On the Tube – “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits” (2013)

 

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“The Legend of Korra” is the official sequel to the critically-revered Nickelodeon animated TV series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. With “Avatar”, American animation directors Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino created a universe where certain individuals were gifted with the ability to “bend” or manipulate the elements of earth, fire, wind and water. If only someone could bend hearts – then we’d have ourselves a Captain Planet. Anyhoo, the “Avatar” is the one individual who can master ALL four elements and bring balance to the world. In the original series, the Avatar was a twelve-year old monk named Aang who was freed by sister and brother Katara and Sokka (residents of the Southern Water Tribe)  after spending 100 years frozen inside of an iceberg. Throughout the series’ three seasons (labelled as “Book 1 – Water”, “Book 2 – Earth” and “Book 3 – Fire”), Aang, Katara and Sokka battled the dominant Fire Nation (consisting of…..you guessed it…..fire benders) who waged war against the Earth Kingdom and the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. 

 

Supported by strong writing, multi-layered characterization, great animation and the show’s own influences from Japanese animation (or “anime”), Chinese martial arts and history, and Eastern philosophy and religions, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was, and still remains, one of the finest of all modern animated series. It helped set a new standard for American kids’ cartoons, which, at that time (and even now, unfortunately) were usually considered to be less interesting and compelling to look at  as opposed to the arguably superior genre of Japanese anime.

 

And then……..(cue tragic music) some terrible shit went down. July 1st 2010 – a day that will live in infamy – was the day that director M. Night Shyamalan released a $150-million budgeted, LIVE-ACTION version of the Nickelodeon series as the Paramount Pictures summer blockbuster release “The Last Airbender”. Based on the first season/book of “Avatar”, this film tried desperately to cram the main events of the 20-episode season into a 103-minute running time (including end credits). With a cast that included Dev Patel, who was fresh off the success of the Oscar-winning 2008 drama “Slumdog Millionaire”, as the over-acting villain Prince Zuko, some dude named Jackson Rathbone who played the off-screen, cue-card reading Sokka (who’s not even supposed to be fucking Caucasian, by the way), some chick named Nicola Peltz (also Caucasian) who played his sister Katara, and, Noah Ringer who played the whiny, constipated-looking Aang. On that fateful day of July 1st 2010, the Avatar franchise (not to be confused with James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic which CLEARLY wasn’t influenced in some shape or form to the Avatar cartoon. Wink wink) was decimated. Lives were lost, property damage skyrocketed, families were left homeless, and critics and fans criticized the film for its godawful dialogue, goddamned terrible 3D, poor storytelling and piss-poor decision to cast white and Indian actors as the main characters in the source material’s Asian-influenced universe. M. Night Shyamalan’s credibility as a director was immediately flushed down the drain, and up to this day (*COUGH*“After Earth”*COUGH*), he’s still trying to climb out of it.

 

Fortunately, the creators of “Avatar” hadn’t given up just yet. At the San Diego Comic-Con held on July 22nd 2010, production of a brand-new Avatar series (which was eventually titled “The Legend of Korra”) was announced. Set 70 years after the final episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, this spin-off, or should I say sequel, would focus on a new Avatar – an older, female one at that – named Korra. “Book 1: Air” premiered on Nickelodeon in April 14th 2012, and became the network’s most-watched animated series premiere in three years. Season 1/ Book 1 was critically acclaimed for its top-notch animation, creative use of steampunk and circa-1930s Saturday matinee visual and thematic elements, a deeply intelligent storyline which contained socio-political and spiritual themes, complex characters and a more mature approach to its story, thereby acknowledging and respecting the fact that the original fans of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” had already grown up.

 

This winning formula was applied with the latest season of “The Legend of Korra”: “Book 2 – Spirits”. But did it work this time or did it spontaneously combust? Or got blown up thanks to some fire bending? Or waterlogged thanks to water bending? Or buried thanks to earth bending? I’ll stop now. Besides, you get the idea anyway – at least I think so. And now for the review!

 

“THE LEGEND OF KORRA: BOOK 2 – SPIRITS” – Six months after the events of “Book 1 – Air”,  the United Republic elected its first President, the Avatar Korra (Janet Varney) and her ally-turned-boyfriend Mako (voiced by David Faustino, well-known for his role as Budd Bundy in the classic, funny-ass family sitcom “Married….with Children”) are still together, and Republic City is experiencing a long-awaited period of peace (Get it? Period – peace? Period piece? Ha ha ha. Hmmm). Mako is now a policeman working under Chief Lin Beifong (Mindy Sterling), his brother Bolin (P.J. Byrne) continues pro-bending (i.e. a competitive sport involving bending), his ex-girlfriend Asami (Seychelle Gabriel) is still in control of her father’s automotive industry, and his girlfriend Korra continues to acquaint herself with her new-found Avatar powers under the tutelage of the elderly Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), Aang’s son. A family reunion begins as Tenzin and his family, along with Korra, Mako, Bolin and Asami visit Tenzin’s and Korra’s family in the Southern Water Tribe. One night, the village is attacked by a fearsome spirit, but thanks to the bending ability of Korra’s uncle and tribal chief Unaloq (Adrian LaTourelle), the spirit is driven back. This spirit is one of many that have found their way out of the Spirit World. Unalaq informs Korra that the only way to return these spirits to the Spirit World is to travel to the South Pole before the Winter Solstice and use her Avatar powers to open an ancient portal (which connects the human world to the Spirit World) that will drive the spirits back to their home and restore balance between light and darkness. Unbeknownst to Korra, this ‘portal opening’ is only the beginning of a grand scheme that will place the future of the Southern AND Northern Water Tribes, Republic City, the Avatar and the world in jeopardy.

 

Summing up the events of “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits” in a few short paragraphs is a challenging job in itself, as the scope of this latest season is far bigger than the previous one. There are sub-plots atop of sub-plots, characters atop of characters (Get your minds out of the fucking gutter, people! It’s not THAT type of “anime”), character arcs atop of character arcs, and twists and turns atop, underneath, alongside and through other twists and turns. And for the most part, that was what I expected to see in “Book 2 – Spirits”. With the proverbial “bar” raised considerably high with the last season due to its strong story and well-developed characters, I had hoped that the deeper and darker strides the show’s writers were taking with Season 2 would elevate that “bar” even higher.  Unfortunately, some – not all, mind you – of Season 2’s biggest strengths are its biggest weaknesses. Certain sub-plots and character arcs feel lackluster and incomplete, and a few of them are completely unnecessary. Take for example, Tenzin’s son Meelo’s (Logan Wells) brief sub-plot (it doesn’t even last half of Episode 5) where he trains an adopted lemur. Oh sure, it gave us time to focus on Meelo (who provided much of the humour of Season 1), sure it shows his eventual growth, and sure, it is a very minor sub-plot in relation to the larger narrative. But it felt forced and unnecessary, as if the writers were desperately trying to maintain their preteen fan base by showing them cute, fuzzy images despite the darker, more mature thematic elements this season had to offer. There’s another sub-plot, this time involving Bolin, that spans about three-quarters of the entire season. Here, a shady businessman named Varrick (John Michael Higgins) – who, shockingly enough, provided some genuine humour to the show – hires Bolin to play the lead in a series of anti-Northern Water Tribe propaganda movies (which, in essence, was a clever commentary on the propaganda films of the first and second World Wars). Bolin’s story was okay, and he did get the opportunity to kick ass (Episode 11, in particular), but by the end of the season, he’s still the same goofy, bumbling, naive individual that he started off as.

