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So it’s been over a month since there’s been anything of interest on here. We dropped the ball on our up-to-the-minute coverage of 808s and Heartbreak the week it came out. We all sort of concurrently decided that our interest in blogging and music criticism had faded.

But, it’s been a month of reflection for me (not really), and I’m on vacation, and I’m back in America, where I have been doing music criticism for the last four years in some capacity, so I’ll still be on that grind somehow. From here on out, I’ll be resuming my music editorial duties for The Carl, so you can probably catch the odd blog post from me over there at their website.  I guess it’s bizarre to keep blogging on here, but I plan to start updating at least a little more frequently because all my unexpressed opinions need a home. I’ll also try to link to stuff I write elsewhere. And this way Greg and Gabe have a home if they ever want to come back. So welcome to the New Everything All of the Time, more commonly known as Some Stuff Occasionally.

The point of this is that I want to make a shout-out to my cousin Hannah, who I recently discovered has a good hip hop blog that you can now find on our blogroll.

Also, here’s some music I’ve been listening to lately:

The Foreign Exchange – Leave It All Behind: Laid-back R&B from Phonte of Little Brother. You can lounge to this all day.

The Very Best – Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit Are The Very Best: Classified as Tropical/Dance in its genre column, this mixtape is worldly and dancy, references the entire spectrum of bloggable music, and is fun as hell. Also it’s available for free download here.

Blu & Exile – Below The Heavens: I’d been meaning to listen to this for a long time, and I wish I had done so earlier. Blu is a great MC: expressive, autobiographical, funny, and emotional, and Exile’s beats are gorgeous. This is one of the best hip hop albums I’ve heard in the last couple of years, and it deserves all the praise it’s gotten.

Black Milk – Tronic: It’s past imitating Dilla and on to its own legacy for this collection of great beats and hard-hitting raps from one of Detroit’s finest.

Those are my notes for now. Welcome back. Oh, also that Greg’s not writing anymore, I’m not putting up those social bookmarking links. Nobody used those.


When I tell Chinese people that Kanye West is one of my favorite musicians, they consistently have no idea whom I’m talking about. Considering that one of my preconceived notions about most conversations I have is that people know and ostensibly love Kanye, and therefore he is a safe subject to discuss (which I do, often), it’s always a blow to have this common ground taken away from me. Nonetheless, in addition to the swarms of ex-pats who rolled up to the biggest musical event in Beijing hip hop history last night (including a bunch of mysterious high-school age Americans – are there really that many embassy kids?), there were enough Chinese people to pack the Beijing Workers’ Gymnasium, which was conveniently small enough that my nosebleed seats were a lot better than my nosebleed seats from when I saw Kanye at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

In fact, the whole affair was decidedly Chinese. To get into the stadium we had to walk down an aisle lined on either side by soldiers, and the show itself had a bunch of weird regulations. By all appearances, they didn’t let the extremely limited number of people on the floor stand or dance at all until the last two songs, which both must have made those seats a ripoff and kind of killed the energy for everybody else. The most glaring issue, though, was that the sound was absurdly low. I could barely hear Kanye on many of the songs, and it often took me 20 or 30 seconds to even figure out what he was performing because the only audible part was the bass drums. Presumably there was some kind of government presence stepping in and making sure that it wasn’t too loud, since Glow In The Dark was one of the best-mixed concerts I’ve ever seen.

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I understand it’s completely blasphemous to suggest that Illmatic isn’t Nas’s best album. But that’s not really my argument anyway–I’m not going to contest that The Lost Tapes is better than Illmatic, because it may well not be. Illmatic is definitely one of the most influential albums in the history of hip hop, and probably the most masterfully constructed.

But I still find myself listening to The Lost Tapes five times for every time I listen to Illmatic. Mostly because where Illmatic is carefully and thoughtfully constructed, The Lost Tapes is personal and emotional. It’s almost as well thought-out, but it feels less filtered and more authentic. It’s so much easier for me to connect to autobiographical, emoting The Lost Tapes Nas than it is to connect to Illmatic Nas.

I mean, look at these lyrics from “Doo Rags:”

The styles come from prison, they used potatoes making liquor
Just to prove we some creative n****s
Turning nothing into something, is God’s work
And you get nothing without struggle and hard work

Honestly, that may be the single most beautiful hip hop lyric I’ve ever heard. I think it’s fair to say that most people see the idea of prisoners making alcohol out of potatoes as either depressing or immoral; at best people might see it as neutral.

Nas succinctly points out an incredible positivity in it that I never would have seen otherwise. That’s beautiful. That’s art. That’s God’s work.

Plus, I have to appreciate it when a song (“Nothing Lasts Forever”) starts with a brief monologue like this:

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We’ve now heard three tracks from 808s and Heartbreak, and they share a distinct style, so we can guess that the rest of the album will sound similar. I didn’t want to judge the tracks too quickly, because I had no reference point to compare the tracks to. But my kneejerk reaction was negative, and justifiably so–Kanye is unarguably out of his element on all of these tracks.

