Scholar. Street philosopher. Triple Nobel Peace Prize victor. First black male to pilot an aircraft. Father of the Nike Swoosh. “The man that made Kool Aid say, ‘Oh yeah!’” So said Dave Chappelle, that hip-hop tastemaker with the 90-percent free-throw percentage, on the first track of Talib Kweli’s first album, Quality. Yeah, it was hyperbole worthy of ushering Xerxes the Great into court, but it reflected the rising Brooklyn star’s bottomless ambitions.
How do you pin down Sun Ra? The cosmic jazzman laid down so much music it would take a warehouse of full-time historians working round-the-clock hours to figure it all out. Albums were often hastily assembled from his prolific sessions, packaged with DIY artwork and sold at gigs for quick cash. Thousands of hours of unheard recordings are rumored to exist. Maybe he stacked boxes of magnetic tape on far-away planets too, such was his connection to the stars.
Don’t take your eyes off Pete Rock. The early-‘90s albums he produced with rapper CL Smooth still live in legend; recent reports suggest the New York duo are reuniting for their first new music since Nas dropped Illmatic. This pair, like their contemporaries A Tribe Called Quest, weren’t about to go back into the studio just because fans wanted them to. Rock may be the golden-age god whose snap-n-crack boom bap helped spawn J Dilla, Mark Ronson, and Kanye West, but take a look at the names that make up Rock’s recent client list—Torae, Grafh, Snyp Life—and it’s clear that he’s less interested in collecting checks than he is crowding his orbit with hard-nosed hip-hop.
It’s been a decade now since Comedy Central signed off on the final editions of “Chappelle's Show” behind the back of its host and creator. The three “lost episodes” glued together the completed skits from the abandoned third season, revealing the tense working environment that caused a visibly jaded Dave Chappelle to abscond to the relative anonymity of South Africa. Looking back, the desertion wasn’t so shocking: The comedian had been operating on a level so high it couldn’t possibly last.
Love has been the benzine in pop music’s tank since time immemorial. That’s because trying to pin down its meaning is like trying to crescent kick a waterfall—it is constantly being filtered and refiltered through a pop culture prism. Everyone from Walt Disney, to Ian Curtis, to André 3000 had their own takes. Yet here we are, in 2016, and Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins has released a concept album about love that finds fresh angles.
Charlotte Day Wilson was the satin surface in the “smooth-ass R&B” Toronto quartet The Wayo. Her low voice draped around their suave arrangements just like Sade’s around her group of smooth operators. A smoldering guest spot on BADBADNOTGOOD’s recent ’70s jukebox number “In Your Eyes” made her credentials as a warden of the old school all the more official. But her debut solo EP, the mainly self-produced CDW, shoots ahead a couple decades to a more polished, contemporary adult sound. With Sade still a touchpoint—as well as Maxwell’s stylish neo-soul and some pre-“Heartbreaker” Mariah Carey sprinkled in too—Wilson’s quiet storm whirls with similar magic.
Accepting DOOM as your mentor is a gift and a curse. There’s barely a young rapper in the world who wouldn’t want the super villain playing the Palpatine to their Darth Vader, but he hasn’t crafted one of rap’s deepest mythologies by being easy to predict. The 2014 joint album with teen protege Bishop Nehru, NehruvianDOOM, was a break for the young New Yorker, but the final product suffered from a lack of care. The regurgitated Special Herbs beats, slight running time and limited on-mic appearances from DOOM himself reflected his patchy interest in the project, and he’s since retreated to his hidden underground lair, plotting the next move in his malevolent masterplan. Meanwhile, Bishop, still just 19 years old, has been left exposed to the rising levels of hype surrounding him.
If Detroit underground hero Payroll Giovanni and Minnesota-born, Texas-based producer Cardo Got Wings swerved any further West on Big Bossin’ Vol 1, they’d splash down into the Pacific. The pair’s panoramic portrait of a mid-level hustler leans so heavily on classic LA gangster rap, Bay Area hyphy and hood movie mythology, it’s impossible to picture these narratives taking place anywhere else but California. Call it Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas music—a nostalgic throwback to a time when pop culture was loaded with images of palm-treed pavements, side-held pistols and fingers curled into a ‘W’ that comfortably files alongside Kendrick Lamar and DJ Mustard’s modernized takes. Chance the Rapper’s gospel-swathed Coloring Book has been called the sound of the summer, but it’s Big Bossin’ Vol 1 that’ll fill the Lowriders with octane.
New York’s golden-age gods loom over many of the city’s current crop of emcees—from Joey Bada$$’s dusty boom-bap, to Ka’s bitter-cold drug slinging narratives–but Meyhem Lauren is among the most fiercely dedicated students. Operating in an outline sketched out by Martin Scorsese and Reasonable Doubt, the Queens heavyweight pitches himself as a veteran crime boss too deep in the game to change his ways, too flush from the life to take a step back.
Simi Crowns speaks with an accent that reveals both sides of his history. Born in Lagos, Nigeria—a country best known musically for its pulsating Afrobeat and traditional Juju—the 26-year-old and his family left their native soil to start anew in Dublin when he was just 11, and while the rapper’s voice still holds onto his West African roots, there are times when he’ll lean into a syllable in a way that reveals his adopted homeland.
Noah and the Whale’s debut album Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down was chock full of charmless whimsy and derivative Wes Anderson-straddling imagery (their name was inspired by the Noah Baumbach-directed, Anderson-produced The Squid and the Whale) but it certainly arrived at the right time. In 2008, cutesy indie folk was the bomb-- thanks, Juno-- so the group’s use of the entire twee pop toolkit, banjo, ukulele, glockenspiel et al, gave them instant appeal.
For a time in the early 2000s, British guitar rock experienced a flood of activity that buoyed the nation’s music press into believing that for the first time in ages they didn’t actually need the Gallagher brothers to sell magazines. In this environment, the Coral’s slapdash retread of 60s freakbeat and organ-driven psych rock garnered an enthusiastic reception from critics and festival-goers alike, with sloppy but catchy singles like “Dreaming of You” and “In the Morning” bottling just enough youthful exuberance from the six Liverpudlians to cover up their limited musicianship. But while more interesting bands from the period have fallen by the wayside over the years, the Coral trundle on, releasing dulled retreads of the same record every couple of years that chart reasonably well but show little motivation on the band's part to break out of their narrow, retro frame of reference.
With a roster that has boasted singers like Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, Naomi Shelton and the sadly departed Joseph Henry, Brooklyn-based label Daptone Records have forged their retro soul ethos for a decade now with a very calculated method: correcting history’s mistakes by signing aging soul starlets who have fallen through the cracks of time. So how label co-founder Gabriel Roth must have fussed when he came across Charles Bradley, a James Brown impersonator with a harrowing backstory. Enduring homelessness, extreme illness and the murder of his brother (all of which are outlined in the festival circuit documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America), Bradley came with a marketable narrative and a dynamic stage presence. Most importantly, his voice gives Daptone’s house musicians a leading man who can channel not just Brown, but Otis Redding, Al Green, and Teddy Pendergrass to boot.