Monday, August 18, 2014

"The House II", Lo Key EP review

Yoyo ninjas. I've been waiting to do this review for a little while.
Released on Halloween a year after the first, The House II is a direct sequel to The House. Also similar to the first one, it was released in a multitude of different versions over the years. To start off this review, I'm going to list all the iterations below.
     There are two 2006 versions. Both came out on Halloween.
    - There is the slim case version that came with specific art that I will post below
    - There is also the free downloadable version, with very slightly altered art
   -  The 2008 machine press, which came with different art and a jewel case
     Finally, the 2009 reissue of the album on Lo Key's record label, Lokerecords. It comes with different, finalized art that I will be posting below
     With that I will move on to other aspects of the EP.

To clarify, I only have the 2009 reissued press of the EP. I will only be speaking on this press.
     The cover art consists of a hand with the thumb, pinkie, and ring finger severed. This leaves only the index and middle, simulating the number two. It's set against a crimson background. Unique, stark, well-done.
     On the back you have you track listing for the five tracks, and a Lo Key logo above it. The cover art is a slip, yet again, and on the back of the slip is an advert for On the CD is the cover art, but printed and fit to the disc. Nothing in the CD rest.

     There's not too much I can say about this EP. And even if there was, I don't think I'd want to talk much about this EP. I'll keep it honest, short and sweet for my ninjas.
     Similar to the first EP, it was released on Halloween, and it was well-received within the realm of the underground. The aesthetic formula hasn't changed; if you glance at the tracklist, you'll see a familiar list of household items and devices meant to illustrate the story of a home. This is, again, a very creative and fresh concept for production, and is something that hasn't quite been done by other artists.
     The similarities don't end there, which is unfortunate for this EP. The House II suffers from many of the same ailments that plagued the first entry in The House series. The first thing here that doesn't shine is the five-song tracklist, which wouldn't be a problem if the CD was cheaper, or easily available for free download. While the concept of this EP is fresh, five songs to paint the whole scene just isn't enough, and the extended play's content feels seriously crammed as a result.
     The biggest folly of the first EP was that the content was too much of the same, "Murda Murda Murda!" bullshit, with no variety in the themes of the EP whatsoever. There is some of that this time around too, but even more noticeable is that the content seems scattered and tends to jump around quite a bit. Instead of a barrage of the same shit over and over, Lo Key opts to instead jump all over the place with a wider berth of messages. This does the CD some justice and is much preferable to the monotony of the first EP, but it makes the CD feel crammed because of the tragically short tracklist. Even one or two more songs would have helped to make this CD feel less congested.
     While this CD is definitely a step up from the first entry in the series, there is so much that still needs to be improved on. This entry is very far from being perfect, so here's hoping that Lo Key really steps it the fuck up on the next entry because let's be real, it needs to happen.
     Ninjas I've said it once, and I'll say it again: This might be worth your money, it might not be, but what's more important to remember this time around, is that this CD probably isn't worth your money, and you're better off not wasting your time with this EP. Yes, The House is important to Lo Key's career, but there isn't enough good content on the CD to justify spending your money on it. Go listen to it on YouTube or something.

JRH gives "The House II" by Lo Key a: 1.4/5!
("Nah, not really")

Strong points:
- Not everything about this CD is bad. Some big hits in Lo Key's career are here, specifically, The Needle and The Child. Unfortunately, they outshine the rest of the EP and make everything else look like shit in comparison.
- The art for the CD is much better than the art for the first entry, but isn't exactly spectacular either

Weak points (2many2count):
- Lo Key tries to do way too much with way too little, and ends up making the EP sound crammed because of it. Even one or two more tracks would have really helped make this EP sound less congested.
- Really, there are only two good songs on this album, and they've been pressed onto many other CDs for your listening pleasure. Look into those if you want a nice CD to slam for a while.
>12.99 for a five-song EP

That's it ninjas. Now it's time for the graphics:

Slim-case, 2006

Slightly different than the one above; different color tones. Free download, 2006

Machine press, 2008

Finalized art, 2009 repressing on Lokerecords

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Exmilitary", Death Grips digital mixtape review

