Archive for the ‘Hip Hop’ Category

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June 5, 2010

Some good electronic stuff I’ve heard lately…

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Guido - Anidea

Guido dropped his debut album Anidea the other day, and Andrew Gaerig of Pitchfork called it “one of the finest post-dubstep full lengths yet.” They’ve been throwing the label around for a while, and some people I know laughed at it. What does it even mean, really? Isn’t it a bit too soon, considering we’re still sorting through dubstep, to call something post-dubstep? At first I scoffed too, but I thought about how the genre has advanced. Like Burial and Clubroot, Guido doesn’t quite sound like run-of-the-mill dubstep, not the kind that the dubstep DJs play anyway. But it fits the description perfectly: clattering heartbeat-speed beats, warbly bass tones, and atmospheric sampling make Anidea sound like a familiar dubstep album, but there are aspects of it that sound departed from the typical formula. The cinematic strings on the closing “Tantalized” are a good start; they are just one example of the many sample choices that give Guido his unique rhythm throughout the record. But Anidea is hardly a reactionary record. Above all, Guido specializes in locking into a rhythm and holding a groove for long periods of time. He does this particularly well on the album’s two vocal tracks, “Beautiful Complication” featuring Aarya and “Way U Make Me Feel” featuring Yolanda. The latter in particular is a killer track, retro but also futuristic. This album is loaded with goodies, so if you’re into electronic music, dubstep or not, definitely check it out.

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Onra - Long Distance

Another label that’s been thrown around a lot at Pitchfork lately is post-Dilla. Using the phrase acknowledges a couple things, first and foremost being that J Dilla was a turning point in hip hop and electronic music, but also implying that Dilla influenced a lot of artists. Both of these claims probably hold truth. James Yancey’s style and body of work felt revelatory when they came out, and although it’s hard (at least for me) to namecheck DJs that take cues from him, it’s easy to hear his production value fingerprints here and there, and see his work being important not just now, but in the future. We can relate Dilla’s sound to French producer Onra’s earlier work in some key ways; 2007’s Chinoiseries, which contained only Chinese sample sources, featured cut-up vocal sampling and obscure vinyl melody-scrounging. The results were a little less earth-shaking, but the similarity is there. Now Onra is returning with another totally different LP, a future-shocked funk record called Long Distance. It still bears a resemblance in many ways of Dilla, but people who may have been following electronic and beatmaking music will immediately be reminded of Dam-Funk’s massive double album Toeachizown released in 2009. It reminisces of 80’s synth-funk while celebrating the new, ear-popping way of doing things in hip hop, and consequently we have a fusion of music that is both interesting and classy. At the very least, Onra sounds like he’s having a lot of fun here. The vocal tracks here really shine- in particular, “The One” featuring T3 of Slum Village showcases his abilities to step out of the limelight for an MC while sustaining his intelligent production work. Onra is an artist who simultaneously does a lot of interesting things without compromising any of them, and Long Distance is subsequently an album that sounds accomplished and assured, for whatever genre it’s in.

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Oval - Oh EP

Markus Popp has always refused to follow conventions in songwriting and musical production since the earliest Oval works in the early ’90s, and his tireless creativity brought us brilliant albums like 94 Diskont which challenged the the way that people listened to music. The proposition of a new Oval release is enough to make glitch fans giddy just because of what it is, but Oh is exciting enough to earn its reputation. And for a whole new audience at that; Oh is not only a great glitch release but also a great electronic release, broad in its endeavors. First and foremost it sounds melodic, much moreso than than earlier Oval releases, and each of the fifteen songs has recognizable, though highly warped, tunes. Only two songs break two minutes, the rest keeping things very short as small musical vignettes. The two longer songs are particularly accomplished. The opening “hey” is wonderfully catchy and rhythmic, using some live instrumentation alongside warped synthesizers. “grrr” is more subdued, almost ambient in its progression. It is relaxing, sometimes sounding like free jazz while also sounding avant garde and contemporary, not unlike Music is Rotted One Note era Squarepusher. Most of the shorter songs are quite enjoyable too, abstractly melodic and quiet. All this makes for an all-around solid full listen, a lot to take in from an artist who has a lot of catching up to do with his fans. Perhaps what is even more exciting about the Oh EP is that it precipitates Oval’s upcoming full-length album, O, which will have some seventy tracks. If the modus operandi of Oh carries over, then we have a feast of mini glitch masterpieces to look forward to.

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Chicago Music Festival Report

April 14, 2010

In 2008, I went to a single day of the Pitchfork Music Festival and all three days of Lollapalooza. In 2009, I did the opposite and went to all three days of Pitchfork and a single day of Lollapalooza. This Summer I’m happy to say I’ll be able to do all three days of both. I have my lovely grandmother who bought me Lollapalooza tickets a a surprise.

A dramatic reenactment of our phone conversation:

“Grandma! Those tickets must have been awfully expensive!”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve been saving up quarters.”

Anyway, I thought I’d give my two cents on both festivals’ lineups.

Lollapalooza has ace headliners this year, and they’ve got the goods to call on legions of rock ‘n roll fans throughout the country.

The more mainstream leaning headliners are very strong. Soundgarden is this year’s alt-rock headliner, and the festival’s older devotees and 90’s rock fans will jump to see one of the band’s first reunion shows. Green Day, though they have lost some indie fans since their glory days, have more than enough star power to fill a stadium, and they will probably change the face of the crowd this year. But the real game changer this year, on a brilliant booking move by Perry Ferrell is the pop juggernaut Lady Gaga, who will sell thousands upon thousands of tickets for Lollapalooza. She’ll attract pop fans, preteens and hipsters alike. It stands that not many, if any other festivals have the means or the balls to pull this kind of headliner.

The indie rockers will be drinking tears of joy this year based on the presence of The Arcade Fire alone, who are due for a tour and a new album. They have been out of the live circuit for a while, but they are more than strong enough of a band to make the headliner slot. The Strokes are also a dazzling attraction. Like the Arcade Fire, they’ve also been out of commission for a long time and they’ll enjoy widespread excitement and ticket sales in response to their headlining spot. But the year’s left field headliner is Phoenix, who due in large part to their 2009 album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” have skyrocketed to the top of the indie food chain, and this slot will be great for Lollapalooza as well as Phoenix, who will consequently get a huge crowd and massive cred regardless of who they go up against in the lineup.

