Blitz The Ambassador – Afropolitan Dreams Review

So you sit down at your table and select your starter but now have a choice to make. Do you go for the standard steak (well done), with peri peri skin fried chips (US citizens: see fries), Caesar salad and a coke with ice? Or do you opt for the pan fried spicy Tilapia & spice fried seaweed with rice, laced with a chilli and peanut sauce (damn I’ve gone all Masterchef on you)? Well if your Blitz the Ambassador and your -to carry through the analogy- cooking up a feast for the ears then you give your restauranteurs a mix of both with your latest dish, Afropolitan Dreams.

At the heart of all the tasty goings on is an album founded on Hip Hop’s base elements in all their forms. There are some very recognisable drum patterns, samples and interpolations to be found on tracks like Make You No Forget and Call Waiting featuring the legend that is Angelique Kidjo. Blitz himself is as dynamic an MC as any connoisseur could want and he needs to be, because on top of those base ingredients is a smorgasbord of energy, vivaciousness and just a hint of flamboyance.

That multitude of different sounds cascade through every song and there is a vibrancy that is simply not present on any other Hip Hop album I have listened to in recent years. Take my standout Africa Is The Future. Opening with a mass of stuttering strings and the supreme vocal stylings of Oum, the song then breaks out into a cacophony of percussion led melodies melding together to make a gorgeous fest for the ears and that formula is maintained throughout.

That precedent is set right from the start with the live boom bap drums and cattle clacks of The Arrival and Blitz does not allow it to dwindle. From the uplifting flute and horns of Dollar And A Dream to the hectic stuttering snares, bass line and cow bells (with the rhyme scheme to match) of the brilliant Internationally Known, there is simply no time to dwell on the of what you have just heard because the next song offers up the same conundrum. Even by far the albums most contemporary song, Love On The Run has a superb session sound, a thunder of a snare and some lovely tabla (I think) at its climax.

On top of all that is Blitz global maturity that shows through in both aspects of his talent. His worldly wisdom and socio-political standpoint is frequently pushed to the fore and his darts are such that they aren’t Unfathomable to anyone tasting the Ambassadors cuisine for the first time. The cataloging of ‘institutionalised’ internal racism from his “supposed” peers (which is disgraceful in itself) while first breaking onto the scene, over the vivid horns of Success, is a perfect case in point. Even the skits, to an extent, carry a digestible message

I’m not sure if ‘textures’ is a word I should be applying to a music review, but that is the only word I can think of to fully give justice to what Blitz has put together. All the instrumentation, no matter how much or how little a particular aspect is used, adds up to arguably the richest, lushest, all consuming album I’ve heard for a quite a while. Packed with the type of song (All Around The World, the already mentioned Internationally known) that are simply not being heard or put together in this way on other Hip Hop albums, Blitz has also shown himself to be one of The genre’s best kept production secrets as well a supreme talent with a mic (equipped with the Ghanaian flag) in his hand. I shudder to think what would have become of most of these songs if Blitz was signed to a major label.

originally written for On The Come up TV

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The Demise of Grime?

As it was with Hardcore, Jungle, Garage and 2-Step, so it is with Grime. Genres that only cater to one market, let alone one as small as the UKs, are always going to be susceptible to the fickle nature of its fans. They will quickly jump on a bandwagon to be in with the cool kids but will jump off even faster when the fad is over (just ask the So Solid Crew).

Tinie Tempah expressed concerns over Grime’s standing in the industry as a platform for its artists but I would have to wonder why. Can you have such misgivings when your music no longer reflects said genre yourself? His new album, Demonstration, is proof that if such artists want to get themselves heard then they need to adapt. Grime is not going to get you noticed in the big leagues anymore so it’s exponents should be “changing their lane” as it were, if they want to eat at the grown ups table. Dizzie Rascal and Wiley are prime examples. When Grime’s popularity started to descend they quickly Jumped on the EDM juggernaut, reaped the rewards and watched Tinie do the same with his debut, Disc-Overy.

