Monday, February 23, 2015

Chronixx Takes Me Somewhere: A New King of Reggae

I was introduced to Chronixx by a guy I liked who loved reggae. I have never really been into reggae, and my only references before meeting this guy were Shabba Ranks, Bob Marley, and Buju Banton. This guy I liked would send me love songs, but they were ALL reggae. I would laugh, but after really listening, I started to like Chronixx more than the guy. Usually, when it doesn't work out with a guy, the music he may have introduced me to is the FIRST THING I discard. It sounds crazy because I'm a musician... why would I ever discard music? Yeah... Chronixx was the first time I couldn't escape my love of the music, so I had to figure out a different way to deal with it not working out with the guy. Funny enough, I got over it by listening to Chronixx MORE! I played "They Don't Know" relentlessly and sung it until my throat was raw. Last night, I ventured out alone to a Chronixx concert at The New Parish in Oakland, crossing the final hump in getting over said guy (he was supposed to take me for my birthday last year, and flaked). Some busta wasn't gonna stop me from seeing my new reggae boo. So I took my divine self, with my fresh braids and maroon lipstick, into a smoke filled room, filled with rastas and of course Oakland's newest gentrifiers and awaited Chronixx.

Unlike many artists, who I feel choose mediocre to weak openers in hopes that they feel better, his openers were very good and helped get the energy up in the room for his performance. Kelissa was first up, and the first thing I noticed about her was that her outfit was nothing special. She had on an outfit that most of us would wear to the grocery store or to have coffee with a friend. When she was singing, I understood. Who cares about the accoutrements, when we're all there for the same thing? Music. That was a trend that followed with the other opener and with Chronixx. I liked her songs, and the only feedback I would give is that she either needs to project more or make sure that her mic is hotter when performing. Same thing with the background singers.

Next up was Keznamdi, who lives in Berkeley! He sung with so much passion and furor that he instantly made me a fan. The feeling that these artists were all about their music really shined through during the performances, and Keznamdi's energy was a perfect prelude to the headliner.

Finally, it was time for the king. He emerged doing songs not so familiar to me, but that still jammed. I was waiting to hear songs like, "Rain Music," and my all time Chronixx favorite, "Somewhere." When he got to those... I was definitely yelling (but now louder than the annoying guy next to me lol). What I liked is that he didn't just do the songs exactly the way that they sound on the records. He slowed Somewhere down to almost a ballad. I was upstairs swooning, y'all! Now, normally, when I go to shows with famous folks, I toss one of my cds on stage (hey, no shame in my game). Last night, I was so entranced, I forgot, and jetted right after to get out of the smoke cloud I had been in for the past two or three hours. I would definitely see Chronixx again, and am glad some busta introduced me to him.

Chronixx has a new album out, "Dread & Terrible," available on iTunes, Google Play, and in stores.

I wouldn't say I'm becoming a reggae head, but the same guy also introduced me to Tarrus Riley! Have you guys heard his song, "Superman?" THE JAM! Give me a few more months, I'll be all caught up on this reggae thing...


Monday, February 16, 2015

Black Love & Music | Once Upon a Love with Jahi, Antique's Freedom Song, and my Top 5 Love Songs






I met Jahi years ago, when he was working with One Fam Radio and they recorded me opening for Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), doing a poem at a political event. That was almost eight years ago. Since then, Jahi has consistently added meaningful art to the genre of hip-hop and this past weekend, he released a collection of love songs that he's recorded over the years.






It's a brief project, but perfect to ride in your car to. Some of my favorites are "Coast," which samples Aaliyah's "Rock The Boat." It could be that I was sleeping, but this isn't a side I've seen from the emcee, so it's nice to see that stretch. I also really dig "For Lovers Only," as the production is reminiscent of that great, soulful hip-hop that transitions well into a live performance.

Emceeing as a craft since 1982, and professionally since 1999, you may recognize Jahi as a part of PE 2.0 (the second iteration of Public Enemy). Citing a 15 year mentor relationship with the legendary hip-hop leader Chuck D, Jahi says he released a love project because it's something Public Enemy hasn't done.
"I'm a cultural warrior and a lover. [I released] a love album because Black Love Matters."
Check out "Once Upon a Love" on Bandcamp.