All right ninjas, I'm dropping another one on ya.
"Death Grips"
     They came on the scene not too long ago, forming in 2010. I'm not going to go too much into their history, but I'll mention that the group consists of three: MC Ride (the vocalist), the producer, and a drummer.
     You might know about these guys, you might not. But regardless of either circumstance, these guys are fairly well-known and have somewhat of a cult following on the internet. Death Grips's experimental sound and belligerent, loud demeanor culled a large and enviable crowd from along the breadth of the internet, a crowd that they have maintained throughout the years. As a last, more somber note, the group disbanded this year in the midst of a tour. Exmilitary was their first big release, with only an EP coming beforehand. It propelled them onto the scene because of its experimental, loud nature, and was generally received well by critics.
But I'm here to tell you like it is, from one ninja to another ninja.

     I'm going to start off by exclaiming to everyone that Death Grips is not your average rap group in any possible iota. This isn't wickedshit, this isn't really even underground - and some would say that it's not even rap. Death Grips is similar to nothing in particular, and they are a terribly unique entity in whatever genre you decide they belong to. I want to just establish that fact so you know what you're walking into if you decide to give these guys a listen.
     This mixtape is a lot to take in, and I don't mean that in length. At thirteen tracks, this mixtape has a moderate length that suits it well. At times this album seems nothing more than a headache, with cacophonous mechanical production that grates the eardrums, and loud, nonsensical yelling on part of the MC. My feelings on this album vary - there were some times that I could hardly even stand to listen to the screeching coalesce of the grating beats and the belligerent exclamations of the seemingly-addled MC, while other times I mentally praised the recondite production skills of whomever was behind the scenes, making this thing happen.
     In essence, the true nature and true quality of this mixtape is not for me or any critic to decide. While the medley of loud vocals and the robotic dins of experimental production can often be off-putting, there are some that revel in the bass-heavy maniacal exclamations and thumping production. The ultimate verdict on the quality of this album must be determined by the listener, because of how far outside the norm this group is. I encourage you to take a listen and decide for yourself.
     But personally, it's not my thing. While this album is unique musically-speaking, the unintelligible vocals and experimental beats don't quite sit very well with me. I respect Death Grips as a group for being unique and garnering national attention through their haphazard talent, but I am personally not a big fan of their music at a baser level.
     Ninjas, this album is free, but it's also really fucking weird. This might be worth your time, it might not be. If you're interested in contemporary pseudo-music - the kind that tends to pick up fans with alien production and unfiltered weirdness, then I'd say this album is worth giving a look at. But if you're just an average listener who's looking to slam some new shit in the whip for a while, turn the fuck back and walk away from this. It's not for you.

Here is a download link for this mixtape:

JRH gives "Exmilitary" by Death Grips a: 2.2/5
(I've bumped better)

Strong points:
- Starkly unique sound that can easily capture the ear of a wandering listener
- Great production, seriously. Whoever is behind these beats has some real talent
- The belligerent yelling and in-your-face attitude just might be your thing
- Terribly unique; this sound stands out like a sore thumb in comparison to most rap
- The tracklist has a pretty nice flow, and doesn't seem choppy or anything like that

Weak points:
- While the noise can seem very well-orchestrated and skillful, it can also seem like a cacophonous shitfest of angry screaming and heavy basslines. The same themes that can make this album great are also its worst flaws.
- MC Ride is unique in that his manner of rapping is very strange and follows no particular set pattern, but he tends to yell a lot. Instead of sounding skillful and avant-garde, it often seems like he just has no idea how to truly vocalize.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"The Chronic: Re-Lit & From the Vault", Dr. Dre album review