Urban dance music has evolved to a point where one type is easily amalgamated to another and Hip Hop has now, to an extent, joined the party. Is it any wonder that Grime has gotten lost in the shuffle? Brostep, Dubstep, Drumstep, Filthstep, Dropstep, Chillstep, Glitch Hop, Dubstyle, Modestep (apparently a band with a genre named after them) Clownstep (need I go on?) are all in existence yet hard to differentiate to the novice listener, so what did Grime really expect?

If Grime’s current aces in the pack want to make the ‘step’ up they are going to have to leave it, or at least a part of it, behind. Any MC or singer worth their weight can surely let their talent loose on a more conventional sound. Unless their lyrics are just nonsensical filler talent scouts everywhere will welcome it. The British Urban scene is crying out for credible challengers to Tinie Tempah and Dizzie Rascal (see: my Adian Coker mixtape review). I am willing to bet that plenty of them can be found through Grime and it’s exhaustive list of subsidiaries but an obvious lack of exposure can only be addressed by removing themselves from the shadows and this, I suspect, is the issue.

When Dizzee Rascal took the decision to make himself a more viable option to the listening masses, he was met with hostility from a section of those that had previously considered him a hero. He was ‘going soft’ or a ‘sell out’ or his then new material was considered ‘gay’ (there’s that word again) but he knew even back then that Grime was only going to take him so far. I suspect that for some, the fear of a similar backlash is chief among the reasons for their lack of momentum.

If I am wrong, then Grime’s wane as a force on the UK scene will be permanent. The entire EDM scene has undergone a seismic popularity shift and as it can take on so many forms, Grime could easily be discarded altogether to fend for itself. After that it’s a simple case of survival of the fittest and I can’t see there being many survivors. MCs like Scrufizzer and Dot Rotten have preempted the change and embraced it and a few more are following suit. But the producers who were making beats for those MCs are increasingly turning to DJs and themselves, for income and exposure. Added to the fact that many of grimes new generation of beat makers are criticised by those in the know as being too nostalgic for their own good, there only seems to be one conclusion.

Grime as a major player is too far removed to recover in its original guise but those sub genres that bare a resemblance to US Trap Music can make an impact. Harnessing that comparison and utilising its best aspects is the only way that I can see a revival of Grime in any form. MCs that have made the exodus may never return but the new crop will believe they have a chance of success and stick around. Tinie Tempah can be as upset about it’s current predicament as he likes. The easiest way for him to put Grime back in the limelight was to include a Grime song on his new album. Or he could have done what was best to help make him a true international star. I don’t blame him for choosing the latter

Originally written for On The Come Up TV.

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Pete Cannon & Dr Syntax – Killer Combo! Review

Can conventional Hip Hop have a twist? What is conventional Hip Hop? Can Hip Hop even be conventional? Questions I pondered briefly while thinking of ways to describe the result of Pete Cannon and Dr Syntax’s duopoly, which has manifested itself in the subtly substantive Killer Combo! A conventional idea, executed in an unconventional way.

Why the ‘conventional’ questions? Nothing on this long player is ground breaking and the song concepts are nothing I haven’t heard before, but there is something about the whole project that is a little leftfield. Example one: track number 8, Weed and Ale. Superb bubbly uptempo Dub Hop that veers into a neck achingly nostalgic Jungle fest. Remember the constant change in drum patterns back in the day? Pete Cannon brings it all back. The Drum and Bass/Jungle switch up has been done, but I haven’t heard it executed in such an original way before. Example two: track number 9. The brilliantly cheeky and somewhat satirical Middle Class Problems. Dr Syntax expertly hams up the extreme lack of perspective of some sections (I did say some, this is not a generalisation) of today’s society. Lines like “My Souffl├ęs flopped, my internets down, I’ve got a gay dog….woof” need to be heard to be fully appreciated and the delivery of these is perfectly pitched.

