Hi. It’s been a while. Life has not gotten complicated for the kid but it has been decidedly bumpy in the last year. Lost my mom. Very tough thing to deal with as I still consider myself fairly young. The world did not stop. Started grad school and hit the books hard for the first time in a long time. I guess fairly young ain’t exactly young enough.
And then there is fatherhood. It changes you in ways you could never imagine and it forces you to think in terms of what is important. There actually ARE levels to this [life] shit. So for a while I put the pen down. And put the music down. And I grew. And lived. And thought. My first child. Planetill.com was suffering from neglect. In a kind of limbo that was neither death nor direct. Stagnant.
And I read. And watched. And began listening again. The music started calling. The world started calling. My baby started calling. And so I’m back. There will be a new look soon. More podcasts. More perspectives. More pressing issues. It really isn’t fair to 2015 to rank anything. I was drifting through space, trying to sort out where I was going. But I saw a lot. And along with some other items you will see in the coming days from my family here at the ill, this is what I saw in 2015.
I was a historian. The issues we are dealing with on Earth are no worse than they have ever been. The strange fruit still swings. Muslims and Jews still beefing, etc. But we got camera phones. And surveillance cameras. Big Brother’s eyes are legit. His idea of justice however leaves much to be desired. We’ll address it. Just give me a few. But here is what I heard.
I thought Big Sean was going to be Fabolous 2.0; a talented cat that makes disposable music. Magic on mixtapes and guest spots but meandering on albums. He promptly shut me entirely the eff up on Finally Famous. On Dark Sky Paradise he took the leap towards serious challenger in mainstream Hip-Hop. His flow is tighter and unconventional and his songwriting talent is certified.
The new album has Big Sean able to pull you into his world. On full display is his desperation never to return to desperation and the pressure to feed his family and STAY famous is self-evident in his lyrics and the audible hunger. His bars snap on the sublime Blessings duet with Drake that goes even harder than their previous adventure All Me.
Dark Sky had infectious songs like the infectious E-40-guested DJ Mustard-made-funky I Don’t Fuck With You, the type of song that you consider some kid shit for the first few listens until you find yourself screaming it at the top of your lungs in the whip. Sean matched star power and swagger (ugh) with Kanye on All Your Fault and then took it back to the 90’s with Breezy on the very Guy-Like, Ty Dolla $ign- assisted No Games, complete with a very fun video. The relentless, downhill-rumbling Paradise is full of flow changes, pace changes and a husky tuba-powered beat that is face frown-inducing.
This album was, without a doubt the lyrical height of Hip-Hop this year. He dropped a couple duds in the last few years, but brilliance cannot be muted for long. I knew he was serious when he gave a little spanking to young Kendrick after the Control verse last year. I’m not a fan of the douche persona he puts out I’ll be damned if there is another rapper in his generation that even comes close to matching his pen.
Murals is an incredible display of lyrical skill that plays almost like an epitaph. If you never heard Lupe Fiasco before and he never rhymed another word, this song, with its piano and somber atmospherics would be a testament to his superiority. Over 8 minutes of line after line with no chorus or pretty shit to break it up.
Raw Chemicals, vitamins and minerals
And Vicodins with innertubes wrapped around the arm
See the vein like a chicken on a bun
Top Cat cat, let’s begin another yarn
Flying saucer cheese, or is it chicken parm?
Roosters don’t fly like boosters don’t buy
So what powers cowards to get ‘em to the top?
Just to fall asleep, listening to Bach
The ribbon in the sky is the ribbon that I drop
Dribbling the eye across the prism of a clock
It lacks meaning, but racks up stacks of fat reading
To catch cheating and wrap up plants from trap dealings
Now what’s a coffin with a scratched ceiling?
And what’s the talking without the matched feeling?
It’s buried living and cherry picking every lemon in your berry system
Proceed with the pack feeding
When I was young I had visions of another world
Sneaking looks at the porn stash and my brother hurled…
And we’re only two minutes in.
Lupe deftly addresses socio political issues on tracks like Dots and Lines which addresses organized religions, existentialism, and belief systems along with secret societies. The prison industrial complex is taken to task on Prison 1&2, with string supported grit and the sound of sliding prison bars that connect lyrics that address the issue from the prisoner’s perspective as jungle inhabitant trying to maintain identity in a system that reduces you to the anonymity of a number.
Part two flips the script and addresses the situation from the view of the corrections officers and how the prison environment forces them to change to deal with the “animals” in the jungle they are paid to control. A riveting concept that very few of his contemporaries could successfully address.
Terrace Martin delivers dizzying jazzy horns on Body of Work along with sizzling vocals from Troi. Oedipus Rex…motherfucker this is better than sex. The complexity of Lupe’s rhymes give double meaning to even the simplest of lines.