Antique recently returned from a tour in Ghana, where she recorded a lot of music, including this newest single, "Freedom Song (This Song)." I like this song because I hear her stretch out vocally a lot on this. The production quality is also high, and of course, the lyrics are socially relevant and give historical context to our present state as a people. Listen here & keep up with Antique this month during the Life Is Loving Festival, curated by her and her husband, Hodari Davis. The Davises are also a part of the Black Love Heck Yeah campaign, so stay tuned for their episode!




And in the ongoing spirit of love, check out my Top 5 Favorite Love Songs!

5. I, Who Have Nothing, Shirley Bassey


3. All I Do, Stevie Wonder

2. I Know You, I Live You, Chaka Khan

1. Star of the Story, Heatwave

Monday, February 9, 2015

GRAMMYs Recap: The Legacy of Ledisi and Basic Beyoncé

It's always amazing to see a deserving artist finally get their due, as her sisters look on knowingly in pride and awe. Last night, Ledisi was recognized by the world for her tremendous gift, on stage opening for Common and John Legend, as the transformative voice who sung "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," while playing the legendary Mahalia Jackson in Ava Duvernay's acclaimed movie, "Selma." Ledisi received what seemed like a ten minute standing ovation for her soulful and pitch-perfect rendition of the tune. OH, WAIT. THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN. SOMEONE DECIDED TO WHORIDE ON LEDISI'S MOMENT. Who was it? None other than the Queen of Pop-shade, Mrs. Shawn Carter.

I'll admit it. I'm not a huge Bey-stan, like a lot of people I know. She has a great voice, a disappointing catalog (to me), but is a phenomenal entertainer. That said, the fact that she would actually CALL Johnnyboo and Common and ASK to open what CLEARLY is Ledisi's song at this juncture was classless and showed a blatant lack of sisterhood and a serious lack of leadership. After all, leaders know when to step up and when to step back. We did not need Bey to save the hymnal day. We did not want her. We wanted the soul stirring, shoulder shaking, pull-out-my-funeral-home-church-fan and make me stank face til my face is stuck like that Ledisi! Ledisi remained classy throughout the entire situation, but I also take pause and subtract cool points for the way Johnnyboo and Common did not stand up for her. Johnnyboo's weak response of,  "You don't really say no to BeyoncĂ©..." can miss me. Boy, BYE. I will conclude this by saying that I feel, at the very least, Ledisi received small vindication in the complete basicness of Bey's performance. Bey... GIRL... that growl got you nowhere tonight, but we do have an unlimited amount of seats for your use, backstage. Have any one of them.



A sweet surprise tonight was Usher's dedication to my all time favorite, Stevie Wonder, singing his rendition of If It's Magic. I'm ALWAYS worried when Usher decides to sing live, as he has a penchant for either trying to move too much and losing the right key or his ballads without movement being a snooze fest. He managed to avoid both tonight, and gave a memorable performance of the song, being joined by Stevie playing a harmonica solo at the end. Kudos, Ush. We love ya. Now hurry up with that album!



LOWS OF THE NIGHT


I've been pretty underwhelmed by Sam Smith, since being introduced to him. Four Grammys, really? Meh...





Pharrell, we still don't forgive you for biting Marvin Gaye, and your vapid 3-second hands up moment just poured salt in the wound. Also, stop with the shorts with suits, my dude. You're a grown man.




HIGHS OF THE NIGHT

 Kanye, you PLAY TOO MUCH! That Record of the Year joke was funny and cute. Stay classy, Ye.




  NO SOUP FOR YOU, NESTHEAD! (Grammys, either). 

Monday, February 2, 2015

On Ana Moth, Watzreal, and the Return of Jodeci





I don't know much about Ana Moth. I've heard her name around, seen her on some bills with other women from the Bay, am friends with her on Facebook, and enjoy her aesthetic, but that's the extent. When I came across her EP, it was the title that grabbed my curiosity (and the cover), so I decided to give it a listen.