It helps that Syntax’s voice lends itself to comedy and that fact is used to maximum effect. When almost all of his peers would have made light work of ripping some of the more Braggadocio beats to shreds, the good Doctor takes a more carefree, lighthearted approach to putting wannabe rivals in their place. I mean, how are you supposed to spit “as nerdy as a Facebook fan page for Han Solo” and expect all of is listeners to keep a straight face? The key to Syntax’s success is in his delivery and 99 times out of 100 he is spot on. The downside though, is that on songs like the sugary Got Me In A Spin, you cen’t tell if he is doing a great job of taking the mickey, a bad job of being serious, or a good job of making you think he is doing a bad job of…. and so on. Even the accompanying beat seems to be in on the conundrum.

Yet after all the one liners and off kilter social observations, I feel I am somewhat undermining the Doctors obvious talents when I say that my the albums most probable chance of gaining more media attention doesn’t involve him at all. ‘Pete Cannon Sings The Hits Part 1′ seems to be something of an added bonus and features the albums beat man in Pharrell Williams mode. Catchy Disco Pop meets Ol’ Dirty Bastards ‘Sweet Sugar Pie’. It could catch on.

My previous dalliances with Pete Cannon have been with beats a bit more in your face than what he has assembled here and this is obviously a result of tailoring his craft to the MC he is working with. It would have been easy to simply put some beats together and wait for the results. Yet every beat has that easy going, idiosyncratic vibe about it and is a perfect compliment for Dr Syntax’s charismatic, semi-cartoon like delivery.

For me, the only obvious misstep on the entire album is No Time Like The Present, which lacks either the originality of some tracks and the immediate stand alone appeal of others. Yet as a complete package, Killer Combo! Stands out from a most of this years more prominent Hip Hop releases. Dr Syntax’s nerdish charm hasn’t gone away (he’s been around for quite a while) and Pete Cannon is (rightly) making a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s just a shame that the fruits of their labour probably won’t get the attention it deserves.

Originally written for On The Come Up TV

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Oddisee – Tangible Dream Review

‘Good things come to he who waits’ so the saying goes. To think that there are actually negative reviews of Oddisee’s instrumental opus out there in the ‘interverse’. One can only assume that a constant diet of Trap Music and House Hop has gone to their heads. “This guy tries too hard” some of them said… “ooookaaay” (as I wind my finger round beside my head to make the universal sign for mad man). Those of us sane enough to appreciate The Beauty In All, were made to feel even more so when we found the Tangible Dream mixtape tacked onto the end of it. Well, such is its popularity that it is belatedly being released in its own right next month.

Oddisee is an MC with a rational eye and a producer with a broad stroke brush. His rhymes don’t shout, they explain. His beats don’t swagger, they swing. Drugs, guns and money are words he only uses as part of a bigger picture. When listening to Tangible Dream, his tracks don’t share that typical thread found in other producers work. Though obviously a Hip Hop specialist, His style beyond that cannot be typecast. Jazz Hop, Boom Bap, Percussive, Progressive, Samples, Synths, Live instrumentation, all these and more can be found on what I consider to be one of the years best Hip Hop releases.

Upon hearing the marching band drums and not much else on the opener, also called Tangible Dream, I did think for a second that Oddisee had gone all Kanye on us (you know as well as I do that Kanye lost old fans as well as gaining new ones when 808 came out). Then the rich bass line and snare arrives and all is right with the world once more. Next comes the superb stand out. “I know that Yeezus was a mortal man / Hov ain’t Jehovah he’s a normal man” (get it?) is the hook as Oddisee schools those who need it on the misguided culture of celebrity over talent.

Have no fear though, the biggest stand out may only be track two but the standard he sets throughout is so high that ‘very very good’ is the lowest grade I can give any one song and that isn’t too often. The variety of inventive drums and lush backdrops that take in Gospel choirs, Jazz ensembles, Spacey synth keyboards, off kilter vocal samples, anthemic strings and an awful lot in between, is top notch and you won’t hear the same thing twice. But don’t make the mistake (as I did initially) of being completely taken in by the songs and miss the mic skills with substance.

