Saturday, December 24, 2011

Soul Time

Everybody seems to agree that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are the premier retro-soul outfit of our time. Soul Time is their fifth studio record, though it's actually just a compilation of previously recorded studio material. Honest, I haven't listened to the whole thing yet, but there's a reason for that. I'm starting to feel a little bored with Jones and her mates. They've long perfected replicating a sound that was already perfect and that's no easy feat. I just wish they would start veering from the script a little.

However, because Shuggie Otis's Inspiration Information was one of the first album obsessions of mine (I wore it out on cassette in high school), I was excited to see this album-closing cover on Soul Time. (If I had been more up on this, I would have heard it originally on Dark Was the Night.) The backup vocals are a big part of this song in the verses, and Jones' version does more with them. Compare and contrast, if you will.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I've always been a big Roots crew fan. Black Thought is an unbelievable lyricist, one of the most consistent out there. ?uestlove seems to be everywhere at once and still he rarely disappoints. Only complaint I've had in recent years is that their live shows have suffered, in my opinion. I first saw them in 2002 at the Stone Pony and they rocked the crowd. I saw them again in 2007 and it seemed like they were narrowing their setlist to appease mostly college frat-boys. Why else cut out most of the new material from Game Theory and instead do a gimmicky cover of Dylan's "Masters of War"?

Anyway, I like the direction the Roots have gone in the last few years. How I Got Over, the score for Night Catches Us, and now undun. Feels like they have settled into a mood and message for their albums that fits them perfectly. In the last few years, the Roots have fixated on the stories of young people either overcoming or drowning in repressive, urban blight. undun narrows the focus even more to tell the story of one fictional character over the course of the entire song cycle. It is a sophisticated and subtle album. And it's pretty rare for any concept album to be both sophisticated and subtle.

Gotta mention, though: man, do these last two albums have the ghost of Curtis Mayfield all over them or what? Curtis told these same stories. Others did too, obviously. Marvin, Stevie, the list goes on. But what set Curtis apart was his reliance (almost to a fault) on narrative storytelling. More, while he was singing about drug addiction, poverty, and racism, he was pretty much rapping: each verse had such simple end-rhymed couplets. The Roots follow in a proud tradition.

And, while I'm doing the whole comparison thing (dangerous, I know), you can't see these beautiful videos from undun and not think back to Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of Black families in Watts. If you haven't seen it, check it now!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Watch the Throne: Chicago

Been thinking a few days about posting my thoughts since I saw the Watch the Throne tour in Chicago last Thursday. I've read a few reviews already, so I think I'll fill in some gaps I haven't seen anybody else write about yet.

First of all, it's amazing how Jay-Z and Kanye can keep 24,000 people on their feet for three hours. They are at the top of their game when it comes to showmanship and skill as performers and entertainers. Kanye was literally sprinting from one side of the stage to the other while holding down entire verses of "Touch the Sky". They chose a set list the way a DJ spins records for a dance floor. There were crescendoes in energy, mini-sets of songs that shared common themes, and the few lulls in momentum were carefully planned and spaced throughout the night.

Regarding energy and performance style, Jay-Z came across as more relaxed than Kanye. The audience was so engaged, though, that Jay's reserved style brought the fans into a more intimate space to appreciate what he was doing lyrically. During some of his more intricate and rhythmically complex verses, he would quiet down and just stand still during the delivery. The crowd went just as wild for those little bursts of words as they did for the Kanye sprints! That's how finely attuned the audience was to what he was doing on the mic.

I also liked how they chose to intersperse tracks from Throne with their older hits. Got me and my friends thinking about how a theme for the album, the tour, even their careers, is how power is used (or misused) by those who have risen to the top of the game. Most of the songs from Throne have to do with the interdependency of success and responsibility. Of course, the exorbitance displayed on "Otis" is cartoonish and (unfortunately) probably not satire. But "No Church in the Wild" is about the misuse of religion; "New Day" grapples with Black fatherhood; "Made in America" recalls the legacy of Black political leaders; and "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Murder to Excellence" are all too real about senseless crime among the urban poor.

I'm also thinking about the use (misuse?) of power as it pertains to the now-infamous marathon of "Paris" performances that has ended each night of the tour. When we saw them they played it eight times straight. Which pretty much proves Jay-Z and Kanye West are past the point of trying to please. They have been so good for so long at giving fans what they want, that they are now defining what the audience wants, instead of catering to it. I was wondering if the 45 minute block of "Paris" was supposed to be some kind of Kaufman-esque, postmodern comedic stunt, in which the comedians make the audience so confused that they forget what is supposed to be funny. If it was, I guess you could call that a misuse of power. But I don't actually think that was it at all. I think the majority of people in the arena genuinely loved watching Jay-Z and Kanye ham it up on that track. If only they had gone for nine.

Friday, December 2, 2011