Saturday, 30 August 2014

Common- Nobody's Smiling

Artist: Common
Album: Nobody's Smiling
Record Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 22/6/2014
Chicago Hip-Hop legend Common's 10th studio album occasionally strikes on hard-hitting brilliance, but often steps into the ditch of tiresome braggadocia too

Giving rappers passes for being arrogant is a dangerous ball game to play, especially in a post Kanye West-Taylor Swift encounter world. However, one could argue that Common has surely earned the riches and bragging rights he proclaims. Although not necessarily a house hold name outside of the Hip-Hop community (for his music at least), his appearance at the White House and the following controversy, as well as many appearances on US TV primetime shows have lead Common to the success that, on 'Nobody's Smiling', he clearly relishes. 

But here's the thing; 'Nobody's Smiling' is a strikingly disingenuous title for an album that sees Common spend so much time relishing his own technical ability and how much money he's got. This has been billed by some as his most personal record to date, and sure, there are moments of deeply heartfelt wordplay and subject matter that are among some of the most revealing tracks he's ever written. But the scales are tipped more heavily in the opposite direction by the amount of tracks here where Common fails to say much at all. 

No I.D.'s production is relatively stellar throughout the album. His beats are punishing when they need to be, bounding when they need to be and reflective when they need to be. His ear for sensitivity when matched against Common's wordplay at any given time is what makes their partnership such a rewarding formula most of the time. On the cocksure braggadocia of 'Speak My Piece' Common resides over a bouncing, modern boom-bap instrumental. The title track, one of the finest moments here in terms of wordplay, is a brilliantly grimey crawl that backs a bleak account of life at street level in Common's home town of Chicago, as he references big time drug dealing, poverty and Treyvon Martin. 

'Rewind That' is one of the most touching retrospective's Common has written in years. The first verse poetically relays the age-old story of working his way up from a life of hardship to one of fame, but it's the second that hits home the hardest as he, in deeply personal fashion, recounts his friendship with the late J Dilla; "You never gone you live on through the song, I feel it when I see 'em with the Dilla shirts on". 

Perhaps even more hard-hitting though is the 6 and a half minute album stand out "Kingdom" featuring a much hyped Vince Staples, who is on terrifyingly good form. Common's subject matter sees him talking us through themes of death, religion and being a father (amongst other things) with the kind of poise that only someone with a deep experience of all those things could. "These keys got me locked up with older men... they ended up being the keys for my life to end", he raps at one point. Staples delivers his own absolute slams throughout his verse too, at one point quipping "I'm trying to watch my back 'cause these stripes ain't free". 

But for every moment where Common has something to say, there's another where he has nothing but bragging rights to offer. 'Real' may very well be an accurate pinpoint of his life situation, but its shallow misogyny doesn't do him any favours. On 'Blak Majik' Jhene Aiko comes through with perhaps her most splendid contribution to date, however short lived, but once again Common's wordplay fades into mediocrity. 'Diamonds' is slightly more fulfilling; even Big Sean sounds OK, and Common's lyric "they say time is money, forever is my currency" reels off the tongue, but again there's little of substance there. 

'Nobody's Smiling' does nothing to knock Common's integrity, particularly, but all too often it leaves you feeling with in a state of "meh" rather than "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, suburban America is doomed!". As said previously, there are moments of brilliance here when Common proves exactly why he's so lauded state side, and maybe he shouldn't be vigorously blamed for suffering a little from the Kanye/ Jay-Z syndrome of being wrapped up in the life he leads. It's just that on 'Nobody's Smiling' there's not enough substance to counter the riches. 

