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Albums of the Year, MMXV

December 24, 2015
00:0000:00
As much as To Pimp A Butterfly didn't really interest me that much--it's not as complex or artistic as people think if you listen to a lot of complex and artistic rap music--it's great to see an ambitious and socially conscious rap record at the top of so many year-end lists instead of, you know, Drake.  Also I know a lotta cats were feeling Vince Staples, but I rep Office Max so that one didn't really do it for me either.

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Ka & Preservation :: Days With Dr. Yen Lo

I been rocking with Ka since Grief, and this is the latest capstone on the temple.  Bringing behind the boards the legendary Preservation instead of his own beats, it's got a classic sound that again eschews drums for brushstrokes of jazz, bossa nova, Ali Farka Toure-sounding guitars.  As great as the instrumentals on Grief and Gambit, the soundtrack here is lusher and works more directly in counterpoint to the words. "In these parts, get shot in your heart--it ain't Cupid / One sacred loop, one naked truth, my lane's suited."  Once again I'm fiending for the instrumental LP too. This is Sketches In Spain but not in Spain, Brownsville.  

The record uses The Manchurian Candidate as its jumping off point.  The days move in a haze from Day 0 to Day 1125 in no order.  It's a fever dream, a delirium.  Yen Lo is the mad scientist of the book/movie, but while Ka alludes to indoctrination, brainwashing, cultural hypnosis, programmed violence, and state-sponsored terror, it's a motif but not a concept album.  When you're raised around rage and vengeance / you can change, but in your veins remains major remnants.

"I usually don't talk about my art," Ka says, "I just give it to you and you eat it how you eat it." So don't look for literalism.  On previous joints, Ka compressed and twisted whole epics into couplets. Here he's reached a level of abstraction--no logos, no shootouts, bare bones of stories--that he's painting with pointed syllables.  Blood, blood, blood with the pen flow.

The voice is still there, the rasp and the pyramid-stacked syllables and compressed rhymes.  His voice sounds kinda like LL's actually. If LL had early on experienced some great tragedy. Like LL had lost his arm and spent twenty years eating beans out the can.  Ka's often compared to Guru or Rakim, fair cop, but he doesn't have their swagger.  He's the first ego-less MC; no namechecking Buddhist monks, this is true Zen.

Scorcese called the overhead shots in Taxi Driver 'sacramental perspective.'  Ka moves from those down to virtuouso tracking shots through subways and past chainlink into elevators crazy wet with piss. It's an epic of whispered forbearance and suffering. I need more prayer to stay out the crosshair.
Of all the elaborate rituals performed at ancient Egyptian funerals, the most important was the Opening of the Mouth.  Symbolically cutting open the corpse's mouth.  It enabled the dead to pass into the afterlife seeing, hearing and breathing, and able to eat to sustain the Ka--the vital spark. That part of the soul that distinguishes the living from the dead.  You here in the spirit? You only brung flesh / I keep it primal 'til it's final, who wanna come test? / I use a mic device to give a slice of life...


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Ratking :: 700 Fill

Like I said last year, Ratking is the freshest shit out there right now. Their music pulses with the pure vibrancy of youth, something unusual in rap's sphere of street weariness and wary posturing.  And somehow they create a bridge from hip-hop's solidly NY past to its global future...you could poplock on cardboard to 'Steep Tech' or you could make it rain bitcoins in that Blade Runner club with the robot stripper with the robot snake.  'Makeitwork' would rock the Wild Style bandshell or a Panther Moderns oculus rave.

I don't really get these cats saying Ratking is reviving the '90s.  Nobody made icy, translucent beats like this in the '90s.  Aside from the ethereal sense of a wider world from Hyderabad to Rio to Tokyo, there's the compression and re-purposing of trap and grime elements that's transformative and elevating.  It can't be like the '90s when it so firmly sounds like the '10s. It's nostalgic for '90s puffy coats only because global warming's putting New Year's in t-shirts.

The new Wiki solo record, Lil Me, is a pretty great record on some bodega coffee and late night stoop confessions shit. But it doesn't reach the shimmering transcendence of Ratking-proper, the fractured concrete-and-fiber-optics verbal playgrounds.

