Wednesday, April 30, 2008

CRAC Knuckles: The Piece Talks (Review)

CRAC Knuckles don’t care what you think. The group, whose name is pronounced “crass knuckles,” seems to pride themselves on being largely unclassifiable. They make their music for themselves, not for critics or to meet certain expectations of genre or talent. The group is composed of deft California emcee Blu, hip-hop’s rookie of the year in 2007, and Ta’Raach, an underground rapper and producer who hails from Detroit. CRAC is an acronym for “Collect Respect Anna Check,” apparently their goal for this project. Although their debut album, The Piece Talks, may not get Blu and Ta’Raach big dollars, it delivers a refreshing and creative sound worthy of repeat listens.

The first non-intro track of The Piece Talks is “Buy Me Lunch,” a poppy, rap-free medley that somehow manages to blend neo-soul and jazz at a high tempo. “Love Don’t” is a groovy track on which Ta’Raach and Blu both drop nice verses over an echoing guitar loop. The next song, “Major Way,” is an arrogant track demanding all haters to pay regards to CRAC Knuckles. These first three songs also accentuate Ta’Raach’s mixed bag of tricks on production. He handles all the beat-making on The Piece Talks and brings his own original flavor to the music on the album.

“CRACHAUSE” is the first forgettable song of album. Fit more for an interview than an LP, this song features Ta’Raach blandly sermonizing over a repetitive beat for over three minutes. Thankfully, that low point of the album is followed up by some of the best songs of The Piece Talks. On “Respect” and “Pop Dem Boyz,” Blu once again proves himself as a lyrical virtuoso. “Mr. Big Fizz” has a minimalist beat and is an ode to the mainstream rappers who front like they’re rich, but really aren’t.

The biggest drawback of the The Piece Talks is a lack of polish. Most of the good songs on the album clock in too short, leaving room for unnecessary filler, such as the aforementioned “CRACHAUSE” and “Credits,” another spoken-word track thanking those whose contributions are usually reserved for the liner notes. Additionally, “Umm Yeah” is a dispensable minute of straight silence, and “Ready” is a pointless seven-minute phone conversation saved only by a nice hidden track to close out the album.

However, the album flourishes when CRAC Knuckles stay true to themselves. Ta’Raach isn’t necessarily a bad emcee, yet it is Blu who steals the show, at least lyrically. Consistently spitting jaw-dropping verses characteristic of some of the best rappers today, Blu has true star caliber. But not to be outdone, Ta’Raach sounds confidently relaxed production-wise, refusing to allow any two songs to sound alike. CRAC Knuckles display no pressure to conform to norms, and consequently they created a formidable indie hip-hop release in The Piece Talks.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Kidz In The Hall - Drivin' Down The Block (Remix)

Kidz in the Hall are gettin serious. Wanna get excited for The In Crowd? Simple. Just click the link below and peep the remix to Drivin' Down The Block. This version features Pusha T, Bun B, and the Cool Kids. Yech!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Atmosphere: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Review)

Slug and Ant are never the type to back down with their music. Making up the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere, their unique style has launched them to the pinnacle of indie rap. Slug, the idiosyncratic emcee of Atmosphere, unleashes personal narratives at breakneck pace. While Ant, hip-hop’s most criminally underrated producer, creates consistently beautiful soundscapes that set the tone for each Atmosphere track, and still mesh perfectly with each of Slug’s raps. Their newest album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, delivers the same innovative sound that Atmosphere fans have grown to love and more, not to mention one of the best album titles in years. Lemons is their most sonically ambitious release yet, and provides for a spectacular musical experience.

The album’s two lead singles, “Shoulda Known” and “Guarantees,” differ drastically and display Atmosphere’s musical versatility. The former track is dominated by an impressive, winding bass line as Slug laments on a regrettable sexual encounter. The latter is one of the most original Atmosphere songs in their substantial repertoire. The track is driven solely by a continuous electric guitar loop. Slug manages to hold his own, and is one of the few rappers with the cadence and storytelling prowess to sound so natural over such a minimalist track.

Slug has always had a few favorite topics to rap about, primarily women, alcohol, and drugs. This is no different on Lemons. What makes Slug such a special lyricist is his inventiveness in approaching every song. On “The Skinny,” he makes a surprisingly well-reasoned comparison between cigarettes and the life of a pimp. Slug does occasionally digress from his usual subjects on other songs, usually with magnificent results. “Yesterday” is an emotional track on which Slug reminisces about his late father. “In Her Music Box” appears to be a semi-autobiographical tale about Slug and his relationship with his daughter. Though we may never know for certain, as Slug keeps his personal life very private.

As for the production on Lemons, Ant is as close to flawless as he has ever been. He makes the beats that other producers wish they could. The production on this album is much less sample-oriented than on previous works. Most songs on the album feature actual musicians, allowing Ant to tweak any detail of each instrumental until it’s exactly right. The beats on Lemons are also very diverse, thus changing the tone from one song to the next. From the ominous, echoing piano on “Puppets,” to the funky groove of “You,” to the manic nature of “Can’t Break,” Ant expresses complete mastery over every aspect of every track.

For the customers who still purchase the hard copy of albums, Lemons is a pretty sweet deal. There is a deluxe version of the record that comes complete with a short children’s novel written by Slug and Ant, as well as a DVD from one of Atmosphere’s recent live shows in Minneapolis. This album is not perfect, but it comes awfully close. The bottom line is that no one in hip-hop sounds like Atmosphere, and that is why they are so great.

Rating: 9/10

BONUS CUT: Atmosphere's video for "Shoulda Known"