Who better to thrive in our island-obsessed pop multiverse than Diplo? A decade after he and Switch produced M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” the tropical collage favored by the duo, who officially became Major Lazer in 2009, dominates the airwaves. Acts as disparate as Daddy Yankee, Ed Sheeran, and the Chainsmokers share the Top 10, indulging in mid-tempo riddims and stadium-worthy hooks that take cues from dancehall.
Switch departed in 2011, but Major Lazer endures. The producers Walshy Fire and Jillionaire traded in any hint of countercultural signifiers for pop’s big tent and a collection of of-the-moment co-stars on its 2015 album Peace is the Mission. Know No Better, a new EP, released with little warning last week, mines similar territory. The first two tracks alone feature Quavo, Sean Paul, Travis Scott, J. Balvin and Camila Cabello—add the Major Lazer trio and that’s the kind of dizzying star-power on which Fast and the Furious franchises are founded.
Those initial two songs, along with a third, “Particula,” are the highlights on this brisk clubby delight of an EP, which doesn’t quite clear the 20-minute mark. Each has a standout section; on the title track, it’s Travis Scott, gleefully surfing a thumping bouncy-castle of a 4/4 beat in his opening verses. Balvin adds real feeling to the bridge of his feature “Buscando Huellas” the strongest overall song on the EP. And the Afrobeat-influenced “Particula” features the catchiest hook, thanks to the Nigerian vocalist Ice Prince and some nicely timed synths.
Mix and match those three sections and you might have a candidate for the song of the summer. But consigned to their separate slots, they serve as mere scene-setters on tracks that convey only mood and nothing more. All three songs are conceptually bankrupt, lacking even the simplest sentiments to coax listeners to return. That might help explain why the rappers here seem so adrift: Quavo, Sean Paul, and Jidenna slide by in near-anonymity, unable to hinge their verses on even the thinnest outcropping of meaning.
Still, no listener in a summery state of mind would object to the three openers, nor to “Sua Cara,” a too-short samba-influenced ballad featuring the Brazilian singer Anitta, whose thin, pretty voice may remind American listeners of the Nina Sky twins. It’s the heavier, more club-ready songs—“Jump” and the soca cut “Front of the Line” —that fall entirely flat, lacking the jots of inspiration that collaborators are able to provide elsewhere.
Diplo’s appropriator-in-chief act notwithstanding, it’s possible that the American producer simply has his hands in too many pots. In a recent interview on Beats One, he enthusiastically described the many projects he has in the works—a collaboration with Mark Ronson, another, rap-themed EP under his own name, a full Major Lazer album coming in the fall—while habitually forgetting who it was that he was actually working with. An eye for emerging talent has always served Major Lazer in good stead, but relying on features can only get an act so far, even in the most welcoming of pop environments. And as fun as it is at times, Know No Better doubles as a testament to the result of spreading a handful of good ideas too thin.
It’s been almost a decade since Wale released The Mixtape About Nothing, an earnest collection of well-rapped thinkpieces couched in a savvy, “Seinfeld”-referencing framework. The sitcom was a tempting lure to attract the internet tastemakers, and they helped introduce the D.C.-area rapper to the mainstream. But early acclaim came with high expectations, from both Wale’s audience and from Wale himself. Ever since, he’s been striving to reclaim the near-universal praise earned by that mixtape.
Five studio albums, and one mid-career reinvention later, we arrive at Shine, the rapper’s fourth full-length with MMG. Wale has promoted the new project as a record overflowing with contentment, thanks in part to a newborn daughter, Zyla. (The album’s title is an acronym: “Still here ignoring negative energy.”) In an interview with Complex, he said he wanted to put less pressure on himself. “I put myself through a lot of doom and gloom,” he said. “And I’m just like, ‘Wale, man, just be happier.’”
Accordingly, Shine is a more buoyant album than his back-to-basics 2015 offering, The Album About Nothing. There’s not a song here that feels grounded in much more than the desire to enjoy the moment or at least feign doing so well enough to make radio playlists. The album hopscotches its way through a varied set of production styles, with Wale performing his usual acrobatic routine through hoops positioned by marketers and focus groups. The Don Cannon-produced “Colombia Heights (Te Llamo)” refers to the largely-Hispanic D.C. neighborhood and features the reggaeton superstar J Balvin, whose presence livens up a meandering track.
“My Love” and “Fine Girl” chase the Caribbean muse that Drake has exploited so successfully. The former, which features Major Lazer, Dua Lipa and Wizkid and on which Wale doesn’t rap until nearly two minutes in, is pleasant enough to wiggle into a spot on a backyard party playlist. But “Fine Girl” stumbles around blindly, wasting features from the Nigerian artists Olamide and Davido. On these songs, and many others, Wale is there but not there, his lyrics contractually obligated, though every so often he finds time to drop a regrettable line, like “she penetrating my mind, I penetrate that physique,” on the single “PYT.”