Key Tracks: "Kingdom ft. Vince Staples", "Rewind That", "Nobody's Smiling"
For Fans Of: Kanye West, The Roots


FKA Twigs- LP1

Artist: FKA Twigs
Album: LP1
Record Label: Young Turks
Release Date: 6/8/2014

UK singer/songwriter/producer/dancer puts the art back into twisted pop and wonky R'n'B on her debut full-length

The 00's and the post-2010 years have had a bit of a way with saturating often rather bogus revival scenes. '90's indie, '80's electro-pop and more recently late '90's/early 00's r'n'b have been run through the ringer in terms of a sort of re-celebration on various artists' behalf. There's nothing wrong with paying a little homage every now and again, obviously. But the population of faded, hazy and stoned r'n'b artists that have followed in the wake of The Weeknd and latter-day Drake has this reviewer wondering if he never needs to hear another slightly far-out but altogether insipid project again. 

It would be easy to lump Gloucestershire-born singer-songwriter, producer and dancer Tahliah Barnett, aka FKA Twigs, in with the new wave r'n'b brigade, but the truth is that 'LP1', just like the couple of EP's she released last year, is much more than that. There's more than a modicum of the virtuoso singing associated with said genre in her scintillating falsetto for sure, but there's plenty of other elements pulled together to form a genuine sculpture. 'LP1' jumps between the experimentalism of Grimes, the hyper-sexuality of Aaliyah and throws in a dash of Kate Bush's eccentricity here and there for something that genuinely sounds like not much else. 'LP1' is a record that sees art put back into a genre in a way that has never really been waltzed with before. 

Musically, it's the detail of Twigs' production that makes this album such a wonder. 'Preface' sets the tone near-perfectly. It's just under 2 minutes long but still an intensely detailed offering of odd-ball and glitchy trap, Barnett's siren-like delivery soaring over a righteous low-end rumble. It's a precedent that holds no bars for the next track 'Lights On'. Instrumentally the track twists its way through unexpected alleyways comprising of weirdo electric guitar lines and staccato synth bleepery, levelled out by a sense of accessible romance as she coos "when I trust you we can do it with the lights on" sweetly. 

The gorgeous wonk of lead-off single "Two Weeks" is the most instrumentally direct and accessible moment here and is an anthem in its own right. 'Numbers' is an unnerving, cyclical footwork-inspired jaunt that weaves itself a core of sadness not previously touched upon on the record. "Was I just a number to you?" asks Barnett as the song gets more layered melodically but in a perpetually icy and heartbroken way on the hook. 'Closer' is a heart-warming broadcast from a secret cave on a forgotten beach, full of mystery, romance and momentary perfection. 

Lyrically Barnett's fascination lies in both romance and the fleshy, au natural sexual expression that has always been the forerunner in R'n'B, even dating back to Marvin Gaye. But the way she plays with both sexuality and sex is a poetic deliverance one might usually associate with the likes of Wild Beasts. 'Hours' is weighed out by both eerie but somewhat seductive submissiveness ("am I suited to fit all your needs?") as well as demanding confidence ("How would you like it if my lips touched yours and they stay close baby 'til the stars fade out?"). 

On one hand, 'Kicks' plays on the idea of revelling in one's own sexual freedom when alone ("I just touch myself and say I'll make my own damn way") as well as sounding desperately lonely on the hook as she sings "tell me what do I do when you're not here?". On "Weak Spot" she endorses a well-worn but not shoddy dialect that runs the thin line between creepy and seductive in an almost Robert Smith-inspired fashion as she whispers the verses breathily. The track fades in and out for its duration, maximizing both the intoxicating weirdness and sweeping, far-away scope of its melodic passages. 

Essentially then, 'LP1' is what the modern age hipster R'n'B fan has needed ever since the sound started becoming more dated than it did refreshing, but to enclose Barnett and her music within those brackets would be a mistake. It's an album that, although distinctly odd and in some cases distinctly sexual, is more than capable of garnering a mass appeal, as has already been somewhat proven by the mulling of it by a multitude of alternative music publications. 'LP1' is a detailed, complex world of its own, and it's a world that seems more and more inviting the longer you dwell in it. 

Key Tracks: 'Two Weeks', 'Hours', 'Closer' 
For Fans Of: Aaliyah, Grimes, Kate Bush