Ludacris - Theater of the Mind

Ludacris - Theater of the Mind
Okay, as pretentious as Theater of the Mind may sound, don't judge a book, well, album by its cover. One of the South's favourite sons, Ludacris is back on it and has managed to mash up the elements of his older works with a good dose of the intelligence and wit found on Release Therapy.

Being a theater concept album, plenty of non-music celebs make cameos on these tracks. It doesn't harm the album because they seriously do not try to rap! Left to Luda, you can see the advantages on cuts like Undisputed, which "co-stars" former boxing champ Floyd Mayweather in a cut drowned (but far from dead) with similes and punchlines.

Some would be looking at Wish You Would, the collaboration with former rival T.I. and creaming in their pants, but though they deliver mediocre at worst lyrically, the beat supplied by Toomp and 8TRIX is a headache. Even trashier is the Chris Brown and Sean Garrett collab What Them Girls Like - yes it is obviously a club/radio song so you can bounce to it, but don't jump into it seeking quality, though Ludacris does drop some decent lines, except "I love women so much I am one!"...umm...moving on...

Despite them, there is so much to say about the three final tracks of the album so I'll spare you that and tell you this - MVP ('scored' by DJ Premier; yeah who thought it wouldn't happen, but it did), I Do It For Hip Hop ('co-starring' Nas & Jay-Z), and Do The Right Thang ('co-starring' Common and, how proper, Spike Lee and 'scored' by 9th Wonder) - yes, the quality of the tracks matches the names involved in this triple threat...I mean treat. Believe that.

You gotta love concept albums, as long as they're pulled off well enough. Aside from the actor cameos (also from Chris Rock and Ving Rhames) and the 'co-starring' and 'scored by' credits, Ludacris' Theater of the Mind is not one which really stays on point as far as being a concept album, but regardless it still packs a lot of punch and you'll get quite a few kicks out of it too. Definitely a must-hear.

Available through DTP/Def Jam Records

J. Cole - Born Sinner

J. Cole - Born Sinner
The youthful tour-de-force that is J. Cole made a bold move when announcing that he would be releasing his sophomore album Born Sinner on the same day as seasoned heavyweight Kanye West with Yeezus. Well that day is upon us, and it is a day which has made me wonder yet again if the whole "darker = better" aesthetic is merely becoming the hegemonic formula for the arts, as it's been working similar wonders for Hip Hop as it did for Christopher Nolan's 'Batman' reboot. Born Sinner is no exception.

The first thing to note is that unlike his 2011 debut Cole World, Born Sinner is almost exclusively J. Cole. Any guests (such as Kendrick Lamar and Miguel) are restricted to choruses, leaving Cole alone with his verses, of which almost none are left void of worthy lyricism laced together with a refurbished, fine-tuned flow maintaining the same visceral hunger of Cole's debut. That's not to say the listener is not treated to a more relaxed flow every now and then from the rapper (as he strikes a perfect balance between these tones on joints like Power Trip), but the hunger complements the darker direction taken this time around, facilitating his matured sentimentality rather than merely exhibiting his musical seriousness from Cole World.

Once again, Cole is also almost solely responsible for the album's production, with only Elite co-producing the TLC-collaboration Crooked Smile, and No I.D. co-producing the jazz-tinged Let Nas Down. Cole's musicianship is fixated on the album's darkness, complete with pounding drums, synthesizers, organs, strings and jazzy brass coming together to grant the album a sonic diversity, from thumping double bass groove of Forbidden Fruit (pronounced further by the soft clicks, toned-down drums and the very familiar sample of Ronnie Foster's Mystic Brew) to the soulful chiming of Chaining Day to the Zen-garden-like atmosphere of Rich Niggaz.

Cole flexes his versatility even further by branching out into different styles of Hip Hop beats, so while at one point you will have the (sadly underwhelming) upbeat rhythm of She Knows, at another you will be delightfully dragged through the proverbial mud with the heave of Power Trip (thanks in major part to its buzzing bass synths and the heavily slowed sample of Hubert Laws' No More).

The synths on Runaway in particular are juxtaposed by the drums in such a way that how you receive the track is based on your outlook at the time of listening to it - if you imagine a warm and sunny day, it will oblige that image, whereas if you envision something darker, that's exactly what you'll be treated to; the latter is arguably the easier one to side with, given the lyrics and the overall darkness of the album, but I implore you to try this exercise out regardless simply to enrich your experience. The bittersweet content is hardly a stranger in more emotional Hip Hop, but rarely do you experience something like this.

