ON THEM 777 FLIGHTS WITCHA | 2018-10-26

Sometimes cross-channel influence, cognitive association, and topical inspiration can strike from the weirdest, strangest angles in life, working perhaps in a subliminally unconscious way yet yielding their initial igniting spark when one least expects it. While I’m not really here looking for interpretation or struggling for inherent meaning of what I’m about to stipulate, it’s true that to many a readers this pairing of sorts will appear rather odd, as if permeating through the meanders of algorithmically computed processes. First things first. There is a visual album by Frank Ocean called Endless, his third music project overall, that was released in August 2016 as his last commitment with Def Jam Recordings so as to ingeniously fulfil his recording contract with the Universal Music-owned hip-hip imprint, shortly before dropping his highly-anticipated and critically acclaimed official second studio LP Blonde. Overlooking for a moment the scope of the very query beyond what the hell a visual album even is in the first place in today’s creative industries, Endless was initially distributed exclusively through Apple Music as an on-demand streaming-only 45-ish-minute video, before getting the sound recording re-issue makeover earlier in April this very year. The thing is, throughout its artistic and sonic existence, Frank’s audiovisual art piece always and forever existed in the shadow of his companion major album release and, needless to say, hitherto lived a life of critical overlooking and unwilling negligence.

I’d hate to be that guy, but this wasn’t the case for yours truly, who sincerely immediately connected with the boundary-pushing flair of the project’s experimentation, and almost continuously and consistently rated it above its sister (or perhaps, mother) marquee summer drop Blonde, the latter promoted and sponsored by antiquated industry ideas and appraisal canons supposedly ascribing what kind of attributes an album ought to have in order to be even considered as such. Speaking of reviewing conventions, and calling for a need of scrutinising standards, the auditory experience of Endless clocks in at about 40 minutes and change in length and, depending on which specific rendition one might be referring to, rocks about 20 quote-unquote cuts, ranging literally from atomised skits of a handful seconds to techno-reprises of intense seven minutes. What’s very interesting about this album is that it contains a special song entitled “Sideways”, sitting idle at number thirteen on my version of the track list, glowingly melting in a gorgeous fashion between crystal acoustic gem “Slide On Me” and choir-fuelled celestial “Florida”. Also, it’s interesting and noteworthy here to point out, in light of future revelations further down the piece, how the number thirteen is often viewed as carrying bad luck connotations by many superstitious cultures the world over and, more importantly, believe it or not many commercial airlines avoid its numbered seating row onboard their planes, out of that same superstition affinity. The track was crafted by London-based electronic music artist and sound engineer Vegyn, although further production handling on the song is credited to NY-based experimental glitch artist Nolife, who allegedly worked on the track with Frank himself while he was a temporary resident of New York City’s Mercer Hotel, even though he might as well have paid the whole mortgage for what he was spendingWhat I’ll do next is providing you with the full transcription of “Sideways”‘s lyrics, as a deep courtesy of genius.com:

[Verse]
I was in all them hours in it
10K, tokin’ mid strokes
Prime prime time of my life witcha
Puttin’ prime numbers up though
On them 777 flights witcha
Take a shower with it, gotta cleanse it
Keep the safety off innit
Now we finna have a mini
Outta wedlock, God forgive it
Then forget it
‘Cause only God can forget it
All this hotel living
Might as well pay the mortgage what I’m spending
Said the dick long as a swan neck
Put some real swans in the pond then
Fell asleep in the foreign
After the free show at the Garden
Let the LED roll, deer hunter
Leave the stage, watch it from the audience
Bet we sell the bickets out next week
On me on, my bodness

[Outro]
When I’m up they gon’ hate
When I’m sideways, yeah, I set me straight
When I’m up they gon’ hate
When I’m down they gon’ celebrate
Sittin’ sideways, too sideways
Nah, it’s not too late