 

But the most apparent of these not-so-spectacular character arcs is Korra’s. As the new Avatar, you would expect her character to be more aware and responsible of her actions, decisions and powers in this season. However, she finds herself so burdened with that responsibility that she makes bad decision after bad decision. Examples range from minor (breaking up with Mako after a heated argument) to major (the opening of the aforementioned portal, moments after she chooses mentorship with her uncle Unalaq over the trustworthy Tenzin). Yes, she does learn from her mistakes, but usually at a great cost. There’s even a moment where she learns of her Avatar ancestry via a mental journey through the life of Wan, the first Avatar (in the SUPERB two-part story “Beginnings”). Yet still she makes a foolish decision in Episode 10 (“A New Spiritual Age”) – though it could be argued that she “had to make a crucial decision” – that cost the spirit of Tenzin’s daughter Jinora (who admittedly showed more character growth in a few episodes than Korra did in one season – AIN’T THAT SOME SHIT?!). And yes, she gets all bad-ass in the grandiose season finale where she faces the menacing Vaatu (Jonathan Adams), the spiritual embodiment of darkness and Wan’s former foe. But because there was hardly any growth involved in Korra’s character, or at least emphasis on it since the story focused so much on other characters and their sub-plots, the climatic battle was underwhelming and lacked the spectacular nature of Book 1’s season finale where Korra finally became the Avatar.

 

On the plus side, there are flashes of brilliance in “Book 2 – Spirits”. The animation is even more top-notch than Season 1, more particularly in its magnificent action and fight sequences. Episode 11 (“Night of a Thousand Stars”), for example, had one of my FAVOURITE fight sequences where brothers Unalaq and Tonraq (Korra’s father) confronted each other in a very intense (even by TV-Y7 standards) water-bending battle.  The voice acting is solid as before, with actors such as James Remar (from “Dexter”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Steven Yuen (“The Walking Dead”) churning out great vocal performances. I was extremely impressed by the unique character designs of the spirits which reminded me so much of the creatures created by the iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki in “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”, two of his greatest works. At times, I found myself looking forward to seeing the next weird, wonderful spirit appear in the story than seeing the latest shit-storm started by the human characters. The tone is indeed darker than “Book 1 – Air”, but there still exists the humour, emotion and visual beauty that was praised from the previous season. And the narrative, while at times suffering from a sense of identity crisis (one instance, it’s about Korra, then it’s about civil war, then it’s about the history of the Avatar, then it’s about film propaganda, then it’s about a love triangle, then it’s about “Awwwww. They’re so cute” spirits, then it’s about “What the fuck is that?” spirits and so on), still exhibits the sharp storytelling that one expects from the “Avatar” franchise. Not the James Cameron movie. And CERTAINLY not the M. Night Shyamalan movie either. 

 

With “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits”, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko deliver the same recipe from “Book 1 – Air” but with some vitamins and minerals that, while adding some much-expected flavour, dilutes the mix ever so slightly. The series’ flaws will (or must already have) annoy seasoned “Korra” fans, but there’s still enough story, action, characters (human and non-human) and overall entertainment to make your viewing experience a satisfactory one. All in all, I enjoyed “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits”, though not as much as its predecessor. Personally, I won’t mind adding this season into my DVD collection, since I already have the 2-disc edition of “Book 1 – Air” in my collection already. If you haven’t seen “The Legend of Korra”, I highly recommend that you do so. It is still one of the best cartoons on television right now, and I hope that its credibility continues with its next season (“Book 3 – Change”) whose airing schedule is currently unknown. And for those who managed to sit through the entirety of “Book 2 – Spirits” for the last few months, when there was SO MUCH MORE you could do with your time on a Friday night, what are your thoughts on this season? Did you love it or hate it? Were you disappointed or were you pleased? And do you or don’t you still care about “The Legend of Korra”? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

 

MY RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Worth a look”)

– Matthew

Hey look! A music review – Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)

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And now for our review.

 

1. INTERLUDE – “The Black Album” begins with…..wait, do I really need to do an intro for “The Black Album”?! Really?!! Okay, fine. Jeez!

 

“The Black Album” is the eight studio album from Mr. H-to-the-Hizzo, Hova Hovito, and Mr. Beyonce Knowles himself, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Released on November 14th 2003 (hey, that’s 10 years ago!), “The Black Album” (not to be confused with Prince’s “The Black Album” or Metallica’s “The Black Album” or Kino’s “The Black Album” or The Damned “The Black Album” or The Dandy Warhols….you know what? I’m done!) was a commercial success, with three Billboard chart hits (each from a different producer), a 2004 Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album (which lost to fellow musical collaborator Kanye “Yeezus” West’s debut studio album “The College Dropout”) and a shit-ton of critical praise (with many citing it as one of the best albums of the past decade). Before its release, “The Black Album” was promoted as Jay-Z’s FINAL album, before his retirement from music. Of course, this was just a clever marketing ploy to get people to buy the album, even though, in retrospect, it really wasn’t that necessary. Jay-Z was already an icon, and truly came a long way from his 1996 debut album (and still his greatest work, in my honest opinion) “Reasonable Doubt”.

 

Up until the early 2000s, he brought out hit album after hit album (1998’s “Vol. 2 – Hard Knock Life” – which spawned the masterpiece “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” is still his highest-selling album to date, with 5X Platinum certification to its name). After his 2001 album “The Blueprint” (which cemented Jay-Z’s status as one of the greatest MCs in rap history, began the lyrical feud between himself and Queensbridge rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones and introduced the world to the production talents of Kanye West), he received criticism from fans and critics for the pop-oriented sounds of the “Blueprint” sequel: the double CD “The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse”. Sure, “Excuse me Miss” was a nice song, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” helped put the relationship between Jay-Z and then-de facto leader of the R&B girl group Destiny’s Child turned multi-platinum solo artiste Beyonce Knowles into the public’s eye, the remix to “The Blueprint’s” “U Don’t Know” kicked just as much fucking ass as the original did, “Some How Some Way” got me emotional thanks to producer Just Blaze’s forlorn beat, and “Bitches & Sisters” taught me the differences between a bitch and a sister (no disrespect to the females reading this review), but as as Jay-Z fan, I must admit it certainly wasn’t his finest hour. Fortunately, with “The Black Album”,  he collaborated with fewer producers, picked the best beats that they had to offer and returned to what he did best – making great music.

 

And it’s this love for making great music that kept him in the musical spotlight and eventually caused him to forego his initial retirement. In 2006, he released his next studio album, “Kingdom Come” (which is actually one of my least favourite Jay-Z albums). From thereon, his collaborations got bigger (his follow-up album “American Gangster” – i.e. the fourth best Jay-Z album of all time in my honest opinion – was based on the Ridley Scott crime drama of the same name),  his influence got bigger (live interview with Oprah Winfrey, rubbing shoulders with President Barack Obama etc.) and even his family got bigger (he’s now, as we all know, the husband of Beyonce Knowles and the father of a cute baby girl named Blue Ivy Carter).

 

There! Now are you happy? I fucking hope so! Anyhoo, where was I? Oh yes! Ahem.

 

And now for our review.

 

1. INTERLUDE –  “The Black Album” begins with an interlude (aptly titled “Interlude”) over a moody, hypnotic  instrumental that sounds like something that would make for entrance music for a character in a crime thriller about to die (at least it sounds that way to me every time I hear it). Producer Just Blaze slightly alters his voice to simulate a  recording that, to me, sounds eerily similar to that of a 1960s-1970s Black Power movement speech. He introduces the album’s theme of finality (“All things must come to an end”) and, with his beat, sets the stage for Jay’s “farewell”. While admittedly, it comes across a lil’ too dramatic (as if this “final” album is an important event in world history or some shit), as a rap interlude intro, it achieves its purpose.

