Missy Elliott - This is Not a Test: 2017 is daunting and scary, but I wanted to start it off right with a classic album I’ve been meaning to add for a while. This is Not a Test is one of Missy Elliott’s most slept on records, but it’s easily my favorite. It’s playable all the way through, features a crazy variety of hip-hop icons (Mary J, Jay Z, Fabolous, R Kelly, Nelly, Beenie Man — shit is stacked), and has some really rad early 2000’s beats (largely produced by Timbaland).
This album feels particularly relevant this week, with the Inauguration and the Women’s March now immediately in the rearview. Missy Elliott was one of the original pioneers for feminism in hip-hop. Not only is she one of the greatest female emcees of all time, but also she’s consistently used her platform as a means to start a discourse on important and often controversial topics. This is Not a Test is no exception. The album is a body-positive, sex-positive jab at heteronormative structures of gender and sexuality.
As a survivor of sexual abuse and someone who has been socially “othered” in a variety of ways, Missy Elliott is aware of how she’s different from other big names in entertainment, which she addresses on tracks like “I’m Not Perfect” and “Let Me Fix My Weave.” The key, though, lays in her ability to consistently channel themes of body positivity and confidence, despite those differences. Tracks like “I’m Really Hot” and “Let It Bump,” are bold displays of unapologetic self-confidence that paved the way for so many female artists today. Missy was one of the first major hip-hop artists to really explore themes of female sexual agency, specifically expectations of black female sexuality. This can be seen on tracks like “Dats What I’m Talkin’ About” and “Toyz” (which is straight up about leaving your man and finding empowerment in masturbation… lol name literally any other artist that could pull that off). Every track on this project is gold. Trust me. JAISON
Recommended tracks: 1, 2, 3, 6, 10
RIYL: Aaliyah, Nelly, Lil Kim
GoGo Penguin - v2.0: So, even though I had received enthusiastic recommendations of GoGo Penguin’s music from several trustworthy sources, I never actually listened to the group’s music until Thanksgiving break of last year. Since then, I literally have not been able to stop. I don’t think I’ve gone more than three days in a row without listening to one of their albums.
Gogo Penguin is made up of Chris Illingsworth (piano), Nick Blacka (bass), and Rob Turner (drums/primary composer), and while their instrumentation follows that of the traditional jazz piano trio, the similarities end there. In fact, GoGo Penguin almost never plays swing, rarely uses the complex harmonies typically associated with jazz, and doesn’t even have much soloing, not to mention production that sounds more like an electronic or art-rock record than anything else. So, if a jazz trio doesn’t have swing, complex harmony, or solos, what does it have?
v2.0 is the second of GoGo Penguin’s three releases to date. From beginning to end, the defining feature of this album is its sense of melody. Turner’s muscular drumming, and Illingsworth’s driving arpeggios only go so far as to showcase the beautiful melodies that compose each piece, and the few solos that do appear seem only to add to the composition rather than distract from it. Most of all, each track on v2.0 is gorgeously emotional, with an ethereal quality that I can’t honestly put into words. Discovering this album has been an incredible experience for me, so I hope you all take the time to give it a listen, and let me know what you think.v2.0. JATIN
RIYL: BADBADNOTGOOD, The Bad Plus, Aphex Twin, Rachmaninoff
Recommended Tracks: 1, 2, 3, 6, 10
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3: It’s really hard for Run the Jewels to fuck up. Despite being in the game a while, the prolific duo consisting of NY underground hero rapper / producer El-P and long time Outkast affiliate Killer Mike have blown up over the last few years . Over the holidays, RTJ dropped their third album together, and it's still fire. I think Run the Jewels works because it’s just experimental enough (thank to El-P’s history in Def Jux) to fill a niche sound that isn’t really explored by other artists, but still grounded enough for everybody to still bang to it. I would guess that’s Killer Mike’s role. He’s the Big Boi to El-P’s Andre (and that’s definitely not a diss on Mike).