The first track, "Let It Go," immediately reminds me of Janelle Monae. She sings over a hip-hop beat with an almost operatic voice. An inspirational song about self-love and empowerment, I like the arrangement and the harmonies she chose, even though I think the writing on this track could be a bit more developed. "You Can Run Your Mouth" has enjoyable, laid back production, and a fun hook, touting "You can run you mouth/ I'ma run my business." I continue to wish for tighter songwriting in the verses, but appreciate her confidence.

"Wife" has danceable production, and by this track, I can guesstimate her musical influences: likely Amel Larrieux, Badu, Floetry, and others who have what seems like a natural abandon about their music. I think this song is about infidelity, walking out, when realizing that being a wife with this person isn't a possibility. Again, the writing could be more clear and concise. Finally, there's "Wanna Be," whose production has the potential to be my favorite, but the disjointed sound choices and transitions make it my least favorite.

Overall, I'd give this EP a C+, since I can see the artistic potential, but don't feel that it is realized. Stylistically, the title is befitting, as Ana's bravado is an iron fist and the mellow production seems to cover it like a velvet glove. Check it out on soundcloud, by clicking the link at the start of the review.

Keep up with Ana at www.anamoth.com


Wisdom Wit Attitude is the debut album from Watzreal, a young emcee from Berkeley. The production and mixing quality is what I think is most striking about this first effort. The first track, "Hell No," has great transitions and an awesome guitar solo towards the end, but the verses and hook leave a lot to be desired. I do like the concept of the track, about not selling one's soul to the industry to make it, something he notes he knew he'd be tempted to do. After listening to the entire project, I ended up feeling like this song was a weak start, for a project that is otherwise mostly solid.



The talking in between tracks almost makes this album seem more like a mixtape than an LP, and is one of my main gripes with the project. It's distracting and feels unnecessary. It's like when someone spits their verse to you, and then spends ten minutes explaining the verse.

The first single, "New Bay," is a lot of name dropping and is a lukewarm track for me. The shining track is the one that follows it, "Pride," which was recently released. This is the first time, listening the album, that I feel Watzreal shines as a rhymer, flexing his double time, and his hook game is on point on this track. Of course, to bolster this track into the stratosphere are the features, RyanNicole and TASK1ne, who are effortless in beasting the double time with great content. I'm pretty sure this is going to be the best track on the album.

Other standouts on this project are "The World Is Yours" with one of my favorites, Breathless, which has more fantastic production and a good hook and "Stay," which features its producer Tone Jonez. This is a very radio friendly track with a sweet concept, about wanting a crush to hang around a bit longer.  

If I were a mentor, giving Watzreal advice on developing, I'd tell him to work on his hook game and not to feel like he has to rap super hard and aggressively on every track. New emcees are often overzealous with their voices, and it's unnecessary. I did it, too, when I was starting out. Another piece of advice I'd give is that this project has WAY too many features. Out of 14 tracks, only 2 have no features. It makes it difficult for the lead artist to shine. That said, I appreciated what felt like a concerted effort to feature a range of women emcees on this project. Overall, I'd give this first effort a solid B-, for consistent production choices, some really smart features, and good content. It loses a letter grade, as I feel Watzreal is still growing as an artist, and even though it's his album he doesn't shine the way I think he should. I look forward to how he matures over the coming projects.

Keep up with Watzreal on Facebook, Twitter, and Reverbnation.

Y'all can get mad at me if you want, but I'm not falling out over this track. It's nice for nostalgia's sake, and K-Ci sounds better than I expected him to, but Jojo sounds a mess, and the production sounds like a leftover track from The Show, the Afterparty, the Hotel. The writing is lazy, and honestly, I feel like this is an Uncle Charlie song. If this is what we have to expect from their comeback album, I'll just repurchase their catalog to date, and leave it at that. As I was discussing the track with my sister, one statement I made pretty much summed up how I feel about this: "Somebody bring Sisqo out!" Lol...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Seven Landmark Songs that Inform the Continuing Movement for Civil Rights


Last night, I went to see Selma. As I watched it, what I felt most was its timeliness. We are in a state of emergency in America; a state where black bodies are as devalued as they ever were, where our children, our parents, our friends, and lovers are at risk of being slaughtered for daring to exist. While commercial radio doesn't play songs of liberation or resilience, I thought it appropriate to look back on songs that were so poignant in providing a soundtrack to our struggle. These songs mean a lot to me.