There’s more than enough other shit to keep just about everyone shelling out cash for at least a one day ticket:  Jimmy Cliff and Devo for the older crowd, Slightly Stoopid for the hippies, The Black Keys for the blues fans, AFI for the emos (they’re still around?), Erykah Badu for R&B and funk fans, and Social Distortion and Gogol Bordello for the punks. Perhaps more importantly, there is a large selection of big indie names on the lineup: The New Pornographers, Spoon, The National, Hot Chip, The Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, The xx, Stars, Matt & Kim and, my favorite, The Walkmen.

Lollapalooza may have a lot of great acts, but Chicago’s biggest indie festival The Pitchfork Music Festival is comparable if not greater in terms of amount of sheer talent.

As with previous years, there is a whole slew of artists at the Pitchfork Festival that you won’t be able to see in too many other places this summer. From the start, Pavement was the festival’s big seller, probably being the major reason that three day passes sold out within the week they were available. The band have reunited for a tour in support of their compilation album “Quarantine the Past,” and we all couldn’t be happier to have the chance to see them live. The other two headliners, Modest Mouse and LCD Soundsystem, are also sought after bookings this Summer, and they sealed the deal.

But there is much more to rabble about beyond the headliners. Wolf Parade, Liars, Broken Social Scene and St. Vincent are also strong sellers. Other stuff you’ll hear me making noise about: Sleigh Bells, Alla, Kurt Vile and The Tallest Man on Earth.

The festival’s hip hop lineup this year is as strong as it has ever been, featuring the likes of Raekwon, Big Boi and El-P. You’ll see me in the crowd for all three.

There are some other very special acts that you probably won’t be able to see in many other places this Summer, particularly Robyn, Panda Bear, Dam-Funk, Major Lazer, and Lightning Bolt.

In terms of the past year’s up and coming Beach Pop scene, Pitchfork has nearly half of the major bands covered: Beach House, Delorean, Real Estate, jj, Girls, Neon Indian, Surfer Blood, Best Coast and Washed Out will all make appearances, plus the likes of Local Natives, Free Energy, and The Smith Westerns, who are though not exactly beach pop are closely related in style and popularity.

Lollapalooza will always have the capacity to bring together acts that will sell hundreds of thousands of tickets, and still have a strong selection of indie bands on tap. Though smaller and more geared towards a specific crowd, The Pitchfork Festival’s lineup this year has finally matched Lollapalooza’s in terms of sheer talent and diversity. We’ve got two great major music festivals lined up for the Summer, and I’m excited for both.

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Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

March 12, 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Back in 2001, I experienced the first Gorillaz album in the way that all parties involved may have found ideal: with absolutely no context. I was eleven, and I hadn’t heard of Damon Albarn, Dan the Automator or Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Just about the only thing I knew about Gorillaz was that they weren’t real, but I still struggled to put animated faces to voices, sounds to instruments and some kind of method to the madness. The album was to me the most alien thing I had ever heard, an amalgamation of rock, pop, punk, hip hop, electronic, dub and world music. Nothing could have prepared me for it.

Once again, I was eleven, and mostly used to listening to pop radio, whatever that might have been at the time. Everything changed for me after Gorillaz. “Re-Hash” became my Summer anthem and “Que Pasa Contigo” melted the winter freeze. I stared at my crappy stereo in confusion and wonder during “Sound Check (Gravity),” I daydreamed to “Man Research,” and I nearly shit my pants when I first heard “Left Hand Suzuki Method” (For an idea of exactly how naive I was, I thought the bong hit sample at the beginning was the opening of a can of soda). It’s even still a bit unsettling for me to hear the album now, if only because of my history with it. In a world of its own and on its own terms, it pushed its own boundaries incredibly far, and I’ll always love it.

Gorillaz

By the time I was fourteen, I was in high school and had begun to branch out a bit. I listened to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and my Led Zeppelin t-shirts were starting to develop pit stains. I anticipated the release of Demon Days for months, and when it finally came out I bought it in Best Buy (what seems even for now to be a relatively dated practice). A dark, brooding pop album, it frustrated me as much as it entertained. There were familiar elements, but mostly it was new and uncomfortable, for me an early exploration into dirty, dark hip hop and experimental pop music and a collection of ideas and styles just as diverse as those on the self titled album. Even more strange names were credited in the liner notes, most of which I had not heard of, but I came to associate Danger Mouse with this kind of an edgy, diverse sound. He did Demon Days well, and I wondered for years how it could be followed.

Demon Days

And now, with the release of Gorillaz’s third studio LP, Plastic Beach, I can reasonably expect not just an album of music, but an experience. Of course, the band has relaunched their website and the first of no doubt many music videos. Various release versions of Plastic Beach contain storyboards, videos and other exclusive content, and a story is being slowly spun to outline the virtual band’s current state. In short: All of the world’s trash and pieces of its history have floated to the middle of the Indian Ocean to form a massive artificial island known as The Plastic Beach. Gorillaz, consisting of singer 2D, bassist Murdoc, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel, have now made it their home and production studio, where they have crafted a new concept album that deals with, among other issues, pirates, consumerism and modern living. It is a big production to keep track of, but it is important to zone in on what is really the vital event here, the release of a new Gorillaz album.

I concede that I was expecting something much different than what I got from Plastic Beach, perhaps something much more sinister, in the vein of the demented Demon Days, but in fact Plastic Beach is far more accessible than either of Gorillaz’s previous studio LPs, smash hits included. Damon Albarn has even said it is the poppiest thing he has ever been involved with; this may be a stretch, but it is easy to see where he is coming from. The album is bejeweled with orchestral strings, melodious pop hooks and whimsical electronic textures. The majority of the victory achieved in Plastic Beach can be attributed to Albarn himself and his penchant for pop songcraft. Many of the album’s best songs are ones that feature him exclusively, and he handles the vast majority of the production work on the album, choosing not to collaborate with a guest producer such as Dan the Automator or Danger Mouse.

But the Gorillaz camp still features an ever revolving cast of guest collaborators, even if it’s most distinguishable feature is its now well established groundwork. De La Soul once again provides playful rhyming and Mos Def makes two appearances: The freestyle massacre “Sweepstakes” and the lead single “Stylo.” “Stylo” doesn’t quite get off the ground and flying like prior Gorillaz hits, but it’s probably much more compelling, featuring a mysterious melody, great work from Mos Def to coincide with his recent comeback and a soaring vocal part from the great jack-of-all-trades Bobby Womack.

