ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): A$AP ROCKY – “TESTING” | 2018-06-10

Yeezy season is not only approaching, but is in full-floating production and execution mode at this very minute, with a one-two-three G.O.O.D. Music-projects released Friday after Friday across May and June, packaged and delivered to us all mere mortals in form of excellent 7-track albums by Pusha T (Daytona), Kanye West (ye), as well as the most recent Ye and Kid Cudi’s hip-hop duo Kids See Ghosts eponymous debut record. In parallel, a mildly progressively heating Southern European late Spring period brought yours truly to the mighty international (but actually very British) fashion show that is Barcelona’s Primavera Sound. Whilst live music was nonchalantly put to the side in favour of Instagram selfies and enhanced drug use, I did manage to find some of the hidden stages and check out astonishing and enthralling live performances by artists such as the garçon Tyler, The Creator, baroque rock and roll monsieurs Arctic Monkeys, mega cat Thundercat, dangerously honest hood minstrel Vince Staples, and Swiss black metal primordial chanters Zeal & Ardor. Most importantly though, and way more prominently tied to the present music review piece, I got to catch the closing headline bill set by New York rapper A$AP Rocky, which followed the release of the A$AP Mob member’s third studio album Testing mere days before on 25th May. These two events combined made for quite the relevant alignment between Lord Flacko’s artistic manifestation and myself, so much so that it officially triggered an ARM alert and so here we are taking a closer scrutiny of this star-studded and featured record.

Quite similarly to what the preconditions were going into ARM’s recent effort on J. Cole’s last LP KOD, there is a little PSA/full disclosure statement that needs to be outlined, so as to better contextualise the present review of Testing: I secretly never liked A$AP Rocky and everything he represented, and almost never listened to anything coming from him nor A$AP Mob to be completely honest. After all, I come from a completely different background involving primarily alternative rock, hardcore, and punk, so I guess this mustn’t come as an unbelievable surprise. With that being said, as trap and cloud rap started to steal rock’s scene, both at live gigs’ mosh pits and in the charts, I too inevitably got caught in the current mainstream hip-hop fever, up to a point where now some of my favourite artists are prima donna MCs. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s delve into Rocky’s new studio LP, released under RCA Records and composed of 15 tracks, for almost 55 minutes of running time made of freshly baked new material. For Testing, the Harlem rapper-producer lined up a wealth of collaborators and contributors, ranging from the aforementioned Kid Cudi to Frank Ocean, to Skepta and Snoop Dogg. But spoiler alert, no one truly ever managed to take the full spotlight away from Rocky on this one, as he finds himself venturing into vastly experimental fields of industrial-trap hip-hop, while at the same time distilling pure moments of superior melodic craft.

The otherworldly and subterranean bass frequencies accompanying savage and fiery opener “Distorted Records” are something very rarely heard on mainstream projects, yet A$AP Rocky manages to pull it off in a very slick and contextual manner, whereby the inherent nature of the cut couldn’t be better epitomised by the literal name of the song. Such an opening high-note is well maintained throughout track number two, the album’s lead single “A$AP Forever“, sampling Moby’s pop crown jewel “Porcelain” and pairing a tastily belligerent flow with aspirational and tongue-in-cheeky bars (“I put A$AP on my tat / I put New York on the map / I put the gang on the flames / They gon’ remember the name“). “Tony Tone” at number three is a definite grower that showcases one of Rocky’s standout solo performances on this project, firing an abrasive warped groove filled with hooky sections and leveraging repetitions to make its way into the listeners’ psyches. The 101 on contemporary mumble rap/trap that follows, “Fukk Sleep”, enlisting the help of an extinguished FKA twigs, fails to leave a proper permanent mark, both as a standalone cut and as when placed in context with the full album, ending up being a pretty forgettable track overall. Second single “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” featuring British grime don Skepta closes the first third of Testing with what seems like a fairly safe choice, both collaboration-wise and with respect to greater melody and harmonic textures, wrapping up an album section that promised so much after its first two teasers but that actually faded a little bit in quality as the tracklist progressed.