 

2. DECEMBER 4th  –  Jay spits his first set of lyrics over a soulful beat produced by Just Blaze. The song itself is a verbal autobiography on Jay’s life, with the first verse dealing with his humble beginnings, the second on his drug-dealing days before he became a rapper, and the third on his coming-to-terms with his past mistakes. Jay’s mother, Gloria Carter, makes this song a truly affectionate piece as she reminisces  on his birth (December 4th, hence the title) and early childhood. Nice. Very nice.

 

3. WHAT MORE CAN I SAY –  After a well-selected audio sample from the Ridley Scott-directed, Russell Crowe-starring Oscar winning classic “Gladiator”, Jay-Z hits the ground running! Lyrically, Jay is on point from start to finish, as he addresses the “haters” on certain issues like his status as a rapper/mogul, his assumed “biting” (i.e. ripping off) of lyrics from his dear friend, the late, great Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (which was cited in Nas’ classic diss song “Ether”), and the fact that he doesn’t need to pretend to be a thug to sell records. One of his final lines, for example, addresses that last issue (“And no, I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times/ Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines”) and could be viewed, but not completely confirmed, as a subliminal diss to 50 Cent (whose album “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” was blowing up in early 2003).  Jay spits his heart out over a FANTASTIC beat (and one of the best this album has to offer) by producers The Buchanans, and in the end, cements his greatness in the rap game. Overall, a great track, even though the singing (not by Jay – thank goodness) was unnecessary.

 

4. ENCORE –  This is the type of song that would make for excellent end credit music to a movie (not a crime thriller, as with “Interlude”, ’cause that’d be downright silly). Kanye West creates a MAJESTIC beat (with some soul-stirring horns sampled from reggae artiste John Holt’s “I Will” and supporting vocals from John “I wrote THE best wedding song of 2013” Legend ) for Jay-Z to remind the entire fucking universe and its environs that he is the GOAT (Easy there, Illuminati conspiracy theorists! GOAT is an acronym for Greatest Of All Time) in hip hop. The entire track is a blast, and the stadium audience sound effects makes it all the more magnificent. I LOVED…..and I mean, REALLY LOVED this song’s outro where all you hear is the screaming audience and a piano playing the melody to “Encore”. If this was the last song performed by Jay-Z during his last performance before his retirement, I could imagine people shedding tears during this final piano section. It’s not that tear-jerking, mind you, but you do get that emotional sense of “goodbye, so long and farewell” that the album tries to maintain. In any case, “Encore” is one of Jay-Z/ Kanye West’s best collabos, one of Jay-Z’s most popular songs to date, and one of my favourite Jay-Z songs of all time.

 

5. CHANGE CLOTHES  (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS) –  Every time I hear this track, I find myself mentally transported back to 2003 when the dynamic duo of The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo) produced more than 80% (give or take) of hip hop hits on the radio during the early 2000s. Yeah, they were THAT popular! While in retrospect, their beat for “Change Clothes” doesn’t stand out as much as their other popular instrumentals, it is still catchy as fuck! The piano melody which loops through the entire track WILL play repeatedly in your brain (as it did with me back in 2003) after you hear it. The chorus, sung by Pharrell, is aight, but with Jay’s smooth flow, it matches well with the groovy, club-based instrumental. All in all, a decent throwback single to the good ol’ days when The Neptunes seemingly ruled the world.

 

6. DIRT OFF YOUR SHOULDERS – In the 2004 documentary “Fade to Black”, which chronicled Jay-Z’s November 2003 performance at Madison Square Gardens, New York, there was one particular scene that always stood out to me. Jay-Z  and producer extraordinaire Tim “Timbaland” Mosley are in a studio listening to beats that Tim created. First, Tim offered a beat to Jay (which was then later used in Ludacris’ goofy 2005 single “The Potion”) which, of course, he refused, since Jay would’ve sounded fucking terrible on that beat anyway. And then, Tim played another beat which left Jay awe-struck. This was the beginning of the second greatest Jay-Z/Timbaland collabo ever (the first being – you guessed it – is the 1999 SMASH HIT “Big Pimpin'”) put on wax – “Dirt Off Your Shoulders”. Timbaland’s infectious, robotic (it sounds like the equivalent of  a robot doing…well…..”The Robot”)-sounding instrumental and Jay’s cocky, braggadocious lyrics (two lines of which were sampled in rapper Cassidy’s “I’m a Hustla”) makes this song a hip-hop collaboration for the ages. And after 10 years, it still has the power to brush the hard-to-reach dirt off any shoulder. SIDE NOTE: I put a link to that “Fade to Black” scene below this paragraph. Check it out, and witness magic in the making.

 

 

7. THREAT –  I would have never believed in a million years that the guy talking in the intro to this song is Cedric the Entertainer. CEDRIC…..THE ENTERTAINER. And this is before the currently-airing TV show “Soul Man”, which I have yet to see. On this track, he assumes the role of Jay-Z’s “hype man” of sorts where he sporadically threatens the shit out of someone in the most outrageous and darkly humourous way he possibly can (“I’ll throw a Molotov cocktail through your momma’s momma’s house” – DAMN!!!and with an exaggerated Southern drawl (he pronounces “sincere” as sin-surr). As for Jay himself, he takes a page from Notorious B.I.G.’s violently dark diss song “What’s Beef?” and lyrically threatens to ‘torture’ anyone (Relax, ladies. He’s referring to guys) who tries to “fuck with him”. 9th Wonder’s boom-bap beat, which samples R. Kelly’s “A Woman’s Threat” (of all songs), sounds superb behind Jay’s brooding punchlines.  Even with Cedric’s crazy ramblings, this is still a kick-ass song.  And yes, I’m being sin-surr!

 

8. MOMENT OF CLARITY – Marshall “Eminem” Mathers…..you know, the dude who recorded that “Marshall Mathers LP 2” album that everybody – even you – seems to be obsessed over….produces an instrumental that sounds vaguely similar to 50 Cent’s “Patiently Waiting” (right down to the dramatic violins that Em loves to use in his beats). While the latter track had Eminem rapping, “Moment of Clarity” is a one-man affair. Jay-Z is all alone in his mental zone as he addresses personal issues like his deceased, drug-addicted father who walked out on him during his youth, the media’s (and his very own) perception of his fame and rapping skills, and his severed ties from drug dealing. Jay is completely focused on this track, as he spits bar after bar that strip away the many layers of his persona. And the EXCELLENT hook, which uses the titles of his past albums from “Reasonable Doubt”, is the metaphorical icing on the cake. It’s no “Renegade” (i.e Jay-Z and Em’s standout collabo from “The Blueprint”), but “Moment of Clarity” is just as great, if not better.

 

9. 99 PROBLEMS – It’s only fair that a song with the title “99 Problems” be the ninth track on the album. After Jay opens the song with his now-iconic hook (“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son / “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”), legendary producer Rick Rubin’s instrumental bursts through the gate with fury and energy. This rock-influenced instrumental hearkens back to the music he produced for the Beastie Boys in the classic LP “Licensed to Ill” (an album that successfully fused punk rock and b-boy hip hop) back in 1986. With its menacing guitars, heavy drums and 1980s-style break-beat, “99 Problems” is the type of shit that you drive to, at 90 MPH, on the fucking HIGHWAY, with your speakers BLASTING! As for Jay, he unleashes hell in this song, with sharp punchline after sharp punchline. His second verse is the best in the entire song, as he recalls a 1994 incident of racial profiling (one of his many problems). Here, he plays a younger version of himself and a white cop who pulls him over to check for drugs. The 2004 BET Awards performance of this song had rocker (and sometimes rapper) Kid Rock assuming the role of the cop (his stumbling of the cop’s lyrics is still pretty funny to watch). I put a link to the performance below, so please check it out – unless you got a problem with that. 

