February 2018 ~ Black Panther Month

U.S. Girls - Pearly Gates A group out of Toronto, naturally. New to my ears this month, U.S. Girls is the brainchild of Meg Remy, who has evolved it from an abrasive avant-garde provocation to this quite polished pop. Still with lots of intellectual backbone and social commentary. The whole album In A Poem Unlimited has been one of my first pleasant surprises of 2018. Note the vocal assist from James Baley, part of the Toronto music scene that Pitchfork exposed in a recent article about Remy's musical posse.

Destiny's Child - Independent Women, Pt. 1 Maybe it's just my weirdo ear, but this sounds so much like an older cousin of "Pearly Gates" I can't stand it. This song just pops in my head at random moments on a pretty regular basis. 

Manu Dibango - Soul Makossa "Oh, you have an even older cousin?" Listening to these three songs back to back, it's like traveling back in time. Right now, you're probably thinking, "I've heard this song before." According to WhoSampled.com it's been sampled a whopping 48 times, including by A Tribe Called Quest, Milli Vanilli, KanyeFugees, Urban Dance Squad (!), Geto Boys, and OF COURSE, Michael Jackson. I'll admit that I have a hard time hearing the original in some of these. No matter, this song clearly has DNA that's been dispersed all over American pop music. 

Lee Morgan - Sunrise, Sunset Lee Morgan has been my favorite trumpet player for years and years, but I still haven't heard a lot of his catalog. Delightfulee was spinning recently when I was hanging out with Helean and Robb, and I fell in love with this track. It's the perfect combination of Lee Morgan's muscular hard bop and the "small big band" sound that Miles Davis uncovered on Birth of the Cool. There's so much to love here: Philly Joe Jones' free-spirited drumming (reminiscent of Tony Allen); McCoy Tyner's sparkling solo, especially the flurry of notes in the last bar, as if he suddenly realized he didn't make his not quota (around 5:25); the buttery sound of that large horn ensemble; and, of course, Morgan's playing. I feel like I might be becoming an old man, because this sounds like home.

Mr. Jukes, feat. BJ The Chicago Kid - Angels/Your Love Pitchfork's review of this solo project from Bombay Bicycle Club frontman Jack Steadman calls the music "safe compared to the risks he took with his band." That may be, but without comparisons it's a solid jam. Or actually, two jams, as it morphs halfway through, using the same bass riff but subbing in a stand-up bass and vocals by BJ the Chicago Kid. A great example of fusing sampling and live instruments. 

Black Milk - Could It Be Black Milk is one of the best kept secrets in hip hop, or just contemporary pop music in general. His discography is studded with solid experiments in production - employing electronics, sampling, live bands, and tremendous rapping. Just like Oddisee's The Iceberg in 2017, I have a feeling this smart, trenchant, forward-looking album won't make any year-end best of lists. Too bad. The whole album sounds great. 

Shirt - FLIGHT HOME Shirt gained a lot of notoriety in 2014 for an internet promotion/prank in which he perfectly mimicked a New York Times webpage that included a rapturous story about his arrival on the rap scene. In January, Jack White's Third Man Records announced that Shirt is the first rapper assigned to the label. This song has a dizzying salad of attitudes and registers - an abstract streak, social conscience, combative attitude... etc! In short, he's weird, smart, hard, funny, and trenchant. Lots of ideas, lots of talent, and a firm independence. Check out PURE BEAUTY, his full-length debut for Third Man.

Kendrick Lamar, feat. Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok - Opps Black Panther made some mighty waves this month, and the magic wasn't contained to the screen, with this stellar Kendrick Lamar-produced album of music from, and inspired by, the movie. I'm interested in anything with Vince Staples, and his verse here doesn't disappoint. It's also a fun introduction to South African rapper Yugen Bakrok. Between this album and DAMN., this is the month I finally learned how to love Kendrick a little.

Janelle Monáe - Django Jane A pure icy blast of black pride and woman power. Also, the second song on this list to mention the movie Moonlight. 

Philip Glass, feat. Bernard Fowler - Changing Opinion This month at the Harris Theater saw a long engagement with American Ballet Theatre. Their rep included Benjamin Millepied's "I Feel the Earth Move," set to music by Philip Glass. Compared to the other, more traditional, classical music that soundtracked most of the dances, the singing on this by Bernard Fowler stuck waaayyy out. I love the way the lyrics (by Paul Simon) harness the power of the mundane, stacking flat observations until they add up to something profound. Fowler's voice just blows me away, too. He's been a back-up singer for the Rolling Stones for decades, and sang with Tackhead back in the '90's. 

Kendrick Lamar - YAH. I've had a hard time appreciating Kendrick since I first heard good kid, m.A.A.d. City. For me, the derivative "jazz" and tired P-funk homages of To Pimp A Butterfly made it really difficult to give multiple listens to what is obviously a thoughtful and significant album. The production on DAMN. is much more compelling. I made the mistake of reading the "Lyric Genius" stuff that pops up on popular songs on Spotify. All kinds of stuff about Kendrick's conspiracy theories, fancy car, etc. I like the song better without all that belittling "information," which feels like an attempt to pen him in. Not necessary. 

The Clash - White Riot I thought of this song after watching news reports about people in Philadelphia rioting to celebrate the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. Many, many people (including this Newsweek article) pointed to the hypocrisy in the way officials and media treated these riots -- a kind of "boys will be boys" for the sports set -- as compared to Black Lives Matter and similar demonstrations. It's really kind of crazy how blatant the bias is on this front. Of course, Joe Strummer is talking about white riots in a different way in this song -- almost in reverse. The song was inspired by Strummer and Paul Simonon's experience at the Notting Hill Carnival riots of 1976, a racially charged incident with the police that led to sweeping anti-discrimination laws in Britain. (You can read more about it here.) Strummer is admonishing other white people for being too conformist, too cowardly, too complacent to riot, and yearning to follow the example of the black Notting Hill rioters and agitate for real change. 

White Riot was the Clash's first single, and carries the political defiance of their later music, but without the sophistication they would accrue. Mick Jones allegedly refused to play this song later in their career, saying it was "crude." All of this makes sense to me. That the band would start from this place of rudimentary defiance, and grow out of it into something much more sophisticated, but still of the same fabric. 

Bilal - Lunatic Bilal's sneaky genius feels like one of the best kept secrets in pop music. Gifted with a tremendous voice, this song is a great example of the way he defiantly pushes it into places soul singers don't typically go, neo or not. Andy Kellman's great review of this record on AllMusic nails his vocal delivery on this tense jam, saying "it sounds as if Prince and Bad Brains' H.R. are being exorcized from the vocalist's howling body." And, this is not how he typically sounds. A true artist. Listen to Bilal!

Peter Tosh - African I came out of Black Panther thinking hard about this classic, and how in some ways it encapsulates the final message of the movie. If you haven't listened to Tosh's Equal Rightsfind some time and treat yourself. There's nothing like the combination of his songwriting with the playing and production of mid-'70's Kingston. So warm, so sharp and perfect.