Sadly, “CALLDROPS” at number six does nothing in the way of uplifting the downward momentum of the album at this point, boldly continuing a pretty irritating trend pertaining to mainstream hip-hop records consisting of randomly including (real or staged) phone voicemail messages and turning them into actual tracks through a dubious genius spark of inspiration, not even remotely tied to the growing instinct of strategically increasing the number of album tracks so as to leverage modern streaming payout rate counts by dominant services like Spotify and Apple Music. Fortunately, the excellently produced and experimental “Buck Shots” delivers one of the highest and most fortunate moments on the album, driven by addictive and fun lyrical motifs (“Homeboy you ain’t know (ends where they buck shot) / Had a bitch suckin’ on a lollipop at the bus stop / Green Glock, red Glock (buck shot) / They ain’t really ready for me when I— (buck shot) / They ain’t really ready for me when I— (buck shot)”) as well as fitting beat switches and in-composition transitions that make the song go by in two shakes. The following set of three tracks (“Guns N Butter”, “Brotha Man”, and “OG Beeper”) ascribe some confusion and surging anonymity to the record’s mid-section that not even some A-list credited and uncredited collabs (Juicy J, French Montana, Snoop Dogg) are able to salvage, only for said clumsiness to be overcome by another fantastic cut in the form of the beautifully harmonised and sung ballad  “Kids Turned Out Fine” (admittedly Rocky’s favourite song off Testing).

The latter record also doubles as introduction to the last third of the album, and boy oh boy, was this worth the wait as well as a couple bumpy and subpar listens on the way of getting here. Every single track wrapping up this project in its latter section is a spectacular, handsomely crafted trap gem in its own peculiar way: from the dreamy, cloudy, chorus-y, and gigantically bigger-than-life “Hun43rd” (where I’ll go as far to say it might be one of the best songs this rap genre has seen in recent memory), to the introspective and fully confessional sentimental opus “Changes” (look out for the staggering beat/mood switch at 2:55 on this one), passing through the social critique and cathartic, punching lyricism of “Black Tux, White Collar” (“I say motherfuck you ni**as for the hate that you investin’ (yeah) / Fuck police cause he probably wanna arrest me (check it out) / Fuck the prison system, this injustice was ingestive (slatt) / All black tuxes, get the white collars jealous like / All my role models either dead or in the pen’ / I had no choice to be the ni**a that I am / Stuck with bros, stuck the code (yeah) / ‘Cede emblem on the fender (yeah)“).

The Frank Ocean-featured “Purity” acts as emblematic curtains close to the 15-track Testing in form of a gently guitar-picking lick leading A$AP Rocky’s growling distorted vocals, before making way to some of the best rapping and flow Ocean has shown in a while, taking up much of the song’s compositional and delivery substance pushing Rocky (and rap goddess Lauryn Hill, who’s featured in multiple spots on this cut) to taking care of vocal harmonising in the background. To be fair, such laid-back, supporting role of Rocky is not representative of the best material found on this album, whereby overall, the sensation is rather that the tracks stuffed with notable third-party features overshadowing Lord Flacko end up leaving something to be wished for (see particularly “Fukk Sleep”, “Praise the Lord [Da Shine]”, and “Brotha Man”). Contrarily, this album leaves its strongest marks and is at its most convincing precisely in those moments and situations where the perception is that A$AP Rocky is fully and wholly himself, for good and bad, in all his flaws, excellences, and vulnerabilities (case in point, the visceral “Distorted Records”, or the gorgeous “Buck Shots”, or again the album’s best four minutes with “Hun43rd”). J. Cole has recently demonstrated how even huge mainstream rappers can put out a whole record without a single external collab – albeit with mixed success – and now that I’m thinking about it, by naming this album Testing Rocky perhaps wasn’t actually hinting at its sonic and thematic experimentation, but he rather wanted us listeners to test out his individual artistic craftsmanship finding its qualitative peak, at the same time creating a legitimate precedent for what could grow into an actual, truly solo LP as its next big follow-up.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

A$AP ROCKY

“TESTING”

