For May I was dead set on Pusha T’s “it’s Almost Dry’. It’s pretty impressive and has met all of my expectations. It’s perhaps my favourite album of 2022 thus far. All the stars were aligned, until Kendrick Lamar announced he was releasing new material in mid May after a 5 year hiatus. Sorry Pusha, sometime you need to make a sacrifice and this was an easy decision.
Before we get into the new album, I think we need to remind ourselves how impactful he is. You would be hard pressed to have missed the evolution of Kendrick Lamar over the last 12 years. Through ’Section.80’, ‘good kid, M.A.D.D. city’, ’To Pimp a Butterfly’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘DAMN’ not to mention a plethora of guest appearances and film soundtrack anthems he’s created a vast catalogue with something for everyone it seems.
From early 2010 he has been surrounded by hype. Back then, backed by Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q (with their Black Hippy supergroup), they started making serious waves with their unique West Coast sound. When Kendrick released Section.80 he had my attention straight away. ‘HiiiPower’ is still one of my favourite songs. Funny enough he reminds me a bit of Pusha T on that track and a few others on the album with his flow. It was only a matter of time until he found himself on a major, and Dr Dre’s Aftermath (through TDE Artists) was a natural home. Differing from other Aftermath artists, Lamar blazed his own trail without the ever present cross pollination of Aftermath artists that we’ve come accustomed to throughout their catalogue. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ pushed Kendrick into the forefront of not just hip hop but the music industry. ‘Swimming Pools’ became a summer anthem, ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ was a radio hit and ‘m.A.A.d city’ set foundations in hip hop that Kendrick was a serious contender as an MC.
Kendrick teased us with his fierce flow in 2014 with a verse on ‘It’s On Again’ with Alecia Keys from the Spiderman soundtrack. Little did we know that that taster was nothing like what he was working on. He was about to move the nets. When Kendrick released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in 2015, it felt like he flipped music on its head. Was it hip hop, or was it a jazz album? It was the most creative album that broke the main stream in recent times and showed the world the layers that Kendrick was able to achieve. Not only musically, but also as a performance artist as he took the presentation of his live show to what felt like uncharted territory for a hip hop artist. The album wasn’t without faults. I still find it his least approachable album. Though it gained acclaim and opened him up to a new audience, it was a far step from his first album. The surprise release of Untitled brought many Kendrick fans back into the fold. We all got it, he still wanted to make the music that we loved, but the tracks on Untitled didn’t fit into what he was trying to do on Pimp a Butterfly. An album of rejected songs that were miles ahead of most albums… sort of insane, and very cool.
By the time DAMN was released in 2017 Kendrick was an established artist that seemed to have found this nonchalant confidence that made the album arguably his best to date. By that point he had won Grammy’s, the Pulitzer Prize, and almost every other music related award.
So his new album, where do you start? Well he’s taken a page from Big Thief and released an 18 song, 73 minute album. He starts with the album with the line ‘I’ve been going through something’… has he ever. There’s lots to go at!
I’m still digesting the album. Like many, I’ve spent the last week digesting (what I thought was) the lead single ’The Heart Part 5’. The lyrics and the video are amazing and so important…. but the track isn’t on the album. This guy sits in a different space!
It’s hard to name an artist that has evolved and pushed boundaries as much as Kendrick, especially within hip hop. On this album we find a rounded Kendrick that musically blends the feels of both DAMM and TPAB. Lyrically his confidence is apparent throughout. His thoughts are honest, complex and at times uncomfortable. He has a voice and he uses it. He faces into some tough subjects; religion, addiction, infidelity, relationship struggles, queerness and so much more. Hip hop gives an artist a platform to delve into subjects perhaps different than other genres and he does this masterfully.
N95 is the lead single. What a single! I’m trying to figure out what track I would share with someone as a good catchy track on this album to start? It’s tough. They’re all really deep. They all have layers. Sampha laces ‘Father Time’ with a lovely hook, but the song is beautifully honest. Perhaps too honest for some. On the flip side ‘We Cry Together’ is really hard to listen to at first, but also has a beauty to the bleak honesty. Unapologetically honest. Is anyone else like this in music? This is an album of two halves, and it being a digital only release it the moment lets you forget this is a double album. The first half cuts deeper the the second, but needs to be there for the second half to fully work.
I wrote some bullet points the other day about Kendrick when I was listing to his back catalogue:
Kendrick is honest
Kendrick lets you into his mind, not just his world
I don’t think anyone really knows Kendrick Lamar through his music
Kendrick is an anomaly
… my view still is the same after listening to the album for the first 5 times.
Lamar has stated that ‘he is not the messiah’, but he does have a voice and a message. He has extreme influence on numerous generations, and all levels within those generations. People listen to Kendrick. Kids, mums, dads, grandparents. There is A LOT to digest with this album. And many will take the time to do so. Isn’t it wonderful that someone is making music that is so complex that everyone wants / needs to listen to?