 

 

10. PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT (INTERLUDE) –  After patiently waiting his turn to return to the boards, Just Blaze delivers one of the BEST beats on the entire album. And Jay doesn’t disappoint. Matter of fact, Jay MURDERS the song with his first verse alone! I am NOT bullshitting you here! When “Public Service Announcement” came out as a single, Jay’s first verse hit the rap world like a bolt of lightning, and fans all over the world bowed their heads in unworthiness. From top to bottom, this verse is filled with quotable lines (“I shoot at you actors like movie directors” is my favourite). The second verse is more introspective (“And I could blame my environment but/ There ain’t no reason why I be buying expensive chains”) and less bad-ass than the first, but still fits well with the track.  Just Blaze’s instrumental is so dramatic and cinematic with its soul-influenced musical arrangement and archival-sounding vocal sections (SPOILER ALERT: they’re actually performed by Just Blaze himself – even the female voice before the second verse –  through some creative vocal tweaking) that (Uh oh! Here I go again with the “it sounds like the soundtrack to some movie” again) it literally sounds like the entrance music to a gangster in a blaxploitation crime movie. Clocking in at less than 3 minutes, “Public Service Announcement” is still one of Jay’s greatest songs an d the best Jay-Z/ Just Blaze collaborations PERIOD! 

 

11. JUSTIFY MY THUG –  The weakest track on the album – bar none.  While I can accept the G-funkdafied version (courtesy of veteran West Coast rapper/producer DJ Quik) of Madonna’s controversial 1990 single “Justify my Love”, it falls short of Jay’s lyricism – which, while not as memorable, is technically the only reason to sit through this song. The hook, which ridiculously changes the word “love” from the chorus to “Justify my Love” into….you guessed it….”thug”, will have your eyes rolling every time it’s played. That’s if you’re not already asleep by the start of this song. Yeah, it’s that forgettable. 

 

12.  LUCIFER –  Leave it to Kanye West to pick up the album’s pace! On this track, he uses a vocal sample from reggae artiste Max Romeo’s classic 1976 song “Chase the Devil” (“Lucifer, son of the morning. I’m gonna CHASE you out of Earth”) that sounds PERFECT with his mid-tempo, guitar-laced instrumental, even when it’s repeated like 90 times (give or take) on the actual song. But it is such a great sample that it’s embedded in your head from the moment you start nodding it to the beat.  Jay creatively uses religious terms and imagery (“Yes, this is holy war, I wet y’all with the holy water”) to address his deep-rooted fears of losing his soul to both his “enemies” and his personal demons. Not as brilliant as “Encore” but still a very decent track.

 

13. ALLURE (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS) – As the  LP draws to a close, the Neptunes return after getting wasted in the same club where “Change Clothes” was based in, to produce an instrumental that not that many reviewers of “The Black Album” enjoyed, but surprisingly, I liked. Fuck it – I LOVE this instrumental! It may be too moody for the average Jay-Z fan to stomach, but it works so well on such an emotional level with Jay-Z’s lyrics. In this song, Jay reflects on the euphoria he felt during his drug-dealing days, and how, even with the money and fame he’s attained as a legitimate rapper, he still finds himself tempted to return to his old ways.  Like the lyrics, The Neptunes’ beat sonically rises into a carefree sense of bliss and ecstasy, and then quickly falls from grace in a stormy, tempestuous manner. This upward and downward musical progression continues through the entire track, as Jay goes introspective on his past and present. “Allure” may not stand out for everyone, but it is one of my personal favourite track off this album.

 

14. MY 1st SONG –  At last, we arrive at the final track of this regularly-scheduled program which just so happens to be (FUN FACT) President Barack Obama’s FAVOURITE Jay-Z song (Whooooooooa!!!). Over a slow-paced beat complete with a bluesy guitar and a drum pattern that regularly increases in pace, Jay-Z reveals the secret behind his stable career: (SPOILER ALERT) his hunger. Not hunger in the sense of a daily intake of Big Macs with supersized fries, but hunger in regards to Jay’s determination to work harder and become a better MC than when he first started. Jay returns to the fast-paced lyrical cadence that he used in the early stage of his rap career, and slows down during his three-quarter rapped, one quarter sung (he intentionally sings the last word(s) of some of the chorus’ bars in a falsetto). Jay’s outro (where he sends shout-outs to some of his friends and loved ones – *COUGH*Beyonce*COUGH) runs a bit long, and may annoy some listeners, but like “Encore”, it adds to the “goodbye, so long and farewell” vibe of the album.  You can imagine Jay driving off into the sunset in a Rolls-Royce Phantom as the beat plays on to the very end. Overall, “My 1st Song” is a cool, laid-back and mellow – albeit too mellow – way to end the album .

 

MY THOUGHTS: In retrospect, even if Jay-Z had intentionally set out to retire from the music world, it wouldn’t have changed the album’s near-excellence. Jay-Z returns to form after the commercially-diluted double LP “The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse” with his trademark swagger and flow, his top-notch lyricism that continues to make him an exciting, sought-after rapper, and the self-reflexivity that made the first “Blueprint” album and his first album “Reasonable Doubt” timeless classics. While I still think “Reasonable Doubt” is his greatest work, with “The Blueprint” in second place, “The Black Album” deserves the number three spot. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that I hate the album. While it isn’t entirely flawless, I still truly love this album. It currently ranks among my favourite hip hop albums of all time (’cause why else would I invest my time in reviewing it for you – apart from its 10-year anniversary?) and it is worth your time and money invested into it.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it – unless you got a problem with that. Too bad. I already have 99 to deal with.

 

’96 AND FOREVER. ROCK-A-BLOCK, ROC-A-FELLA.

 

MY RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely listen to this album”)

 

– Matthew

The Midnight Marauders & Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) Music Video Playlist

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Tuesday November 9th 1993.  I can remember that day like it was yesterday. The sun was shining; birds were singing; I came to school (primary school, that is) on time. I had Mathematics in the morning. I wasn’t fond of Maths back then, and I couldn’t wait for lunch time. Sure enough, the school bell rang for lunch, and I was free – for about an hour. I had a box lunch of stew chicken, white rice, potato, lettuce and tomatoes. After I ate, I played a small game of football with my friends until the school bell rang.  My lecturer was furious when he saw my friends soaked in sweat. Luckily for me, my house was around the corner of the street where the school was located, so I ran over there, changed my clothes and returned to class – on time, of course. My friends weren’t as lucky as me. After they got their asses whooped by my lecturer’s tamarind whip, they were ordered to stay back for two hours’ detention after class ended. Whimpering in pain, they warned me in soft whispers that my “black ass was grass”. I didn’t pay their threats any mind, because my favourite subject – Creative Writing – had just started. I wrote a really nice essay about what I wanted to be when I grew up (back then, I wanted to be a paleontologist, since I saw “Jurassic Park” during the summer, and absolutely adored it. I was nine, so seeing dinosaurs on the big screen was a big deal to me. And I believed there were dinosaur bones buried in Trinidad, so I wanted to be the first person to discover them).  I believe that each of my friends wrote an essay about kicking my black ass.  I’m not sure. I could be wrong. Anyhoo, after school, I ran home, watched a bunch of television shows (which included “Sesame Street”, “Smurfs” (’cause that was the shit back then)“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and the always informative “Married with Children”). “The X-Files” was during primetime, and my parents didn’t allow me to watch it. But I was so tired from having so much fun that it didn’t even matter. What a wonderful day that was.