2018, RCA Records

http://www.asapmob.com

asap-rocky-testing

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HERE COME(S) THE G.I.R.L | 2017-09-16

EMS started with absolutely no pre-conceived notion of editorial structure or journalistic discipline in mind, and to be fair if you’ve made it thus fair into its lifecycle I’m pretty much assuming you were able to realize this for yourself pretty quickly. Throughout about two years and a half the site has touched upon a wide variety of themes and topics, ranging from the more obvious and critically acclaimed “Alex Reviews Music”-column, to scattered and rather isolated notes and commentary on TV series, books, and even fashion brands. I guess the reason why I’m beginning this one with such a disclaimer is to try to legitimise my current inability to choose a single key topic to write about this time round, conflicting in conjunction with my lack of time and resources to split a list of different themes across multiple blogpost, as well as my very immediate need to bookmark what and why I want to say to this very specific timestamp. In fact, feel free to scratch the first excuse – as one can and ought to always find the time for the life domains he/she loves –, it’s really all about the necessity to make y’all aware of a couple things, so please be cautious that said awareness construction will materialise itself in form of a miscellaneous patchwork post.

Without too much further ado, in this writing I’d like to bring your esteemed attention to Los Angeles-based – yet universally addressing – independent lifestyle brand Gentlemen in Real Life, that has just recently released its second major run of products to the general public and boy, it’s simply wonderfully crafted. Brilliantly abbreviated in the catchy acronym GIRL to highlight its gender-neutral and boundary-less fashion approach, the alternative apparel and grooming brand was founded by former letlive. vocalist and principal gentleman Jason Butler back in early 2015, and likes to present itself to the world with the following:

“We believe the traditional definition of ‘gentleman’ is outdated. To us, it’s more than a refined look, or dapper presentation. It’s a lifestyle that transcends. Being a Gentleman is about taking the extra step to do what’s right. And we offer everyone a chance to be part of it.”

“We’re a small group of creatives and artists that make things we want to see made. And we’re committed to the fine details that we know they deserve.”

“The only way to truly endorse something is to create it yourself. That’s why we’ve made sure all of our products are designed, sourced, and manufactured in the USA.”

There’s really nothing else that should be added in my opinion to either spark or increase interest and concern for such valuable and especially honourable endeavour, which not only fully adopts and embodies the ethically/socially conscious values listed in the descriptions above, but also creates an organic and sustainable network of collaborations around their hometown of Los Angeles, CA, as documented on their extremely visually appealing Instagram page. Said manufacturing, productive, and marketing collaborators-ecosystem includes, for instance, the gorgeous graphic design brand Hate Street (H8ST) – which took care of the majority of the designs and visuals for GIRL’s latest drop – and the group of talented audiovisual producers that go by the name of Standard Issue Films, which enabled a series of promotional clips that were employed by Jason and GIRL when approaching their recent launch date on 1st September.

I hope it’s needless to say that I’m obviously not getting paid or in any shape or form compensated for writing this, for this enriching appreciation I feel for the brand truly stems from my complete alignment with both the mission and the cause of GIRL, besides clearly finding tons of delight and inspiration through the actual manufactured goods themselves. Thus, I’d simply suggest you all take even a quick look at what Jason and what he calls his family are doing with their company, as I fully believe it’s the minimum one could do when confronted with such praiseworthy and universally binding values as the ones brought forwards by GIRL.

As far as I’m concerned, at the time I got to learn about the overall GIRL project, it was an immediate no brainer for me to seek out means and ways to support what Jason and his crew were crafting, and for the record I have been doing so since the company launched their first online collection back in January last year. Furthermore, it should also be said that to me all things related to GIRL got significantly amplified by Jason’s artistic and especially musical undertakings that were going on at the same time (enter primarily letlive.), which I certainly strongly felt connected to and was able to rely on multiple levels on. Speaking of which, recent warmer months have brought back loads of excitement after letlive. tragically announced their break up earlier this April. Said excitement comes in form of The Fever 333, i.e. Jason’s brand new incendiary musical project kickstarted with the help of former The Chariot guitarist Stephen Harrison and impressive Night Verses drummer/digital percussionist Aric Improta.

