Unapologetic art rapper of dark comedy, the very open Michael Eagle II, can make any song or album extraordinary just with his lyrics, his complex socially meaningful lyrics that do get straight to the point but within layers of metaphor and deep poetics, never in basic formulaic flows that is. Simply put, Mike is for everyone, especially the highly intellectual heads. On his fifth non-collaborative LP of real stories and art-beats titled Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, he never skips a beat from his usual track. More heartfelt and personal than Mike’s been in a while, the intricate patchwork of the album (at least at the beginning) is woven with a soft fabric of tender words from the kindly rhyme-kicker. Family, perseverance through hardship and desire for relief from life pressures shape the best initial segments unless tough showing-off presents itself (“No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt)”) or until Mike’s staple sharp, tongue-in-cheek wit strikes through in “TLDR (Smithing).” Still, it’s all throughout the album that Mike’s rich, society-conscious observations and opinions pop up, especially in the superb ender, “My Auntie’s Building.” As a dedication and commentary on Chicago’s former Robert Taylor Homes and the situation surrounding its ilk, Brick Body Kids does a great service, for them, us and Mike himself. (4 out of 5 stars)
The coming together of members from Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and (one from) Cypress Hill have made good on their collaboration as artists, dropping their eponymous debut LP, Prophets of Rage, to rap and metal fans alike. Head men Chuck D, Tom Morello and B-Real plus Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk and DJ Lord set off controlled musical explosions on their tracks to call attention to common people’s struggles. Together they raise their voices and instruments for the legalization of people (and weed implicitly), to question our so-called democracy, drones and surveillance and to cause collectivization in listeners and typical everyday folks. Prophets of Rage feels almost exclusively like an outlet to protest – aggressive, cynical and lacking in both positivity and musical variety outside of only hard rock – but it’s strong and relevant and really quite good at bringing to light the outrage of the many for the understanding and betterment of all. (3 out of 5 stars)
It took six years, a breakup and a reunion for Midwestern bred duo The Cool Kids–Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks–to put out a sophomore LP (Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe) but they’ve done it, and while it’s an indie release with a near roster of similarly indie guests, Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe on the subjects-end commits the sin of repeating common low-grade tropes of a mainstream nature, despite its stylish rhyming over fresh beats courtesy of Chuck. Loose promiscuous sex, name brands and party-times typify this heavily titled project, and the few times we get nice respite from the themes occur in the comedic proportions of “20/20 Vision” and the monogamously oriented love and romance of “Symptoms of a Down” and “Gr8Full.” Okay but not fully grown up, Special Edition resembles ostensibly important releases from earlier in the year, particularly Big Boi’s Boomiverse, 2 Chainz’ Pretty Girls Like Trap Music and Tyler The Creator’s Flower Boy, projects that have something to offer from a technical rhyme and production standpoint but few messages and in fact harmful ones too. It also proves that The Cool Kids, despite what they’ve done and what they can do, are still in some ways, kids. (2 out of 5 stars)
The Mayday men of Strange Music can’t celebrate the release of their sixth studio album Search Partyin their native Miami, as scorned mother nature has dispatched Hurricane Irma to unleash fury upon the Caribbean and now Florida; however, no matter where they are for the initial reactions to the LP, they’ll no doubt be close to fans, as supporters of the trio can now be found all over the country and around the world. In many ways, Search Party is standard product for Mayday, despite their having lost a few band members in the last few years (down to Wrekonize, Bernz and NonMS). It could also mean they’ve tried harder than usual, to get back that breadth of sound and style they had with more personnel. Basically, this particular search party has more or less found what they were looking for.
In the beginning, the guys set themselves up like conscious distraught truthseekers, with thoughts on being lost and found, the problems we as people face, and how we’re separated and apart from the true nature and essence of life and thus alone. Starting around track five though, in the “Better Place” station where the crew start to find amusement for themselves, the tone changes to a fun one for a bit, if only for a couple songs. Tech N9ne shows up and we pretty much get a real party, just enough of a party and not a crazy wild one either. The rest of the revels on Search Party pop up sporadically, in throes of flirtation found in “Have Someone” and hangouts and after hours in “Do.”