Stylo

But the more obscure guest spots are perhaps even more effective. Grime rappers Bashy and Kano kill it on the dual-spirited “White Flag,” the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music provides melodic strings on the same track and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings wonderfully on two of the album’s best songs, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge.” The album seems to hit nirvana on the former, which morphs from gentle seaside guitar strumming into rhythmic ambient techno bliss, while the latter provides a longing, romantic melody, and is the most real this unreal band has ever been. Some of the album’s other guest artists, particularly Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed, seem like novelty inclusions, but they play their parts well and only further highlight the fact that since the beginning, the Gorillaz project has been a whole hell of a lot of fun.

And so we ask, if Damon Albarn wants his projects to feature prominent alt-rappers alongside indie heroes, why not? Behind an animated facade, he can do just about anything without it seeming awkward, and we give his and Jamie Hewlett’s characters the benefit of the doubt, perhaps more than he himself. This accounts for how many curveballs Plastic Beach throws, and how often they hit the mark. From front to back, just about every track here features unexpected elements. The professional orchestrations on “White Flag” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are idiosyncratic but genuinely charming, Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed get silly, and the closing “Pirate Jet” is about the most understated ending imaginable for such a big-thinking album. We trust all these elements because they earn our respect legitimately and are all around pleasures on their own terms.

Which isn’t to say that Plastic Beach as a whole doesn’t deal with some pretty poignant issues, most prominently undercurrents involving consumer culture. This is nothing terribly new for Gorillaz, who have always had the idea of commercialism at their hearts. By the time Plastic Beach is done with its chart assault, Gorillaz will almost certainly have sold over twenty million albums. It’s hard to delegitimize that kind of success, especially now when being a Gorillaz alumni yields much greater profit than simple street cred; it results in incredible rewards and songs that a lot of people like myself hold dear for years and years. Certainly this will be the case with Plastic Beach as well, though it reaches that ends by a much different means. It’s worth exploring why, and we might end up doing that until the next Gorillaz LP, but for now this album is already well on its way to building another legacy.

Gorillaz

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Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner

February 23, 2010

Dizzee Rascal - Boy in da Corner

I haven’t heard an album that describes the rugged, lower class youth culture of the 2000s better than Dizzee Rascal’s Grime masterpiece Boy in da Corner. It’s definitely music from a specific time and place, but it is still highly applicable today. It sounded refined but also ahead of its time in 2003, and it hardly reserves itself to Great Britain, and very well comes close to describing an entire world culture.

Dizzee is an electrifying personality on Boy in Da Corner, an eighteen year old Londoner who got kicked out of four secondary schools in as many years, stole cars, and we can reasonably assume saw and participated in the culture he represents on this album. Interesting, then, that he practically begs the listeners, we can assume his peers, to “get what you can at school.” It sounds like it’s coming from a grizzled, world weary traveler, but in actuality Dylan Kwabena Mills was, really, a kid when he wrote the majority of this album (sixteen for “I Luv U”).

What’s really amazing is that he, as a teenager, paints a focused, unique and stylized portrait of what he sees and hears. The stories Dizzee spins are brutally violent and emotionally schizophrenic, and the sounds he produces are spastic, electronic and postmodern. And like many brilliant musicians before him, he doesn’t compromise his vitriolic commentary when cranking out catchy, unique pop music of his generation’s scene. In that sense, it makes sense that Boy in da Corner is both an underground cult hit as well as a Mercury Prize winning sensation.

The number of highlights here is staggering, but not all of them are immediate. The singles got the attention they deserved: “I Luv U” deals with possibly the hugest taboo for youth, love, over a warzone of a sonic landscape, “Fix up Look Sharp” is a minimalist piece that threatens to unite rock and rap in ways that Rage Against the Machine never could, and “Jus a Rascal” is a vocally acrobatic pseudo-hype track. Some less obvious highlights are no less impressive: “Hold Ya Mouf” is as violent as it is addictive, “Brand New Day” is a woozy psychotic break and the ending “Do It!” is the height of grime’s achievements, a brutally honest street manifesto. When Dizzee says “I swear to you, you can do anything,” it’s hard not to believe him.

What really shines through here is how literate and smart Dizzee is. Youth are a vitally important part of any culture, and it’s a rare treasure when a youth can step up to the plate and really describe what’s going on. The image on the album cover is ominous, mysterious and yet somehow obviously appropriate. Dizzee expresses the corner’s ambiguity himself on the album’s first track. He’s listening, watching and thinking, and his fingers may be loser Ls or antennae as easily as devil horns. We’re lucky that we have him as a figure in hip hop, and it’s no surprise that Boy in da Corner skyrocketed him to fame; no one had more to say in 2003.

Dizzee Rascal

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Pitchfork Festival 2009

August 4, 2009

This year was my first year attending all three days of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was a great success, not just for me as a music fan and concert goer but also for the vast majority of the bands there and for Pitchfork as an organizer. I had a blast all weekend, and I saw a ton of bands play great shows. I typically find myself reluctant to stay in one place for a long time at festivals like this, and the Pitchfork Festival is in a smaller park that is easily navigable, so it wasn’t hard for me to zip around and see many acts for maybe as long as half of their total sets, and that’s just fine. I like that wider exposure to live music, and the more the merrier. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures at the festival this year, and I’m not about to steal anyone else’s for my own use, but I do think a visual accompaniment to descriptions of this festival are important, so I’d like to direct you to Pitchfork’s coverage of the festival, which is just getting started but has some pretty great pictures and interviews up for your enjoyment.

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7687-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-friday-and-saturday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7688-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-sunday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/photos/galleries/726-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-portraits/

There are also some great videos up on pitchfork.com with more to come, and I would recommend you check those out too. Also, youtube and google are always your friends. A simple “[band name]” + “Pitchfork Festival” search on either will yield positive results for both videos, reviews and pictures, so go for it.

I don’t think there is a better way for me to really start talking about the weekend then to just dive in, so I’ll start with the first day and just plow through.