The alternative-punk trio presented itself to the wider world via a memorable and unique unauthorised pop-up event in the parking lot of legendary drive-through landmark Randy’s Donuts on the last 4th July in Inglewood, Los Angeles. The band documented their incredible performance in a dedicated videoclip recalling the experience and explaining that the impromptu live performance was first and foremost:

“[…] an effort to demonstrate the power of assembly and protest. This particular event was in opposition to the displacement of citizens due to their race, choice of identity, or economic standing to remind ourselves that we are the largest piece of any community. Not politicians, not corporations, not the authorities, but US – the citizens. The people are what make communities successful. Before the release of any music we released specific pieces of information containing a location, a date, and then a message. In that message we called to those who wanted to see change and a reminder that it starts locally. On this day over 150 people showed up in a parking lot in Inglewood in support of an idea. That idea was to empower the people that serve as the heartbeat of their community.”

The Fever 333 has so far released two radically angry and raging standalone tracks (“We’re Coming In” and “The Hunting Season”), and have officially blossomed at their first “authorized” hometown live show that took place at The Roxy Theatre in Hollywood on 31st August, with prestigious guest appearance/endorsement of blink-182 drumming God Travis Barker as well as A-list punk producer John Feldmann, whom the band has so far worked with for the release of its first two songs. It’s still unclear what’s next for the politically-charged protest punk outfit, although judging by the way they hinted and released both information and actual material in the past, it all seems to be predominantly short-noticed and revolving around the 333-digits hook, presumably originating in their underlying credo “B3 FR33. STAND UP. RESIST.”. Watch their space as they don’t stop repeating it: There’s a fever coming…

Before pulling the curtains on this multi-dimensionally inspired, Interweb-hosted essay, yours truly would like to consume a little more of this digitised ink to address the recent release of mighty Foo Fighters‘ new LP Concrete and Gold, out just one day before this writing on 15th September. I’m fully aware that in a recent (and upcoming) sea of hugely highly-anticipated releases, with new records out (either now or fairly soon) by the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, The War on Drugs, The Killers, J. Roddy Walston & The Business, Stereophonics, and many more, there’s no way I could truly pay respect to any of those if not through a dedicated ARM-instalment (although nor am I promising this will actually materialise). Yet, very similarly to the aforementioned The Fever 333, I do like to break the rules and therefore allow myself the freedom of a couple paragraphs discussing the Foos’ recent massive album, trying to frame this discussing from a slightly different standpoint than regular ARMs so as to maintain a cautionary “apples-to-oranges” comparison basis.

The context surrounding the release of Foo Fighters’ ninth studio album contains in itself a number of fascinating insights, from the rather unconventional record producer’s choice (the bird and the bee‘s Greg Kurstin), passing through the addition of a sixth permanent group member in long-time touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee, to the juicy line-up of stellar fellow musicians who guest on the album, including Paul McCartney, Justin Timberlake, and Boyz II Men member Shawn Stockman. There is of course a fundamental, and arguably more important, musical layer to the whole aspect as well, with almost 50 minutes of brand new recorded running time spread across 11 different songs. Furthermore, one could also have noticed an hilarious and deeply informative radio interview touching upon a wide variety of topics with frontman Dave Grohl hosted by none other than Metallica’s iconic drummer Lars Ulrich on his Beats 1’s show It’s Electric!.

Yet, in spite (or precisely because of) all of the above highly intriguing and valid starting points for a genuine conversation on the Foos’ new album, what I’d like to stress out is an unbelievably fun, diverse, and effective promotional stunt utilized by the band. What I’m referring to is a promo video published in conjunction to the album release that tells the story of how Concrete and Gold was made in all its nuances, with more than worthy behind-the-scenes anecdotes and fun facts. By packaging a great amount of information relating to a process that lasted over multiple years in form of a 6-minute cartoonish, brilliantly animated clip, the Foo Fighters not only produced a promotional item that is quite unique and characteristic (especially for a mainstream act), but by processing the highest consumed format of digital consumption (video) they also managed to squeeze a great deal of valuable insights regarding the making-of the album that I’m sure would otherwise have been done through multiple separated elements that may even have not fit that well together. Hat’s off to the Foos thus, who to be fair have always flirted with the more comical and funny end of the spectrum when creating music videos for their songs. Pick any of theirs on YouTube to prove this point. Speaking of points, this was the last one for now, I promise. But remember to always B3 FR33.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