The bulk of the album then is patented Mayday pensiveness and poignancy, several times concerning romantic relationships. In “Pretender,” a one night stand is (probably rightfully) seen as an intimate rendezvous that sticks in the mind and obscures the vision, sexual attraction and urges are seen as distractions and unwanted beckoning calls in “Tempted,” and “Extra” focuses on the overwhelming nature of a partner. Needless to say, the goings get stymied due to this negativity, but it does help that in their last relationship-related discussion, “Same Old Us,” Mayday say that while the connections they’re in are typical day in and day out, they are in fact reliable, unshakably trusty.
With all this mental malaise happening, it’s no wonder Mayday make time to purge (“System”), disconnect from the everyday routine (“Airplane Mode”) and go to their coping strategies (“Save Me From Myself”), and last song “One Way Trip” is a perfect description of what getting older is—not going back to where and what we were before, for the good mostly but also for the not so good as well. From top to bottom, Search Party takes the slightest of dips as far as offering intellectual subject matter goes and this is really just the usual based on the group’s reputation, but the cool expert production is chill and enjoyable, the emceeing is still quite solid and there is just enough variety of topics to keep us tuned in, if just for one listen. (3 out of 5 stars)
Mega Ran, the emcee with a teaching and video game-loving background, formerly known simply as Random, has a discography that’s not only quite sizable by now but very substantial as well, offering concept records with a message, conscious bars and fun clean backpack jams for all. His new solo LP Extra Credit, the followup to RNDM (2015), finds Mega Ran getting a lot of heavy feelings off his chest but still he remembers to inspire perseverance and hope in us.
Gratitude for his fans and some motivational raps to gentle drum kit hits and spacious vibes via “Journey” open E.C. and open up later to life-updates from Ran (“Form School of Feng Shui”), seriousness and determination (“Airplane Mode”) and some introspection, i.e. review of personal shortcomings (“Old Enough” featuring Fake Four’s Ceschi and the grand-slamming Sammus). The electro-peppy make-up song “Pursuant Hearts (So So Sorry)” brightens up any preceding dimness and the synoptic “Mockingbird” book dedication adds character and of course a good story recommendation.
Before the next section of happy highlights comes more demon-facing but also impressive guests. Fellow emcee/teacher J-Live tag-teams with Ran to shoo away pests in “Eyes On Your Own Paper” and Queens natural Homeboy Sandman comes through in the hook of “Bliss of Solitude,” which admits to all of our lowest loneliest emotions over trudging heavy drums. Pop singer SisQó of all people joins-in for Ran’s brag fest and urban tale of come-up entitled “Church, Pt. 2.”
Fitting is how the close is one of Extra Credit’s more optimistic parts. Praiseworthy and appreciative gospel tune “Wouldn’t Miss It For The World” leads to excitable joints like the remixes of RNDM pieces “Your Favorite Song,” “Miss Communication” and “Rushmore.” Fine, fallen Phoenix rapper Thaahum (R.I.P.) provides an end-of-career verse in the super powers-packed posse cut “Defenders.”
Without needing to, meaning all his previous works are just brilliant, Mega Ran has crafted another masterpiece. Beats by DIBIA$E, Charlie Mumbles, K-Murdock and others combine that electronic game sound that Ran’s made a signature of with smoother music elements. Mega Ran will alternately put his foot down, let it all hang out or stir on all his troubles, but no matter what he’ll always go back to the bright side at some point and even if you don’t feel he’s blown your mind, he always glows with rhyme. Ran’s Extra Credit pushes his catalogue further into grade-A territory. (4 out of 5 stars)
Yes Audio Push by now have a formula for making projects but the results are usually fun and informative. The duo of Price and Oktane from California’s Inland Empire have been on several paths since breaking onto the scene in 2009 with their hit “Teach Me How To Jerk.” Signings to Interscope and Hit Boy’s Hits Since ’87 and the formation of their personal label, Good Vibe Tribe, have boiled down to mostly focus and concentration on their own indie set and business endeavors, and their new album, Last Lights Left, reflects their now fully embraced freedoms in life, art and work.