Bear with me as here comes my main point. So all the while relentlessly tasting and indulging in repeated heightened listening experiences of and with Endless and specifically “Sideways”, I somewhere, somehow, sensed a sensorially bridged journey onto a a Swedish internet-based service displaying real-time commercial aircraft flight information on geographical maps, named Flightradar24. This freemium software includes flight tracks, origins and destinations, flight numbers, aircraft types, positions, altitudes, headings and aerodynamic speeds on a global scale. For affluent paid users, it can also show time-lapse replays of previous tracks and historical flight data by airline, aircraft, aircraft type, area or airport. Weirdly, this web app has become one of my biggest life companions as of late, given my quasi-frequent flyer programme status, which led me to reply to pretty standard – “where are you?” – questions from acquaintances on the phone with a weighted average value answer of – “on a plane” – during the past three to six months. My point here though is that every time I listen to Endless’ thirteenth track, or conversely spend enough time on Flightradar24, I am intensely reminded of the other one object, as if connected by a dotted figurative line, respectively. Something about the transcendent epistemology of both cultural artefacts was pointing out their intrinsic correlation, beyond my grasping almost in an ontological manner.

Now, it’s probably worth spending a couple words on Flightradar24 and its life-saving servicing protocol – just mainly as a public service announcement – without which many a times my airmile consumption patterns would have turned out even more painful and dreary than what they actually were. Like that time were I was quicker than the actual airline ground crew themselves to spot the mysterious air location of the aircraft that was supposed to come pick us up from Milan Malpensa (MXP) and fly us all the way to Barcelona El Prat (BCN) on a late Sunday evening. Or, that other time at Stockholm Arlanda (ARN) airport, where the service helped me figure out how big the apparent official flight delay actually was IRL (I was once again flying to BCN that time), given the incoming airplane’s route and location (unsurprisingly, there was a delta of about one hour and a half. Oh, no, not that Delta, this delta). Or again, and this might be my favourite inclusive utilisation modality of them all, when I would sneakingly monitor the exact route and location of family and friends I was supposed to go pick up upon their arrival at their destination airport, everything logically unbeknownst to all of them. Trust me when I say that you’d be glad you’d have used Flightradar24 before leaving your house to the airport when the specific plane you’re waiting for accumulated a delay of 2+ hours at source. At this point – and I beg your pardon if this comes too late – I would also like to point out that this is not a paid promotion advertorial in any shape or form whatsoever, but rather just an earnest and sincere shout out to not only an excellent travel companion, but also a subliminal Frank Ocean reference item.

You people have to trust me that the fact that this piece comes out into the Interweb on the very immediacy of Frank’s 31st birthday (he was born on 28th October 1987) is honestly a pure alignment of the stars coincidence, or perhaps yet another symbolic semantical component in the bigger meaningful design floating between 1) an Endless audiovisual art experience, 2) a software-as-a-service platform monitoring worldwide air traffic, and 3) a grander scheme of flight journeys. However, recently something perhaps too minuscule to itemise was able to cut through the reality distortion fielded mould and hit me with a sudden illuminating epiphany. I decided to get rid of all existing preconceived notions and mental conjectures that were supporting my struggle for meaning up until that point. Suddenly, I got it all. I got the apparent reason for the metaphysical connection between “Sideways” and Flightradar24, now all of a sudden so clear and yet at the same time always so latent throughout my consumption history with the New York City-nursed composition of 1:54 minutes. While it’s extremely hard to precisely and tangibly put a finger on it, at the end of the day it all has to do with Frank being my flight companion and travelling the world with me on airplanes. At first it might deceivably seem that a single line out of “Sideways”‘s lyrics score sheet could be the key to the mystery kingdom surrounding the opacity of such an obscure symbiotic and visceral connection, however upon closer inspection, it quickly becomes clear that there is so much more to it than simply those five words.

Frank Ocean has actually always been the high-mile flight travel companion one would and should wish for (or is it Tyler Durden?), and he knew about Flightradar24 even before the Swedish folks who spun up and deployed its first source code of the beta software version knew about it. He was there ever since the free show at the Garden, when Kanye West introduced the idea of a living-breathing and upgrading album project to a puzzled and denying music business and mainstream press scene, at the time more concerned with his unbearable production delays in dropping the record and the elevated unpredictability surrounding his whole artist persona – an aspect notoriously shared with Frank Ocean himself – than the actual creative content embedded in the TLOP (w)rapper altogether. In a way, with Endless Frank followed Kanye’s advice, taking up the teachings of the grand master, in that he not only updated sonic and production elements of the original audiovisual album on the go, but effectively warped the whole nature of the artefact turning it into a CD-quality like studio album two years after its first release as a visual album. Very similarly, Flightradar24 tracks and updates flight movements on the fly across the world’s skies, no pun intended, drawing yet another parallel with the epitome of real-timeness which is the aural meditative immersion encapsulated in the minute and fifty-four seconds and the twenty-seven verses of “Sideways”, by Frank Ocean.

