Arguably the one album that everybody began to and does know The Roots for, Things Fall Apart was released 15 years ago last month. An album that was very much apart of the shifting dynamic in terms of diversity in Hip Hop in 1999, this album got Black Thought, Questlove and the gang a big time Grammy nomination, but more importantly, represented the growing diversity in Hip Hop at the start of a new millennium. It’s an album that, at the time, combined many of the different elements of black music that at the time made it so interesting and so entrancing: gritty, underground Hip Hop, “Neo Soul” instrumentation, an old school, live band feel, and just a touch of mainstream sensibilities to get it noticed by folks outside of Hip Hop circles. No other artist or group at the time could have pulled of a myriad of songs like “You Got Me”, “Double Trouble”, “Love Of My Life”, “The Next Movement” and “Without A Doubt” so effortlessly, and all on the same album. Sure, the Philly boys has already released several masterpieces by this point in their career, namely Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadeph Halflife. But Things Fall Apart was just that moment, that occurrence, that one shining light in such an amazing and diverse musical career that just about all of us can point to and say, “Yup, that’s where they really hit their stride.” Between Mos Def imitating the scat-like improvisations of “Planet Rock” on “Double Trouble” to the incomparable Ursala Rucker with her dark and haunting poetry on “The Return To Innocence Lost” to three of the most amazing women in Hip Hop and R&B (read: Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Eve) contributing to the lead single “You Got Me”, Things Fall Apart made everything come together for The Roots.
On this second to last day of Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight an uplifting and prideful song by one of the greatest soul music artists ever who left us far too soon. Donny Hathaway, though not always as celebrated as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and many of the other big names 1970s soul music, made some amazing contributions to the genre. One of his greatest accomplishments has got to be this tune. In the same vein as Mayfield’s “Move On Up” and Wonder’s “Black Man”, “Some Day We’ll All Be Free” is a composition that’s powerful and haunting. This is mainly due to the fact that there is so much emotion and candor in Hathaway’s voice from beginning to end. But what makes it even more ironic was the singer’s own struggles with depression and self doubt that would unfortunately cut his life entirely too short. Though he’s no longer with us in the physical, he left us a bevy of classic music, this being one of his most inspired and positive statements, and one that future generations can definitely use.
The song known by many folks in my generation as the joint that plays at the end of “Cruel Intentions”, one of the classic teen movies from the 90s that stands out from the rest for it’s unapologetic lusty arrogance from stars Ryan Phillipe, Reese Witherspoon and Michelle Gellar. But the song itself not only wraps up the movie pretty perfectly, it’s an amazing combination of Brit pop, alternative rock and Rolling Stones-inspired orchestral music wrapped all up in a neat little package for consumption during the height of the TRL Era. It’s curious how The Verve were able to make the song so melancholy and yet so vivid and triumphant at the same time, taking listeners on an emotional roller coaster of ups, downs, ins, outs and lots more, as singer Richard Ashcroft conveys a sense of struggling to come to grips with his own self. It appears on their third studio album Urban Hymns. An interesting note: the song was accused of using too much in the sample of the song that inspired it, 1965′s “The Last Time” by The Rolling Stones, and after re-negotiation and changes made, the song and lyrics are credited to Verve lead singer Richard Ashcroft but also Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
2014 is filled with a ton of big time music anniversaries, especially for Hip Hop. For many of us that came up as pre-teens and teens in the 1990s, it was a transformative decade for Hip Hop, and 1999 was an even more transformative year for the genre. That said, it’s officially been 15 years since Marshall Mathers released his debut album, The Slim Shady LP. What do you even say about this joint? Truthfully, there’s so much to BE said, because a young and broke Eminem would soon have the attention of the entire world with his debut. It was everything that Hip Hop is, isn’t and is supposed to be: alternative, clever, violent, sarcastic, strange, humorous, offensive, grating, maddening and genius. Aided by the long-established brilliance of Dr. Dre, Eminem was able to do what many other emcees could not on songs like “Just Don’t Give A F**k”, “Rock Bottom”, “Bad Meets Evil”, “My Name Is”, “Brain Damage”, “Guilty Conscience” and “My Fault”: create songs that bridged a gap between working class sentiments and mentalities and amazingly dark yet powerful lyrics on everything from his childhood to the struggles of a young, poor father to any twisted, demented idea that came to his mind. And we gobbled it up. I won’t go into too much detail, because those who know remember it very well. Just in case you’re unfamiliar, take a listen to one of the standout tracks from The Slim Shady LP, “Brain Damage”.