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On Friday, just four bands were slated to play uncontested, elongated sets in the beautiful Union Park. Chicago band Tortoise was the first band to play, as well as the first band to adhere to the “You Write the Night” lineup, which involves bands playing songs that ticket buyers have voted for via online polls. With Tortoise, this didn’t matter so much to me, because I don’t know Tortoise well enough yet to mention songs I really like by them, at least beyond stuff on Millions Now Living Shall Never Die, which I have always liked. The show was slow moving and highly textured. This was very much a hushed and atmospheric show, which while interesting enough to listen to wasn’t particularly interesting to watch. We left early to get good spots for Yo La Tengo, because although we liked Tortoise well enough, we were getting kind of bored. The fact that we left the Tortoise show so early meant something, and I would learn soon enough exactly how it influenced the rest of the weekend.

Yo La Tengo completely embodied the contrasts of types of live shows that I would end up seeing during the weekend and in turn became even more of a foreshadowing of the weekend to come. The band’s meticulous show involves both hushed, quieter pop arrangements (“Stockholm Syndrome,” “Mr. Tough,” “Autumn Sweater”) and loud, winding noise pieces (“Pass the Hatchet I’m Feeling Goodkind,” probably the longest song performed at Pitchfork this year). Some friends I know who have already seen Yo La Tengo in smaller club environments said the band suffered a bit from the festival setup, but I think they were a great deal of fun and are a band that excel in any environment. Once again, their songs contrast with one another, some being soft pop pieces, and others loud noise jams, when Ira Kaplan does things with a guitar I never thought possible.

The show that weekend I was easily the most excited about was The Jesus Lizard. I’d psyched myself up for that show for weeks, really gotten pumped about it, got there early in order to get pretty close, and could barely contain myself by the time the band went on. I would be disrespecting both myself and the band if I called it anything other than the best show I’ve ever seen. David Yow couldn’t have affirmed everyone’s hopes any better than by screaming “AW, SHADDAP!” into the mic before they tore into “Puss” with Yow launching himself into the audience and crowd surfing. Getting back on the stage and having the entire crowd yell along with him “get ‘er outta the truck!” was easily one of the greatest moments of the entire festival.

Yow is the spirit of the band, his vocals menacing and apparently not diminished in the slightest despite the band’s ten year absence. What also struck me is how fearless he was to crowd surf. The band members are almost fifty, and they’re still putting on shows as dangerous and incredible as they did in their heyday. The entire band had a ton of energy, and they got the audience really involved, and not just by means of having people support (and sometimes shove whisky bottles in the face of) Yow. Duane Denison and David Sims have written some of the dirtiest, catchiest riffs in noise rock history, and their live delivery is fast, energetic and compelling. Also, I’ve seen some pretty good drum performances, but I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say Mac McNeilley gets the gold medal for this one. He just beat the living shit out of that kit, and rhythmically propelled everyone both on stage and in the audience. To top it all off, the band played every song I really wanted them to play. This is the show that made me realize what I wanted to make of the rest of the weekend; this weekend I wanted to rock.

How anyone could even begin to try to follow up that show is beyond me, but Built to Spill seemed like a good closer, because not everyone at Pitchfork is into hard rock, and Built to Spill is a little more fun for the whole family. We stayed closer to the back for this one and we didn’t regret it much; not only were we tired but it also seemed like the band’s delivery didn’t differ much from their albums. Granted, Built to Spill are always a treat to listen to, and even listening to them from far away when we were really tired was nice, though not much more exciting than Tortoise. They did end up playing “Else,” possibly my favorite Built to Spill tune, and I was really happy about that.

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On Saturday morning we took the train downtown, got food at Jamba Juice and Potbelly, and got to Union Park in time to catch Plants and Animals, who played a pretty good show. I don’t know them that well and really don’t have much of anything to say about them except that I do remember their drumming was interesting (although not quite as interesting as that of Caribou, who we saw playing on the same stage exactly a year earlier).

I left early to get a good spot for Fucked Up, who played one of the best sets of Saturday. I didn’t have any problem choosing between Fucked Up and The Antlers; the previous day helped me know what I wanted, and I wanted energy. And the energy and coordination which the band exercised during the show was incredible. The entire band seemed excited to be there and played well, but vocalist Damian Abraham took the spotlight. After crushing a half full beer can on his head right before the band started at a sprint with (I believe) “Son the Father,” “Pink Eyes” Abraham quickly de-shirted himself, caught beach balls which he began to bite chunks out of and deflate instantaneously (he wore one of the things as a hat) and jumped down into the press pit to get right next to the audience, where he stayed for most of the show.

These guys really played a loud, fun hardcore punk show, and they dished out a lot of fun antics. Abraham seemed to be a really nice, straightforward guy when he talked to the audience, but when he locked in during a song, he got vicious. I remember him tearing apart a baby doll, and the poor thing’s head whizzed right by my face and landed on the ground. Epic. He also gave the crowd a more than respectable score of 9.9, which as he mentioned was higher than “that Animal Collective album which I thought sounded exactly like Phish.”

After Fucked Up I moved to the Connector Stage to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I have grown to like their debut album a lot. Typical shoegaze, yes, but pretty good shoegaze, and I hoped they could be great in concert. But unfortunately the show was just about the only bad show I saw all weekend. The biggest problem was that everyone just wasn’t loud enough. We could blame this on the festival sound system, which I have heard other complaints about, but The Jesus Lizard had no problem being loud as fuck on the previous day. The guitars, especially, needed to get turned way up. But that wouldn’t really have saved Kip Berman from a glassy-eyed, mediocre vocal performance. It was a lousy show. It happens. I left quite early.

The Balance stage is the smallest stage at the festival, off in the opposite corner of the park as the Aluminum and Connector stages. It is usually the stage that has either the loudest or quietest bands of the festival, and I spent a good half of my time at the festival on Saturday and Sunday at the Balance stage. By the time I got there, Bowerbirds were nearly done with their set and the area was packed, so I couldn’t get close enough to observe anything beyond the fact that they were very quiet and enjoyable enough. But they were followed up by a definite powerhouse, Ponytail, who took full command of the stage. The band’s albums almost beg for a live experience. Instrumentally, Ponytail are only one of the best noise rock bands you’ve ever heard, but when you factor in the vocals, you’ve got a band that doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there. Molly Siegel and Dustin Wong make one of the oddest vocal duos in indie rock, less screaming so much as emoting with animal noises, tongue rolls and martial arts war cries.