1. A Change Is Gonna Come | Artist: Sam Cooke
The composition of this song is brilliant. The layers of strings at the forefront and an almost indistinguishable percussion section put the desperation of Sam's voice and lyrics as the centerpiece of the song. I have to say... who DOESN'T cry when watching the scene in Malcolm X where Brother Malcolm is driving to his demise and this song is playing?! It evokes such emotion juxtaposing powerlessness and hopefulness and how they co-exist within us all. Thank you, Sam.

 2. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free | Artist: Nina Simone
This song talks about the limitless possibilities that come with freedom, a feeling denied the oppressed. This is almost a church song to me... the piano plays as though a choir is going to join her at some point, but she goes it alone, vocally. The lyrics of the song speak to the suppression of voice, the suppression of spirit, of love, and how far a bit of understanding can go a long way. Thank you, Nina.



3. Someday We'll All Be Free | Artist: Donny Hathaway
Donny admonishes us all to prepare for our freedom by not becoming consumed by our captivity. This is one of my favorite songs because he is so optimistic that freedom will one day reach us, almost as if he's saying, "Don't miss the freedom train, it's two minutes out!" He tells the men to keep their self respect and pride, knowing that they are feared and under attack. Thank you, Donny.

4. We the People Who Are Darker than Blue | Artist: Curtis Mayfield
This is my favorite song of them all. Curtis is addressing us, as a people. Basically asking, "Are we going to let them define us, treat us this way, prove them right?!" He encourage us to unify, gain self mastery, knowing that we are thought of as a lesser race. He asks us to relinquish arrogance and arm ourselves with brotherhood and sisterhood. He addresses black on black violence, saying that if we continue at this rate, there will be no one left to celebrate the freedom once it comes. Thank you, Curtis.






5. Strange Fruit | Billie Holiday
Are we so far from these lyrics? Does our flesh not still burn? Do our eyes not still bulge?  Are we not still dying at the hands of masters (government) and their overseers (police and vigilantes)? It's crazy to me that this song can remain so relevant having been released in 1939. Many claim that we live in a post-racial society, and use the election of an African-American president as their proof. When there are more black men in prison than there were slaves, when our murders continue not to be prosecuted, when our children can be slaughtered as they sleep, I must disagree with those who would claim that we are past hatred. We are still strange fruit. Thank you, Billie.





6. Keep On Pushin' | Artist: The Impressions
This is kind of my way of getting Curtis Mayfield on here twice, but I really do love this song! It's the song you need to hear when you're nearing the finish line, but you feel defeated. It's the song that asks why not me, instead of why me? That's what I like most about Mayfield's music. Thank you, Impressions.



7. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) | Artist: Marvin Gaye
"What's Going On?" would have been too easy. We could ask that question, but we already know the answer. I chose this song because it speaks to the rage of a people so disregarded by its fellow man, that all we can do is scream in agony. This song addresses economic traps and inequities that prohibit our people from sustaining ourselves financially, much less flourishing. Thank you, Marvin.











As we look at the state of our world, what are songs that address your struggle?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Prodigal Daughter of Modern Soul | Jazmine Sullivan's Reality Show

Back in 2011 when Jazmine said she wanted to quit music, our eyes and mouth agape with shock and dismay, I'm sure the lot of us hoped and prayed that whatever she was experiencing personally and/or professionally would be creatively harnessed to CONTINUE creating. She did, however; go on a three year hiatus. I'm excited that Jaz decided to return and continue to offer her amazing and powerful voice in a musical climate of new age Amerie's (see: Jhene Aiko). While I (kinda, sorta) dig Amerie and Aiko, the depth of their music and voices leaves a lot to be desired. Sullivan's music speaks to the heartache, heart throb, and heartbreak that many people (and women, in particular) often experience with such candor and abandon that her music has resonated with the urban masses. This newest project is no different, in its ability to capture the essence of the energy around and in the "reality" television industry.

I'll admit that even though the album is called Reality Show, I was a bit slow to pick up on what Jazmine was attempting to accomplish conceptually, and almost wrote the album off as just a sonic effort in ratchetpiece theater. Somewhere around the song HoodLove, I was so appalled at the sheer brashness of the lyrics, that the lightbulb finally went off. I was riding in my car like, "What the heck?!" She starts the song:

I got a 45 in my Louie bag, yeah 
And I, I'ma always ride for my man, yeah
If he got two strikes, I'ma take the rap for him
Cause that's what a real b**** do...

