Listens for the Week #38: Janelle Monáe, Redman, KnowItAll+Barto, Nito, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis
With Janelle Monáe, Squid, KnowItAll and more having already dropped this month, June is shaping up to be one of the most exciting months for music this year. Along with the week’s fresh releases, I’ve been digging my hands into the hip hop underground, fishing out some hidden gems and rediscovering fantastic projects I wish I had revisited sooner. But above all else, what resonated with me the most this week were the new albums from Janelle Monáe and KnowItAll.
My Favourite Albums This Week
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure (2023) [Contemporary R&B & Pop]
After five years, Janelle Monáe has returned to music with her most divisive album yet. Fully leaning into themes of sex and pleasure, the record sees Monáe singing in an almost whispery tone, whose seductive verses are full of unfiltered raunch and numerous innuendos. Although it has its moments, the repetitious theme coupled with the brevity of the whole album leaves it feeling a little one-note, with many ideas and even exact lyrics recycled across different tracks. In terms of sound, The Age of Pleasure is gorgeous. “Float” is a solid opener fusing elements of trap percussion with grand horns, fitting nicely with the energetic performance from Monáe. However, the album quickly loses steam. “Champagne Shit” follows a very similar pattern to the previous track with its blend of trap and jazz, but her melodic rap style vocals don’t capture me in the same way, and the song cuts off before it has much time to develop. The transition into “Black Sugar Beach” is seamless, offering a summery instrumental interlude before leading into the dreamy “Phenomenal”. Although the songs can be hit or miss, one aspect that keeps The Age of Pleasure engaging is those smooth transitions, giving the entire record a tight sense of cohesion. While I wish some songs were longer and others had been scrapped entirely, the quickfire structure of the album makes it easy to revisit, and so I can see this growing on me with time.
Redman – Muddy Waters (1996) [East Coast Hip Hop]
The New Jersey legend’s magnum opus, Muddy Waters is Redman at his most passionate, consistent, and creative. The album has a pristine polish that Dare Iz a Darkside lacked, letting go of that sense of chaos which made its predecessor so uniquely sinister. Redman’s beat selection on Muddy Waters is phenomenal, from the storm of swirling samples on the hook of “Rock Da Spot” to the hypnotic guitar loops on “Smoke Buddah”. Every instrumental sounds so clean and precisely constructed, offering a nice contrast to the manic, animalistic rhymes from Redman himself. Features like Erick Sermon and K-Solo complement Redman well, but their savage verses are nothing compared to the bombastic charisma of Reggie Noble.
Something I Love
KnowItAll & Barto100 – Hand Painted Realities (2023) [East Coast Hip Hop]
If you aren’t familiar with KnowItAll or Barto, don’t miss out on this incredible hip hop album. Following up 2022’s Music Saved Me 2 produced by Skip the Kid, KnowItAll is back with an equally stellar project, boasting the same witty pen game and swaggering presence that offer a stark contrast to the lush, soulful beats supplied by Barto. From both a production and rapping standpoint, Hand Painted Realities is phenomenal. The artists complement one another’s styles while flexing their own independent strengths, with KnowItAll’s knack for wordplay and Barto’s talent for building an atmosphere both prominent on each track. “Hand Painted” is a melancholic jazz rap cut whose sombre horn samples fit well with KnowItAll’s impassioned bars. Lead single “If I Go Away” is the album’s darkest moment, where these horror-inspired, droning strings add an element of terror to KnowItAll’s performance as he insists he is a lyrical monster who cannot be eluded. Even the drum-work matches the foreboding atmosphere, as the percussion crashes every few seconds like a musical jumpscare. The guests are infrequent but perfectly chosen, each offering standout performances to rival KnowItAll. Rebel Sky’s husky delivery dominates on “Acid Trip”; Patty Honcho’s barrage of rhymes on the back end of “Road to Perdition” make every second worth it. Overall, Hand Painted Realities is one of the most beautifully produced, passionately performed, and carefully crafted rap albums of 2023.
My Favourite Songs This Week
1. Nito – “Maybe” (2023) [Conscious Hip Hop]
The latest single from Oakland native Nito is among my favourite rap songs to drop this year. Feeding into the title of “Maybe”, Nito’s lyrics tackle both sides of the word, exploring his hopes and doubts while asking a myriad of questions about his life and future. Dissecting his own anxieties, he does so while maintaining a steady flow and pouring a stream of dense rhymes into the mic. On the production side, “Maybe” is a laidback cut with a rippling bassline and tight drums, layered enough to impress but calm enough to allow Nito’s lyrics to take centre stage.
2. Herbie Hancock – “Steppin’ In It” (1975) [Jazz-Funk]
An addictive jazz-funk classic, “Steppin’ In It” is an unexpected Stevie Wonder collaboration where the soul singer grabs the harmonica to play an incredible solo over an iconic Herbie Hancock bass-synth line. Unlike many of the pianist’s songs which undergo drastic changes – building up walls of sound only to break them down and start anew – this one is relatively simple, with a looping bassline so addictive it has every right to last eight minutes.
3. Miles Davis – “Right Off” (1971) [Jazz-Fusion & Jazz-Rock]
Possibly my favourite Miles Davis song, “Right Off” is a twenty-seven minute mammoth where the trumpeter’s journey into jazz-fusion reaches its apex. The track begins with a hypnotically funky bassline, with layers of shimmering percussion and meandering electric guitar slowly rising into prominence. A few minutes in, Miles comes in with a wild trumpet solo that reaches a chaotic climax before fading back into the bass. By the halfway mark, the song quietens down, but then Herbie Hancock makes his entrance with an explosive organ solo pushing the instrument to its limits. On “Right Off”, every musician shines, coming together to form one of the most chaotic and catchy tracks in Miles Davis’s catalogue.