It’s always amazing when you have friends that put you up on new music. In this particular instance, a few friends of mine now living out in Portland exposed me to The Passenger just last year, and I even had the chance to go and see them live. Subsequently, I made the purchase of their independent album, and was pleasantly surprised by their brand of alternative pop rock. There’s a certain sense of self reflection that flows throughout the album, title A Dog Named Bear, that comes when the years pass and you slowly grow from a teen into adulthood. To me, the song that best reflects this is “Gift Horse”: it’s extremely angsty but also celebratory in a certain sense. The thing that I love about the song the most is that it reflects the difficulties that so many of us face in becoming adults, but are either too afraid or proud to admit. It’s ripping and screeching, but also unflinching in it’s vulnerability. It’s loud and powerful but still shows a side of artists and musicians that many times is hidden by onstage and on record personas: one of being fractured and unsure. Definitely a notable song and album from an indie band that will hopefully still be putting out music for years to come. The link to the song is available on Bandcamp at http://thepassengerfl.bandcamp.com/track/gift-horse .
Musically, 2014 has started off pretty promising. I’m not sure if this year will top last year in terms of the really, really good Hip Hop that came out throughout 2013, but if this mix tape is any indication, it could come close. Through HipHopDX.com, I found out about trio After The Smoke and their latest mix tape/EP called Microwaves. And I can honestly that I’ve received my first surprise in terms of music this year. Yeah, it came out in late 2013, but since I’ve already done my 2013 year-end best of list on Facebook, I’ll go ahead and put this into the Sleeper category for the new year. Microwaves is a hazy, smokey and extremely cloudy listen from start to finish. In terms of lyricism, there’s not a lot being said outside of angst, self-reflection and first world problems, but a few publications have gone as far as to compare this free EP to past music from DJ Shadow and OutKast. And surprisingly, they’re not that far off. This project is filled with some of the most trippy, muddy sounds that I’ve heard from an experimental Hip Hop outfit in a minute. Incorporating lots of sing-songy soul, electronic elements and grimy Trip Hop parts, it’s definitely worth the time of anyone willing to take a listen. Though I’m not really feeling Viola Davis’ voice on “Hit to the Head”, it’s still a respectable track out of 14. “OIAM” has a muddy and sloppy but still tight feel to its makeup. But my favorite track on the entire project, unquestionably, is “D.E.A.D.”: Any song beginning with the lyrics, “Are you bored with life?/ I’m just tryna soothe ya pain, tell me who’s to blame…” is undoubtedly going to be a deliciously druggy, self-loathing guilty pleasure, which it is for me. Like a said, the first sleeper of 2014 in my opinion.
Few albums have come along in the last few years that have been as major, as monumental, and crossover ready yet authentic, and as melodic as 1997′s Buena Vista Social Club. This is the album that propelled some of Cuba’s most fervently experienced music artists back into the public spotlight with the help of world music impresario Ry Cooder. The album made the rounds on popular talk shows (including Oprah) back in the late 90s and gained tons of mainstream appeal, but that’s a whole other story in and of itself. One of the most iconic tracks from the album is “El Cuarto De Tula”, a tune that’s deceptively festive and upbeat, until you really sit down and read the liner notes, or just look up the meaning of the words online. Roughly translated, the chorus reads: “At Tula’s room, the candle knocked over. She remains sleeping and never put out the candle.” So while plenty of people were probably dancing around thinking this was just another Cuban song of sexuality and freedom, it’s actually a very somber tale. But then again, as with any song, it’s all in how the listener hears it and what they take from it. The voices of the singers are twinged with a weariness and an expertise that can only come from years and years of ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments. The music, again, as up tempo and amazing as it is, disguises what can be read by as real hurt and loss by some, and some tongue in cheek sexuality by others. “El Cuarto De Tula” is certainly a song that has the potential to get any party started, but also has an even greater potential to make us think about life, love, loss and community many different ways.