Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: Rick Ross - Teflon Don

Ross Serves Up Another Luxe, Mostly Pleasing Helping Of R&B Flavored Yacht Music.

We may be living in times of great uncertainty but here's one thing that I know for sure: Rick Ross is very rich. He and his (also very wealthy) friends, including Diddy, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, reinforce this fact incessantly across the 11 sprawling tracks on Teflon Don. I guess I should give Rick credit for sticking to his narrative thread, but enough already, I get it...he's rolling in dough, he has lots of stuff, he's very very well off.

Don't get me wrong, this is a blazing hot record that I am sure many hip hop fans will instantly slot in as their summer 2010 soundtrack. Like his last album, 2009's Deeper Than Rap, the production values here are simply off the charts. Not since Dr. Dre's early 90's G-Funk has anyone so cinematically captured the essence of what sunny, laid back gangsta music is supposed to sounds like.

Teflon Don is a big, opulent and celebratory toast to Rick Ross's apparently hard won success. The luxurious, multi-layered arrangements are handled with care by a team comprised of A-List (Kanye West, No I.D.) and relatively up-and-coming (The Inkredibles, Lex Luger) producers. The music is expertly crafted to offend no ears and disrupt no vibes. It will sound equally good at a house party or a gala art auction. It's remarkable how profane lyrics are able to go down with ease when paired with soulful grooves, especially when the likes of John Legend, Raphael Saadiq and Ne-Yo sing sweet hooks in the background.

This album will also work nicely as a treat for the state-of-the-art audio system in your new Lexus. But most of all, listening to it makes me want to fire up the grill and invite all of my friends over for an elegant backyard soiree (thugs are welcome, as long as they are dressed in all white linen).

Standout tracks include "Tears Of Joy" featuring the gospel tinged vocals of Cee-Lo and "MC Hammer", backed by a hard, relentless beat from Lex Luger. Jay-Z dazzles on "Free Mason", shutting down the conspiracy theorists who think he's some sort of devil worshiper with the line "I said was amazin' / not that I'm a Mason". And if you liked the first two installments of "Maybach Music", then you'll love version 3. This one is sun-kissed and ethereal (picture white curtains blowing softly in an empty room at a beach house). T.I. and Jadakiss offer magnificent verses while Erykah Badu serenades us in the distance.

Yet, despite all of this goodness, I can't help but come away feeling a bit disappointed. My main wish is that Rick would change the subject every once in a while. It's like from his vantage point on his South Beach yacht, he can't see that it's harder than ever out here for a pimp. The recession, soaring unemployment, two wars and that damn oil spill have us all feeling uneasy. In Rick's world however, the party never ends - the view is stunning, the women are beautiful, the sun never sets and the champagne flows endlessly. Pleasantville for hip hop impresarios.

I suppose this all wouldn't be so tiresome if Rick were a more capable emcee. Like his subject matter, his delivery style never changes. He only knows one speed...slow. His plodding, monotonous rhymes are consistently overshadowed by his more inventive collaborators. It's his mediocre skills that make the imagery seem so cliched.

In the end, I have to ask my self "What If?" What if Jadakiss or Drake or Lupe Fiasco or even J. Cole were rapping over all of this wonderful production. And what if they presented a more complete picture of what life is like in the real world circa July 2010? How good could this record have been if that were the case?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son Of Chico Dusty

It's hard not to greet the arrival of a Big Boi solo album with pangs of regret. The project itself serves as a depressing reminder that hip hop supergroup Outkast is still on hiatus, seven years removed from Speakerboxx/The Love Below (yes, I am going to pretend that Idlewild never happened). More than anything, we wish Andre would stop drifting about, dabbling in all manner of artistic pursuits, and get his ass back in the studio.

The silver lining behind Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son Of Chico Dusty however is that Big Boi is given an opportunity to remind us once again that he is the real deal. After his spectacular performance on Speakerboxx, we shouldn't be surprised by this fact, but for some reason we continue not to take him seriously as a soloist.

That may be about to change now. Three years in the making and full of stories about major label drama (collaborations with Andre were blocked from inclusion on the album by Jive Records after Big Boi spilt from the label over creative differences), Sir Lucious Left Foot arrives as an excellent collection of eclectic, well-constructed and deeply satisfying tracks.

Big Boi seems to have never met a musical influence he wasn't compelled to incorporate; from funk to vintage 70's soul to rock, classical and even show tunes. For someone so unassuming, he proves to be fearless and full of imagination when it comes to exploring different sounds. He also proves to be an expert composer, blending all of these competing sounds into funky and intoxicating brew. He presides over the entire affair, featuring 12 different producers and 16 guest appearances, with supreme confidence and a deft ear. Rather than sounding like an experimental mish mash, this record comes off as tight -- all of it anchored by General Patton's nimble flow and his insistence on infusing everything with an unmistakable dirty south crunk music aesthetic.

Impressively, Big Boi manages to get the most out of his standout guest list roster. It must be hard not to get caught up in the stankiness once you enter the world of Daddy Fat Sax (I love that moniker), because there are no gratuitous appearances here and no one mails in a performance. Long-time collaborator Sleepy Brown infuses the album with his usual brand of lush R&B on "Turns Me On", but he is actually outdone by a subdued and infectious chorus offered by Jamie Foxx on "Hustle Blood".

T.I. and Khujo help spice up the proceedings on "Tangerine", a filthy celebration of strippers that bounces over a pulsating drum track reminiscent of Kanye West's "Love Come Down". Andre 3000 does manage to land a production credit. On "You Ain't No DJ" he reinterprets an 80's electro beat, chopping it up and adding effects that might make Afrika Bambaataa jealous. Bangin' doesn't begin to describe it. Even George Clinton himself chimes in, sounding spry alongside Too Short (and apparently still high as hell) on "Fo Yo Sorrows".

I could go on, but you get the point. I like this record a lot. It's admirable how Big Boi has put his head down and gone to work in the absence of his more famous partner and with little in the way of commercial expectations. There is more than enough great material here for him to finally earn his overdue props and to tide us over until the next Outkast album arrives.