As expected, RTJ’s third album still slaps hard, seeing collaborations with Kamasi Washington and Danny Brown amongst others (Danny Brown was fated to spit on a RTJ joint sooner or later). I fuck with Legend Has It, Call Ticketron, Hey Kids, Everybody Stay Calm, and Thursday in the Danger Room. It may not be as supercharged as RTJ 2, but I think its a lot more consistent in sound. Which might also be my only problem. Run The Jewels has had so much output lately, I can’t help but feel like they’ve developed a formula, and they’re kinda stuck in that formula. Don’t get it twisted, they tight, and I hope to see more of them, but I wouldn’t be sad to see El-P or Killer Mike put this on the back burner for a bit and get back to some solo shit. JAISON
RIYL: Outkast, DefJux, Danny Brown
Recommended Tracks: 3, 4, 5, 11, 13
Kid Cudi - Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin': I haven’t traditionally been a Cudi fan. He’s always had a bit of a brand that was hard for me to access. With Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, I’ve been converted. Looking to come back from the widely accepted failure of Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven (even though it’s actually not horrible!), Kid Cudi abandoned his various aesthetics and broke his talent down to the bare elements from which it is constructed. From this raw, incredible talent, Cudi sculpted an 87 minute long masterpiece. It’s experimental and nontraditional at times; yet somehow, where many experimenters come off as pretentious, Cudi feels honest and pure. The production is amazing, working in a very different realm but on par with Kanye, I think.
I love how diverse this album is through its 19 songs. The record switches between putting you in a trance, and making you bounce your head to some hard hitting dance beats. Cudi got a few perfect features for this album, including Andre 3000, Travis Scott, Willow Smith, and Pharrell. All I can really say about this album is that it was like nothing I had ever heard before and I loved it. 9/10. FLAMING HOT. CHRISTIAN
RIYL: Old Kid Cudi, Drake, smoking pot
Recommended Tracks: By Design (4), Baptized in Fire (8), Flight at First Sight/Advanced (9)
Lambchop - FLOTUS (For Love Often Turns Us Still): If one chooses to perceive musicians as storytellers then neglecting the broad and extensive work done by Kurt Wagner, the lead singer of Lambchop, would be a grievous error. Lambchop exists as a perpetually shifting and changing assortment of musicians, the only constant being Wagner himself. Wagner is now nearing 60, and has stayed alongside Lambchop since its inception in 1986.
Listening to Lam discography as it spans decades reveals that Lambchop not only tell stories but are themselves a story. The changes the group has gone through in terms of musical style, from folky americana in their earlier works to orchestral ballads in Mr. M to synthesized beauty in FLOTUS, showcases how many different ways one man can express himself. Ever present at the center of all these works and stylings lies Wagner, the unifying link between all their albums, his lyricism and songwriting providing the ever-beating heart of the group.
FLOTUS, released near the tail-end of 2016, is my personal favorite, perhaps because Wagner’s styles always feel firmly entrenched in their specific time period. FLOTUS is not ahead of its time, but rather perfectly in its place: a synthesized and increasingly electronic reworking of classic americana that feels made for right now. The album starts with “In Care of 8675309,” an 11 minute journey of a track where Wagner sings constantly. It ends with “The Hustle,” an 18 minute expedition that is primarily instrumental.
These two miniature epics are by no means the entirety of the album yet they are a good starting point from which to analyze the work as a whole. Both tracks meld Wagner’s traditionalist twang with a modern electronic melody; his vocoder modified vocals soothe whilst the juxtaposition of genre creates haunting undertones. For any avid listeners of Laurie Andersen, the idea of electronic unsettling is far from foreign. Unlike Andersen, Wagner takes his dystopic sentimentalities one step further by pairing them alongside traditionalist aesthetic, playing both off each other. Ultimately, the album feels like a call for hybridization: to take from the past and use it in the present instead of neglecting either. RAMIRO
RIYL: The National, Future Islands
Recommended Tracks: 1, 10, 11
The xx - I See You: It's been five whole years since the last xx release. The wait is finally over!
Was it worth it?
It depends what you’re after. I See You is not a bad album.
Part of what made xx and Coexist so successful was the freshness of their sound. There just wasn’t anything like it from 2009 to 2012. But five years have passed now - we’ve had Caribou, and James Blake became a full blown pop star. Jamie has grown up as well, releasing In Colour. If anything can be said for the whole work, it is about how that dynamic is so apparent in the album. It sounds like Jamie flexing his sampling muscles with Oliver and Romy singing over, along for the ride. The best parts of the album are clearly Jamie’s work as well. The David Lang sample in “Lips,” Hall & Oates in “On Hold”: the standout moments are clearly Jamie’s. Those are great songs, but the dichotomy within the group is on display for everyone to see.
Another strength of their first two albums, and even In Colour, was how well the tracks were ordered. All of those albums are meant to be listened to from start to finish; they support a clear structure. I See You doesn’t have this. Listening to it straight through is the same as listening on shuffle. That may not be something every listener notices, but it leaves the album without the coherence one might expect of the xx.
I See You almost certainly won’t have the same impact or staying power as xx or Coexist, but it's still worth a few listens. CAMERON
RIYL: Caribou, James Blake, Jamie xx, Young Turks, Local Natives
Recommended Tracks: 1, 3, 6, 8, 9