State In The Real – Penn State Music Scene

Author - Jack Zuckerman

Album Review: At.Long.Last.A$AP

 

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At.Long.Last.A$AP is A$AP Rocky’s first album as an established rapper. In the obvious sense of that statement, the album is Rocky’s second major label LP, and first after a breakout 2013 that featuring a hugely successful album and a monster single. In another sense, this album serves as Rocky’s chance to prove that he’s not like other rappers classified under trap rap, a genre that’s hit or miss at best.

A$AP Rocky knows this, and addresses it through the first track of the album. On “Holy Ghost”, A$AP spits “Satan’s givin’ out deals, finna own these rappers, the game is full of slaves and they mostly rappers”, setting himself apart from the obvious materialism that’s associated with mainstream rap today. “Holy Ghost”, along with the next three tracks on the album, open the listener up to A$AP’s hazy, acid-soaked world; his rise to and subsequent embracement of newfound fame. “L$D”, an honest love song to a drug that heavily influenced the album, also acts as Rocky admitting his love for his new life without obnoxiously boastful lyrics.

Throughout the album, Rocky balances out this new life by addressing his past, an angle that’s becoming more and more common in hip-hop (most notably through Kendrick Lamar). The one-two-punch of “Max B” and “Pharsyde” slows the album down to a thoughtful pause as the listener wades through intense lyrics and live instrumentation. The latter, one of four tracks produced by hip-hop and rock genius Danger Mouse, features some of the album’s most intense imagery. Rocky raps “back in my younger days or razor blades with gangs who bang and never stood a chance” over an eerie beat like an aged war veteran, but as he states, “If you seen the s**t that I’d have seen in 26 years of livin’, that’s how many f**ks I’ve given”.

A.L.L.A does offer a few less-introspective and club-focused tracks. “Electric Body”, which features an intense Schoolboy Q verse, and “M’$” contrast the albums slower moments with faster and louder ones. But At.Long.Last.A$AP isn’t complete without a few missteps. A rare subpar Kanye verse on the Ye-produced “Jukebox Joints” ends a song with beautiful production and great A$AP verses on a less-exciting note. Weak tracks include “Everyday” and “Excuse Me”, which interrupt a couple of great track-runs.

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And of course, it’s hard to think about A$AP Rocky without taking a moment to consider the recent death of A$AP Mob founder, A$AP Yams. The final track of the album, “Back Home” features a postmortem Yams monologue that ends with a proud, yet slightly bittersweet “A$AP B***H!”. Both a fitting end to the album and a necessary final goodbye, Rocky honors Yams’ life without focusing too much on his death.

On this album, Rocky does exactly what he needs to in order to remain relevant: he distinguishes himself and his sound, uses heavier subject matter, and continues to work with and learn from a group of legendary features and producers. While it’s not perfect, At.Long.Last.A$AP proves that Rocky is one of the more interesting mainstream rappers today, and one who’s best years are hopefully ahead of him.

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Album Review: Untethered Moon by Built to Spill

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Oddly enough, 2015 is a very appropriate year for a new album from the 90’s indie lo-fi group, Built to Spill. Modest Mouse, their northwestern indie contemporaries, recently released Strangers to Ourselves after an eight-year drought, while Death Cab for Cutie, the heavily Built to Spill influenced indie pop group, released Kintsugi last month. Unfortunately, both of those albums were extremely average, and further proved that these artist were past their prime.

So, it’s perfectly natural to be skeptical about Built to Spill’s Untethered Moon. But if there’s one thing Built to Spill should be commended for, it’s their consistency. While many remaining 90’s and early 00’s group have drastically changed their sound in an attempt to stay relevant, Built to Spill have only made minor tweaks, retaining the lo-fi characteristics that helped establish them as an indie staple.

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Their consistency, however, acts as both their greatest asset and their greatest weakness. Untethered Moon is a fairly safe album, and while there are a few interesting tracks, Built to Spill rarely steps out of their comfort zone. Busy drums, cosmic vocals, and reverb soaked riffs are just as prominent on Untethered Moon as they were on previous albums like Perfect from Now On. Because of this, the album becomes too comparable with the band’s earlier albums, and enters into a contest it’s bound to lose. That being said, tracks like “Never Be the Same” and “So” are definitely worth a listen, and prove that Built to Spill can still do what they’ve been doing best for years.
Keeping all of this in mind, Untethered Moon is still an entertaining listen. Existing fans of Built to Spill should enjoy it, but newcomers are better off starting with the earlier albums. Untethered Moon does, however, prove that Built to Spill belongs on a short list of dated indie rock bands that are capable making interesting music today, at that alone is something to applaud them for.