Siegel, who donned an awesome lime green Michael Jackson t-shirt on this day (it looked like Jackson was jumping up and down as she did) is the main offender, switching back and forth between distinctive demeanors. The first is when she is screaming at the top of her lungs, and the second is when she is smiling widely, which really brings out the fact that she’s extremely pretty. Then there’s the backward head tilt accompanying an expression which suggests she’s either having some kind of fit or is about to sneeze. The energy and volume at this show was very important and rewarding for fans of Ponytail, because as good as they are on record, they only get better when they play live. When Ponytail lock in, they lock the fuck in, and the show was excellent.

I was excited to see Yeasayer at the Connector stage, just as I was excited to see them six months earlier. I’ve seen Yeasayer a grand total of three times now and each one has been unforgettable. The first-listen home run at Lollapalooza last year left my jaw at my feet, and their show at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington D.C. was a show unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Their set at Pitchfork was much like those other two shows and yet somewhat different. Yeasayer still have the chops to put on an engaging and energetic show, but here they played a more relaxed set with a slightly altered lineup (two new members on percussion) and had a couple new songs in store. One of those new songs was a dancey piece that they played just as the weekend’s only, brief rain shower began. Luckily it only lasted long enough to cool everyone off and added to the spiritual effect of the rhythmic piece. The band also played some crowd favorites from their first album All Hour Cymbals, such as “Sunrise” (which accompanied the sun breaking out of the clouds), “2080,” and “Wait for the Summer,” as well as “Tightrope,” which was featured on the Red Hot Organization compilation Dark Was the Night earlier this year.

I went over to the side of the Aluminum Stage with some friends to catch DOOM‘s set, which by the way is a great strategy for seeing acts up close at a festival. That is, just get to the close side of the stage where the audience is thin and you can typically see just as well as if you were front and center, especially for a hip hop act like DOOM who is bound to be towards the front of the stage anyway. So we got pretty close, and actually got to see the masked villain backstage from where we were standing, albeit fifteen minutes later than we should have. When he finally showed up on stage in a guille suit, the large DOOM and his even larger and more involved hype-man got the audience moderately pumped for a show that would befuddle me more than anything.

DOOM’s lyrics and flow are top notch (I still found myself laughing outloud at “Don’t talk about my moms, yo” during “All Caps”) and his backing beats are always sick, but it become obvious after just a few minutes onstage that the tubby menace wasn’t going to do a hell of a lot more than keep his mic close to his face and walk around a little. I enjoyed this enough, because DOOM is a great rapper, but I was hoping for more. And as I would later learn, rumors quickly began to circulate that this was yet another imposter / lip-syncing show. My lack of experience with DOOM’s catalogue and live shows prevents me from being able to lend any credibility to this claim, but if it turned out to be true I would be both disappointed and unsurprised. Regardless of this, DOOM’s show was much like a piano performance at a cocktail shindig, both technically sufficient and unexciting, and did little to add to the context of DOOM as either a recording artist or live performer.

After DOOM, we had a bit of an easygoing half hour or so, taking time to use the restroom (long lines!), get some good food, and listen to Beirut from far away. My remorse for not being up close to Beirut was pretty minimal, not by any means suggesting that they played poorly. Quite the contrary, Beirut sound just as good live as they do on record. But at that point in time, I felt that what these guys were doing on stage was all well and good but just not what I wanted. I wanted loud. It was about then that I made a pretty one-sided decision between the day’s headliners, The National (who I skipped at Lollapalooza last year for Love and Rockets) and The Black Lips (who, also at Lollapalooza last year, put one of the weekend’s best shows). We decided to run over to the Balance Stage so that we could try to get a good spot for the Atlanta hooligans.

To our surprise, Matt & Kim hadn’t yet gotten on stage by the time we got there. They were almost a half hour late, dwarfing DOOM’s delay. We got pretty close to the stage and I’m glad we did, because when the NYC duo got on stage, they put on one of the absolute best shows of the weekend. I can’t imagine a two-piece band doing more damage than these guys. They looked like they wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else in the world then on the stage at that time, they were funny, they were nice, they talked to the audience, and they gave their everything for the entire set. Matt screamed and played the keyboard as energetically as anyone I have ever seen, and Kim smiled a wide smile and just beat the living shit out of her kit. Seriously, she played those drums hard. You see some people really pull back their arms to hit the drums, and so often it’s all show, and you can tell just by looking at them. But Kim was pulling back far because she was killing those things.

There was also a shocking sincerity at the show: Matt did a handstand only to remind us afterward that he’s still wearing a back brace that his mother makes fun of him for, and Kim told us that the Beyonce show they attended was incredible and proceeded to get low onstage. There was so much energy in this show and so many great songs: “Yea Yeah,” “Daylight,” “Lightspeed,” “Cutdown,” “Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare”… Watching Matt & Kim as the sun was setting was an absolute pleasure and one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had. And the main reason for this is because they got it across to me that they were having just as much fun as I was.

Once again, it’s not easy to follow a truly awesome band like that, but The Black Lips don’t give a shit about anyone’s expectations of them. Their show at Pitchfork was much more of a balls-out punk show than when I saw them last at Lollapalooza. That show, as excellent as it was, was more of a traditional festival show, because Lollapalooza is a high brow festival that really keeps their bands in line. But when you put a punk band on a small stage like the Balance Stage, shenanigans become possible, and the Black Lips are known for their antics. Some of those antics included a smashed guitar after the first song, the typical man-on-man making out between guitarists, inviting the crowd onstage against the Pitchfork staff’s wishes, and spraying a fire extinguisher into the press pit. One of my good friends and Black Lips enthusiast claimed that these acts seemed planned out, and they very well may have been, but only by the band themselves; that guy getting screamed at backstage by security was definitely not planned.

And to be fair, the antics at a show like this are as much part of the experience as the music itself, which was loud and rowdy as well. There is definitely something to be said for a show that feels this edgy and dangerous. These guys have found their identity, and unlike Matt & Kim, they might actually benefit from going out there on stage and being grumpy and mean and violent. But they weren’t, and we remember that the Black Lips are as much entertainers as they are punks. “I like my audience a little closer to me than this,” said guitarist Jared Swilley before inviting the crowd on stage. Some of them made it up there, and some of them got leveled by security, but I’ll be damned if all of us didn’t wish we could have at least tried. The band were a very good choice for a headliner and put on a really fun show.