This is gonna be a long, big one. So grab some Vaseline and lube up homie, let's hope it all fits.
"The Chronic: Re-Lit & Remastered"
     Released in 2009 - wait, what?
     Oh, right. This album was released/re-released four different times. I'm going to get that out of the way from square one so there is no confusion.
     The original, OG press, was released in December of 1992. This is the very first release of the album.
     It was next re-released as a remastered CD in 2001, I think, but please tell me if I'm wrong. It also came with an additional track; the video version of the song "Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')".
     From there, it was re-released again as a limited-edition DualDisc with four videos, but I'm unsure when this was released. I imagine this fetches a pretty penny.
     Finally, there is the 2009 re-release of the album: "The Chronic: Re-Lit & Remastered". This is a double-disc digipack, and comes with seven unreleased tracks from the Death Row vault. The first disc is just The Chronic in its entirety, remastered. The second disc is a DVD with a shitton of content on it. It holds seven videos for songs on this album, which I'll talk more about later. There's also a thirty-minute interview with Dre, a bunch of commercials and promos for the album, and a feature trailer for some movie. The unreleased music is on the second disc, and must be retrieved manually from the DVD's ROM folder. I imagine this process could be painful for the technologically illiterate, and it took me a bit to figure it out too.
     This album could be called many things by many different people, but above all else this album is and was incredibly influential. Any critic, rapper, or fan of hip-hop who knows anything about the Golden Age of rap would tell you the same thing. After N.W.A. split up, Dr. Dre began production of another album on his own record label, "Death Row Records". The Chronic would be Dr. Dre's first solo release, but it would be heavily featured by many other artists, among which was rap legend-to-be, Snoop Dogg. Several singles were released from the album - all of which charted very well, and all of which had videos produced for them. The Chronic has sold over eight million copies worldwide, enjoyed multiple repressings, and remains a classic entry in rap to this very day.

This album has been repressed many times, and a lot of the copies of this album have alternate art. I will be posting both the original cover and the Re-Lit & Remastered version below, but will only be speaking on the Re-Lit & Remastered graphics, since that is the version that I have.
     This cover is drastically different than other presses. The Chronic was originally released twenty-two years ago, and there's a clear effort to show the age of the album through these graphics. The cover looks old and aged, its edges charred like a newspaper curling in a modest fire. But generally, besides the shape of the background, the actual art of the album is pretty true to the original version. In the corner are the words "Re-Lit & From the Vault", advertising the album's bonus content. You'll see it in further detail below, at the end of the review.
     The back contains the track listing of the first disc and advertises the bonus content of the second disc. The bonus tracks on the DVD are listed within the same decorative frame, and everything outside the frame is licensing shit. The front cover of the digipack operates like a mixtape sleeve, and houses a small booklet that has the cover art on the front. In the booklet is undiluted praise for Dre's productions skills, courtesy of Quincy Jones III. There's in-depth production details for every song on the album (including the unreleased songs) and a picture of Dre sitting on a car. Lots of shout-outs, another ad for the bonus content on the DVD, and lastly, an ad on the back of the booklet for Death Row records. As mentioned before, the CD is a digipack, so there's multiple flaps. I guess when this album was released there was some kind of sweepstakes; there's an ad for a contest that would get you to L.A. if you won, and an ad for access to the Death Row vault. There's a picture of Dre on the backside of one of the flaps, and a picture of Snoop and Dre in the studio in the CD rest of the first CD. Both CDs follow the same art pattern, black and glossy - nice, professional-looking LE discs with licensing shit and a Death Row logo on them. Lastly, there's an ad for the extra DVD content in the CD rest of the DVD disc itself.

     This is what really matters
     Machismo, killing, sex, blunts, and smooth whips. In many ways, you could say this CD is not unique at all, and just a continuation of themes that had already been established in the rap game.
     But I beg to differ.
     The production on this album is incredible and amazingly meticulous, especially during a time where rap was gaining steady traction with people and was thus open to influence with each passing release. Dr. Dre took that possibility for influence, knocked it out of the park, into orbit, and then the ball continued to soar until it reached another solar system.
     This album was hot shit back in its day, and hell, it still is. You get the same great feeling from listening to this album today that would would have gotten twenty years ago; this album has stood the test of time better than a stone sundial. You can hear a lot when you listen to this album; a lot more than fat whips and big guns. You can hear the practiced hands of a producer mixing elaborately to create something that, lyrically, might seem like just another SG with a mic; but muscially, is something different entirely. It is primarily for this reason that this album was so well-received, and continues to be; its production value speaks for itself.
     Dr. Dre had already helped to define a grounds for gangsta rap, and with this album, he perfected the art of solid g-funk production - perhaps his biggest influence in his career. The slow, thumping beats and consistent, smooth baselines provided a clear palette for other upcoming artists to learn and work from. You can see this reflected in the history of hip-hop - in imagery, lyricism, producing techniques, and legacy.