Needless to say, I was a bit shocked. Then, I literally said aloud, "OOOOOOOOOH... IT'S CALLED REALITY SHOW!" She was documenting (and seemingly poking fun) at the atrocities masquerading as representations of celebrity life and relationships (especially where black reality television is concerned). While the music on this album does speak to all of our inner ratch in some instances, the totality of it is (seemingly unintentionally) holding up a mirror to the epic present day failure that is life imitating art and vice versa. Jazmine says she's obsessed with the most ratchet reality television, and this obsession and a desire to showcase her songwriting skills is what inspired this album.


The entire album isn't completely hyperbole, though. Songs like Stupid Girl speak to the realness of allowing one's self to be used by a man and the culture of women as commodities to be played with and tossed aside at a man's will. Sullivan laments her own mistakes and cautions against making the same ones over what I can only describe as an Amy Winehouse-esque beat. Her vocal performance is even reminiscent of Winehouse on this track, and I enjoy it.



What I admire most about this album is that I feel Jaz's vocal control and choices have matured without watering down her style at all. This is demonstrated on some of my favorites on the album, which are: Forever Don't Last (one of her classic heartbreak ballads, where she tries to reconcile with the finiteness of an unhealthy relationship, that though detrimental, she misses), Masterpiece(Mona Lisa) (a track about finally realizing one's beauty after so long of not seeing the wonder in flaws, the talent, the ability, the sheer magnitude of womanhood and humanity. I love that she takes a stylistic leap on this track, and the focus isn't so much on vocal acrobatics, but moreso on the message creating an ambiance of discovery and confidence), and a song I previously mentioned HoodLove (about the extent a woman is willing to go to for her man). 


Overall, I find Reality Show to be conceptually consistent, sonically stupendous, and effortless excellence. While her vocals may seem effortless, the journey to this album certainly was not. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, Jazmine admits that part of her sabbatical from music was due to an abusive relationship. She cites the moment where she realized she had to leave the partnership as when she was slapped so hard that she temporarily lost her hearing in one ear, and thought that she was going to lose her lifelong dream of singing. I can appreciate her candor, and that it translates so well in her songwriting. And as far as her vocal vacation, I'm sure that we're all glad that forever didn't last.

Reality Show is available on iTunes, Google Play, and in stores.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The (Hella) Beauty of Vell Taylor + Tank's Stronger


The (Hella) Beauty of Vell Taylor

 Vell Taylor is one of the most honest rappers I've ever met. And not honest in that unabashed, disrespectful, I'm going to take out my hurt by way of this rhyming tantrum type of honest. He's that beautiful, bruised but not broken, product of my environment type of honest. I chatted with Vell this past weekend and got some great insight into his musical journey and his latest EP, "HELLA." Our conversation left me feeling like Vell is underrated, both in his music and in his resolve.






He remains humble on our call, thanking me more than once for my appreciation of his music, a demeanor that catches me off guard. When I ask him how he got into music, he says, "I was a poet first. I couldn’t write a poem now to save my ass, but it was my way to express myself – you know the story: boy from the hood; poetry was my escape." I continue to be caught off guard by this conversation. I recalibrate and remind myself that Oakland is a groundswell of sweet, artistic men, hardened by too much opportunity to be abused by their environment/the system and too little opportunity to express/manifest their genius for pay. He tells me, "I got into music kinda just being a poet and being around [music]... finally having the confidence to get behind a mic. It takes a lot to put yourself out there to be judged. I’m an introvert and sensitive about my shit."


And it's almost as if he's giving himself a pep talk on HELLA's first song, "Hercules." Adamantly, he raps, "And every hero needs a theme song/For a n***a still clutching to his last plan/This gon' be a dream song..." Later in this song he sings (seemingly to himself) "Where will you go from here/Where you go/Nobody's stopping you/I hope you know -- dream on, dreamer." This part particularly resonated with me, accompanied by mellow, laid back production. The Bay artist can often stymie her/his self into staying in the same place (physically, yes, but especially mentally). It's as though Vell asking himself, "You gonna grow or what, bruh?!"