♦♦♦

On the morning of Day 3 of the festival, we arrived downtown pretty damn tired, which isn’t unreasonable for Day 3 of any festival. We decided to have lunch at Wishbone, and on the way there we met up with Yeasayer bassist Ira Wolf Tuton. Of course we didn’t have much to say to him except “you played a great show!” and he probably didn’t want to waste his time with us, but he was really nice and shook our hands.

After coffee, eggs, pancakes and potatoes, we were off to Union Park again and got there in time to catch Blitzen Trapper. I thought they played pretty well, but I’m going to be honest, I really don’t remember much of anything about them, and I did remember a lot of other first-listen buzz bands that weekend. Nice folk melodies. That doesn’t really help you much, does it? By this time in the weekend, my appetite for loud music was still in full force and I was just kind of bored with folk music.

Organized Konfusion member Pharoahe Monch was my next show at the Connector Stage, and he was definitely the better of the two hip hop shows this weekend. It helped that his DJ was a lot of fun and very skillful, unlike a lot of the other live DJs I have seen, but Monch really took the show. To me, it’s important for a hip hop artist to hype up the show, but doing it too much is just annoying. The other two hip hop shows I’ve seen this year were very polarized and both less than what I was expecting. Mos Def was far too much hype and DOOM was far too much substance, but Monch struck the balance between these elements with ease, spitting rhymes and moving around as well as getting the audience to raise their hands and sing along when they didn’t already know the words. We also see the rare case of other on-stage singers really contributing a lot to the show. I don’t know who the backup singers were, but they were funny and sang great. This was what a hip hop show should be like: fun. For all I knew, DOOM didn’t care about the show he was playing. But Monch seemed really happy to rock Chicago, and we were happy to have him.

Up next were Sub Pop punks The Thermals. To my surprise, I heard more complaints about The Thermals than any other band at Pitchfork this year. What happened to a little respect? I thought these guys were great, and you know what, I love a little pop-punk and was happy to hear their set. Samesy? Alright, I can see that. It started to get a little bit like that for me, but I’m not really familiar with their output. But for another band I’d never heard before, I definitely got a lot of fun out of their show. I’m guessing they took into consideration that not everybody in the audience had heard them before, so they played a lot of awesome covers which tickled my ’90s alt-rock fancy, specifically songs by Sonic Youth (“100%”), Nirvana (holy shit, “Sappy”!), Green Day (“Basket Case”) and The Breeders (“Saints”). So yes, maybe they weren’t the most exciting band on Sunday, but they were good enough for me to want to look into them further.

The Walkmen may have been the classiest band of the entire weekend. And I’m not sure exactly why I think this. Maybe it is because they are by this time indie rock veterans, or maybe it was how well dressed they were, or it could be their seasoned, classic style, or perhaps their calm demeanor that contrasted with their spirited playing. Whatever the reason, this band just got up there and sounded like a million bucks. First and foremost, frontman Hamilton Leithauser has charisma, and he makes his excellent vocals seem cool and composed, but definitely not effortless. While belting out the harder lyrics on songs like “The Rat,” you can really tell that he’s working hard. The band mostly played songs from their latest album, the tropical You & Me, which as far as I’m concerned is all for the better, because I think it’s their best album yet. For a few songs, they even brought out a horn section, and some songs like “In The New Year” got really strong crowd response. What was great about The Walkmen, among other things, was that they could be emotional, loud and fun as well as professional.

I spent the next two hours or so at the Balance stage, and I showed pretty late in garage-rock band Japandroids‘ set, which was a damn shame because what I saw of them I liked an awful lot. Another two piece band (I seem to take a big liking to two-piece rock bands), the couple minutes I saw of them really rocked hard and provided some really memorable tunes. Seeing the guitarist up above the drummer, practically as one unit, really got me excited. So kudos to them for only needing three minutes to get me going; they have my attention and interest.

After this set my back and legs were pretty tired, so I allocated myself in front of a tree. So I would both have something to lean on and my height wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. I watched the Vivian Girls from afar, for the second time actually. The first time I saw them they opened for M. Ward at the Sixth and I Synagogue and I don’t think I gave them nearly as much credit as they deserved. The Vivian Girl’s music and live shows are covertly excellent. I thought their show in D.C. was fun but for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it that night and I made the assumption that the Vivian Girls were another sub-par garage rock band.

But I soon found that their debut album from last year is just incredible, but very humbly so, and their music didn’t really click with me until I sat down and gave it my full attention. So I jumped at the chance to give their live show another chance and I’m glad I did. Granted, the Vivian Girls are a band that doesn’t particularly benefit from the festival setting. They are a fast and loud punk band and the sound translates better in small indoor venues, and their stage presence is pretty simple. They rock hard and they’re fun to watch, but they don’t offer anything particularly exciting. So this show was pretty relaxed and less about what they could provide for me, and more about what I owed them. When I think about it, that’s not what a show should be like, but I try not to think too hard about shows like this. They make it easy for me to sit back and enjoy myself.

After Vivian Girls on the Balance Stage were Danish rockers Mew, which to me seemed like a bit of a weird pick for the festival. Maybe I only say that because because their genres are very far away from one another despite the fact that they work well together. Dream pop isn’t out of P4Ks interests but progressive rock typically is. In any case, Mew were about as polished looking as The Walkmen, and their set was similarly orchestrated. The songs aren’t much different live than on record, but they’re still a treat to see be performed. There was an air of confidence at this show during songs like “Special” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” that definitely strengthened my love for them, when at points in my history with Mew there would be moments where I would say to myself “Am I supposed to be loving this?”

Yes, they have pretty faces, and yes, they are shamelessly as much of a pop band as they are a rock band, but their live sound really affirmed Duke Ellington’s famous ultimatum: “If it sounds good, it is good.” Mew sound great live, and though they may not be doing backflips on stage, they look like they are enjoying themselves and their communication with one another is interesting. Their new songs are also fascinating. “Introducing Palace Players” is a damaged, experimental rock tune, and if it is any indication of their new album’s quality or ambition, then we have a lot to look forward to. Also worthy of note is that these guys put on one of the loudest shows of the weekend. How they got that bass tone is beyond me. It rocketed out of the speakers without being rumbling or intrusive on the treble, and it permeated the air around the Connector and Aluminum stages, all the way across Union Park.

