Music

Ab-Soul: These Days...

Ab-Soul's follow-up to Control System sees him forgetting all quality control.


Ab-Soul

These Days...

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
US Release Date: 2014-06-24
UK Release Date: 2014-06-24
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Control System was one of the best gems of 2012, a classic year in hip-hop if I need to remind everyone. On it, Ab-Soul revealed himself to be a completely different beast than his TDE label-mates, either in wordplay (see: "ILLuminate"), subject matter ("Terrorist Threats") or, simply put, soul (see: "Book of Soul"). Or, to borrow from one of Robert Christgau's more poetic reviews, "He's ready to blow [money] on love rather than blow or a blow job […] He's just a gifted kid who likes his weed and his words which he twists with palpable delight around sparse synth beats musical enough to layer on some delight of their own." That being said, my heart sank when I heard follow-up These Days…, and this may very well end up being the biggest disappointment of the year hip-hop-wise, though I suppose it shouldn't have been completely unexpected when you recall that Ab-Soul's features on recent albums have been completely haphazard, from "Way Up Here" on Danny Brown's Old to "Lakers" on Freddie Gibbs's Pinata.

What's the problem? At 90 minutes in length, it's too long, obviously. You can go ahead and cut "Closure", a sung duet between Ab-Soul and Jhene Aiko that's an obvious rehash of Control System's "A Rebellion", the sung duet between Ab-Soul and Alori Joh, but with a less melodic punch. And speaking of rehashes, "Kendrick's Interlude" is Section.80's "Ab-Soul's Outro", except Ab-Soul, who closes the song this time around, isn't as visceral as Kendrick was, and he's unable to put Terrace Martin's beat to good use (recall: Kendrick Lamar's voice and words became more visceral as the beat did, "I'm not the next pop star, I'm not the next socially aware rapper, I am a human motherfucking being, over dope ass instrumentation"). And Kendrick Lamar himself doesn't bring anything new to the table, an absolute anomaly when you recall that he's been boosting his Black Hippy mates' albums with stellar verses ("Blessed", "ILLuminate", "Collard Greens"). Here, he's just flaying his voice in the exact same manner as on "Control", but the anger feels like a pose this time around, and I can't help but laugh when he drops the line "I drank a whole gallon of laxatives by accident just to shit on you has-beens."

But on a broader level, because Ab-Soul has pulled in every connection he has to feature on These Days (many of whom, including Jadakiss, Isaiah Rashad, BJ the Chicago Kid and Earl Sweatshirt, aren't even credited because they're doing background stuff), coupled with the fact that the beats are often too cluttered, feels like he's just trying to throw everything at the wall in the hopes that something will stick so that Interscope will take notice and finally sign him. And some of these features drag their songs down: apparently, hanging around Tyler, the Creator has already had a negative effect on ScHoolboy Q; "Beat the pussy down like my nemesis / Make the pussy drip like I slit her wrist" is an unfortunate couplet, as is Lupe Fiasco's spelling lesson, "Can’t spell 'illuminati' without 'lu'; can’t spell 'lu' without 'u'" that opens his verse on "World Runners". And a problem that most of these songs have is that the hooks are often amelodic and feel like they go on for hilariously longer than the verses they sandwich, as on "World Runners", "Nevermind That", or "Stigmata" where Ab-Soul says the title word twelve times to form an annoying chorus.

Meanwhile, though "Tree of Life", an easy highlight with Ab-Soul jumping on the bipartite bandwagon after Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city and ScHoolboy Q's Oxymoron, it has a useless bridge where Ab-Soul invokes a playground rhyme for shits and giggles. Though Ab-Soul loves referencing previous works, both of his own or his (former) label-mates, like how "Dub Sac" reminds us of "Terrorist Threats" or the light imagery continues from "ILLuminate" practically everywhere, that helps gives the Black Hippy discography a continuous feel and flow, when a snippet of "Collard Greens" is added to "God's Reign" it feels like more wasted time and makes me want to listen to a better song. And it's heartbreaking to hear someone as different as Ab-Soul pretend to be YG as on "Twact".

Is there good stuff? Sure there is: SZA's hook on "God's Reign" is the album's most melodic soundbyte, though I think it's a wasted opportunity that Purity Ring's Corin Roddick hands in a shockingly generic beat instead of making more witch-hop tracks (he produces Danny Brown's rather excellent "25 Bucks", you recall). "Sapiosexual" doesn't live up to its title and is instead a generic (there's that word again) sex-rap track, but J. Cole's Eastern-tinged soul (string?) sample might be the most interesting thing Cole has produced. As mentioned, "Tree of Life" is a goodie, and DJ Dahi, who produces the second half continues to be one of the most melodically-inclined producers around. "Stigmata" houses one of the best verses in the album from Soul that makes it worth trucking through my aforementioned criticism about it (meanwhile, either Action Bronson smoked too large a joint before entering the fray, or the constant comparisons to Ghostface Killah has finally gotten to him). But the album's greatest draws are right after, with “"Feelin Us" sporting the best beat, including an indelible female voice that you can indeed feel in the air during the choruses and a hypnotic pulse of a synth line powering the verses. Meanwhile, both Ab-Soul and Danny Brown kill it on "Ride Slow", while Mac Miller surprisingly holds the 7-minute joint together with a psychedelic labyrinth of a beat.

Finally, though I think the track has zero replay value, the 18 minute rap battle tacked onto the end of closing track "W.R.O.H." was indeed a good idea because it shows Ab-Soul's greatest strength, his wordplay. Sure, countenance like "This movie won't need to be continued / You finally encountered something you can't counter, coward / You're counterfeit" is cool, as are one-liners like "You're Buzz Lightyears from here, Quill, and you telling toy stories," but when Ab-Soul dropped the following lines, "Don't be so transparent, this nigga's light – through / If you don't know what transparent means, let me enlighten you / If it's transparent, that means it lets light through / So I should smack this trans's parents for lettin' Lyt through," my jaw literally dropped. It's just a shame he couldn't maintain that level of fire for 90 minutes.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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