DVD Content:
     The DVD contains four music videos, and three of them have two altered versions; seven music videos altogether. The music videos are on some VHS-quality shit, which is unsurprising given that they were shot back in the '90s. But even with this technological fact out of the way, the videos themselves aren't particularly creative or interesting. For the most part, Snoop and Dre meander around large groups of people and spit their shit, with themes that today are very common for hip-hop videos (Heterosexuality, objectification of women, guns, beef, drinking), and seem rather cookie-cutter in that respect - even if the music videos themselves might have been pretty original at the time (Which may or may not be true). On top of that, all the videos are annoyingly censored, and this fact skewers the insensitivity of the original content, leaving you scratching your head and wondering why they decided to switch it up for the mainstream. This would be acceptable if there were uncensored versions of each video, but there aren't.
     Music videos are just one aspect of the DVD. The promotional teasers and commercials are mostly uninteresting, and this is exacerbated by the fact that more than half of the promotional teasers and commercials are just slightly edited versions of each other. It's annoying, but I guess it's cool to have all the different shots of the videos. The feature movie trailer feels horribly out of place, and I am honestly not sure why it is in there. The only relevance it has with The Chronic is that there are some songs from The Chronic mixed in with the soundtrack of the movie. It seems like a paid slot - nothing more, and nothing less.
     The interview is pretty cool, actually. If you're interested in what it was like for Dr. Dre to produce this album, it's a thirty-minute interview that wasn't long after The Chronic was released, I think, and Dr. Dre just talks. The interviewer asks him question after question, and he responds appropriately. There's a lot of talk about what hip-hop means for Dr. Dre, where it fits into his life, and the history, present, and future of rap. The only thing I didn't dig about the interview was the chunk of time it took to watch it. But if you know what you're getting into you just kind of sit through it and hopefully learn some new things.
     The last feature on the DVD are the seven bonus tracks that come with it. Finding the tracks is a bit annoying, but worth the trouble in itself. I'm going to tell you straight up - if you're thinking of buying this CD because you want to hear the rare tracks, I can assure you right now that the songs aren't worth your money. The seven tracks are neither numerous or good enough to warrant being the sole reason to buy this album, and while some of the songs are pretty cool, they're just not great. In comparison to The Chronic's tracks, these songs are weak as fuck. They're cool, but not very cool. I appreciate having them, and I'll be listening to some of them in the future, but simply put, The Chronic by itself is more than good enough. Unless you're a hardcore collector, I'd recommend not wasting your money.
If you like G-funk, you'll like The Chronic. Actually, you'll fucking love it.

JRH gives "The Chronic" by Dr. Dre a: 4.5/5!
(Yeah, mothafucka!)

Strong points:
- Solid, solid, solid production
- Great lyricism and great delivery; even for themes that weren't really new at the time, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's delivery was more than on par, for this album.
- The new art for the re-release was really pretty, every bit of it
- Great features
- Great skits
- Very influential piece, and definitely one of Dr. Dre's most important releases in his career

Weak points:
- Personally, I don't dig all the extra features. I don't think that some music videos, an interview, a handful of unreleased songs and some commercials was really worth my money. You're not going to find this on the cheap because it's OOP, so keep that in mind too.
- Bonus tracks aren't worth your money, plain and simple
- Nothing about the music videos has changed. I feel like these were all already released to the public, but the DVD is just a more convenient way to access them, and that's what you're paying for.

The version of the album I'm reviewing. Notice the worn background, but otherwise consistent artwork.

Apparently the art for this album was a homage to Zig-Zags, but honestly, I'm not even sure what a Zig-Zag is. All you smoker motherfuckas can probably relate to that shit, but I'm pullin' a fat blank.