Oddisee is not afraid to show his emotions, freely admits that he isn’t perfect and does so regularly. He exposes his emotional fallibility on Back Of My Mind. He contemplates living a happy life as oppose to the good life on Tangible Dream. He expands on that on Own Appeal, with words on living your life as best you can while appreciating what you have. And he espouses the fall out from a broken relationship on The Goings On.

There is a clear goal with this mixtape. The man is not merely rapping for rappings sake. He is conveying a message that, with the state of mainstream music being such as it is, is an apt one. The fact that he is able to impart that message over such a wonderful assortment of beats is all the better.

Tangible Dream is one man’s interpretation of not being rich but being happy. Not living a fast life but living a good life. Not being successful for success’ sake but being a success because you are good at what you do. It is about not selling false dreams to us, the listeners. It is a statement to counter the material ideals promoted by other artists. Oddisee is using Tangible Dream, and by consequence great Hip Hop, as his example.

Originally written in 2013 for OnTheComeUpTV.com

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Jonathan and Charlotte Have Got talent

It used to be that talent shows were about talent. Unfortunately by proxy of the delusions of grandeur of producers they have become emotion driven parodies of themselves. There is seldom a case where the “journey” undertaken by those involved is actually relevant to the song they are about to sing and their next performance is always “the performance of their lives”. In the case of Jonathan and Charlotte however, it was a necessity in order that we understood why together, these two are more than the sum of their parts.

It was evident as soon as they first walked out on stage for their first audition that Charlotte was Jonathan’s emotional crutch, his confidante, his cheerleader, and as such was enabling him to go out on stage and do what he does so well. It was also clear as soon as that audition was over that Jonathan was Charlotte’s singing crutch. She is obviously talented but the connection they share means she is far better when in the two are a duet. It was this connection that ultimately saw them both improve significantly as the show went on. Jonathan’s confidence and Charlotte’s singing both went on a steep upward curve so by the time they reached the final, they were ready for whatever the world threw at them…. like a record deal with Sony Music (via Simon Cowell’s Syco music label), for instance.

[The first album, Together, saw the pair riding their huge Britains Got Talent wave and the album reflected that. A well balanced album that drew its audience in by having some popular songs on its tracklist, yet giving them a quite dramatic classical makeover. A theme carried over to the second album, Perhaps Love, that also takes into account the timing of its release with the inclusion of Christmas songs, thus ensuring repeat play and inclusion on many a Christmas compilation. Well executed without being groundbreaking, both albums are a great example of how to make morally accessible talent even more so.]

Thus, two UK top five classical albums later, not only have Jonathan and Charlotte become the first teenage duo to complete such a feat, they are doing it without courting a hint of controversy or marketing gimmicks. Forget the lack of universal critical acclaim, a look through any public comments section for one of their albums makes it easy to see why they are so loved and will continue to be so. Their interviews reveal humble, thankful and on the part of Jonathan, troubled friends who simply love the lives they are now able to lead. Many in the limelight express thanks for what they have but few in the music industry do it with as much sincerity.

As singers there is obviously no doubting the duo’s talent and talent will almost always get you noticed by somebody somewhere. But as always, 24 hour media means that people want a piece of the artists as well as the music. If there isn’t even a modicum of personality for the listening public to get there teeth into, in most cases that initial popularity will not be sustained. People adore Jonathan and admire Charlotte but it is the story of their friendship that clearly resonates with their fans and is what could see the career trajectories of these two continue upwards to rise very high indeed.