In a disappointed voice, he tells me that this release is bittersweet, as it was supposed to be a full album, but that he's glad that he has the chance to share it. 

My favorite song on the project, Oakland USA, is produced by one of the illest, Harris The KnowItAll, and its title is likely a nod to tastemaker company DopeOnly. Since his first effort, SODA, I've enjoyed Vell's ear for sampling songs relevant to our generation, and this song is no different, sampling So Beautiful by Musiq. "Limit is the sky that's what they told us/But that ain't what they showed us/Daddy didn't hold us so our attitude ferocious/And Too $hort growed us so our girls will never know us/She'll never get candy, she'll never smell roses..." These four bars are the essence and brilliance of Vell Taylor, the rapper and the man. He doesn't shy away from the faults of he and those like him; he rather illuminates them, explains them, and compels the listener to hear with understanding and empathy. To that end, he tells me over the phone:

"I think I’m an open book, so it’s definitely going to come out in my music. The only time I’m able to write music is from my point of view and how I see things. Sometimes, I think I’m a little too honest, but it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. You have to have a soul to understand where I’m coming from."

He lists some of his musical inspirations as Scarface, Common, and Teddy Pendergrass, saying that there has to be music like Pendergrass to really understand how to communicate romantically with women. When asked what he wants people to take away from HELLA he says, "My heart. Just know that it's heartfelt and I wouldn't lie to you. I feel like I could be the poet of my hood."

The HELLA EP is available on Soundcloud.

Tank's New Album "Stronger"
Now if we're talking about underrated artists, Tank should be top of mind/top of list. I actually wasn't a huge fan of the "I Deserve" Tank, but once he got to the "Please Don't Go" phase, I absolutely loved him, from there on. While I feel that he's had some missteps as far as content, seemingly to fit it (some of the songs on his mixtape "Diary of a Mad Man" were mysteriously extra ratchet), he's been a solid songwriter, and incredible vocalist for a long time in the game. Tank's level of artistry was solidified for me when he wrote incredible work for Jamie Foxx's Unpredictable album, but was missing from the underwhelming follow-up Intuition. His most recent release, a full length album named "Stronger," left me wondering why he's not a mega-star.

The first song, and single, on the album "You're My Star," had me like, "AWWWW SNAP!" From the start of the video, Tank shows that this is going to be a video for the mature, aesthetically (he finally has his shirt on -- and a suit no less -- on an album cover!) and aurally. Check it out below:

During an interview on the Steve Harvey Morning Show, I heard Tank say that with this album, he wanted to get back to creating timeless musical moments in Soul/R&B, which Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, and countless others have done. You can hear the stylistic switches to help that goal manifest throughout the album.

Some standouts on the album include: "Missing You" (very Marvin Gaye-esque), "Same Way" (which is a nod to the 80s) , the title track "Stronger" (a beautiful ballad, which shows his vocal strength, control, and dexterity -- people, please don't wear this one out at your weddings), and my absolute favorite on the album, the final song "If That's What It Takes." The last song is the anchor and the lighthouse of this entire album, and to me, is the shining musical moment that the artist says he was trying to achieve. Even the writing is remarkable, from the first line: "I'll down in a fire/I'll burn up in the rain/If that's what it takes." Set to super jazzy accompaniment in the drums and airy keys, this is one to float to, and I'll tip my hat to the blockbuster film or TV show who picks it song up first, as it definitely creates ambiance.

On first listen, the album was inconsistent to me, but the more I listened to it, I understood the method behind Tank's madness, and really appreciated what he put together in this project. He recently went on an Instagram rant about feeling unappreciated as an artist, after learning that a music video would not be financed by his record label. I understand his frustration, but would ask Tank to think outside of the box... maybe don't sign another record deal. If possible, buy out of your current deal. Take that Fantidote course I spoke about in last week's blog, and become an independent artist. It is a new day in the music industry, and artists need to be accountable and forward thinking about creative control. That aside, Stronger is a great album, and I hope Tank finds the success as a solo artist that he's been so fervently seeking.

Stronger is available on iTunes and Google Play.