And that’s where I was after about half of Mew’s set, so I could listen to Grizzly Bear as well as get a decent spot for the Flaming Lips. Unfortunately, I really can’t say much of anything about Grizzly Bear. I like them well enough, but they were an afterthought to me compared to the band’s that flanked them in my schedule. I’m not big enough of a fan to say that much about their show, especially as viewed from far away, except they had several foot tappers and I liked them just fine.

But everyone knew what the highlight of the festival was going to be. It was apparent from the minute they were announced in the lineup and visualized that morning when The Flaming Lips‘ giant orange stage was already towering on the Aluminum Stage. And by the time the Lips got on stage, their setup was, as expected, like nothing any of us had seen before, unless we had already seen a Flaming Lips show. But with that said, what was on the Aluminum stage was almost light years ahead of their setup at the Earth Day Festival on the National Mall. The Flaming Lips had an entire day to set this up and had just about no limits as to what they could or could not do. There is really no way to communicate the band’s unique elements unless I forthrightly list them:

The giant light screen was dazzling and mostly showcased dancing naked women. One of these women went into birthing position and The Flaming Lip’s descended from her incandescent vagina. They were joined on stage by people dressed up in frog and cat suits, and later, a giant gorilla which lead singer Wayne Coyne rode on the back of. And how can we forget the giant bubble which Coyne crowd surfs in? Confetti. Shitloads of confetti blasting from cannons. And balloons. Lots of balloons.

The visual aspect of a Flaming Lips show is enough to make it a spectacle, but like last time I saw them, the real deciding factor was the music itself. The Flaming Lips were the fifth and final band to adhere to the “Write the Night” and ultimately the one that decided it’s overall outcome. The Flaming Lip’s have notoriously played just about the same set with few switchups for years. Getting them on the Write the Night roster would have ideally forced them to dig out some obscurities from their back catalogue, but as probably everyone expected and as Coyne explained, voting list in hand, everyone knows what the most popular Flaming Lips songs are, and they almost always play them anyway.

But the band seemed to get the general gist of how everyone could benefit from this system, and they did pull out some obscure numbers, specifically “Bad Days” off of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Internal Existential Fear” (yeah, you heard me) from the Fearless Freaks compilation, and even “Mountain Side” from In a Priest-Driven Ambulance. In addition to these rarities, the band also performed two new songs from their forthcoming double album Embryonic, the tribal “Silver Trembling Hands” and the jam “Convinced of the Hex.” Reception of the new songs seems to be very mixed, but my personal opinion is that they are a good sign for a return to the Lips’ earlier styles. These songs made this show pretty unique for the Flaming Lips, but there were still some familiar sights and sounds.

The band also played their more popular songs and live staples: “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize??” all made appearances, and many were delivered in the same way that caused me to complain about the last Flaming Lips show I attended. Three and a half of those aforementioned songs were drawn out singalongs. Which brings me to my biggest problem with the Flaming Lips’ live show. They waste too much time. Wayne Coyne, despite the fact that we would all go nuts over him blowing his nose, talks too much on stage, and the singalongs just get annoying and see the rest of the band sitting around not doing anything, waiting for the next song. When they do go full on instrumental, the band sounds incredible, and I can only imagine how awesome live, full electric versions of songs like “Fight Test” and “She Don’t Use Jelly” would sound. I can only imagine, because I’ll probably never see them. The band’s setlist seemed over before it started with eleven songs total, a teaser for all the setup that it no doubt took.

But when all is said and done, there is still no live act even remotely like The Flaming Lips, for better or worse. They look, sound, and feel completely unique. They aren’t perfect, but they would never pretend they are. They want their audience to be involved and have a fun time, and no one gets their audience involved and having fun quite like The Flaming Lips. Despite my complaints, it’s a show you’re going to want to see at least once, if not as many times as possible.

♦♦♦

Overall, Pitchfork Music Festival 2009 was an overwhelming success and really pushed the festival to the upper echelons of Summer music festivals to get excited about. There is more than just a little for everyone, and this year’s festival was particularly awesome. It may not get as many big names as festivals like, say, Lollapalooza, but this works to it’s advantage, and it ends up a more focused, energetic, manageable festival experience. Even though 2009 was only the festival’s forth year, it feels like it has been around much longer. The quality of the festival already rivals or even surpasses other Summer Chicago music festivals, and if Pitchfork can manage to keep it a comparably low-key, controlled explosion of great music, we’re still at the beginning of the event’s golden years.

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Mos Def – The Ecstatic

July 17, 2009
Mos Def - The Ecstatic

Mos Def - The Ecstatic

I can confidently say that Mos Def has delivered to me both some of the best hip hop performances I have ever heard as well as some of the worst. Of course the most obvious accomplishment in his career may be the Rawkus Records classic collaboration with Talib Kweli, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, which steered hip hop into a new direction in the late ’90s and is widely considered one of the genre’s best albums from the decade. Certainly it put both artists on the map and is an excellent release, but even considering how much it impressed me, Mos Def’s solo debut Black on Both Sides topped it, at least for me. It is one of my personal favorite hip hop albums, and I believe every word of it front to back, even at the parts which many people argue are overly philosophical. I always give him the benefit of the doubt on that album even if I don’t necessarily agree with him, if nothing else because it’s loaded with classic tracks and Mos’s flow is unmatchable.

How, then, could the genre hopping The New Danger possibly have come from the same person? Mos Def at least makes a sensible attempt to expand his repertoire to multiple genres in the 2004 album, namely rock, blues and R&B, and has some memorable moments. But unfortunately his ambition and few highlights aren’t enough to stop it from being one of the most boring album’s I’ve ever heard. Whenever I try to give it another chance, I’m always fighting sleep. But at least The New Danger made it sound like Mos was trying, a luxury we didn’t get with 2006’s True Magic, which saw Mos Def making an effort to be politically conscious once again on a few tracks, yes, but was an all around terrible album which, according to pretty convincing evidence (lack of cover art, lack of advertisement, lack of quality), might have only been made in the first place to fulfill any final obligations with Geffen Records.