Sunday Spin: The Wall

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I believe that Pink Floyd’s The Wall is the perfect album to begin a love of music. No, it’s not their best album (in my opinion), or even their second best for that matter, but for me, no other album has proven to open itself up and usher in a wide spectrum of musical interests like The Wall has. Here are a few reasons why:

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1. The Wall is engaging from start to finish, and that is partially due to its storyline. Before listening to The Wall, I had no idea that an album as a whole could be a work of art rather than just a collection of songs. On this album, the characters and the story guide you through and make the experience feel just as cinematic as it does musical.

2. As far as the term “rock opera” goes, Pink Floyd makes it sound the coolest. Listening to this album feels like watching an opera if and only if that opera has insanely huge guitars and some of the most famous and intellectual musical geniuses of the 70’s, which it does.

3. David Gilmour’s guitar solos taught me how to appreciate a solo. The master of tone showed me that it’s not about the notes you play, but the way they sound and the emotion behind them. Of course, The Wall contains some of the most famous solos of his career, such as the one on “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” and the two on “Comfortably Numb”, but less famous tracks such as “Mother” and “Hey You” have solos that further prove Gilmour’s brilliance and ability to elevate a song.

4. The Wall is philosophical. Before hearing it, I was convinced that about 95% of all music was about girls and love. This album taught me that you can write about something bigger, something less cheesy, and something darker. Songs didn’t have to be happy, they could be depressing or angry and still be just as enjoyable.

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As serious as the songs on The Wall are, they’re equally infectious. So much so, that while listening to the album and writing this article, I had to take a break to play along with some of the guitar solos. But The Wall’’s strongest asset is the way each song seems to have a certain personality. You can listen to “Run Like Hell”  and feel scared for your life, or “Outside the Wall” and cry your eyes out. To be honest, the albums final words, “And when they’ve given you their all, some stagger and fall/ After all it’s not easy, banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall”, still hit me hard every time. This comes hand in hand with its ability to engage a listener. It’s hard to listen to The Wall and not want to know the story behind each song. As rewarding as it is without this aspect, to realize something like the fact that “Goodbye Blue Sky” is about the bombing of Britain from a child’s perspective gives the album a whole new dimension. Pink Floyd may not deliver sonically the way they do on Wish You Were Here or Animals, but the emotional depth and grandiose highs (pun intended) of The Wall make it just as compelling.

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Although I already had it on iTunes, it felt good to get The Wall physically on vinyl. The minimalist white-brick-wall cover is even more striking in real life, and the drawings on the inside bring the songs to life. While it isn’t on my hypothetical “best albums of all time” list, in terms of the most personal and eye-opening experiences, listening to The Wall is incomparable.

Sufjan Stevens Gets Personal with “Carrie & Lowell”

 

Sufjan Stevens is, if nothing else, theatrical. To make a midwest state feel like the center of the universe on his groundbreaking 2005 album Illinois was an almost laughable feat, but sooner or later everyone was excited to “Feel the Illinoise”. With his newest album, Carrie & Lowell, Stevens channels this dramatic energy into coping with the 2012 death of his mother, the titular Carrie. Through despair, nostalgia, and drug abuse, Sufjan Stevens presents one of the most personal and bold albums in his discography, and certainly the most heartbreaking.

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To place Sufjan Stevens in the “folk” genre alone has always been a limitation. His past experimental and orchestral word has proved that he is much more diverse than the average folk artist. But the music of Carrie & Lowell seems to call upon this term much more than his recent work. With extremely limited instrumentation (guitar, vocals, occasional keyboard), the album is reminiscent of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, whose legacy continues to influence the genre. But C&L’s limited, yet beautiful, sonic qualities only push Stevens’ poetry further into the foreground. His blend of Greek mythology allusions with blatantly suicidal emotions on “The Only Thing” are only complimented by his majestic melodies, and the result is incomparable. Throughout the album, Stevens effortlessly weaves references to his mother’s hometown in Oregon, the bible, and his childhood into his lyrics. He presents his own memories as if the listener was a part of them. Lyrics such as, “remember I pulled at your shirt/I dropped the ashtray on the floor/I just wanted to be near you” from the nostalgic “Eugene” could be pulled from anyone’s childhood, and serve to build an incredibly personal relationship between the listener and Stevens.

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Listening to Carrie & Lowell is a distressing experience. Gorgeous as the music may be, one gets the sense that darkness is always looming overhead. To add to this, the album leaves off on a somber note, “Blue Bucket of Gold”. Because of this, it is important to keep in mind that Carrie & Lowell isn’t a story of redemption or triumph over depression, it’s a picture of a distraught Sufjan Stevens. Stevens isn’t teaching the listener how to get past the death of a family member, but is instead describing what it’s like to be in a black hole of loneliness. Dismaying as that may be, we can take comfort in the fact that he isn’t babying us. Like Nick Drake, Stevens is getting rid of all the strings and horns and speaking to us one-on-one in his moment of despair. No answers, just open-ended questions. However, in all its truth and sadness, Carrie & Lowell is one of the most rewarding and emotionally rich albums Stevens has under his belt, and a certain reminder of his talent and relevancy today.