I look forward to all of us digging into this and everyones thoughts. There’s a lot to go at. Ive not even touched on who is Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers? Nor have I talked about the well thought out and controversial guest appearances?
For Genesis Owusu, it wasn’t so much for the album, but almost per song, sometimes per verse and chorus! There are so many there, right across the spectrum from Talking Heads to Death Grips, Young Fathers to Frank Ocean and Saul Williams to Kendrick Lamar. It’s such an album of contrasts, musical flourishes and confidence in the protagonists talents – from Owusu to his tight and musically inventive band – that it’s a joy each listen, with new things coming with each time you encounter it.
We hope you enjoy the playlist and also feel free to suggest things back to us on the socials.
Where to begin, with an album that’s such a multi-layered, sonically ambitious, lyrically dense and deep affair? That is, mind-bogglingly, a debut? From an artist that 3 months ago, I’d never even heard of ?(more fool me) How did we get here with May’s album of the month, and This Is Not Happening’s 11th episode? Ten days ago, it wasn’t even my month to pick.
I was down for June, but @davidhallison‘s love for St Vincent meant we switched it up – as we have before – and instead of a month to choose an album I had a week, at a stretch. This is enough to induce seven days of anxiety, let alone having stung myself with Yves Tumor in Episode 3: an album that the critics loved, that I picked out of a big big hat, wanting to wilfully choose something I wouldn’t usually go for. In the end, I just didn’t love it, even though there were some uncut gems on there. So I sifted through over a hundred new albums released since January, trying to find something that stood out to me. I struggled, not wanting to simply pick something random. I even entertained a classic album, deciding that really, if I couldn’t find new music, perhaps I should have a word with myself.
Something made me go back to Smiling With No Teeth, the debut from Ghanaian/Australian artist Genesis Owusu. It turns out I’d read an article on him back in March and that must’ve been a subconscious call-back. How could you not remember – even in the recesses of your mind – someone who proclaims ‘I’m Prince, if he were a rapper in 2020s Australia‘? I can’t have been totally convinced. Perhaps it was my mind telling me that ‘I don’t ‘do hip-hop’. Of course, once I listened to the album, it was clearly not a hip hop album. In fact it is the first album in a long time I’ve really found impossible to pigeonhole, even a dozen listens in. Fifteen tracks, almost an hour (Joey would have to do another lap of his ‘album walk’) and my first impression? I was baffled, a bit overwhelmed. But, most importantly, I also wanted to come back.
And that’s the happenstance way I’ve come to gradually live with this astonishing album. One that opens with the electro ripple of On The Move, hitting you with an Afrika Bambaataa-shaped sledgehammer. Even from the first few listens, what started as bewildering collection of musically inventive, but attention-grabbing tracks, something gets you. It has that undefinable ability that good albums do: to start taking shape and working its way into your subconscious right from the start. Then you hit The Other Black Dog, with its relentless, cycling energy and edge, ‘a tale of black dogs with golden leashes‘ and you start to get an inkling of a theme as you’re still trying to wrap your head around it as a whole. ‘Oh, depression’, you think, like Arlo. But what you’ll slowly realise is that it’s much more complex than that. Because the ‘Black Dog’ isn’t just depression, on an album that touches on some heavy themes: it’s a reclaiming of a racist term often used as a racial slur against Kofi Owusu-Ansah throughout his life. Its double meaning gives it extra resonance once you grasp that. You can read many things about the artist and his music, (and you should, because he is a person who is magnetic when he talks about his craft) but I always want a few tilts at the album before I started gaining context, to simply take in the music, without prejudgement.
Because, before you start to get to exist with the lyrics, the music leaves quite the early impression. It’s hard to see a genre that’s not covered: the aforementioned electro and pulsing beats, then Centrefold’s silky r’n’b that nods at everything from Frank Ocean to The Internet via Outkast, paired with Waitin’ On Ya, with its vocoded, 90s-esque stylings that felt the strongest connection to Super Rich Kids, and I Don’t Need You’s scuzzy guitar-vocal interplay that feels every inch a modern pop record. Drown, which is as if lifted from an 80s teen classic soundtrack, its rasping guitars and pulsing synth bass notes, lifted by guitarists Kirin J Callinan’s vocals. By the end of ‘side one’ (because it really does feels like a ‘proper’ album in that respect’, I felt like I’d gone on a car chase through the last 40 years of my musical existence. There was a lot to unpack. And yet, as you feel you have a handle on the most modern of ‘urban pop’ (is that even a thing?) albums, it takes a darker turn.