Originally Written In 2013 for OnTheComeUpTV

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Ramson Badbonez – A Year In The Life Of Oscar The Slouch review

Ramson Badbonez, arguably the UK’s most naturally gifted MC. A man whose utilisation of some of Hip Hops most well known Golden Age instrumentals (The London Realness, 3 Endings) is nothing short of genius. After his catalogue of mixtapes and assorted releases grew exponentially, his debut album (released via Boot Records) Bad Influence, took its bow. Yet as good as most of the album was, to me Ramson suffered from what I call, the Can-I-Bus effect. A plethora of superbly written rhymes were heard from start to finish, yet there was a distinct lack of structure. Having gonna back to the drawing board, Mr. Badbonez is back with his first release through High Focus Records, A Year In The Life of Oscar The Slouch.

The the pluses for Oscar The Slouch over its predecessor are obvious. The albums title gives away the first. The gritty, unforgiving side of London life is documented via Oscar with each track (14 tracks including the intro and outro) covering one month in a very eventful year. The second is this albums far more cohesive sound. Thanks to the production being entirely handled by underrated workaholic Charlie Mac, there is a definitive lean towards beats being utilised for different aspects of the album, as opposed to simply selecting a banger for bangers sake.

Ramson’s flow is one that can easily overshadow most of the beats it comes into contact with and it is very easy to start marvelling at the lyrical wizardry, all the while completely overlooking what is actually being said. For example, I only noticed the subtle references to the time of year a song is actually set two thirds of the way through my second listen. Oscar contemplates the contents of his New Years resolutions, makes sure his winter boots and gloves are in close attendance, makes summer trips to the Trocadero, admires ladies in skimpy outfits and resents the temperature and snow during Christmas. These observations and the way they are not so obviously implemented clearly shows a man wanting to make an album rather than just a collection of (great) songs.

Charlie Mac has put in a superb shift with the beats. Jazz Hop and Boom Bap are clearly his niche and are my favourite Hip hop sub genres so when they are as well done as they are on Oscar I can only applaud. The foundations are very nicely laid in January where the uptempo beat and muffled bongo’s are a great tandem for Oscar’s (slightly) positive outlook on the forthcoming year. This is a process that is carried from start to finish with Oscars mood being married with the music he is lamenting over. Even the guests are perfect for the songs on which they appear (Joker Starr in March). The cuts and chops are also very clever in their use. A couple of Golden Age street classics (remember Get The money And Dip?), clips from London riot news feeds and even Sesame Street vocal clips are a perfect foil for Ramson’s street orientated insight and quirky (but not at all annoying) vocal pitch.

For all that inner city insight though, Ramson could have given Oscar a little more worldly wisdom. Thugs, Gangsters, Kingpins and runners, no matter how complex or base they may be, have views too. With the talent at his disposal, Ramson could have easily imparted views on Banking, the governments austerity measures or even the alarming increase in food banks given each has a relevance in Oscars life. There are only so many ways you can describe the same scenarios or make the same threats before it becomes a little monotonous. An energetic delivery and skilful wordplay (marvellous though it is) will only carry an album so far. Indeed it is not until September that any such subject is touched upon for more that one or two bars and even then it is Genesis Elijah that does so (superbly I might add). With all that said, when a subject is approached properly in November and done so well it makes the lack of that approach overall all the more frustrating.

Ramson Badbonez will release a classic sooner or later and he was almost there with Oscar The Slouch. The focus is there, the witty wordplay is there, the concept and vision are there, the attention to detail and execution is there, the superb beats are there, the great choice of features is there, the dominance of songs is there. The subject matter (or lack of it) however is all that is holding him back and needs a fair bit of beefing up. If this is addressed and the same focus and delivery is applied that classic is surely a formality.