Kanye is not a talented singer, and the unbelievably sparse backing tracks contrast sharply with his production throughout his rap career. In the past, Kanye has rarely been content to leave his sample-based beats unadorned with additional instrumentation, whether a single synthesizer or an ensemble of horn players, featured rappers, a singer and two professional keyboard players.

Even the production is amateurish at best. Kanye’s goofy, cartoonish synthesizers on all of these tracks, particularly “Heartless” (I’m pretty convinced that the synth in the verses is the default flute tone on a $100 Casio keyboard somewhere), is particularly surprising in contrast to his consistently adept use of synthesizers in the past.

FADER, in their review of the listening party for 808s and Heartbreak, similarly struggled for a point of reference, and came up with The Eraser, Thom Yorke’s solo album.  The comparison is tempting because (a) both albums feature emotional, gloomy singing over electronic tracks and (b) both musicians are considered pretty cool in music circles, despite (or in addition to) their tremendous mainstream success. But the comparison falls flat because (a) Thom Yorke can sing, (b) The Eraser is well-produced in the conventional sense, and (c) Thom Yorke draws upon alternative and indie rock influences, whereas Kanye is clearly drawing upon R&B, hip hop, and even the blues.

Of course, the whole reason I wrote this is because I finally came up with a good comparison for 808s and Heartbreak. It’s Cody Chesnutt (the guy at the top of this post).

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I thought about this for a long time. No matter how I look at it, it sounds like a terrible idea. Common does not need a “feel good” album. It is the lyrical complexity and social consciousness of his work that makes him so great in the first place. To replace that with some already tired-sounding Neptunes beats and Pharrell telling me to shake my behind is akin to taking an eclair and replacing the cream in the center with mud. He should stick to what he’s good at, it’s as simple as that.

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As a white guy who started listening to hip hop about three years ago, I can safely say that I’ve never felt like the most legit person at a hip hop show. There have even been a few shows where I’ve felt like I probably shouldn’t be there. But if there’s anywhere on the planet where I can pretty safely flex my hip hop knowledge, it’s in Beijing.

When I saw that Skyzoo was coming to Beijing on my birthday, my first reaction was confusion as to why, and my second was to tell everybody I knew how much we needed to go. The (presumably predictable) response was that nobody had ever heard of Skyzoo. Call me an elitist, but it’s easy to forget that Nahright isn’t on most peoples’ bookmarks. Considering that in my personal experience most Chinese people respond to rapping by clapping their hands, I figured that I was probably going to enjoy this concert more than just about anyone else there.

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Yeasayer: So much better than I remember on the album. I don’t know the name of this song, but wow. The percussion hurt so good: thick and raw bass with racing snares added for a very intricate effect. The distortion provided a soft bed of sound to carry the whole thing along, and the gentle guitar riffs with the middle-eastern tinge were drizzled on top like icing on a pastry. A DELICIOUS TREAT FOR ALL AGES!

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My friend Beatrice is from Seattle, and the Blue Scholars and Hieroglyphics are probably her two favorite hip hop groups, so I figured I owed it to her to go to this show, even though I don’t know either group’s music that well. I do know enough, at least, to know that I should get to know their music better.

This tour had about five acts, but I only arrived in time for the penultimate act, which was the Blue Scholars. I’d heard from all my Seattle friends that seeing the Blue Scholars live was amazing, but this isn’t Seattle, so it was a little bit of a letdown. The crowd was low-energy as hell, which was no good. Also, the mix was such that I could hear every word that Geo spat, which was a first at any show for me, but it also kind of worked against the group’s own good. First of all, it meant that the beats were low enough that only the bass was audible, which meant that all of Sabzi’s great, airy samples were brushed aside. Also, it called attention to some of the group’s weaker lyrical moments, and, more importantly, to the fact that Geo barely changed his cadence at all during any point in the show. The entire set was just a constant barrage of uniform meter. Overall, it was definitely a solid set, but, as the boring-ass crowd demonstrated, nothing to get excited over.

Hieroglyphics and pictures after the jump:

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AC’s Attack of the Blogs project was clever and ambitious: release tracks across the top 20 hip hop blogs in one day and reward the first fan to download them all with a prize (a t-shirt, plus glory). A few weeks after the day itself, he released the collection of tracks, 27 in total, as a mixtape. As a marketing strategy, this was so good that AC points out on “Affirmative Action” that record labels are going to be doing “what AC did.”

Aside from the ingenuity of this viral promotion strategy, this is actually a damn good mixtape. As a mixtape, it lacks some of the continuity and production values of a proper release, of course, but this is about as good of a mixtape as will ever be found.

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This track might not be genius, but it’s catchy as hell and extremely minimal. It sounds so obvious that anyone could have made it, which is exactly why this song is exactly right. (By the way, not just anyone could have made it.)

Ryan Leslie — “Addiction” (featuring Cassie and Fabolous)

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