The ‘side two’ of Smiling With No Teeth, even without the lyrical connections, turns south. Gold Chains‘ echoes vintage N.E.R.D. but drips with metaphor ‘When it looks so gold, but it feels so cold inside these chains‘, subverting the macho hip-hop culture and appearance with a frail soul. The album’s title track swaggers along a pared-back Rhodes and harmonies, all Frank Ocean again, but with a bleakness attached, while I Don’t See Colour, with its congas and toms that feel all throwback 2000s Timbaland/Pharrell doesn’t disguise any more, with the lyrics starting to come so to the front of the mix that it’s impossible to ignore: “When you see the black man, its riots and terror But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient“. And as the album progresses, the music sits further and further back, leaving you no escape from the message: its hooked you in, and now you’re going to listen. Because this is an album that takes the messages of black consciousness, racism, oppression, and burns the lived experience into the listener’s brain. You will not escape, because you cannot.
Black Dogs punk feel shouts straight-up racism and painful, paranoid memories of everyday aggressions. Whip Cracker takes it up ever further notches, pared back to only a kick drum and unconcealed anger: “Whip your hands / whip your ass / Whip your man’s whip / This ain’t the 50s, you ain’t talkin’ shit / Know your place, know your role / ‘Fore you get tripped / You ain’t no masters / Your place has been flipped‘, and when the guitar and bass rides in, it sounds like Prince, but with Killer Mike’s flow injected. A subversion not even across two songs, but in the middle of one. And this is, remember, a 23-year old man with so much material to work from, because – starkly, and unadorned – this is the reality for black people everywhere. And his statement, and its power, is something visceral to behold amongst the musical alchemy.
There is some respite, with Easy‘s familiar-sounding 80s patterns, and A Song About Fishing may sound like a closing credits track, but the fishless lake is Owusu’s existence casting itself into a life without happiness. This is the beauty of the album in one perfect example: hooks and melodies to love, with a lyrical message as bleak as anything can get. If No Looking Back sounds like an anachronism, it is. Originally the album closer, its 60s-soul was felt way too positive and sugar-coated to really end the record, which is why Bye Bye exists: an edgy, but 80s-soul and funk-flecked nugget that slips in bleakness aplenty: “How do I breathe with my hands on my own throat?”.
It’s often the case I go – as many do – on a journey with any album. But this in an odyssey. A fable. Even as you try to consume the album’s kaleidoscopic nature, its melodic whirlwind, its length, it takes investment to start to see the dust settle. It’s a good half a dozen listens before songs start to emerge from the storm, and when that happens, it’s a beautiful experience, because you can’t but admire the talent on display. And as with the album’s narrative, there’s a story behind its creation: from mainly working across EPs and singles with beats and computers, Owusu wanted a looser ‘jammed’ feel to the album, so enlisted a collection of brilliant musicians – Callinan on guitar, World Champion’s Julian Sudek on drums, and Andrew Klippel, label Ourness’ founder on keys and house producer Touch Sensitive on bass – and went through six days of mammoth sessions where inspirations were played to the band, and songs were sketched out from the jams and lyrics worked on. Plucked from the best of 50+ hours, out of which the songs emerged. It’s a hugely ambitious method, and one that, without the talent and filter to make it work – both from the superlative talents of the group of musicians to thread it together and its leader to distil that into its final form – could’ve easily resulted in an overblown, confused effort that sunk without trace. But once you read about Genesis Owusu’s life, inspirations and hear him talk about what his music means to him, once again, Smiling…. seems more and more likely as a result.
But Owusu didn’t want it just to be about the music: working in multiple media, with fashion, song, art, video. They’re all “tools for expression, of me to the fullest extent”. Music is really important but it’s “just the soundtrack, when I’m “trying to make the whole movie”. An all-encompassing artistic vision at this age and stage of a career that its hard not to be wowed by, supported by some striking videos to the album. Playing out the dual-Black Dog metaphors : with depression the ‘internal’ spectre and racism it’s ‘external’ partner, they’re sometimes wrapped up further in a break-up or love song theme, sitting at times as a character within that structure, a three-layer approach that demands time and dedication but reaps big rewards. The whole album is an exercise in taking musically dazzling methods then wrapping the lyrics into it so seamlessly, that it takes considered effort – and in this case, my actual reading of so much of the lyrics – to really get under that surface. But it’s stealth, a trojan horse effort that serves as a double-whammy when those words truly hit.