Occasionally, on tracks where he’s more present, the mood lures the listener in, as on “Thank God,” an opener meant to sell the idea that Wale is through with pettiness; he uses the orchestral Cool & Dre beat to coo at his daughter, announcing “that feminist side come out when Zyla there” and turning the hook over to the R&B singer Rotimi. “Scarface, Rozay Gotti,” a surprisingly tender tribute to some of Wale’s rap heroes, induces a smile as the rapper sings drunkenly, then launches into deft, empty raps about courtside seats at a Wizards game.
Still, there are hints—beyond that “doth protest too much” acronym—that Wale can’t help but relive the past. His flow remains flexible but he’s fixated on the subjects that have long obsessed him: success, wealth, and the haters who are blocking his path to success and wealth. A strange hook on “Thank God” is preoccupied with his enemies, despite the fact that he’s never had a longstanding public beef with any relevant rapper.
Shine isn’t dark. But it feels like an exercise in avoidance as if Wale took the advice to ease up too far. Even “Smile,” the type of conscious song that animated Mixtape About Nothing, feels dispassionate and obligatory. And for those who were listening to his mixtapes a decade ago, “Running Back” a Lil Wayne feature and one of the best songs on Shine, doubles as a yardstick for what’s happened since. On Wale’s first Wayne feature, you could hear him striving to compete. A decade later, both rappers sound like they’re working solely for the paycheck, their pro forma raps clanging out emptily as a fantastic little sing-song DJ Spinz beat does the heavy lifting. Listening to Shine, you can’t help but think that Wale has finally dropped his rigorous standards for himself. He hadn’t met them in several years, but before this, he was still trying.
There are only 13 minutes of music on Steve Lacy’s debut project, but that’s enough time for him to make a serious impression. Over the course of six tracks that sparkle with classic Southern California funk and soul, the producer, just barely out of high school, offers up a dazzling number of musical ideas. Steve Lacy’s Demo is all the more remarkable for the fact that most of the record was produced on an iPhone.
Lacy, 18, joined his school’s jazz band in ninth grade, where he met Jameel Bruner, the younger brother of superstar bassist, Thundercat. When Bruner was recruited to play keyboards on the Internet’s third album, Ego Death, he invited Lacy to join the group in the studio. The band must have been impressed: Lacy ended up earning himself individual production credits on six of the album’s 12 tracks and an executive producer credit, becoming a full-on member. The album was a breakthrough success for the Internet, occasioning rave reviews, winning the group a Grammy nomination, and reminding the world again that its young members—Syd, Matt Martians, and now Lacy—had massive potential.
All three have released solo projects in early 2017. Lacy has classified Demo as a “song series” rather than an album or EP, a modesty belied by the fact that he has called the songs “perfect.” He’s not far off—the music here is startlingly mature, full of dimension and depth, as if Lacy were accompanied by a full band rather than doing everything, right down to the mixing, by his lonesome. The opening song, “Looks,” kicks off with drums, adventurous bass, a wobbling synth, and gorgeous falsetto harmonies that lead in to the solitary verse. All those layers are in service of a song that’s, of all things, a rejection of superficiality. “What if I got with you and turned out to be a total dick,” Lacy cautions. “Would you be happy ’bout that?” The song is all too brief—it melts in your mouth before two minutes are up.
Talented musicians often lean on their chops, noodling at their instruments at the expense of tight songcraft. If anything, Lacy has almost the opposite problem: Many of the outstanding musical moments here feel teased rather than fulfilled. The verse that opens “Ryd” could easily become a hook anchoring a full song—instead, it’s merely a bookend, a sliver of something great. But Lacy is so multitalented in his vocal range and his creative percussion (check the drums on “Haterlovin”), in his ability to wring soulfulness out of guitar and bass alike, that it’s hard to isolate one single element at which he most excels.
“Dark Red” is the clear standout, the only song in which each part lingers for the appropriate amount of time. The swirling melodies on the chorus float atop the beat as a melodic counterpoint, an effect Lacy has said was influenced by David Longstreth’s work with Dirty Projectors. And the aching quality of the music, complemented by the Motown harmonies that round out its back half, matches the song’s theme, a plea lobbed at a partner who’s beginning to turn away.
Despite its brevity, Demo is reminiscent of another auspicious debut, one that emerged more than 15 years ago. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo had already made their mark as producers with the Neptunes, but their first album in the band N*E*R*D*, In Search Of…, was stronger and stranger than anything they had come up with before. And as its songs became cult classics, In Search Of... announced Pharrell as someone who could star in front of the camera, not just behind the boards. Steve Lacy’s Demo evokes that record in its charisma and musical ability. Given that it’s not even 15 minutes, the record can’t be said to be anything more than a particularly tasty appetizer. But it’s hard to imagine the listener who wouldn’t yearn for the next course.