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

AV

Flightradar24

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ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): VARIOUS ARTISTS – “BLACK PANTHER: THE ALBUM” | 2018-02-12

After a period of over a month in which new exciting music releases were almost nowhere to be seen, perhaps understandably since most people were still wrapping up 2017 and/or getting ready for 2018, Friday 9th February came and saved the day for all of us. On said date, a wealth of both long-awaited and rather surprising releases hit Spotify’s New Music Friday shelves, offering a rich and large banquet to choose from across a wide variety of genres and styles. After sleepless nights and a lot of switching gears, my own personal choice eventually made it to a narrower clustered selection of three potential full-length studio albums to be reviewed among the ARM column. I was caught in a triple limbo between New Jersey rockers The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon’s sophomore solo record Sleepwalkers, indie-pop-psychedelia prodigies MGMT’s highly anticipated first LP in five years, Little Dark Age, and obviously, mighty Marvel’s Black Panther’s curated soundtrack album, executed by his Majesty Kendrick Lamar as well as Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith. It soon became clear to me that all the signals pointed at both the challenge and opportunity of putting under harsh scrutiny a compilation of songs from various artists about a movie I’ve yet to see, as it was a one of a kind chance that I might not have had again for a long time.

Black Panther: The Album accompanies the massive Marvel Comics feature film of the same name, and, as anticipated above, was primarily masterminded by the multi-award winning Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar (performing on nearly all songs), who hasn’t necessarily enjoyed a ton of free time from the spotlight and the mainstream since releasing his breakthrough hip-hop opera To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015. Needless to say, this writing only and exclusively pertains to the sonic artistic output of the Black Panther franchise, that is to say, there is zero reference to the content of the movie or the comic books, not least because I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t had a chance to come round to enjoy and consume and of them yet. Yet, at the same time, I thought I’d be interesting to review a soundtrack hit compilation album so strongly tied to a different artistic medium and see how this sort of premise might influence both the listening experience and the overall judgement of the record.

The 14-song album, featuring more than 20 performing artists, dropped – rather predictably – under Kendrick Lamar’s home record label TDE, and was previewed throughout the whole January/beginning of February by three big, star-studded singles. First it was the record’s crown jewel and very melodic “All the Stars” on 4th January, featuring the curator himself paired with gorgeous and impressive label-mate SZA, followed up shortly thereafter by “King’s Dead“, a 4-minutes stomping epic that saw the return on the scene of Black Hippy member Jay Rock alongside Lamar, again, Future, and James Blake. The third and (as of now) last track premiering the full LP, debuting exactly a week before the full work, was called “Pray for Me” and saw commander in chief K-Dot deliver one of his most well-rounded and convincing performances on the whole project, albeit kept pretty brief so as to allow R&B megastar The Weeknd channel his most direct and harmonic Michael Jackson influences. The latter track, perhaps tied to “All the Stars”, also seems the one to have been chosen as prime flagship anthem for the movie roll out, judging by the amount of placements in airplay and promotional clips.

The choice of funnelling most of the album’s condensed promotional image to these three songs appears to be justified in my opinion by their extremely hooky melodies and refrains, as well as the portfolio of heavyweights featured on each track. However, if one were to stop here and try to forecast the rest of the musical critical mass on the album along similar lines, they couldn’t be further from the truth. While this selection of singles, championed especially by “All the Stars” and “Pray for Me”, has pretty much all it takes, from production, delivery, and lyrics (“Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me / You can bring a bullet, bring a sword, bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me”), to overshadow and outshine the rest of the songs, the album’s best moments live and breathe elsewhere.

