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What we're listening to in July

What we're listening to in July
From Engadget - July 10, 2017

Vince Staples

In October of 2014, Vince Staples dropped the Hell Can Wait EP. It was dark, violent and boiling over with artistic potential. Then in 2015 he released his first full-length work: the ambitious double album Summertime '06, which delivered on all of that promise. Both shared a similar aesthetic. They were lyrically dense, almost claustrophobic in their story-telling. Fatalistic tales of drug addicts, dealers and gang life ("Knowin' change gonna come like Obama and them say, But they shootin' every day 'round my mama and them way") sit on top of apocalyptic beats.

But his latest, Big Fish Theory, takes a hard left turn. Both sonically and thematically. For one, it ditches many of the trappings of modern hip-hop production for dance music. Detroit techno, Chicago house and even hints of UK garage can be found throughout. And, instead of focusing on tales of his youth, painting bleak pictures of life on the streets of Long Beach, Staples takes broad shots at celebrity, rap culture ("How the thug life? How the love life?") and American politics ("Prolly 'cause I am feelin' like the world gon' crash, Read a hundred somethin' on the E-class dash"). But it's no less fiery than his previous releases -- it's loaded with scorching social criticism and eye-rolling references to the trappings of wealth and celebrity ("Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens, Pray the police do not come blow me down 'cause of my complexion").

It's an album you did not know you wanted or needed until you hear it. For two weeks straight now I have listened to it almost every day -- at least once -- and I am no where near tired of it. Big Fish Theory is the sound of an artist at the top of his game and unafraid to take chances. And that latter part is important. Vince Staples could have simply tried to recreate "Norf Norf" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb6Jc4juSF8) for the rest of his career and people would have eaten it up. Instead he chose to release something risky and different, and that's worth celebrating all on its own. And it does not hurt that it's amazing.

Terrible, Thanks For Asking

As someone who spends roughly 10-12 hours a week commuting, I have a lot of time on my hands so it's probably not a surprise that I am a big fan of podcasts in general. And while my podcast library consists largely of true crime and ghost stories, my latest listening obsession has an entirely different focus: Feelings and loss and uncomfortable truths and real-life hardships.

Initially, it was the podcast title -- Terrible, Thanks For Asking -- that drew me in as I am a) not very attune to social niceties and b) have a tendency to answer the question "How are you?" with far, far more honesty than the person asking it intended to receive. But a podcast that centered around "talking honestly about our pain, our awkwardness and our humanness" sounded, well, pretty heavy for a long bus ride home so I held off on starting it.

I concretely remember listening to the first episode -- in less than ten minutes of starting it I was nodding my head in complete agreement and five minutes after that I was crying as my seatmate on the train politely pretended not to notice. Because listening to TTFA is heavy, and listening to the first episode (in which two women discuss how to raise their children after their partners have died) is heart wrenching, but also because the stories being shared are so real, and so honest, and so incredibly genuine. Nobody is holding anything back in TTFA and while that often results in me crying on the commute home, it just as frequently results in me laughing aloud. (Pro tip: If you laugh and cry interchangeably on public transit, no one will sit next to you!)

Nora McInerny, the host, has had her fair share of terrible (and probably a few other people's shares to boot) but maintains a tone that is compassionate and relatable and down right funny -- even when talking about things that are distinctly not funny like suicide or sexual assault. Her voice shines through, guiding the podcast and its participants to tell their stories in a way that honors their experiences, and feelings, and strengths. Telling friends to listen to a podcast about death and loss, entitled Terrible, Thanks For Asking, is... kind of a hard sell but there is, quite frankly, nothing else like TTFA -- nothing so open, so unapologetic and so authentic about the terrible things we experience as humans and how we get through them.

Jay-Z

I have had Jay-Z's 4:44 on repeat since it dropped Tidal exclusivity. Unlike his past work, this is the first time Jay has worked with one producer for an entire album. It feels less like a collection of songs and more like a singular piece of music as a result. Just when I thought I'd found my favorite beat, the next track would play and I found myself enamored all over again, but for an entirely different reason.

I am coming off a steady diet of J Dilla, Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar, so initially-reluctant producer No ID's style took a little getting used to. What keeps me coming back, though, is how his beats flow from one song to another as effortlessly as Jay's lyrics. Case in point: The title track, "Family Feud" and "Bam;" tracks five, six and seven, respectively.

Hannah Williams (via sample) on "4:44" takes what could have been a schmaltzy apology song to Beyonc and turns it into an apology any of us could use when we are in the dog-house. Speaking of Queen Bey, I ca not get enough of the layering on "Family Feud" and how her vocals float in and out of the mix, over and under the drums and piano. Then the beat drops on the reggae'd-out "Bam" featuring Damian Marley, my head instinctively starts nodding and I reach out to hit the imaginary 808 in front of me when Carter says "HOV." A vinyl edition seems unlikely, but hopefully Jay can find it in his billionaire heart to release the 4:44 instrumentals sooner rather than laterif at all.

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