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Ahead Of It’s Time: Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool

Having already secured critical acclaim for his debut, Food and Liquor, Lupe Fiasco could easily have continued as before and released more of the same on his next outing. As long as the strength of his convictions didn’t suddenly disappear without trace and the beats were just as good, the man was a shoe in for more of the same. Instead we were treated to an album that upon its release, I was sure was not going to be fully appreciated until the rest of Hip Hop caught up with it. With technology such as it is and the genre bending collaborations that are now a frequent occurrence, now is as good a time as any to re-introduce people to ‘The Cool’

Lupe was not a Hip hop fan from the get go. He detested the vulgar nature of many of its mainstays at the time and was instead drawn to Jazz. After finding his way back to Hip Hop he released a single as part of a ‘Gangster Rap’ group called The Pak. He hated the result and decided to do more with the platform he was given. This conscious decision, via the success of Food and Liquor, is ultimately why The Cool was way ahead of the Hip hop curve and not just another run of the mill “Drugs, Guns and Bitches” release.

As an album, the cool had the same impact on me as The Neptunes did when they made their way to the front of the queue. Except that they were astute in that they didn’t go too far over people’s heads so as not to alienate them. To me it seemed that Lupe on the other hand, had a vision and was determined to get as close to it as he could (see: as close as his parent label would allow). But Whether his creative freedom was complete or not some fans simply didn’t take the finished article.

By and large the critics on the other hand, were pretty much universal in their praise. Only a handful were a little put off by what they perceived as an arrogance but I don’t hear that at any stage of the album. Lupe lost his father and a friend during recording while his partner in (the business of) rhyme was sent to prison.

These experiences are ultimately what turned much of the subject matter towards the darker things in life. I don’t think masterpieces like Streets On Fire -a perfect commentary on the paranoia surrounding the state of the modern world (and part of the albums concept: read on)- or Little Weapon -a brilliantly constructed telling of children from across the world being forced, coerced or driven, to take up a gun… and the consequences- would have existed if these tragic circumstances didn’t happen.

Then there is what I consider to be Lupe’s lyrical crowning glory. A song that proved that there are some who will never get, or make an attempt to get, where this man is coming from. I must have listened to Dumb It Down about 12 times before I understood anything other than its hooks. However I think that Lupe intended this to be the case all along. The hooks act like the verses with all carrying the same structure while using a different spin on the same concept. That there is something wrong with inspiring men to be something other than gangsters and sportsmen. Or with inspiring women to get an education and aspire to be more than just another ghetto statistic. Or with putting some substance into songs instead of just a series of catchy hooks to gain radio play. I also think that Lupe was subliminally challenging others to take the same route he had already embarked on.

The intriguing part however, is the overriding concept connecting this album and it’s predecessor. The story of the young man on Food and Liquor’s He Say She Say is carried into several of The Cool’s tracklist and is played out in cinematic (and at times epic) style. It centres around a triangle of the aforementioned young man (The Cool), his all consuming female influence/love interest (The Strrets) and his nemesis (The Game). This is both the albums overriding strength, it’s only flaw and probably the reason why it went over more than a few heads. This though, does not take away from the relevance of almost all of the songs individual subject matter or the albums execution.

The albums beats also play out like an extended introduction followed by the main event and both parts are superbly done. The more accessible side is almost the calm before the storm. That storm begins as soon as Streets On Fire’s constant strings and dulled, haunting old school Drum and Bassish tones maraud your ears. The beats from then on in some way shape or form are of a type that back then, much of Hip Hop wasn’t yet attuned to. But as I said at the start, with things as they are now and new fans discovering Hip Hop through many unexpected associations, now is the time for rediscovery. Sonically The Cool would have been better off now than it was in 2007. His existing fans stayed loyal but commercially he never gained any new ones (not in terms of numbers anyway). Lupe could have been riskier with his choice of single as, apart from the obvious flaws at the top of the food chain, the tastes of fans are more flexible than they were even since 2007.

And to top it all off is the superb get together with UNKLE that is Hello/Goodbye. After all this talk of moral evolution, unlikely collaborations and concepts within a concept wrapped in a concept, I’m gonna be a hypocrite and leave you with my favourite line from the album….
“I love Street Fighter II I just really hate Zangief / only Ken and Ryu I find it hard to beat Blanka”…. (he knows me so well).

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