Listens for the Week #25 & #26
Every week, I offer three recommendations: something new, something classic, and something I love. I’ve been so busy with university recently that I had to skip last week’s article, so for this week, I will be recommending twice as many albums to get you through the week. From ‘80s hip hop classics to colourful highlights of the 2020s, there’s so much fantastic music to discuss.
1. Kali Uchis – Red Moon in Venus (2023) [R&B & Pop]
A major highlight from 2023 is the new Kali Uchis record, which may be her sharpest work yet. The whole project is as glamorous and warm as its album cover suggests, with these lush builds of R&B production complementing Kali’s intimate vocals. A few guests appear, adapting well to the summery sound, but Kali is always the main appeal. For many tracks, her vocals are soft and whispery, making the moments of balladry where she shows off the strength of her voice all the more powerful. With Kali stating that this won’t be her last album in 2023, I can’t wait to see where she takes her sound next.
2. Slowthai – UGLY (2023) [Post-Punk & UK Hip Hop]
Like many Slowthai fans, I’m somewhat conflicted on his new album. For many songs, it would be misleading to even call it hip hop, with Slowthai preferring to sing rather than rap as he narrates some of the most personal and heart-breaking moments of his life. The highlights are brilliant – the crushing story of “Never Again”, the chaotic build of sounds on the punky “Yum”, and the powerful climax of the title track all make for some of the best songs of 2023 so far. However, the moments in between don’t hook me quite as much. Some songs feel a little half-baked, such as “Fuck It Puppet”. On the track, he argues with the voices in his head – a concept full of potential, but after a minute, it’s already over. A lot of songs have great ideas but don’t quite capture me, but that’s at no fault of Slowthai’s. However, within a few months, I might feel completely different. So many fans felt conflicted as I do but have come to adore UGLY with each subsequent listen, so I can only hope it grows on me as I return to it again.
1. Lord Finesse – The Awakening (1996) [East Coast Hip Hop & Boom Bap]
Even though hip hop fans praise 1996 as one of the best years in rap history, it’s criminal how few of them mention The Awakening. Lord Finesse is ferocious on the mic, with a nonchalant flow and a witty pen game that makes every verse a delight. Features are littered throughout the project from KRS-One to MC Lyte, all offering brilliant performances which make The Awakening such an exciting listen. Beyond his elite rapping, Finesse also produced the whole album himself, with the dense, jazzy sounds of “Food for Thought” and “True And Livin’” being some of my favourite beats of the ‘90s. In every way, The Awakening is deserving of its classic status, and is overdue its flowers as one of the best records of ’96.
2. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full (1987) [East Coast Hip Hop]
If you are a hip hop fan who has not heard Paid In Full, you’ve got to change that immediately. It’s up there with the most important rap albums of all time, with its influence echoing through the ‘90s and even in today’s hip hop landscape. But regardless of its impact on the culture, the music itself is phenomenal. Rakim has this husky, dominant voice that makes every bar stand out, giving him a strong presence over the rustic production. With no shortage of record scratches and a plethora of eccentric samples, Paid In Full encapsulates everything colourful and captivating about ‘80s hip hop. The sparse production on “My Melody” gives way for Rakim to flex his lyrical prowess, while the title track goes in the opposite direction, with a bassline so catchy you can’t help but get lost in the sound.
Something I Love
1. WEX! the Master & 90Culture – FLAME PEN (2023) [Jazz Rap]
FLAME PEN is the explosive new EP by rapper and saxophonist WEX, with production help from 90Culture. WEX is an engaging MC whose fast-paced and energetic style flows well over the ever-evolving jazz rap beats on the project. He said himself, “I try to rap like a horn. I try to articulate my raps like a horn player.” You can truly hear that effect in the music as WEX switches up his flow with the effortless freedom of a saxophonist in the middle of an improvised solo. The live sax work from WEX makes FLAME PEN such a fresh take on jazz rap, bringing new life to the genre without relying solely on looping samples. In only 14 minutes, WEX proves his graceful ability as a rapper and musician.
2. David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) [Art Rock & Funk Rock]
One of Bowie’s strongest works came at possibly the worst time in his life, deluded by his cocaine addiction to the point he could not even recall the making of this album. Station to Station has the underlying theme of love, but with the frailty and despair in Bowie’s voice, it sounds like a tragedy. The title track is a ten-minute epic split in two parts – the first is a slow-paced build of funky instrumentation with Bowie offering these haunting vocals, while the second half is a bright explosion of guitar and piano where his voice sounds so passionate. Bowie’s emotions ebb and flow all across the album from hopeful to despairing, making for some of his most creative work ever. The production is perhaps the best he would ever work with, combining the catchy funk of Young Americans with the avant-garde rock elements he would emphasise more on 1977’s Low and “Heroes”. Every song is so intricately put together, with dozens of elements tightly layered into six unforgettable tracks.