Carrie & Lowell is now available to stream through NPR and will be officially released on March 31st.

Why To Pimp A Butterfly Matters

 

 

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At 12:30 a.m. on March 16th I was jet lagged, exhausted, and about to go to bed when I saw that Kendrick Lamar’s newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, had been released early. The exhaustion was gone as King Kendrick had taken its place. Like everyone else, I had my expectations. The opinion had been formulating in my mind for weeks: “good kid m.A.A.d City established Kendrick as the best rapper of this generation, this next album will give him a place in rap history”. But with his new album, Kendrick Lamar decided to gracefully avoid this accomplishment and land on something much more impressive and necessary: with To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick establishes his place in African American history.

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Plenty of rappers today talk about social issues, and plenty of them do it very well (Killer Mike, Kanye, etc.). But Kendrick stands apart from these rappers. By combining incredibly introspective and personal experiences from growing up in Compton with the confusion of becoming a world-famous rapper, he offers a completely unique view on black issues in the news today. To Pimp a Butterfly takes popular “black lives matter” mottos found today and brings them several steps further. While Kendrick realizes that these are facts, he is more concerned with speaking directly to the black community, legitimizing his influence despite being richer and more famous; and empowering African Americans by helping them embrace their culture. TPAB achieves this through its extensive funk, jazz, R&B, and spoken word influences. The beats on this album feel organic, and are filled with live instrumentation and incredible features from black music history such as George Clinton and Ronald Isley. On top of this, Lamar is aided by rap legends like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and, shockingly, Tupac.

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All of this acts as the medium through which Kendrick expresses his truly original and personal opinions about what it means to be black in society today. His messages ooze with authenticity, and not a second feels at all pretentious or undeserved. At the end of the final track, Mortal Man, his message is most clearly expressed: the megastar rapper Kendrick Lamar and the Compton born African American teenager are one and the same, and the same way that “To kill a mockingbird” is a sin, “To pimp a butterfly” is to completely give in to racist tendencies of our society. Kendrick explains that one black person, no matter how rich or famous, is no more important than the child from Compton or New York or anywhere. Lamar draws on this message in the track “King Kunta”. He compares himself to a king as well as a slave (Kunta Kinte), expressing how conflict within the black community is counterproductive. In the end, his message is one of unification, awareness, self-love, and black pride. In short, “To Pimp a Butterfly (to idolize Kendrick), is a sin because all African Americans are butterflies or have the capability to become butterflies.

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Needless to say, with To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick sets the bar higher than with good kid m.A.A.d city. But TPAB also sets the bar for what a rap album can mean and what it can do. It can draw on the past while looking towards the future. It can be incredibly personal and speak to African Americans everywhere. It can be bone-chillingly dark and boldly loving. But most of all, it can be exactly what America needs right now.

 “Dark as the midnight hour I’m bright as the morning sun”

-From “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”

Kendrick Lamar Amazes with “The Blacker the Berry”

 

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Oh Kendrick, how do you do it? While some diehard fans were somewhat displeased with Kendrick Lamar’s last release, “i”, the superstar rapper dissolved all doubts about his new album with his newest single, “The Blacker the Berry”.

As usual, Lamar delivers on all levels: lyricism, delivery, subject matter, beat, you name it. However this track doesn’t necessarily seem like it would fit on good kid, m.A.A.d city. On “Blacker the Berry”, Kendrick Lamar is more violent, more accusatory, and, most importantly, angrier.

The beat of this track perfectly matches the subject matter, an aspect that Kendrick has developed and perfected throughout his short career. From the beginning, the piano is eerie and the synthesizers are tension-filled, resonating almost like sirens. The drums are deep and commanding. The scene is set for Kendrick to work his magic.

While the beat of “Blacker the Berry” is fantastic, but the real showstopper is the lyrics. Kendrick starts his first verse (and every subsequent verse) with a striking claim: “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015”. From there, his lyricism is at its best as he growls heart-stopping line after line about racism, black pride, and an ambiguously blamed “you”. At times, Kendrick’s flow is so over-the-top that it seems like he is ranting rather than rhyming.

As if it couldn’t get any better, the last verse changes the message of the entire track, and possibly stands as one of Kendrick Lamar’s best verses of all time. When the beat virtually drops out, Kendrick states various black stereotypes, and claims that none of these matter if “Gang banging make me kill a n***a blacker than me”. Instead of blaming others for racially profiling blacks, Kendrick looks inward at his own community and claims that they support these stereotypes with violence that he illustriously described on his last album. Suddenly all of the aforementioned hypocrisy makes more sense.

Lamar doesn’t just impress with this track, he sets the bar. “Blacker the Berry” presents some of his most socially charged and emotional work yet, and subsequently, one of his best works of all time.

Ladies and gentlemen, King Kendrick is back.

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