And if you’ve talked to me about live music within the past four months, you’ve probably heard me curse Mos Def more than once. I have been frequently citing his February 23rd show at the 9:30 Club as the worst I have ever seen, not in the slightest because we had to wait outside in the bitter cold for two hours before he started the show three hours late (his plane was late and he apologized profusely, shit happens), but simply because it was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t know what it was exactly. His tired flow? His slow, monotone delivery? The random yelling? The not that funny arguments with his DJs? The lack of anything happening most of the time? Probably the most interesting thing about the show was that the film Little Fugitive was projected on the back screen in it’s entirety for the whole thing. I found myself watching that movie, even without sound, more than I watched Mos. In the cab afterwards when I voiced my opinion that I hated the show, I was told “that’s just what hip hop shows are like,” to which I replied “then hip hop shows are fucking boring.” Looking back I know that statement just can’t be true, and I’ve got a couple gigs lined up that will hopefully prove it wrong. But my frustration says something about how utterly disappointed that show made me.

At that point in time, it seemed like the final nail in Mos Def’s coffin was pounded in. But then his new album The Ecstatic pops up on the radar and I find myself too interested to keep myself away, maybe because I want to see if what I experienced at the show was honestly the new Mos Def, or perhaps the exposure to those two terrible prior albums developed into some kind of musical masochism.

And upon turning on the CD, I was more than a little put off by what occurred to me were similarities with the aforementioned albums. In fact, the lead off track “Supermagic” is practically a microcosm for what unfurls throughout the rest of the album. It starts off with Mos Def whispering the Islamic Basmala before all else, which is what he had done on each solo release up to now, so we know already that it is in fact a Mos Def album and he is going to stick to his guns in at least one way. The next thing we hear, however, might indicate some kind of change back to the ways of his earlier conscious hip hop recordings; Mos first samples a Malcolm X speech, immediately after plunging into a vocal sample of Turkish singer Selda Bagcan as the primary focus of the songs chorus, and then featuring a front-and-center lead guitar riff and rock drums, not unlike The New Danger‘s “Freaky Black Greetings.” Within the first thirty seconds of the album, Mos pulls a bunch of ballsy, unexpected stuff out of his pockets, and I was more than surprised. These eclectic moments come to define the rest of the album’s world music influences.

Which is of course not a new concept for hip hop. Hip hop artists have been exploring different cultures since My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and one of my favorite artists, the Sri Lankan Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), has been pioneering her eclectic world hip hop for several years. But what hits hardest about M.I.A. is that her music screams out for cultures that don’t have voices because they are embroiled with internal problems. Production-wise, The Ecstatic sees Mos Def and company reaching quite close to the quality and eclecticism of the likes of M.I.A., Diplo and Switch. Mos get’s some big names to contribute tracks to the album, namely Madlib (mostly contributing beats from his Beat Konducta In India albums), Preservation (who is actually on his game for one time in Mos Def’s discography), Oh No, and even a return from The Neptunes (who were responsible for one of the very few worthwhile tracks on True Magic). A lot of really talented people clearly helped to put this album together.

Consequently, the music on The Ecstatic is pretty excellent, and memorable tunes and beats are in no small measure. This is the album’s most standout feature, and looks back to the impeccable production of Black on Both Sides, which always sounded like really classy shit. But in terms of the work of Mos Def himself as a lyricist and vocalist (what made us interested in him in the first place), the cultural explorations on The Ecstatic seem superficial by comparison. Of course, it’s not like every rapper has to be a vanguard like Arulpragasam, but even when we compare The Ecstatic to Mos Def’s best work, he lyrically falls flat. Is he still classy shit? Perhaps, but I get this unshakable image in my head while listening to the “The Embassy,” with its rumbling belly dancing music, of Mos Def in a white suit wining and dining when he sings “High status, intrigue and mystery.” It’s classy, but I know for a fact that just isn’t how embassies work.

With that said, moments of naivete like these aren’t few. The Ecstatic is lyrically quite lopsided. One moment Mos says something that genuinely surprises us and we listen intently, only to hear him indulge in the shameless self-promotion that was exactly what he strived to remove not just himself, but the entire hip hop industry away from on Black Star and Black on Both Sides. The most memorable instance of this would be on the otherwise great “Twilite Speedball.” “Yeah, no / It’s okay you can have it your way / It ain’t all good, but baby I’m cool! / Feelin’ great, feelin’ good, how are you?” To be honest, the vast majority of the album shows Mos Def doing what he’s been doing for his past few albums: yelling random words (I’m getting really sick of this “Boogeyman!” shit), semi-singing, and playing himself up.

But then on the moments you would least expect him to, Mos manages to really shine bright. The first track that comes to mind is “No Hay Nada Mas.” On paper, a song with only light guitar strumming, a non-intrusive backbeat and Mos Def  speaking in monotone Spanish sounds like worse idea ever, bad enough to be a New Danger b-side, but it works. And I say this despite the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. Perhaps this means that his musicality wins out again now, ten years later, and I am once again able to suspend disbelief, for at least a moment. But what impresses me just as much as the nice production work on the song is the fact that Mos actually cares enough to attempt to speak a song in Spanish (although my knowledge about his proficiency is nonexistent. This is not the only time when he really shows his chops as a vocalist. It would be ridiculous not to mention “History,” the duet with Talib Kweli over a J Dilla beat, where both lyricists show that they can still be just as strong and intelligent as they were on Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. Also, “Quiet Dog” and “Casa Bey,” while still not possessing the lyrical excellence of earlier works, are still superior in flow.

The cover of the album really says it all. It does not feature Mos Def, like every other album the man has released does, but instead a still frame from the 1977 film Killer of Sheep which due to copyright reasons was not released until 2007. But while that isn’t him, it’s hard not to see it as him, an artist who once seemed lost himself. What The Ecstatic does more than anything is show Mos Def actually trying again. The fact that I got all the way through this album at all is a victory in it of itself, not to mention that I actually came back to it more than five times and actually remember pretty much all of it, not just musically but also lyrically, despite it’s shortcomings.  The Ecstatic is, as a Mos Def album, neither great nor bad, making it something the likes of which we have never heard before or know how to deal with, and throughout the album he often trails behind and excels within the same track, sometimes at the same fucking time (the case of a lame rhyme over a really tight beat). If anything, the album only makes the man that much more of an utterly maddening artist. It seems like Mos Def actually really wants, needs to make this jump, and what’s killing me here, and maybe this makes The Ecstatic a narrow victory by means of sheer fascination, is that I have no idea whether he does or not.

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