4 songs

Elvis Costello: You Belong to Me (1978)

I love Elvis Costello, particularly for his 1978 album This Years Model, which I regard as nearly perfect.  My favorite song on the album, “You Belong to Me,” is one that I consider elemental, both in the energy of it and in its message.  The song opens with loose rhythmic plucking of a rockabilly steel guitar, a spirited energy that becomes manic when a rapid paced drum and tambourine hit underneath it.  Then the centerpiece of two loud, basic pipe organ chords rip through, and the song becomes truly addicting.  The lyrics start off with a wistful picture of misspent youth, even including a sly reference to teenage pregnancy (“She’s been to see the doctor so you hope that she recovers”), before rejoicing in the danger and freedom of youth.  And then, Elvis shifts into the expression of true rock rebellion, concluding that “No uniform’s gonna keep you warm.”  This song evokes a smart-ass teenage kid, refusing to join the army, and I can’t think of anything more rock and roll than that.

Vince Staples: Jump off the Roof (2015)

Vince Staples is an exemplary young California-based rapper, and in 2015 his album Summertime ’06 he displayed greatness, particularly with complex, emotional songs like “Jump off the Roof.”  The song begins with two choruses of tortured choirs singing high chords of lament, presumably to prepare the listener for the darkness of the song.  Despite a rapid drumming on what sounds like empty paint cans, a beat that seems like it would feel right at home in a latin-flavored party banger, Vince begins with the sentiment “What’s your addiction, baby?” which links nicely to verses concerning the implacability of drug addiction.  In line with the picture Staples paints of urban hopelessness, he finishes the song with a bitterly satirical reference to a sentiment that in a real way helps perpetuate the existence of an underclass: “It’s fine baby girl I don’t need a rubber, nothing wrong in the world with another mother.”  In this way, Staples describes in an emotionally devastating way that there is a segment of the population for whom suicide may be the best option.

Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus: Quick Joey Small (Run, Joey, Run) (1968)

This is a great pop record born out of an ill-considered idea.  Two record producers, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, brought together eight separate groups into one supergroup, an experiment that ended just a year after its conception.  Despite the frankly boneheaded nature of the enterprise in itself, “Quick Joey Small,” the centerpiece of this mishmash, is pure fun.  This song is the story of a work-prison escape, and the verses are belched by what sounds like a frog-voiced field foreman, giving updates on a street corner through a paper cone.  Though this is addictive and grin-producing, the song truly comes into its own at the chorus, where a mass of singers warn Joey that “The hounds are on your tail.”  Then with a slight upturn in pitch they continue, saying that “They’re gonna send you back to jail.”  I’m hard pressed to imagine a song more playful than “Quick Joey Small,” and the fun it inspires will linger long after the last note is struck.

David Byrne: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston cover) (2008)

The Talking Heads are, all things considered, my favorite band of all time, and since their dissolution, frontman David Byrne has continued to produce occasionally exceptional music.  One example of this comes from his 2008 live album, Live from Austin, TX, where Byrne did an emotionally revelatory rendition of Whitney Houston’s 1987 party-pop megahit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”  While Houston’s version is definitely fun, it might give you cavities, and her performance does not correspond with the lyrics.  The lyrics portray a lonely individual, pleading to an empty sky for someone to love, though it delivers no one.  While Houston tackled the depressing nature of these lyrics by simply ignoring them, Byrne instead layers them over a sweeping line of violins, thus giving them a sense of proud hope.  These violins, as well as bongo’s, marimba’s (I believe), and many other instruments I’m unfamiliar with, give the song a beautiful energy, and a wonderful sense of fun.

4 songs

Album Review: Vince Staples-Summertime ’06

Artist: Vince Staples

Album: Summertime ’06

Release date: June 30, 2015

Producer: No I.D.

Released by: Def Jam Recordings, ARTium Recordings, Blacksmith Records

The first hip hop album I ever listened to was Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar, and it changed my world.  That album began a lifelong love affair with hip hop, and I’ve intermittently been a fan of a variety of artists (MF DOOM, RjD2, El-P), but few have resonated as deeply as Vince Staples, and his debut album Summertime ’06.  The first thing that distinguishes Staples from any other rapper I can think of is the way he seems to rap downhill, so that by the time he finishes one line, he is already into the next one.  He achieves this effect by ignoring what seems like the most basic of emcee conventions, the pause between lines.

Nowhere is this more evident than on “Señorita,” the album’s chief banger, in which he describes the harsh realities of gangland life as if reading them off a stock ticker.  “That’s somebody’s son but a war to be won baby either go hunt or be hunted, we crabs in a bucket he called me a crab so I shot him in front of the Douglas, we cannot be fucked with we thuggin’ in public.”  This line from “Señorita” is delivered so easily that its sentiments, which could be seen as commonplace in the rap game, are given an extra sense of reality, as if Staples is simply describing his day.  This combination of harsh subject matter and effortless flow give each song a sense of importance, and lends additional punch to the album’s descriptions of hopelessness.

Early in the album Staples claims allegiance to the Gangster Crips (a large southern-California-based set of one of the largest gangs in America), and throughout Summertime ’06 he confronts the harsh realities of gang life with a shrug.  On “Jump off the Roof” the gang life and drug addiction lead to a twisted declaration of love, directly confronting the intractability of love in gangland: “I hate when you lie, I hate the truth too, can’t wait till you die, I hate that we through.”  On “3230” he describes the way he was “Soldier since the stroller” and the way the death of his brother was just “The price of bangin’ since my granny Alameda(’s) days.”  This fatalistic leaning that pervades the album would threaten to make it depressing, but the beats are inventive and addictive.

The album was produced (for the most part) by No I.D., a beatmaker so obscure he or she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, though that will likely be remedied soon.  No I.D.’s beats are filled with unexpected instrumentation and complexity enough to keep my attention even behind a slow, soulful sing-song as in “Might be Wrong,” which contains the funniest moment of the album.  As he describes that when confronted with a moral quandary his sentiment is “Die to the world, I took the money” before in a softer way, as if in parentheses, he adds “wouldn’t you?”  This gag illustrates perfectly the album’s ability to paint a picture blacker than the night, while keeping me riveted to its incomparable flow and inventive beats.  Vince Staples Summertime ’06 has reminded me, once again, why I love hip hop.



Album Review: Vince Staples-Summertime ’06