The veteran beatmaker had a banner year in 2016, executive producing Common’s Black America Again, providing the blueprint for Kanye West’s “30 Hours,” and collaborating with Kaytranada, Esperanza Spalding, and the Roots. Four years after Karriem Riggins' first solo endeavor, Alone Together, put him on the map as more than just a standout session musician, Riggins’ musical life seemed richer than ever.
Alone Together's sequel, the new Headnod Suite, echoes the template laid out by its predecessor. The record is, again, a nearly hour-long selection of more than two dozen expertly-made beats, seemingly linked by very little other than the fact that Riggins considered them strong enough to make the album. There’s one exception on Headnod—about two-thirds of the way through the record, a set of tracks form a mini-suite that stands as a short detour before we return to regularly scheduled swing programming.
These tracks, part of the “Cheap Suite,” are the most cohesive section of the larger record. They are roomier, more experimental, and they lead Headnod Suite into more interesting territory, as Riggins explores rhythm-and-space-led compositions reminiscent of the work of Deantoni Parks. Though they are harsher and less soulful than much of what precedes them, these tracks work as a unified experience. Moreover, once you listen to them, you note the trail of breadcrumbs from earlier in the album (“Invasion,” “Dirty Drum Warm Up”) that heralded their arrival.
Elsewhere, Riggins focuses on rolling out gem after gem, with careful thought given to the little details that distinguish a cubic zirconia from a diamond. Riggins is such an expert drummer that it can be hard to identify him as having any kind of percussive signature. These features—the perfectly chopped sample over the tiptoe-light beat on “Sista Misses,” the atmospherics and perfectly placed guitar riff on “Other Side of the Track,” the clatters and snaps that open “Bahia Dreamin,’” the complex bass work underlying the candy-sweet, teased-out melody on “Crystal Stairs”—give him his voice as a producer.
Riggins’ abiding love for hip-hop is showcased throughout Headnod Suite. On “Never Come Close,” a selection of Prodigy’s verse from “Shook Ones Pt. II” leads out of the track as if it were a final showstopping instrumental flourish, while on “Keep It On,” Common’s ad-libs are swaddled in a steady beat and warm instrumentation, like a beloved child. Even the interludes that Riggins commits to exploring throughout the record come off as a tribute to the skits and exclamations that adorn rap albums—little breaks where vocals communicate an attitude and sense of place.
Though there are few beats here that miss the mark, the big issue is that Riggins has trouble editing his cuts down to a standard length. They regularly sprawl beyond the two-minute mark and sometimes even make it to three. In an interview with XXL, he expressed that one of the big differences between Headnod Suite and Alone Together was that the new album contained more “stuff MCs will want to rap to.” True, some of the tracks seem gratuitously extended in order to coax rappers into adopting them, giving them a home on their own projects. You can’t blame Riggins for wanting more spotlight. His turn on Black America Again gave Common the template for what was arguably his strongest record in more than a decade. Coming off that success, and his many other impressive collaborations, Headnod scans as a beat tape in the classic sense: welcoming to all listeners, but meant to convey something particularly special for those who might help Riggins take his career even further.
In March of last year, six musicians congregated in a house in Los Angeles, intent on making something original. Their band, BANANA, originally assembled as an opening act and backing group for the singer Cate Le Bon, included members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Warpaint as well as Le Bon herself, coming off of her excellent 2016 release Crab Day. The ensemble was helmed by Josiah Steinbrick, a producer and fixture of the L.A. music scene who’s collaborated with Devendra Banhart, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Tim Presley of White Fence.
The musicians had gotten familiar with each other while touring Crab Day, and it seems that they were in an even looser mood than usual when they came together to record what would become LIVE, a mix that uses original compositions by Steinbrick as a jumping-off point for the rest of the musicians to improvise over. Influenced by the recordings of the trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell and incorporating the work of Arthur Russell, the playful, energetic LIVE was originally recorded as a special for the online radio station Dublab. But it proved to have staying power, so Leaving Records has issued it as a standalone album this month.
LIVE is comprised of four tracks named for the first four letters of the alphabet, and runs 24 minutes its length. Its tracks are predicated not on guitar, piano or drums, but on loops of vibraphone and woodwind, with other instruments chiming in wildly, a rainforest cacophony layered over the slower, deeper patterns of a lush musical ecosystem. Tracks don’t develop in a linear fashion but instead grow outward in strange, unexpected directions. On “A” and “B,” this growth is segmented, as a second loop tags in to replace the first at the midpoint of each song. “C” and “D” are more coherent and as a result, more easily digestible.