 

I’m just fucking with you. Honestly, and obviously, I don’t remember SHIT about what happened to me on November 9th 1993! I wasn’t even aware it fell on a Tuesday until just now when I “Googled” it!  But I will admit this much: I was completely unaware that two albums (A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers”), which would go on to receive widespread critical acclaim and subconsciously inspire a new generation of MCs and producers. Without A Tribe Called Quest, you wouldn’t have a Common, a Lupe Fiasco, a Mos Def (or Mos or Yassin Bey or whatever he calls himself these days) or a Talib Kweli (speaking of which, I’m still eagerly waiting for another Black Star collabo between Talib and Mos – and I imagine a LOT of Talib and Mos fans are thinking the same thing). Without the Wu Tang Clan, you wouldn’t have a Progressive Era, an A$AP Mob or an Odd Future. Without the musical production on both of these albums, you won’t have a 9th Wonder or a Pharrell Williams (hell, the Neptunes) or a Just Blaze or a Kanye West.

 

Originally, I had intended to review both the “Midnight Marauders” and “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” albums, track-by-track in the same vein that I did my previous review of Q-Tip’s (leader of A Tribe Called Quest – remember?) 2008 album (and BEST album of the decade, in my honest opinion) “The Renaissance”. And believe me, I have been actually trying to write that review. But due to its length and the lack of time I had to write it, it proved too daunting a task to pull off. I am human, after all, and I have priorities to deal with – as do you, my fellow readers.

 

But I made a promise to myself to do a post on these albums, and since they are my first and second favourite albums of all time (oops…..SPOILER ALERT), it’s literally my fucking duty to put up something about them. And so I offer to you, lady and gent, the MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS & ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS) MUSIC VIDEO PLAYLIST (working title). But first, a brief biography on each album.

 

“Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” is the first studio album from the Staten Island hip hop collective, Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang Clan started off as a three-man crew called FOI (Force Of the Imperial Master – AWESOME NAME) which consisted of RZA (Robert Diggs) and his cousins GZA (Gary Grice) and the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones). In the early 90s, RZA assembled a larger crew of New York rappers and called themselves the Wu-Tang Clan (inspired by the 1981 martial-arts film “Shaolin and Wu-Tang” – a movie which every die-hard martial-arts fan should check out). The group now included Method Man (Clifford Smith), Inspectah Deck (Jason Hunter), Raekwon (Corey Woods), Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles) whose moniker isn’t based on the “Scream” villain but on a character from the 1979 martial-arts film “Mystery of Chessboxing” (which is also the title of one of the tracks from the album), U-God (Lamont Hawkins) and Masta Killa (Jamel Arief) whose moniker was lifted from the English title to the landmark 1978 martial arts classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (one of my all-time favourite movies, in case you were wondering). Their first single, the independently-released “Protect Ya Neck”, gave the group an underground following. Loud/RCA Records offered to release their first album, which, to date, remains their greatest effort. With RZA’s dark, stripped-down and minimalist beats and the distinct personalities and lyrical styles of the group members (for example, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s manic, drunken, sing-song flow, Ghostface Killah’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics and Method Man’s smoky, gravel-like voice), the Wu-Tang Clan painted a dark, grimy portrait of their Staten Island home (which they nicknamed “Shaolin” throughout the album), where they, as “Wu Tang warriors” (in the vein of the martial arts films that shape the vision of the album) used their lyrical skills to metaphorically “annihilate their rivals”.  This album spawned four hit singles and five music videos, all of which you can check out below.

 

“Midnight Marauders” is the third studio album from the highly-influential New York rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Out of their 5 album catalog, “Midnight Marauders” remains the group’s most commercially successful album to date. With upbeat, jazz-laced beats and smooth, witty and fun lyricism from Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the album spawned three hit singles, three videos based on those three singles (four if you count the bonus track – all of which you’ll see below) and a shit-ton of critical praise from critics and music lovers. A Tribe Called Quest (or ATCQ for short) is a New York rap group (I just wrote that) that consists of four members: MC/producer Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), MC Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor – who just so happens to be of Trinidadian descent), DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White (who left the group after the release of their second album).  Now I had never heard of A Tribe Called Quest until the mid-90s when a certain sitcom appeared on TV by the name of “The Wayans Brothers” which starred the African-American comedians Shawn and Marlon Wayans.  The first time I watched the show, I was drawn to the now-famous (and still hilarious) opening title sequence which began with a spoof of a 70s sitcom theme song. And then the intro to “Electric Relaxation” began, and my life was changed forever. I had always admired rap music from a young age, but I had never heard a rap song as smooth and laid-back like that one. Even while laughing at the climatic scene where that poor old lady got knocked down by a bus (and survived….thank goodness), I always found myself in a brief mental euphoria every time I heard that song. After spotting the group’s name in the show’s end credits, my love affair (pause) with the music of A Tribe Called Quest began. Today, I consider them the greatest rap group of all time, with the Wu-Tang Clan taking the second-place spot. Any and every one else comes after. ‘Nuff fucking said!

 

And now for that Wayans Brothers intro….with Dutch subtitles, ’cause that was the cleanest video YouTube could provide! Geef me de vijf! 

 

 

 

And now for our feature presentation:

 

SIDE A: MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS

 

“Award Tour” feat. Trugoy (that’s Yogurt spelled backwards) of De La Soul

 

 

“Electric Relaxation” (a.k.a. “The Wayans Brothers song” and my second favourite track off the album)

 

 

“Oh My God” (feat. Busta Rhymes)

 

 

“Hot Sex” (from the “Boomerang” soundtrack, and bonus track from the “Midnight Marauders” album)

 

 

“Lyrics to Go” (my number one absolute favourite track from “Midnight Marauders”)

 

BONUS TRACK: “Oh My God Remix” (jazzier than the original, but still a certified head-nodder!)

 

 

SIDE B: ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS)

 

“Protect Ya Neck” (don’t let the video’s low budget fool you. It fucking rules!)

 

 

“Method Man” (the solo track from Method Man, and one that, admittedly, he’s not too fond of. Hmmmm…..wonder why)

 

 

“C.R.E.A.M.” – All rise for the National Anthem. Seriously. It’s the National Anthem (and the Wu-Tang Clan’s signature song)!

 

 

“Can it Be All So Simple” –  Best use of a Gladys Knight sample EVER!

 

 

“Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” –  The first and only appearance of Masta Killa on the album. And yeah, he kicks ass on this song! (Take note of the audio samples from “Shaolin & Wu-Tang” and “Five Deadly Venoms” – another martial-arts classic film – used on this track)

 

 

BONUS TRACK: “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta F’ Wit” – If “C.R.E.A.M.” is the National Anthem, this is the National Song. BLAST this song from your speakers and bask in the awesomeness of the Wu-Tang Clan.

 

 

In closing, if you’re a fan of hip-hop, you NEED to get “Midnight Marauders” and “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers”. It’s like….the law! If you’re curious about 90s hip hop music (East Coast hip hop, in particular), then you should give these albums a listen. If you have listened to them before, feel free to mention your favourite track(s) from the albums. And on the subject of the 90s, what’s YOUR all-time favourite album (hip-hop or otherwise) from the 90s? Share your thoughts below.