A perfect example of such an unsung hidden gem on this Black Panther: The Album is “Redemption”, where Los Angeles-based neo-soul rising star Zacari mashes up with South African/Zulu singer Babes Wodumo, assisted yet again by Kendrick for a funky, groovy, and multi-coloured afro-beat hymn, previewed by a fitting interlude setting the scene for this high moment on the record. I figure the song is a quintessential example of what the overall project is trying to convene on a conceptual level, i.e. a global contamination of black music influences with an army of songwriters on a quest for expressions of freedom and empowerment. In the eyes of this type of analysis, “Redemption” ticks all the boxes.

Competing with “Redemption” and “All the Stars” for best cut off of the album is another hard-hitting, stomping industrial tornado of sound aggression, encapsulated in the fifth song on the tracklist “Opps”. The record features straight-edge rap/hardcore favourite of yours truly Vince Staples, accompanied for the occasion by another South African rapper Yugen Blakrok and – surprise, surprise – Kung Fu Kenny, who this time takes up more room than usual for it being a track not spearheaded by him. The song has abundant amounts of rough, hypnotic beats, that for one of the only times on the whole album, fit extremely nicely all featured artists, and to an especially pleasant degree Vince Staples himself, for whom it surely didn’t take long to realize that the tune could’ve easily been gestated during the afro-futurism-tainted writing sessions for his last album, Big Fish Theory. Furthermore, to me the song emanates just the right amount of carelessness and aggression that I’m somewhat expecting to perceive during the wider cinematic experience (albeit yet to be seen), this way solidifying its legitimacy to be a key sonic moment of the record.

Pretty unexpectedly for me, this LP doesn’t get away with a number of fairly underwhelming choices and sub-par executions. Interestingly, these are mostly to be found in tracks that draw heavily on the current trap trend (see ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz & Saudi’s “X”, or Kendrick & Travis Scott’s “Big Shot”), with slow, at times mumbly, high pitched charleston sounds and auto-tuned vocals that, with all due respect, might have little to do with a longstanding discovery journey through legacy black music. This gets even more exacerbated when I get the impression that some of the easy and safe artistic pairing choices came more from a deliberate intention to ride the zeitgeist, rather than daring to risk a bit more to achieve a more experimental outcome instead. Undoubtedly, this goes to de-value a little bit Kendrick’s work as curator, who this time I’m not afraid to say is not without blame and can’t get away from it all without some criticism (besides pointlessly featuring on almost every single track on the album, often times bringing little to no added creative value to each song’s table). For instance, why not include more folks like the brilliant Babes Wodumo, Yugen Blakrok, upcoming rap collective SOB x RBE, or even Zacari himself, instead of reheated soups like ScHoolboy Q, Future, and Travis Scott? Definitely a missed opportunity here for Kendrick to offer a huge platform for rising black stars to resonate and amplify into the entertainment mainstream.

Now, there indeed are enough decent solid tracks to make up for the aforementioned flaws across just about 50 minutes of newly assembled material. Joining the squad of favourite cuts out of this Black Panther soundtrack album are the melancholic and gloomy “I Am”, performed by the impressive Jorja Smith and another example of where K-Dot’s laid back harmonising support work fits very nicely with the overall mood and aesthetic of the song; the hectic and hooky “Paramedic!” (by Zacari, Kendrick & promising Californian hip-hop group SOB x RBE); or even the slow and gorgeous “Seasons”, where Sjava’s Zulu chants are wonderfully wrapped by two of the most convincing bar sections on the whole project, spit out by Californian rapper Mozzy and fellow South African MC Reason. That being said, this collection of songs does leave the listener with a slight bad taste in their mouth, found lost in-between safe and sexy artist orchestration choices that address current hip-hop and R&B trends, and an overarching struggle to find a truly owned identity that sets it apart, perhaps trying too hard to be liked by the ruling voices, at the expense of versatility, experimentation, and freedom. If you think about it, nothing too dissimilar from some of the dynamics found in wider societal racial struggles against power and hegemony. But that’s a whole other discussion that involves an ocean of additional considerations and voices. So let the music speak for now.

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

VARIOUS ARTISTS

“BLACK PANTHER: THE ALBUM”

2018, Top Dawg Ent./Aftermath/Interscope

http://smarturl.it/BlackPantherAlbum

Black Panther_The Album