There will be plenty more coming, including some for metal and alternative. and electronic albums,
Atmosphere- The Family Sign (3/4)
The Family Sign is a polarizing album, and one of the hardest albums I’ve had to grade this year. On one hand, The Family Sign contains some of Atmosphere’s best work, especially at the beginning and end of the record. It starts out with “My Key,” a remarkably beautiful tribute to the late Eyedea, and then proceeds to two equally powerful tracks in “The Last to Say” and “Became.” The lead single “Just for Show” follows, and while it may not have the power of the first three tracks, it’s an exceptionally well written song with a great lively beat. At this point, Slug’s lyrics and Ant’s beats (now featuring a full band to match their live show) are the best Atmosphere has ever been. That makes it all the more disappointing when the filler starts to set in. Slug’s incredible storytelling and passionate delivery descends into lazy and overly simply rhymes for a few tracks, and the beats start to become predictable and forced. While the album does have a few solid songs in the middle, it doesn’t really find its stride again until the third from last song. That’s when the jaw-droopingly beautiful side of Atmosphere shows up again, especially on the indescribably powerful “Something So” and closer “My Notes.” It would be easy to call The Family Sign a disappointment, just as it would be easy to call it one of the best albums of the year. The truth is, there’s a little of both here, but the former prevents this dark and deeply personal album from reaching the level of When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold or God Loves Ugly.
Blueprint- Adventures in Counter-Culture (2/4)
Adventures in Counter-Culture is a puzzling album to say the least. Blueprint is a talented emcee, but he does a surprisingly poor job of showing it here, instead going for a type of experimental hip-hop that doesn’t suit him well at all. The beats are mostly electronic-influenced, and while a few might work better with an emcee who has more experience rapping over electro beats, most are either boring or obnoxious. A few of the songs contain no rapping whatsoever, but just singing (some heavily auto-tuned, some not), and those are unfortunately all awful. Blueprint works best from the element we heard in his work with RJD2, rapping over trip-hop and traditional hip-hop beats with a steady flow and insightful lyrics. When he resorts to singing and rapping one or two word lines over electro beats, Blueprint is completely out of his element, and it comes across as forced. Adventures in Counter-Culture contains moments of vintage Blueprint, but only those moments save it from a being a complete disaster. Far too much of the album just doesn’t work.
Raekwon- Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (2.5/4)
If the point of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang was to prove that Raekwon can rap without the RZA, it achieves the exact opposite of what it intended. The beats aren’t done by the RZA, but instead by a variety of producers trying way too hard to sound like RZA. It would be one thing if Rae would flow over a different type of beat, but poor RZA knockoffs just don’t cut it. Aside from the production, Raekwon is on his game, but much like the far better Only Built for Cuban Linx II it’s the guests that stand out. This time around the guest spots are a mixed bag, mostly being either incredible (Black Thought on “Masters of Our Fate”) or downright terrible (Rick Ross on “Molasses”). Much like Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows from earlier in the year, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang’s mediocrity may only farther prove that Rae is a great emcee, as even with the disappointing beats, obnoxious hooks, and a few awful guest spots, there are enough solid verses from Raekwon himself to make this album listenable.
Sims- Bad Time Zoo (2.5/4)
Every hip-hop group needs a straight man. Wu-Tang Clan had Inspectah Deck to hold things together and allow more famous emcees like Ol Dirty and Ghostface to experiment. N.W.A. had the always consistent Ice Cube starting most songs off, and even Cypress Hill wouldn’t have been as good if the admittedly much better B-Real took all of the verses. Sometimes you just need a consistent rapper to take a verse and build to the more unique ones. In Doomtree, Sims is the Inspectah Deck, Ice Cube, and Sen Dogg. Dessa has her unique rapped-sung verses, P.O.S. has an aggressive punk edge, and Cecil Otter has one of the most distinct voices in underground hip-hop. Often times, Sims delivers that solid opening verse to get things going, and lead into the more memorable emcees. Much like Deck and Sen Dogg, however, Sims is somewhat disposable as a solo artist. When he gets two to three verses per song, as he does on Bad Time Zoo, things can get a little mundane. Even on his own album, Sims is far outshined by P.O.S. (who has the only guest verse on the entire record) to the point where after three listens I can remember more about P.O.S.’s one than the 30 or so Sims verses. All things considered, Bad Time Zoo is not a bad album. Sims is a solid lyricist, his flow is fine, and the production from Lazorbeak and other Doomtree regulars is quite good. It’s just that there are more memorable hip-hop albums out there, and it’s hard to recommend something so ordinary to anyone other than the underground faithful.
Wiz Khalifa- Rolling Papers (1/4)
Maybe I’m not the best person to review this album. I don’t smoke weed, and the Penguins are the only Pittsburgh team I’ve ever rooted for. However, I feel that my problems with Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers have less to due with its subject matter and more to do with a lack of quality parts that make up just about any good hip-hop album. Namely, the beats, the flow, and the lyrics (again, regardless of subject matter) are all terrible. The beats are identical to that of most mainstream hip-hop, generic and obnoxious in equal measure. Furthermore, they do nothing to help the content of the songs. When Snoop and Dre rapped about weed, they would have a beat that you could vibe out to while under the influence. You could tell just by the beat itself when Cypress Hill was about to rhyme about marijuana. The beats that Wiz rhymes over are completely interchangeable with other pop rap artists. This puts more emphasis on Wiz himself, which makes it harder to stomach just how bad of an emcee he is. His flow is safe and predictable, often using only a few words in a line. He says practically nothing, with no clever lines or interesting wordplay to speak of. Hip-hop albums about weed are nothing new, and there are far better rap albums that fill that niche. “Rolling Papers” is a repetitive and completely pointless album, but more than anything it’s an incredibly boring one.