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SHIRT :: MUSEUM / NIKE ADIDAS RECORDS


Y'all really fucking sleeping on this cat.  SHIRT is the best new rapper hands down in a while.  You gotta dig into his Soundcloudsite, his old Bandcamp and YouTube to find the gems, but they're diamonds as big as the Ritz.  There's something in the water in Queens that just springs forth the best goddamn rappers.

SHIRT brings hard-spitting sandpaper flow and a hunger for the mic that's compelling--it's heart, it's raw ambition, it's ego triumphant ripping through the speakers. He jacks beats with and without producer's consent and he's got a great ear--in fact I like those joints more than his RAP MONEY EP where he actually had producer and studio time.  Struggle and underground suits his style.

Then there's the art. He throws up his dot-Mickey in Brownsville.  He jacks Philip Petit. He quotes Brion Gysin: 'Writing is 50 years behind painting.' Gysin meant collage and abstraction.  Burroughs flipped that in 1959 with cut-ups. But music was 20 years behind writing until '79 when Herc stepped on the scene.

But SHIRT doesn't actually rhyme hardly about art; there's the odd reference to Guggenheim grants or 'Top of the Whitney.'  He raps pretty much about...rap shit.  Polo robes and fly whips, Timbs and herb. It's all good.

I'll wait for 'the modern art rapper,' who drops bars like 'Coke so white, Robert Ryman' or 'Box in hand like my name was Cornell' or 'Dick hard as a Richard Serra / bitch reconsidered her perception of public space' and finally lets me know what rhymes with Kandinsky.  SHIRT is not that rapper, I don't think. Maybe he will be. Maybe we don't need that rapper though. SHIRT's too real to get pretentious, too much doing his own thing.  

Thing is, when he did drop "THEORY"--spitting Kenneth Goldsmith--it doesn't quite work as well as, say "NY TAP WATER." Maybe because it's Goldsmith's theories and not SHIRT's. Maybe because I'm on the fence whether Goldsmith's repurposing of texts as his own art is brilliant or bullshit.  It's interesting, but it's not engaging, aesthetically crafted, honest, raw or heartfelt--all of which are exactly what I love about SHIRT's shit. It's got heart.

On the flipside, he's bringing in the yacht-level swagger of Koons and the gangsta threats of Dada.  He knows about art as repurposing, art as re-appropriation, art as statement--what the fuck you think rap music is?  Jenny Holzer is just Chuck D on postcards and Richard Prince is just Puffy on Wooster Street.  

So there's those who say SHIRT is trolling with his Nike/Adidas shirts, $250 Soundcloud campaignshirtfuckedrihanna and fake NY Times article. Word to COST Fucked Madonna. Word to Fluxus. Word to art concrete for the internet age. If you do it downtown it's art and if you do it in Queens it's the thirst of a struggle rapper? Fuck outta here son.

Look peoples, SHIRT is too hungry to fizz out.  Pay attention and get with him before you gotta pay Sotheby's prices. This king was raised to go for the crown. He's standing on top of the Whitney watching for the blimp that says BE FEARFUL OF MEDIOCRITY. Get with the kid. I think it's time, I think it's time.

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milo :: So The Flies Don't Come

milo closed out last year with the fuck-around-in-the-studio, freestyle-and-bandcamp (Boyle) and Piles mixtape, then shot back again in May in his scallops hotel alter ego for Plain Speaking. To be honest that one had me go ruh-oh...the raps were pretty much on point as always, but the Casio clock radio beats made me worry milo was about to just keep hoeing the row he's dug, slowly devolve into a jokey-profound, campus touring, Portlandia guest star, Rap Game Trader Joe's Maple Syrup Popcorn.

Come September, he dropped the Kenny Segal laced Flies, and cue worldwide acclaim.  Milo's not gonna tread water. He pushed himself forward stylistically, lyrically and musically here, asking more questions than he can answer and creating another journal for the bibliography.  The lyrics are still well-compressed and laced with references to Camus and the Hagakure and the Voynich Manuscript and Tekken and stuff like that. But there's also a barely-suppressed anger and reconsideration of milo's place in rap and maybe in Amerikkka in general.

He's still doing his own thing like no one else's thing.  Splitting the difference between the Golden Rectangle and 3/5ths of a man and Schopenhauer's maxim that we forfeit 3/4s of ourselves to be like other people.  He's still running the math.


Honorable Mention
Earl Sweatshirt :: I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
The album was OK, but the title completely describes my life, so it gets props for that.