GIRL_Logo

HI HIS NAME IS MARK | 2015-03-18

I’m sure you’re all more or less familiar with the popular Californian pop-punk band blink-182. I’m less sure on whether you’re aware of the fact that its bass player is called Mark Hoppus, is aged 43, and besides making seats vibrate he’s also a singer – sometimes producer – as well as a quite successful entrepreneur. Yes, because a part of his musical activity Mark is also the founder and owner of – surprise, surprise! – Hi My Name Is Mark (HMNIM), a company established in 2012 and self-described as: “a group of like-minded friends who are equally passionate about making great clothes, awesome art, cool objects, and unique pieces. We set out to make great things together and work with people and brands who share our aesthetic and sense of humor”.

While the label HMNIM itself was already buzzing around even before 2012 – for instance, I remember a series of iTunes podcasts with that name revolving around the music industry and various scenes hosted by Mark himself around 2006-2007 – it wasn’t until the last couple of years that the brand really established itself and definitely took off. In fact, something that’s really cool about the company is that they do not limit themselves to the selling of fine clothing pieces (some of which I’ve already purchased, they’re rad), but they’re also always coming up with great collaborations offering, amongst others, watches, visual prints, playing cards and thermos bottles. To have an idea of what it is exactly I’m referring to, just take a look at this.

The brand’s official logo, which I kindly reported for you below, is a weirdly comfortable and darky octopus kinda looking scarily at you, and since everyone – myself included – has been wondering from the beginning what it should be representing, Mark took the time to explain it on the website:

“What’s up with the octopus?  I’ve been using the octopus logo over the past few years, and throughout, people have asked, ‘What’s up with the octopus?’ It’s an easy answer. Music. Friends. Art. Travel. Adventure. Quotes from your favorite movies. The ocean. Punk rock clubs. Video games. Websites that make you laugh. Literature. Photos of good memories. London, Los Angeles, New York, and everywhere in between”.

Well, I personally think that not only this is a pretty clear explanation, but also that Mark is doing something quite unique and I gotta say I like and endorse it a lot. To have such a great amount of different artistic sources of inspiration reunited onto a single website is certainly something I haven’t find so often on the Interweb. Clearly, Mark’s been able to exploit his halfway celebrity-status to count on a decent fanbase from the beginning, but nonetheless you can really tell he believes in what he’s putting forward and this, after all, remains the main positive factor driving this project.

Probably my favourite part of the brand is its blog, which includes regular visual updates, audio files, and a re-launched HMNIM podcasts series, that so far has hosted guest appearances who go by the names of Alex Gaskarth and Jack Barakat of All Time Low and Tom DeLonge’s new replacement in blink-182 Matt Skiba (by the way, I suggest you take a listen to that specific episode if you need some calm after the storm of their recent line-up controversy). It’s precisely the podcasts that make me really happy, mainly because I think Mark is extremely brilliant at hosting guests from the art world in general (incidentally, he also had his own TV talk show on Fuse called “Hoppus on Music” from 2010 to 2012, just to show people he’s also good at doing it in front of a camera, certainly not to be taken for granted for a punk-rock bassist), but also because the topics handled during them are really interesting. And he’s got an irresistible laugh: everytime he laughs I just go along, I can’t avoid doing it, and it’s pretty fun, you should check it out.

Yet, HMNIM is not only Mark Hoppus, there are a number of additional great personalities involved in the project, of whom you can all find out more directly on each artist’s personal bio on their website. So, don’t get fooled or somehow deceived by the company’s name: his name is certainly Mark, but he’s just one brick in a wall of inspiring artistic content made available to everyone thanks to great dedication, exciting collaborations, and fine production amongst a group of friends. What more could we allow ourselves asking for?

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

HMNIM