And they are an uncomfortable listen, but they are vital. I can’t possibly identify with much of that lived experience, but the energy, the anger, the rage that drips from the verses is impossible to ignore. Cast against the soul majesty of Sault, or Arlo Parks’ odes to angst-ridden teenage existence as a person of colour, and even RTJ’s nihilistic brutalism, this feels like it trumps even that. There is no sugar-coating, no desire to. But the unfiltered nature is as powerful as anything around it: “They passed the time / She gave her lies / He gave his life / Paid the price / In flashing lights / To gain his rights” in Easy. Dealing with the black dog as depression – something I can connect to far more – whether as a comment on gang culture clichés or the alpha-male assumptions of his appearance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off” in The Other Black Dog, or “My other half that I swore I ain’t miss / Toxic, hundred percent batshit / Took my hand and started holding me down / Flicked thе crown, and said / You’ve got to let me drown“. It’s hard not to feel its impact in that shape-shifting flow.
Owusu talked of making the album he wanted to, free from any self-imposed expectation, with a desire to diverge from the soul/funk beats’n’drums hip-hop of his EPs, and its both admirable that – with all his confessed tumult – he can have the lack of ego and conviction to do that. Also that he can take all these ingredients and still come up with a work of such contrast and confidence as Smiling With No Teeth is, almost in a musical and cultural world of his own making. It feels like an album that could be only made on debut – that time when an artist can come to something with a vision that’s full of energy and unrestricted by critical expectation, or relative worry – but given its fully-formed vision, it’s hard not to wonder at the potential that lies in Genesis Owusu’s music. The message. The hooks. The colour of the palette. And tapping into something vital. Something that’s not just a reaction to the BLM-affected time we live in (in a recent podcast he was asked if that affected how he made the album and calmly explained that this has been a comment on his whole life) but the aggressions that pockmark a young black man’s life, character, mental health, outlook and future. This is, at it’s core, a deeply personal album, with focus and craft stupefying for someone in their early 20s. The justice will be if the album gets acclaim that it deserves when it can’t yet be toured or promoted in the usual way.
The Black Panther soundtrack was released yesterday … Kendrick Lamar has writing credits on all tracks and appears on a number but most importantly his finger prints are all over this one. Some great guest appearances and collaborations. I’ve only heard through a couple of times but considering its a ‘Various Artists’ soundtrack it hangs together really well.
What must have been 6 or 7 years ago brother Joseph and I went out for a few Christmas beers one afternoon and amongst the conversation was the idea of what became the early beginnings of this collaboration of music sharing and discussion. The blog in its’ own right in 5 years old.. so good on us for sticking to it!
Looking back we have had some great albums, and this year is no exception. For me 2017 has been a strong year for new artists whilst it has also welcomed back a few that were due some fantastic new material. I found myself buying allot more albums this year, and looking at what is due in 2018 I hope it continues.
I always struggle with lists, but off the top my head here are my highlights for this year (songs and albums) in no particular order. Like last year, I left off top songs that are on albums that are in my top 10.
Jay-Z – The Story of O.J.
Tom Rosenthal – Soon Goodbye Now Love
Masta Ace – Young Black Intelligent (feat. Pav Bundy, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble & Chuck D)
Evidene – Jim Dean
Daphni – Face to Face
Whitesquare – Definition of Anticipation
Home – Joe Goddard
Rapsody – Power ft. Kendrick Lamar, Lance Skiiiwalker
If February the 3rd, 1959 was the day that music died when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson all died in a plane crash, then surely 2016 will be remembered as the year that music died. From David Bowie dying in the early days of January to the passing of George Michael on Christmas day, you’d be hard pressed to find a music fan of any genre or era in the last 50 years that didn’t loose one of their heroes. Some of us were lucky enough to be treated to one final swan song with he likes of Bowie and Tribe Called Quest (Phife Dawg) releasing arguably some of their best work ahead of their departure, whilst all of the lost artists left us with music that will stay with us for our lifetimes.
2016 for me as a music fan was a strong year with a mixture of new artists and familiar faces releasing some very strong albums, especially within Hip Hop and Soul. I did how ever find that over all the UK seemed to take the foot off the gas after very strong years in 2013, 2014 and 2015. 2016 also saw coming out parties for many artists that were on the cusp of great things with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Anderson Paak and Solandge making strong statements of intent.
2017 is already looking to be a fantastic year for music. But ahead of us turning to the next chapter, please find my top tens of the year.
Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service
Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate
NxWorries – Yes Lawd
Baio – The Names
She Drew The Gun – Memoirs Of The Future
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Lapsley – Long Way Home
Anderson Paak- Malibu
Common – Black America Again
Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
Jules Et Spatz – Rotwii Lied
De La Soul – Exodus
Moderate – Running (AME Remix)
Lee Burridge & Lost Desert – Lingala
Christine and the Queens – Titled
Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis – White Privilege II
Natia Rose – Sqwad
Matronomy – Old Skool
DJ Shadow feat Run The Jewels – Nobody Speak
David Bowie – Lazarus
I decided to leave any tracks that were in my top ten albums off. Essentially, listen to those full albums.
Happy New Year brothers and I look forward to 2017!