 

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST FOREVER. WU-TANG FOREVER. ’93 TIL INFINITY.

– Matthew

Hey look! A music review – Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008)

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Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself: Wait a sec! Isn’t he supposed to be reviewing movies?! What’s with this music shit all of a sudden?! He’s SUPPOSED to be talking about “Bad Grandpa”. Why isn’t he talking about “Bad Grandpa”?!!  WHYYYYYYYYYYYY?!!!

 

‘Cause I haven’t seen “Bad Grandpa” (NOW SHOWING IN THEATERS! RATED R FAMILY FUN!), for one thing. And secondly, this blog serves as the one outlet I have at my disposal to write about stuff that interest me, whether it’s movies, TV shows or – as you’ll see in today’s review – music.  Keep in mind, lady and gent: this isn’t the first time I’ve written about music on my blog. During the prehistoric days of A Legally Black Blog, I wrote a review on the rap mixtape Breadcrumbz” which was released by Mizzter J, a Florida-based rapper and close friend of mine.  As a hip-hop aficionado, I was glad for the first-time opportunity to review a mixtape release, as the website which actually inspired me to get into blogging in the first place (hiphopisntdead.blogspot.com) was dedicated to reviewing hip hop albums of the past and present. From my first review, I went on to post two Top 10 favourite hip hop albums lists in 2011 and 2012.  But I never got the chance to review another album since then. UNTIL NOW!

 

The following write-up is a very personal one, as I’ll be reviewing an album that truly and deeply influenced me: Q-Tip’s “The Renaissance”. Now I know that I’m known to throw the words “great”, “greatest” and “best” about a lot in my reviews, and of course, what I call “great”, “greatest” and “best” might be looked at by someone else as “aight”, “cool”, “meh” and “what’s the big deal?”. But in terms of movies and music, my choices for “great”, “greatest” and “best” are based on emotion, and not on popularity. And music, just like film, has moved me deeply in one way or another. Of course, some may look at the genre of choice in today’s review and ask themselves: “How can hip hop make someone emotional? I mean, isn’t it all about money, cars, clothes, hoes, sex and weed? Well, isn’t it?”. And I will admit that these archetypes are indeed ingrained into the hip hop culture. But hip hop music, like film, is such a powerful medium that one can explore new themes, new ideologies and new points-of-view outside of those archetypes, while keeping the listener enthralled by the beat.  Now I’ve listened to many, many hip hop albums over the years, but very few have truly moved me the way “The Renaissance” did.

 

“The Renaissance” is the second official studio album from New York rapper/producer Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis but changed to Kamaal Fareed after converting to Islam).  As you should know from my review of “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” (which was written right after my “Breadcrumbz” review, by the way), Q-Tip is the leader of the highly-influential New York alternative hip hop/jazz rap group A Tribe Called Quest (i.e. the greatest rap group of all time).  After ATCQ broke up after their fifth album, “The Love Movement”, was released in 1998, Tip pursued a solo career. His first solo LP “Amplified” (1999) spawned two COLOSSAL club bangers (“Vivrant Thing” and “Breathe & Stop”) and a breezy track produced by the late, great hip hop producer and fellow musical collaborator James ‘J Dilla’ Yancey (“Let’s Ride”) – all of which still hold up to this day. Unfortunately, the rest of the album did not hold up, thanks to Tip’s lackluster flows, the mostly weak beats he rapped on, and the huge departure from the rap style that he perfected during the ATCQ era.

 

Despite the negative feedback “Amplified” received from die-hard ATCQ fans, it was a commercial success for Arista Records, the company that released the album.  His next studio album entitled “Kamaal/ The Abstract” (no, not “The Renaissance” just yet. I’ll explain in a minute) saw Tip experimenting with the musical genres that continually influenced him as an artiste.  Far from the mainstream sound of “Amplified”, “Kamaal/The Abstract” had Tip rapping and singing (mostly in an improvisational manner) over an equally improvisational fusion of jazz, hip hop, rock and funk.  This experimental sound proved too much for Arista Records at the time, and the decision was made to shelve the album. Down but not out, Tip continued to explore his musical roots. During the next four years, promotional copies of “Kamaal/The Abstract” found their way leaked onto the Internet, along with two unreleased solo albums that Tip made (“Open” and “Live at the Renaissance”).  With guests like neo-soul legend D’Angelo, veteran Chicago MC Common and one-half of the Atlanta rap duo Outkast – Andre 3000 (also known for being open to musical experimentation) – “Open” and “Live at the Renaissance” (both of which shared the same songs) involved Tip expanding on the experimental nature of “Kamaal/The Abstract”.

 

In early 2007, Tip signed a deal with Universal Motown Records, who eventually shelved his “Open” album. But on November 3rd 2008, Q-Tip released his second official studio album (since “Kamaal/The Abstract” was still shelved) “The Renaissance” under Universal Motown Records. Tip’s hard work had finally paid off with an LP that was critically-acclaimed, commercially-successful (though not as much as “Amplified”) and Grammy-nominated for Best Rap Album, a category which was won by New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne’s magnum opus “Tha Carter III”). One year later, “Kamaal/The Abstract” was finally released on Battery Records after being shelved for seven years. That LP was also critically acclaimed and is now considered one of Tip’s best works. And, might I add, it’s also one of my personal favourite albums – in case you were wondering.

 

So what’s the big deal about this “Renaissance” shit? Let’s find out, shall we?

 

1. JOHNNY IS DEAD – Tip kicks things off with a remixed version of a two-verse track (originally entitled “Johnny Died”) that appeared on both the “Open” and “Live at the Renaissance” albums.  The electric guitar solo that opened “Johnny Died” remains on “Johnny is Dead”, as well as the soulful keyboards and hard-hitting drums that follow the intro.  But thankfully, the same guitars which were a near-distraction in relation to Q-Tip’s voice in the first and second verses of “Johnny Died” are non-existent in “Johnny is Dead”, so now the listener can properly focus on Tip’s lyrics. But don’t let the Encore Westerns feature presentation title fool you. “Johnny is Dead” is not about the death of some ol’ Wild West cowboy – or the death of Johnny Cash (RIP) for that matter.  “Johnny” is actually a reference to Q-Tip’s original name (see above) before he converted. While “Johnny Died” saw Tip mostly taking a stab at the negative stereotypes of modern hip hop music, “Johnny is Dead” instead shows him taking an introspective look at his position as a rap pioneer, and re-assuring himself that he still has a lot to do in the rap game, despite its many changes since “Amplified”.  Tip flows smoothly through this beat, and like “Johnny Died”, sings the hook (which I really liked).  In short, this was a great way to open the album.

 

2. WON’T TRADE –  British producer Mark Ronson takes over musical duties from Q-Tip for the first and last time with this track, The instrumental is fantastic (with its heavy drums, lively piano chords and a cleverly-used female vocal sample), and Tip’s lyrics navigate themselves nicely throughout it.  Excellent track, if I may say so.

 

3. GETTIN’ UP – The first single released for the album – and one with a decent music video to match it. Q-Tip’s groovy instrumental, which samples the ecstatic R&B song “You and I” from 1970s group Black Ivory, is so pleasant that it instantly places you in a cheerful vibe the second the pianos come in.  Over this beat, Q-Tip reminds his ‘significant other’ that despite the hustle and bustle of his life as a musician, he still wants to spend the rest of his life with her. Combined with a catchy-as-hell chorus, “Gettin’ Up” turns out to be one of the happiest, most upbeat rap songs you’ll ever hear. And yes, I adore this song! I adore it so much that I would LOVE to have it played during my eventual hip-hop themed wedding in the not-too-distant future. You read it first, ladies and gents! I want the fucking DJ to play “Gettin’ Up” at my hip-hop themed wedding during the first dance! Fuck all that “From this Moment On” bullshit! And if my eventual bride at my eventual wedding in the not-too-distant future disagrees with me…….well……ummmm…..uhhhh…..hmmmm. Yeeeeeeah. Where was I?