Depending on the listener’s mood, the record’s early going can be frustratingly chipper. All those plinking mallets and that farting brass come to feel grating, a forced smile that stays on too long. But occasional moments of shade dull the insistent sunshine, providing some relief as you delve further into the record. Plaintive strings on the back side of “B” and the sudden jangle of piano two and half minutes through “C” cool things down, and “D” by far the shortest track here, is decidedly the darkest, introducing a somber note that anchors an otherwise escapist record in the real world.
The compositions here forsake Western divisions of major and minor keys. This gives all the tracks a modal, somewhat hard-to-place flavor, particularly the baroque “B,” which makes use of ceremonial music from Southeast Asia and incorporates a minimalist piece from the Estonian composer Heino Jürisalu, before morphing into a tribute to Arthur Russell’s ’70s work that includes a yearning sample of electric piano from Russell himself.
Steinbrick has said that he wants the music to sound “exotic” and “pleasant,” both characteristics that LIVE nails easily. But after a half dozen listens, despite some of its more outré qualities, LIVE starts to sound familiar, even tightly controlled. The members of BANANA know each other well, and on the record, they seem capable of anticipating their tourmates improvisational tendencies, like a conversation at the family dinner table where it’s always obvious who’s going to speak up next. That makes for a strikingly coherent improvised album. But it also dulls some of the surprises that LIVE might have otherwise offered, making something that was supposed to feel fresh and alive, seem occasionally, if not unhappily, predictable.
“I think a lot of us heard Donuts and made it our Bible.”
Talking about his excellent new album p h a r o a h in an interview with Bandcamp, the California producer Jansport J (aka Justin Williams) was blunt about the beat tape’s most obvious influence. Since Dilla’s Donuts came out, a little more than a decade ago, it has stood as both monolith and lodestar at the base camp of the beat scene. Few producers have been able to escape its shadow or avoid the microsample-strewn path it lays out. P h a r o a h does not seek to try.
But by ridding himself of the anxiety of influence, J has made the best of his eight records to date, and one of the more compelling offerings to emerge from the beat scene in recent years. He’s absorbed and built on the lessons to be found on Donuts and in the work of instrumental hip-hop’s other leading lights. P h a r o a h was originally conceived in the midst of a New York snowstorm, and the record jumps off with eight tracks worth of diamantine blizzard beats, many of them punctuated by or predicated on the human voice. Chants, shouts, whoops and screeches fill the record to great effect creating an atmosphere of engaged protest. J explained in the same interview that the track “RIP Harambe” speaks to more to than just an assassinated zoo animal; its sharply edited music is immediately followed by a 911 dispatcher, issuing yet another report of a suspicious male. That ominous audio attends the beginning of a track called “12,” a title barely more subtle than the one N.W.A. kicked off some shit with almost thirty years ago. P h a r o a h is remarkably effective as an explicit political document; no lyrics necessary.
Williams opens up and shows his range in the records latter two thirds, starting around the tributes to classic New York rap on “45 Joint” and “Set it Off.” Though Williams may mean it to signal otherwise—he’s remarked several times that this is his New York record—this section begins something of a national tour. While Williams continues to honor Gotham (check out the MC Lyte sampling on “BKNY”), he stretches beyond the city, from O.D.B.’s shouts to Miami on “The Dirt II” all the way to California on “Live From the Forum ’86” and “Crenshaw” near the album’s back half. In allowing his beats to criss-cross the country, choosing a diverse array of samples even as he cleaves to a classicist style, he retraces the original migration of hip-hop throughout the country.
Donuts was characterized by the Detroit producer’s rare mastery of sampling, both as technical skill and artistic expression, speaking his deathbed fears and desires through prerecorded voices. J shows a similar facility here, but this is not some covers record. On songs like “Crush” and “Crenshaw,” he takes a page out of the pop-loving programming of his contemporary Knxledge, essentially cross-wiring Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and Luther Vandross’ “Better Love.” Williams also has a knack for isolating intriguing spoken samples: one of the best tracks here is “IwasFeelinShortee,” which hands the mic over to Mos Def’s lovelorn monologue from “Ms. Fat Booty.” And he favors a diversity of approaches, as happy using a hyper-recognizable Bob James drum sample as he is veering toward the obscure.
A record like P h a r o a h makes a compelling case for Jansport J to be considered for a short list of names associated with transcendent instrumental hip-hop, a pantheon that, along with Dilla, would include Madlib, Knxledge and Oddisee, as well as pioneers like DJ Shadow and Blockhead. Though Donuts and Madlib’s Beat Konducta series continue to loom over the scene, making it difficult to expand the genre, these artists like have continued to add depth and breadth within the boundaries already set out. P h a r o a h hits upon a particularly deep wellspring, exploring it with curiosity and a coherent point of view that characterizes the instrumental hip hop’s best work. Though it barely features Williams’s own vocals, it speaks in a passionate, warm, consistently recognizable voice.