Published September 25, 2022
Weekly Album Spotlights, Sep. 25
This installment includes a guest write-up from friend and writer Evan B.
Write-up By Isiah C.
Karma – Pharoah Sanders
Karma is, at heart, a pulsing ball of energy. Everything about it finds its roots in spirituality, thought and existence. It intends to encourage reflection, immediately clear by its meditative cover.
The cause of this inclusion is unfortunately due to the passing of Pharoah Sanders this week. The legend enjoyed a long and successful life, and the intensity of Karma is even stronger with this news in mind.
The main piece, “The Creator Has a Master Plan“, is a thirty-two-minute long nebula of contrasting emotions. The forward-thinking hit begins with a grandiose atmosphere that immediately sends the listener into a state of contemplation and curiosity, eager to see what exotic sounds lie behind such an ambitiously-named song.
The progression of the track’s first half is subtle, smooth, and soulful. Much like the recordings of fellow African-American creators in these historic genres, Sanders’ content aimed to depict feelings of social strife and the means by which it can create a path of healing. His poetic, repetitive lyrics deliver a certain message:
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man
The creator has a working plan
Peace and happiness for every man”
Karma is unapologetically religious and wants to tie together the many factions of the world through a mutual connection to a higher power. Sanders’ belief is that tranquility can be achieved over time through the vision of his creator – as soon as these words resonate, it becomes clear that this experience will expand far beyond the boundaries of jazz, aiming to lift others to a higher plane of conscious thought.
The track eventually decompresses into a raw, experimental cacophony of aggressive saxophone techniques, yodeling, and sonic vigor. Sanders aims to showcase the intricacy of his abilities amidst the chaos, proving his worth as an instrumental creator while also delivering an ethereal lesson.
The brief, five-minute “Colors” feels like an afterthought after such a legendary and lengthy performance, but it may be the solution to truly understanding what Sanders intended to express. Vocalist and collaborator Leon Thomas – who was also heavily involved on the first track – uses the rainbow as a metaphor for the many facets of life one should appreciate. A reminder is issued that in nature, spirit, and faith, the key to happiness can be found.
Ending Karma on such an interpretive, free note after the intensity of “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is a genius approach. It’s emotional, warm and inspirational. The influence the record had on the development of jazz music subsequently becomes immediately apparent as it closes – managing to bring the realm of spiritual, avant-garde content to the mainstream was vital to development of funk, psychedelia, hip-hop, and more.
It’s an unbelievable body of work. Rest in peace, Pharoah Sanders.
Write-up By Isiah C.
Under Pressure – Logic
One to multiple times a year – but most often when temperatures get low and school comes around – Under Pressure hits my rotation and holds its place.
Logic has been the topic of frequent critical controversy over the course of the past several years, but I’ve never been afraid to cite myself as a fan of some of his projects. His debut studio album in particular is one of the 2010’s best, encompassing all qualities a modern age hip-hop album should.
Its loose concept, themed around his means of relieving stress and managing worldly tension, is executed to a far better degree than often credited. He cites “Nikki” – which also happens to be a track – as his partner in crime and greatest relief. Seemingly a woman, it is eventually exposed as a metaphor for nicotine, adding another layer to the troubled upbringing detailed throughout the record.
Specific themes tackled include the process of rising to the top (“Soul Food“), gang culture’s effects on the youth (“Gang Related“), and the uncertainty associated with growing up in a negative environment (“Growing Pains III“). The album remains true to its inspired roots of boom bap through weaving these ideas into a cohesive effort, all the while maintaining a dusty, nearly nostalgic style of production.
The charm of Under Pressure is actually in its dedication to its influences, if anything. Logic’s plethora of mixtapes prior to 2014 were often directly taking after the pioneers of hip-hop – that did not hinder their quality, but it muddied the clarity of Logic’s character.
This album broke through that barrier, remaining dedicated to honoring the greats:
“Smoking blunts in Amsterdam
Oh my God, this is my jam
“May-December” by Mos Def
In my headphones, that’s the man”
…however, it never tried too hard to emulate somebody else. For that reason, the personal subject matter expressed throughout – especially on the title track – held a stronger impact on the listener that led to their prolonged interest.
Under Pressure falls under the category of lyrically-inclined albums from the modern era’s most exciting prospects, including good kid, m.A.A.d city and 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It isn’t as ambitious as the former, nor aiming for mainstream appeal like the latter. Instead, authenticity ran through its veins – Logic didn’t try to make his music deeper than it was, using honesty as a foundation.
It’s what established the east coast emcee as one of the decade’s most promising names, eventually sparking a commercially significant career. Everybody starts somewhere.
Write-up By Evan B.