 

4. OFFICIAL –  This is the first song from “Open” and “Live at the Renaissance” that remains unchanged, save for a short bass guitar solo that concludes the track.  And I must confess: I LOVE THIS FUCKING SONG! Seriously, I do! It’s undoubtedly one of Q-Tip’s best songs – PERIOD! Seriously, It is! Once that groovy instrumental sinks into your brain, the DJ scratches come on and Q-Tip’s voice croons – and then raps – on the beat, I guarantee you’ll be nodding your head in enjoyment, with a huge smile on your face.  Seriously, you will.

 

5. YOU –  On this track, Kamaal comes to terms with his failed relationship with a girl he once loved.  Using a slow-paced vocal delivery and short, poem-like bars, he informs her of the insecurities he felt during the relationship, how her mood and mannerisms suddenly changed for the worst , and most importantly, that he’s partly to blame for the relationship not working out in the first place. Sure, Q-Tip comes across arrogant and angry at times (and why shouldn’t he be), but he’s also thoughtful of the circumstances that led to the break-up, and willing to accept the fact that despite the possibility of reconciliation, it’s probably best for him to move on.  A track that literally anyone who’s been in love can relate to, “You” is simply BRILLIANT!

 

6. WE FIGHT/WE LOVE (FEAT. RAPHAEL SAADIQ) – And now we have the first guest star in “The Renaissance” – R&B legend, former member of Tony! Toni! Tone! (REMEMBER THAT GROUP?!!!) and occasional collaborator with Q-Tip – Raphael Saadiq. The lyrics by Q-Tip paint two portraits of double standards in modern society – the first involving a hard-working woman whose boyfriend doesn’t support her life goals, and the second about a young man who gives up a college education, just so he can join the military.  The track itself hearkens back to the latter years of A Tribe Called Quest thanks to its smooth, laid-back instrumental and soulful chorus by Raphael Saadiq. Great track overall, and one which has me eagerly anticipating another collaboration between Kamaal and Raphael in the future.

 

7. MANWOMANBOOGIE (FEAT. AMANDA DIVA) – The second guest star is….. no, your eyes are not deceiving you….. Amanda Diva: DJ, radio host, rapper/singer/songwriter/cutie (ahem)/culture critic and a regular presence in a number of pop-culture themed VH1 shows (like the currently-airing, and still hilarious, “Best Week Ever”). On the Outkast-esque titled “Manwomanboogie”, Amanda provides a jazzy chorus that may not stand out as much upon your first listen, but grows on you the more you listen to the track. As for Q-Tip, he adopts a slightly-irregular rhyming pattern, where he pauses in-between lines to allow the track’s drums and funky guitar riffs (which sound really fucking good) to breathe. The lyrics themselves speak on the relation between men and women, and how ultimately, they really need each other. Nice track, although you can’t help but think of Amanda Diva cracking a joke on VH1 when you hear her sing.

 

8. MOVE/ RENAISSANCE RAP – A two-in-one package that contains the second single off the album (“Move”) – which samples the Jackson 5 disco hit “Dancing Machine” (which is funny since its music video is a visual homage to Michael Jackson’s classic “Rock with You” video) – and “Renaissance Rap” whose music video, for some reason, was released online.  Both tracks produced by the late, great J Dilla, “Move” is the second club/dance song on the album (the first being “Gettin’ Up”), but one that evokes the “Soul Train”-esque feel of “Dancing Machine”, while “Renaissance Rap” is a head-nodding journey through the microphone skills and lyrical dexterity of Q-Tip.  While I like the bouncy, spacey-like beat that J Dilla brings to the table with “Move”, it’s the mellow, mid-tempo beat of “Renaissance Rap”  that truly won me over. “Renaissance Rap” kicks fucking ass, and Q-Tip rips shit from start to finish. It’s both a hidden track on the “Move” track and a hidden gem in the entire album.

 

9. DANCE ON GLASS – Every time I listen to this song, I envision myself in the middle of an audience at a live Q-Tip concert performance. It starts off with an intro sung by Tip, followed by an acapella verse.  The audience’s (and mine, since in my vision, I’m in the fucking crowd) is rewarded when the beat finally kicks in. And EVERYBODY goes wild – including me! The mid-tempo instrumental – which is one of my favourites on the album, literally sounds like one that will have an entire crowd wildin’ out (not like the Nick Cannon TV show) to the beat. This track is definitely one for the hip hop heads, and for those who envision themselves watching random hip hop performances at imaginary venues (like yours truly).

 

10. LIFE IS BETTER (FEAT. NORAH JONES) – Let me begin by saying that of all the songs on this album, “Life is Better” is my absolute favourite. From the moment the keyboards start playing a uptempo, dream-like melody, the drums and guitars kick in, and jazz singer-songwriter Norah Jones sings on the track, I always find myself mentally in a state of hip-hop nirvana! Produced by J Dilla, “Life is Better” is a passionate tribute to the musical genre of hip hop and the icons who paved the way.  Q-Tip begins his verse with a metaphorical description of the genesis of hip hop (he even mentions the legendary DJ Kool Herc in this section) and then goes into a lengthy, and VERY IMPRESSIVE, lyrical “playlist” where he name-drops a SLEW of influential MCs from past and present.  And very affectionately, he ends that verse by mentioning not once, but TWICE, J Dilla’s name. As a whole, “Life is Better” is so phenomenal, so peaceful and so heartfelt on so many levels, that every time I hear it, it makes me feel even more glad that I’m still alive. Yeah, it’s that great!

 

11. BELIEVE (FEAT. D’ANGELO) –  What was originally a light, upbeat celebration of love (then called “I Believe”)  on both the “Open” and “Live at the Renaissance” albums (complete with funky guitar riffs, nice soul-clapping and a hook provided by D’ Angelo), is re-recorded completely into a relaxing, soulful and motivational look of the power of belief.  Tip waxes philosophically over belief in oneself, in others, in faith, and even in what you choose to believe in, while D’Angelo sings the same hook from before, but in a mellow yet smooth manner. While the song as a whole is great, it’s the keyboard section (which opens the song) that stands out.  This keyboard section is so calm, so meditative,  and – dare I say it – so hopeful that I can’t help but feel warm and uplifted every time I hear it. It is such a FANTASTIC intro that even the Compton-born MC Kendrick Lamar (arguably one of the best West Coast rappers EVER, in case you were wondering) performed an interlude (entitled “I Am”) on a looped version of that same intro on his third mixtape, Kendrick Lamar EP.  I put a link to that song underneath this paragraph, which I recommend you check out.  And yes, it’s really short (it’s an interlude, people), but thanks to Kendrick’s lyricism, and the keyboards from “Believe” to support him, it’s nothing short of incredible.