Contrary to what the title would imply, Born Sinner is not drowned in Christian overtones. Of course, in the process it does deal with your textbook human issues that are explored in emotionally-driven Hip Hop (save for the ego-stroking intro Villuminati), such as lovesickness (Power Trip) and gold diggers (Trouble). Others take on multiple issues simultaneously, such as idolatry and the need for validation (Let Nas Down), or for seemingly myriad matters on Runaway: masculinity and infidelity vs. femininity and the love of a good woman ("When you're no longer Superman, at least you know you got your Lois Lane"), self-esteem, paedophilia, aging, and racism. Yet in the midst of all the subject matter, Cole stays dark but not necessarily depressing, almost always entertaining and engaging.

While it does feel like a waste to merely have the talents of Kendrick Lamar almost squandered and restricted to repetition on the hook of Forbidden Fruit, it's understandable when you consider that the result of J. Cole helming his own album in all aspects is a heavily intimate experience with him as a person. Despite the few occasions of alienation when braggadocio rears its ugly head, the connection that is built is one that stays with you for the hour's duration of the album.

Arguably the most prominent and important quality that J. Cole is exhibiting on Born Sinner is growth - growth as an artist, a musician, a poet, and a human being. He has carved out a new cradle of self-comfort, and that very comfort adds to how personal this album feels to himself as the creator, and to you as the listener; hearing him in a finely balanced position where he is so passionate yet surprisingly unperturbed is what makes Born Sinner not just a significant improvement on Cole World in every way possible but a new foundation for even more improvement. The fact that it gets better with each listen effortlessly makes it one of the best Hip Hop records of 2013.


Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
New York City. 1986. Three Jewish boys make their switch from punk rock to Hip Hop official, their illing licences granted to them. Was it a total shift in styles? No, it was more like a merger of the two, leaning more towards Hip Hop. Did they prove that the same do-it-yourself aesthetic transpired between the genres? Yes. Is it scary how successful they have been across more than just rock and Hip Hop? Oh yes. Did they even change their names? No. And God help you if you ask who these fellas are, your face shall substitute for a kick drum.

Consistency, consistency, consistency...Beastie Boys have CONSISTENTLY put out quality music. Once upon a time Hip Hop was about having fun, and then they came along and made it about getting damn crazy. Yezzir, these boys are the true originators of crunk without having to resort to it. They may not release music annually, but damn if they don't blast your ear drums every time they do. And that still applies for Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.

In no way has time and age slowed down Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock. They still sound as youthful and energetic as they did when they first earthquaked the scene; though you will notice that due to MCA's recent health complications, his voice is much rougher...but dammit does it work well. Each of their flows remain precise and employing their trademark - though in ways dated - lyrical silliness to accompany the beats. Ah, the beats. Those gargantuan beats.

Entirely produced by the Beastie Boys themselves, the album is a great mixture of live drumming, heavily distorted guitar riffs, heavily distorted bass, and heavily distorted, warped and/or buzzing synthesizers. And of course Mix Master Mike has been brought back working his usual magic on the turntables.

Though the instruments don't vary greatly, the utilization of them keeps the album sounding fresh almost completely from start to finish. This is owed to venturing outside of its otherwise dominating boom-bap territory and into, say, reggae for the Santigold collab Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win, or back to the Beastie's punk roots on Lee Majors Come Again. Overall, the sounds are not a huge departure from what they were a decade ago, but the quality of it has been maintained so that each track still gives you the urge to Hulk your way through a brick wall [Make Some Noise], get all up in mofo's face [Here's A Little Something For Ya], or simply just set fire to, then break some shit [Too Many Rappers featuring Nas].

If you don't end up with flames emanating from your sound system by the end of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, don't blame the Beastie Boys - only blame yourself, for you were not listening to it loud enough, you wuss. But if it made you go ahead and do some crazy shit like in their star-studded short film Fight For Your Right (Revisited) featuring Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Elijah Wood as the Beastie Boys themselves, well then that there really is the point of great music. So how do you respond and react to the works of these pioneers? Does it make you want to chew through concrete? Smother your boss with a block of cheese? Headbutt a senator? Let us know, and have a grand time listening to Hot Sauce Committee Part Two as you do so.

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