choice, this time “God Is” by James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

“Hands On” is a rambling and quite frankly boring song where Kanye has the most basic and monotone flow. And the song goes on and on with Kanye rapping about being judged by Christians and asking for prayers. I’m not really sure Kanye was going with this song, but with what have it goes nowhere. It’s beating a dead horse, but this is what happens when you rush projects.

“Use This Gospel” is another big highlight on the album and that’s a big thanks to the excellent features. First is the reunion of Clipse, as both Pusha T and his brother No Malice kill their verses. It’s great to hear this duo together on a song again, especially No Malice, who left behind music to become a preacher and is the perfect feature for the album. Then Kenny G of all people comes at the end of the song and blows you away with a satisfyingly smooth saxophone solo. Again, when Kanye is focused it’s incredible how he can bring together several different elements and make them sound amazing.

Of course the album doesn’t end on this great note, but instead a mediocre interlude (calling it a song feels insulting) in “Jesus is Lord.” It’s completely pointless, but if you’ve listened to multiple Kanye projects and the rest of this album, you’re not surprised.

Kanye West’s Jesus Is King shows glimpses of being a great album. But ultimately Kanye didn’t spend enough time and focus on it to bring it together. So you’re left with several unfinished songs, ideas and largely great production that is wasted. There are enough good to great songs and moments on the album that make it worth checking out. But there’s also plenty of down moments that balances this album to overall being just bland and okay.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s ‘Bandana’

The last time Freddie Gibbs and Madlib teamed up for an album, they delivered a stone-cold classic in Piñata. So expectations were sky high for Bandana and while it’s not quite as great as Piñata, it comes pretty damn close. From front to back this album is full of bangers, bars and beats that constantly leave you coming back for more.

Opening tracks “Obrigado” and “Freestyle Shit” establish the humor and grittiness that you’re accustomed to hearing in a Gibbs album. “Half Manne Half Cocaine” is a bit of a departure from the usual for Gibbs and Madlib with its heavily trap influenced sound, but you wouldn’t know it with Gibbs’ flawless flow over the beat.

“Crime Pays” is more in line from what you expect from the duo and it’s definitely one of the standouts on the album. Everything about this track is smooth and it’s one of many moments on the album that shows how Gibbs just continues to improve both his technical rapping skills and his bars. “Massage Seats” is a fun banger that features some of my favorite bars (“Golden State, the roster, my garage deep” and “Big baller, father, you my son like Lonzo”).

When looking at the track list, “Palmolive” immediately stands out with its A-list features of Pusha T and Killer Mike. And it goes just as hard you expect with these three on a song, with a perfectly nasty sound. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say there are two disappointments with this song: Freddie’s unfortunate anti-vax bar and Killer Mike not getting a verse. Pusha T however absolutely destroys his verse and it continues a year in which he’s delivered some of the best features in hip hop. I also love the stand-up interlude at the end, as it’s classic Gibbs humor.

“Fake Names” goes into the dark and gritty details of Gibbs’ experience of dealing cocaine and the relationships and the greed of the parties involved. While it’s most definitely a banger, Gibbs also does an excellent job displaying his storytelling chops with all of the intricacies the songs covers. It’s Gibbs at this best at what he raps about best. “Flat Tummy Tea” is another fun song and it sounds so much better within the album compared to when it was first released as a standalone single.

“Situations” is my favorite of the album and it’s because of the smooth, yet frenetic delivery from Gibbs and the grimy production from Madlib. Everything just goes together so well on this track and you just get slapped in the face with bars (my favorite being “Motherfuck Jeff Sessions, I’m sellin’ dope with a weapon”). Gibbs comes through with another great interlude on this song too, this time the funny and insightful cussing pastor.

“Giannis” sees Gibbs dropping great bars about everything, from watching Dora the Explorer with his daughter and then getting right back to making dope to calling out rappers getting screwed on 360 deals. Anderson .Paak comes through with a really nice feature and fits over the production well with his delivery. “Practice” is one of the most introspective songs Gibbs has ever done, as it examines how he treats his loved ones and having to change his ways for them. It’s really nice to see and further proof to those who unfairly dismiss him as just a coke bar rapper.

“Cataracts” is an awesome banger and another standout on the album. “I’m chillin’ in my old school, Chevy thang, Cadillac/Smokin’ on that good, good/Good for my cataracts” is one of the best bars on the album, with its catchy wordplay and flawless delivery from Gibbs. “Gat Damn” is one of the more overlooked tracks, but it’s grown on me with more listens and I’m enjoying it more. I think a lot of people will overlook that the song revolves around Gibbs reflecting on his time in jail for being falsely accused of rape and gets more introspective than you realize. It’s also a different flow from a lot of the album and showcases yet another side of Gibbs’ abilities.

“Education” is a song I feel I can’t really do justice because it not only covers so many important topics, but the amount of amazing lyricism from Yasiin Bey, Black Thought and Gibbs is something you just have to hear for yourself. To me this is the type of song you play for people who thumb their nose down on hip hop and say hip hop artists can’t pen serious lyrics like other genres.

The album’s closing song “Soul Right” is Gibbs reflecting on his lifestyle and his choices, and while he realizes he’s made mistakes, he still hopes for forgiveness from God and to get his soul right with him. The dichotomy of the immorality of his actions and the justification of them in the name of injustice and making ends meet is explored throughout the album and so it’s perfect that it ends with him striving for an inner peace after years of grinding to where he’s at now.

Once again Freddie Gibbs and Madlib deliver big, as Bandana is probably not only the best album you’ll hear in hip hop this year, but one of the best albums you’ll hear out of all genres.

Grade: 10/10