 

 

 

 

12. SHAKA – And at last, “The Renaissance” comes to a close with an interpolation of a track entitled “Where Do You Go?” which, like “Johnny Died” and “I Believe”, appeared on “Open” and “Live at the Renaissance”. The original track had Kamaal pondering on one of man’s eternal questions: where exactly do we go when we die? The smooth, jazzy, live-instrumental beat of “Where Do You Go?” is re-recorded into a more hip-hop styled, mid-tempo instrumental, with some nice snare drums and guitars added to the mix. On “Shaka”, Q-Tip expands on the death theme of “Where Do You Go?” and talks about the loved ones who passed away during his life, like his brother Shaka, his father, and even J Dilla). He also expresses his appreciation for the times they spent together, and even assures his deceased loved ones that he will see them again in the next life. “Shaka” is the album’s most emotionally complex song, and despite its subject matter, it’s far from dismal and dreary. It’s celebratory in terms of reminding you to cherish the time spent with your loved ones, melancholy in knowing that they can be taken away from you easily due to death (and vice versa), and hopeful in the sense that death, depending on your belief, is only the beginning to a new life. The song’s instrumental beautifully accentuates this, with an airy, ethereal beat which sounds like (at least to me) the aural equivalent of one’s spirit leaving his/her dead body and ascending to a higher plane of existence. It is a powerful, soul-stirring and emotional song that I will honestly admit gets me an itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiney, tinsy-winsy, tad bit teary-eyed every time I listen to it.  And it’s, by far, the perfect way to end “The Renaissance”.

 

 

BONUS TRACKS TO ADD TO YOUR PLAYLIST:

(DIGITAL BONUS TRACK) GOOD THANG –  This song, with its live instrumentation and groovy lyrics, literally sounds like a leftover track from “Kamaal/the Abstract”. Personally, I would have preferred that it was included on that album, but as a bonus track for “The Renaissance”, and a GREAT one at that, it doesn’t feel that much out of place.

 

(UK & CIRCUIT CITY BONUS TRACK) FEVA –  It’s not as “hot” as the title implies, but the boom-bap drums and infectious sci-fi-like sound effect that plays along J Dilla’s instrumental will make your head nod. On this remixed and extended version of a track of the same name from “Live at the Renaissance”, Q-Tip addresses the negative views and misunderstanding of hip hop music that many people harbor. The song itself may fly past the heads of first-time Q-Tip listeners, but for die-hard fans, it’s worth checking out.

 

(NOT EXACTLY A BONUS TRACK, BUT STILL WORTH CHECKING OUT) LIGHTWORKS (FEAT. TALIB KWELI & BUSTA RHYMES) – J Dilla fans should be knowledgeable of this song already. “Lightworks” was originally an instrumental piece off the critically-acclaimed “Donuts”, J Dilla’s final album before his untimely passing in 2006. One year later, it was included on veteran MC Busta Rhymes’ mixtape/tribute to J Dilla entitled “Dilligence” where he rapped alongside Q-Tip and fellow New York rapper Talib Kweli. Somehow, that song found its way on the B-side of Q-Tip’s promotional EP for the “Gettin’ Up” single (which I have, in case you were wondering). On “Lightworks”, Talib and Q-Tip successfully manage to keep up with Dilla’s unorthodox and spacey beat which samples, quite creatively, a jingle of the same name composed by late composer Raymond Scott. Busta Rhymes, however, steals the show with a KICK-ASS (and I stress the word “ass”) verse full of wild, outrageous and downright hilarious punchlines that WILL have you saying: “He didn’t just fucking say that!” If Dilla’s beat for “Lightworks” alone doesn’t make you go apeshit, then Busta’s verse surely will.

 

GETTIN’ UP (DJ SCRATCH REMIX) (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES) – Q-Tip collaborates once again with Busta on a remix to my “eventual wedding song” – oops, I mean “Gettin’ Up”. DJ Scratch, who produced Busta’s banger of a hit single “New York Shit” for his 2006 album “The Big Bang” (you know – the one with that “Touch It” song), delivers a simple, jazzy, piano-driven beat for Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes to have fun with. Busta’s hook is uninspired as fuck, but his verse is really good and Tip’s verses (lifted from the original song) fits nicely on this beat. Far from a great remix, but a decent one nonetheless.

 

WE FIGHT/WE LOVE REMIX (FEAT. KANYE WEST & CONSEQUENCE)  – Set to a lush instrumental that lifts the drums from the original “We Fight/We Love” and makes greater use of the music from The Jacksons’ “This Place Hotel” (a.k.a. “Heartbreak Hotel”) than the original beat did, Consequence (a.k.a. Q-Tip’s cousin and star of VH1’s reality show “Love and Hip Hop”) and Kanye Kardashian – oops, I meant Kanye West spit respective verses about their moving on from drama-filled relationships, while Q-Tip gets to keep his first verse from the original version. Long-ass sentence aside, this was a remix that was just as good, if not better, than the original. And if you’re a collector of hip-hop instrumentals (like yours truly), the beat for this remix is a worthy addition.

 

RENAISSANCE RAP REMIX (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES, RAEKWON & LIL WAYNE) –  Using the same J Dilla beat from the original “Renaissance Rap”, Q-Tip brings along Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon and New Orleans’ own Lil Wayne to rip even more shit than he did on the original song. Tip gets to spit one of his verses from the original version while he leaves the rest of the instrumental for his guests to do damage with. And holy shit, do they do that! Busta and Raekwon spit their verses with the respective rapid-fire ferocity and rugged griminess  that made them East Coast hip-hop legends, while Lil Wayne delivers his bars with the same wit and braggadocio that made “Tha Carter III” a critical and commercial success. Hands down, the BEST of all the bonus tracks mentioned on this list.

 

 

MY THOUGHTS: To me, great albums (regardless of genre) are the ones that resonate with you for days, months and even years after you’ve first heard them. When Track 1 begins, you remember where you where, what you were doing and even how you felt when you heard it for the first time. And this sense of nostalgia continues with subsequent listens, where certain lyrics make more sense to you, musical extracts from the album start repeating themselves in your sub-conscious, and certain emotions evoked by certain songs re-surface whenever they’re played. “The Renaissance” is one of those albums that accomplishes all these things. It came out at a time when, seemingly, the whole world (myself included) were spazzing out off the near-excellence of Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III”. And even though I honestly enjoyed that album (which still ranks among my favourites), it still doesn’t resonate with me in the way “The Renaissance” did. On a personal level, this album re-defined my outlook on life, re-shaped the way I look at myself as an individual and re-affirmed my passion for hip hop music, And believe me, not that many albums – hip hop in particular – have accomplished this.  Of course, this is all my point of view. You may look at it as simply the culmination of an artiste’s passion for music and his refusal to short-change or undermine his talent for commercial recognition, but to me, it means so much more. While ATCQ’s third LP “Midnight Marauders” remains my No. 1 favourite album of all time (and my favourite of the 1990s), Q-Tip’s “The Renaissance” deserves second place.  It’s one of the best hip hop albums ever recorded and the best post-ATCQ album so far. And it’s the best album of the past decade. Yeah, I fucking said it! It’s the BEST ALBUM OF THE PAST DECADE!

 

SHOULD I LISTEN TO THIS ALBUM? Oh, come on. HELL YES! Like your life depended on it! Buy it, pre-order it on Amazon, listen to it off a YouTube playlist – I don’t care! You NEED to listen to this album as soon as possible. Also, try to acquire the bonus tracks that I mentioned, as well as “Kamaal/The Abstract” since it’s the PERFECT companion piece to “The Renaissance”. If you still desire more pre-“The Renaissance” material, I suggest you check out the “Open” and “Live at the Renaissance” albums, even though, like I mentioned earlier, they practically contain the same tracks. Q-Tip will thank you and I will thank you.

 

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST FOREVER. ’93 ‘TIL INFINITY.

 

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars (“Listen to this album before you die”)

 

– Matthew