The Quarterly Report: The Summer's Best Albums
Got them sipping on that I could fuck with him juice
This hasn't been a great three months for albums. There hasn't been anything much worth obsessing over, and a lot of the great work that's surfaced lately (Lily Allen, Lupe Fiasco, Johnny Cash, Rhymefest, TV on the Radio) wasn't commercially available during the April-to-June window I'm working with here. Since Fishscale and King, commercial rap albums have gone into creative hibernation, and virtually everything we've heard lately has been on some depressingly shitty and borderline insulting singles-plus-filler nonsense. If I were the type of person who voted for reissues, the Jade Tree reanimations of Avail's Dixie, 4 A.M. Friday, and Over the James would be at numbers 1, 2, and 4 respectively. But the last three months have still yielded at least ten albums worth your money; it's just taken a little more digging.
1. Lil Wayne & DJ Drama: Dedication 2. About a month ago, the big discussion-point over at the XXL blogs was whether T.I., Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne were the new Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z. It's a ridiculous question; comparing both sets of guys is like comparing Stella Artois to Slurpees. Still, it's striking to see another group of three guys who move in interlocking circles absolutely running shit and putting out consistently great records. But T.I. and Jeezy aren't great rappers per se. King and Thug Motivation are both great works of engineering, the producers finding the right context for these guys' voices, using orchestral fanfares and enormous drums and blaring synths to turn the rappers into towering monoliths. The only one of the Southern guys that can actually hang with the old New York guard as a rapper is Wayne, and so he has to use a different methodology in putting together records. The production shouldn't camouflage his weaknesses and fill in the blanks; it should just stay the fuck out of his way. I'm not generally predisposed to raving about mixtapes; it's about the only excuse I have for leaving We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2 off my Pazz & Jop ballot. But Wayne is a great enough rapper that one of his mixtapes runs a pretty good chance of being as great as his albums, especially when you factor Drama's impeccable beat-selection into things. And he's just a monster here, tossing around liquid non-sequiturs ("Weezy F. Baby, the motherfucking Carter / Got bitches on my stick but my name ain't Harry Potter") and diamond-hard snarls ("I eat rappers and go in my yard and bury they bones") like it's the easiest thing in the world. He's on such a ridiculous roll these days that he can just sit back on the beat and keep batting around ridiculous boasts like a cat with a ball of yarn and he'll still consistently be the best rapper working, so it's just thrilling and deeply gratifying to hear him unleash the most righteous and forceful post-Katrina diatribe I've yet heard in "Georgia Bush": "Then they telling y'all lies on the news / The white people lying like everything's cool / But I know people who died in that pool / I know people who died in them schools." It's amazing how this guy just keeps getting better. Right now, he has no ceiling. If the new Nas album turns out to be better than Tha Carter III, I'll be shocked.
Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Lil Wayne & DJ Drama's Dedication
Voice review: Keith Harris on Lil Wayne's 500 Degreez
Voice blog: Status Ain't Hood interviews Lil Wayne
2. The Coup: Pick a Bigger Weapon. If more lefty art was this human and alive and purposeful, then maybe this country wouldn't be in such a shitty state right now. If more indie-rap had this many hooks and this much personality, then maybe I wouldn't look like such a crack-rap booster. I've made this point a few times now, but Boots Riley has found a way to integrate all his anti-corporate/anti-government rage into joyous music that keeps everyday life in the foreground. He talks about the Iraq war and the welfare state, but he also talks about fucking and how awesome he is, and so all the anger and frustration resonates more because it's coming from a beleaguered everyman instead of a slogan-spouting walking billboard. And just as important, the music is thick and lush and warm and funky, bits of Prince and Roger Troutman and Ant Banks and Devin the Dude bouncing around in its squelchy bump. It's summer music, and summer music is all I want to hear these days.
Download: "My Favorite Mutiny"
Download: "We Are the Ones"
Voice review: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on the Coup's Pick a Bigger Weapon
Voice review: Frank Kogan on the Coup's Party Music
Voice blog: Status Ain't Hood on the Coup at Southpaw
3. Brightblack Morning Light: s/t. This album is split into ten tracks, but it plays as one long, meandering shimmery psychedelic blissed-out opium-den groove. Everything is smooth and unhurried, and the fluttering guitars and wavering organs and restrained drums and heavily processed vocals sound like the steam that comes off asphalt on hot days and makes cars look all hazy and undefined. Brightblack reminds me a bit of Black Mountain; both of them are taking tired-ass classic-rock signifiers and stretching them out, turning them into anchorless narcotic gospel. But Black Mountain still wants to stomp and rage sometimes, and Brightblack is fully content to let its music float off into the air like a wisp of smoke. This is one of those albums that makes the air feel different whenever it's on, even though I couldn't tell you how any of the songs sound when I'm not actually listening to them.
Download: "Everybody Daylight"
Voice blog: Status Ain't Hood on Brightblack Morning Light at Mercury Lounge
4. Cex: Actual Fucking. Rjyan Kidwell is a friend of mine, so maybe you should take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but this is probably his best album yet. He's been dipping his toes in genres for years: pastoral IDM, dorked-out indie-rap, clanky Reznorian angst, trippy emo-folk. This is the first album he's managed to blend all that stuff together into something that feels like a cohesive whole, a rippling, brooding, thick, heavy fog of an album about self-hatred. The album is made up of patched-together jam-session work, and Rjyan makes it work because he's a powerful producer with a gift for swirling, percussive atmospheric stuff; the end result actually sounds something like TV on the Radio, weirdly enough. And maybe it's because I know him, but the lyrics all hit pretty hard, especially the one about feeling dead when you're partying, keeping going out of pure inertia. I wish he wouldn't sing in his fake Bowie voice so often, but maybe this album wouldn't work as well as it does if it wasn't at least a little bit awkward.
5. Lansing-Dreiden: The Dividing Island. Lansing-Dreiden is more a conceptual art-project than a band. At their live shows, the people in the actual band walk around in the crowd anonymous and unnoticed, while a few carefully chosen musicians actually stand onstage and play the songs. It's a neat trick, but they aren't exactly the first people to expose the artifice of pop music and use it to make vague and amorphous statements about prefabrication and manipulation. It wouldn't mean anything if the people involved didn't know how to make good pop music, but The Dividing Album is a pretty great album even if you don't know anything about the band's intentions. I don't know if I've ever heard an indie-label album with production this opulent and luxurious; it's all pillowy drums and airy synths and bitchily arch vocals and swooping Angelo Badalamenti pianos, something like Talk Talk before they started sucking or Pulp circa This is Hardcore. It's not hooky, not exactly, but it's expansive and pretty, and the jokey, winking art stuff never interferes with the sad, searching emotion. And I like how the last song turns abruptly into black metal for no reason whatsoever.
6-10. Bubba Sparxxx: The Charm; Nachtmystium: Instinct: Decay; Mr. Lif: Mo' Mega; Enslaved: Ruun, Field Mob: Light Poles and Pine Trees.