May the Lord Watch – Little Brother
The history of the legendary underground rap duo (formerly trio) known as Little Brother has been full of obstacles – from creative differences with labels to departures, disbandment, and an eight-year hiatus. MCs Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh met while enrolled at North Carolina Central University in the late 90’s, with twenty-plus years separating the beginning of their friendship and the release of this album.
From 2001-10, the duo operated as partners in rhyme, with their breakup being announced after the release of their fourth album, Leftback. For the next five years following, Pooh & Tay were not on speaking terms at all. It wasn’t until the unfortunate passing of hip hop phenom Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest (a group with similar group conflict and eventual hiatus & reunion) that the two rappers decided to put their differences aside and rekindle the spark that made them underground heroes.
The album May the Lord Watch serves as a reunion for Phonte and Big Pooh, acknowledging that they have grown up plenty in their time away from the limelight, yet not by any means missing the chemistry characteristic of their music during the Okayplayer/backpack era. Previously titled Homecoming, this release invites longtime fans to return home to the charismatic reconciliation of Durham’s heaviest hitters.
In terms of lyrical prowess, this may just be these two at their technical peak. From speaking on how there’s always a way to improve in life on “Black Magic (Make It Better)” to the disconnection from the youthful life of the party they once loved on “Sittin Alone”, there is no absence of thematic value here.
Although the pair isn’t afraid to tap into more serious topics on this project, that doesn’t mean that the humor of their previous work is left out of the equation – quite the opposite, actually. Five different skits appear on the tracklist, working as a continuation of the material from 2005’s The Minstrel Show – featured references include Phonte’s swooning R&B alter ego Percy Miracles, as well as words from Peter Rosenberg, Joe Scudda, and Roy Lee, all of whom appeared on earlier Little Brother albums. Tay & Pooh’s cultural references and witty wordplay are also on point as usual throughout the project.
My personal favorite cut from May the Lord Watch would have to be “Goodmorning Sunshine,” which is effectively a love song with effortless back-and-forth flow and an extremely uplifting instrumental. Every track on the fifth studio album is filled with great conscious rhymes and stellar production – a mark of true consistency from these rap vets. While the presence of original member 9th Wonder is sadly missed from this project, the weight is carried by his fellow Soul Council producers Khrysis and Nottz, common LB collaborators such as Focus…, Zo!, and one of Detroit’s finest in Black Milk.
To me, May the Lord Watch is ‘grown man rap’ at its best. The NC-based lyricists highlight the ups and downs of embracing adulthood head on, all the while putting on an absolute clinic with their rapping – both entered a second, matured prime completely separate from their earlier days in the 2000’s. The group name Little Brother originally came from seeing themselves as the torch-carriers of the movement led by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Public Enemy. Now, they have the ability to be the big brothers to the next generation of music, seeing how they have inspired modern-day leaders in rap such as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole. Phonte said it best in his 2019 interview with Vulture:
“I like to think of ourselves as giving young rappers a look around the corner… Hopefully we can give a blueprint to show that you can mature, you can grow older, and you can be true to yourself but not be crotchety. There’s a way you can settle into that moment and still be dope and be profitable and have things to say.”
Write-up By Isiah C.
I Am Not A Crip – HUES & Korban Baxter
One resonating thought when listening to a number of recent releases is how they grew from the influences that shaped them. HUES & Korban Baxter’s I Am Not A Crip isn’t just your typical producer-rapper collaboration – it’s a revival of the moody, dungeon-like sounds of the golden age translated to the modern standard.
Before anything, let’s throw some love in Baxter’s direction. His commanding presence on the mic is reminiscent of an Earl Sweatshirt type – not particularly loud or energetic, but instead raw and descriptive. His words flow effortlessly into pools of poetry, forming verses that clearly highlight his everyday activities.
Not A Crip is akin to a storytelling experience, despite its short length. Immersive interludes carry on the energy, featured Baxter and a number of people in his life conversing over recognizable hip-hop songs. Before you have time to fully digest the content of the skits, you’re thrown into another hardcore cut – it’s a fantastic approach to pacing that makes the EP feel lengthier.
HUES deserves an abundance of credit for his leadership on this album’s sound as well. His hard-hitting drums and grim samples feel reminiscent of Diggin’ in the Crates, particularly Buckwild. If you claimed “Carroll Park” released in 1995, no eyebrows would be raised.
The ambience of these tracks is the key to Not a Crip’s identity, as Baxter’s verses float calmly over every backdrop. “Lost Values” is a specifically great example, featuring a downtempo soundscape from HUES that is tackled with a slowed, melodic approach to contrast with the high-energy tracks preceding it.
The genius of underground producers is highlighted even further by the lyricists they work in tandem with, and this is no exception. You may associate the streets of Detroit with soul – think J Dilla, Black Milk, and Apollo Brown – but when you fuse that with the ferocity of a Philadelphia emcee, you discover an exciting combination.