Whether you like the persona that Lupe exhudes or not, Tetsuo and Youth is a stark reminder that when motivated there is no one except possibly a Nas firing on all cylinders that converts life to art in such a high, sophisticated yet easy to digest fashion. Then he had the nerve to follow it up with a short but potent Pharoah Height. Lyricist of the year. Bar none.
Skyzoo: Music For my Friends
Skyzoo is admittedly one of my favorite artists and one of the first that I ever interviewed from Planet Ill. As with all of the “new” artists from our first year I watch his progress across releases and as inactive as I was this year, Music For My Friends really snuck up on me. The last thing I heard was the sublime Ode to Reasonable Doubt and I was interested in hearing the next wave of his evolution.
Music For My Friends is a personal, yet non-autobiographical tale of growing up in an urban environment. The album is interspersed with personal testimonies of friends and fueled by neck-snapping production. Skyzoo’s music is informed by the albums of Jay-z and HBO’s The Wire and there are many references to both peppered throughout the album.
The album is an attempt to convey that urban life and the simple dreams of people with minimal exposure to things outside of their hood wheelhouse. Jadakiss drops by for a cameo on See A Ki to spit a hot 16 on what exactly is in HIS wheelhouse. I’ve tested this track in the whip 30 degrees with the windows open at 5AM, and in headphones on the elliptical. It goes hard every time. Bilal and Black Thought add some Philly flavor to the mellow Money Makes Us Happy.
The Wire rears it’s head on the urgent Asking Bodie For A Package, which features a familiar scene between Namond (Weebay’s son) and his mom. The jazzy Experience and Civilized Leisure pick the pace up while showcasing more of the simple pleasures of life made attractive by the worst decisions backed by the best intentions. Things I Should Have Told My Friends delivers a somber, piano-driven memo on how those pleasures eventually turn on their head and lead to regret.
You don’t really get the total feeling until you you hear the excerpts of young people on closing note Sweet Pursuit. it is then that you realize that the choices you make when you have options are far more easy to judge than the ones people make when they have none. And the simplistic outlook of teenagers on this track made me feel sorrow for their futures.
Music For My Friends is a maturing Skyzoo with tighter wound lyrics with less confusing density or wasted meandering. The complete narrative of the album is direct and informative. It’s another win in the books for him, but I’d like to see him add some gravity to his delivery. The next person on this list had a song with the exact same beat as The Jalil Beats-produced Moments That Matter, took a different, more husky approach and came out with the better song. Despite that, Skyzoo delivered a legitimate contender for album of the year and Music For My Friends would make the grade in just about any year. The album has heart, lyricism, beats (including a strong Tribe flipping on Luxury) and cohesion.
Rick Ross – Black Dollar/Black Market
The year didn’t start well for the Bawse. Car shot up, declining album sales. Discord within the ranks of the once mighty Maybach. Chick trouble. And his lil homie got bodied by a singing nigga. Oh, and jail. But if you look at the history of William Roberts, some of his finest work has come with his back against the wall. And so it should come as no surprise that 2015 produced some of Ross’ best work since the classic Rich Forever street album.
He led with Black Dollar, which found Roberts touching on serious topics on lead single Foreclosures. Ross raps: The white man call us stupid niggas, we spend it all nothing for our children, putting the cost of floss on Front Street. From there he had the sublime Money Dance, backed by The-Dream. We Gon Make It goes further in capturing hood desperation and the effects of crime and poverty on the urban family. It’s not all politics when Meek and Ross combine on World’s Finest, which flips the Ohio Players’ “Ecstacy” originally tackled on Biggie and Jay’s “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Meek delivers one of his best performances and actually uses his inside voice for once.
Turns out Black Dollar was just a warm-up for another strong Ross album Black Market. The album opens with the rousing, triumphant Free Enterprise, featuring the immaculate John Legend. Still waiting on that Ross/Legend album but I digress. Cee-lo belts heartfelt bars on Smile Mama, Smile, a song that hit me in the gut on the highway at 5AM more than once. Color Money takes a couple thinly-veiled shots at the “singing nigga,” and his boss Baby, both former Ross collaborators. Crocodile Python features an aggressive Ross over the exact same beat as Skyzoo’s The Moments That Matter. I’ll let you decide which one you like better.
Cameo king Future lends his distorted vocals to D.O.P.E. while Breezy (Sorry), Blige (Very Best), and Mariah (Can’t Say No) sing hooks and choruses.
2015 may not have seen the sales that Ross enjoyed in his MMG heyday, but his musical legacy and his profile were both greatly enhanced by the work he released. While there is no gargantuan, street-strangling single like there usually is with Ross, there is an abundance of work that speaks to his improvement as an emcee and his laudable expansion of subject matter. His technical skill and songwriting have shown market improvement on these two project as well as breadth of thought and subject matter. This ain’t kid shit.
Part 2 will feature joints from ASAP Rocky, Game, Oddisee and of course, Kendrick Lamar. Peace