Rapped by both Price and Oktane and mainly produced by Price, Last Lights Left, like their previous LP, 90951, has the group’s questioning, observatory messages plus style for miles guided by fresh mild productions and Cali-cool choruses. While AP showoff some typical braggadocio and boast of sexual exploits here and there, they’re quick to profess their love for positive peaceful living at other times. “Planet Earth is Live” pays homage to the late comedian and activist Dick Gregory, and the politically loaded “Soledad Story” drops thoughts on Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, police-presence resembling martial law, the early deaths of legendary artists and anti-racism. The track perhaps grabs attention most with the group’s consensus that says, “I don’t wanna rap about cars, we teleport on Mars, and even Nas told us here the world’s ours, but now everybody wanna be stars.”
Cupid finds romance for the guys in “Stay” and some chilling and dealing with the everyday struggle commence before “Save the Sinners,” a proper ending, spreads care, consideration and compassion to our listening ears, and power to the people. Committed to being new age in some of the best ways possible although not very much so all of the time, Audio Push here are nevertheless solid paladins (when they decide to be) for liberty, equality and integrity. They’re loyal to the essentials and principles of hip-hop music, as this Triple L album is an indie release with crafty rapping on whatever the two want to discuss, including goodness and progression for them and us. (3 out of 5 stars)
It would be in their best interest if rappers placed more importance on wide-reaching social issues of the day over their own personality and brand, but the artist that can do both at the same time is truly gifted. The topics of discussion chosen by Los Angeleno Vel The Wonder, formerly Vel 9, for her sophomore studio album, Joyride, pertain almost exclusively to love, career success and feminism yet are issues that affect her directly. Full of energy and ready to show and prove plus represent for those similarly minded, Vel creates an ambitious, modern, womanly discourse that reveals an almost masculine nature in its toughness but with sharp wordplay and beats that are perfectly in sync with her frame of mind and mood, altogether making for several interesting pieces of hip-hop to observe.
After an intro of quiet lullaby-cries in which she yearns to be loved more in her relationship, partly accusatory of her partner and woe-is-me-sy for her, Vel in contrast goes on to make strong confident statements in between and around her biggest concept songs, which are essentially tracks three and six. A changing romantic connection is described with some elements of storytelling by Vel in “Mirrored,” revealing at the end the true face of her lover, and it’s not a person. How’s that for a metaphor? Firm to say the least, Vel’s coming-of-age, young-womanhood anthem “Woman in the Crowd” refuses to back down with harsh words for rape and higher education (community college specifically) plus sympathies for young girls today who are objectified sexually.
A bunch of decent to solid cuts down the ladder and we come to “Backseat” with its steely urban hard-talk and Kendrick Lamar recognition then “Premeditated”’s “You Don’t Own Me” sample and a violent threat to abort or erase a competitor’s unborn son. Obviously Vel doesn’t just posture throughout her album. In fact she’s no less than darkly intimidating at times, but she does have a kind, wise, caring side, imparting gems like lines saying “if this doesn’t kill me then it makes me grow” from “Passenger” and “the world’s a test so let the lessons make it easier than hard” from “Pursuit of…” and last but not least “it’s not encountering evil, it’s how you counter the evil” in “Woman in the Crowd.”
Vel The Wonder’s Joyride might not be very wonderful due to its dim slow production (that won’t be recalled or remembered as hit-making) and the absence of singers but mostly because of its narrowly picked social issues, which are not many and ones that cannot be related to easily by those outside of her own niche-y clique. Vel is a good emcee but she’s not always extremely careful to make every word memorable, sacred or effective, regularly tossing out backpack-type rhymes that are not crispy clear at first instance but pushed through nonetheless. Plus the album tends to get caught up in accepting and advancing the whole bulk of its counterculture ideology with little time left over for independent “cafeteria”-style belief-selection. Even with all that considered, Vel in her sport is a surefire emcee-killer, the good kind, for the most part, with love and loyalty for real hip-hop music and not for archaic regressive thoughts or practices that are likely to devalue her or hold her back. All such traits are exemplified to the fullest extent in Joyride. (3 out of 5 stars)