thelonelyislandComedy troupe the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) make their LP debut with Incredibad, a frequently hilarious collection of 19 tracks, several of which originally debuted on Saturday Night Live as digital shorts. (The CD version of the album comes packaged with a DVD featuring eight videos, two for songs not included on the CD, “Just 2 Guys” and “Bing Bong Brothers.” You can otherwise see the videos on their site and pick up a digital booklet if you buy the MP3 album.) What makes Incredibad especially worthwhile is that many of the songs, most of which are pitch-perfect send-ups of rap, hip-hop and dance music, are so catchy they bear repeat listens. The guest list is also totally impressive: E-40, T-Pain, Julian Casablancas, Norah Jones, Natalie Portman and Chris Parnell. There’s a dud or two, and at least one song worked better with its visuals (“Space Olympics”), but in general, this is one great comedy album. It’s profane, it’s profoundly silly, it’s absurd, and it’s quite possibly the album of the summer, several months early. Standout cuts: “Santana DVX,” “Jizz In My Pants,” “I’m On A Boat” and “Like A Boss.”

kanyewestKanye West premiered “Love Lockdown,” the first single from his new album, 808s & Heartbreak, at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards. It was a brilliant, powerful performance and the studio version, while lacking some of the power of its live counterpart, is the highlight of the album by far, and with its minimalist production and West’s Auto-Tuned vocals, it sets the pattern for most of the rest of the album. A well timed exception is the amusing “RoboCop,” which boasts a string section and is one of the lighter songs on an otherwise downbeat, often starkly emotional album that addresses both the recent death of his mother and his breakup with his fiancée. West isn’t breaking any new ground music wise (though his lyrics are as incisive and intelligent as ever), and I’m not sure I’d want to hear another entire album exactly like this from him, but as an expansion into new territory for him, 808s & Heartbreak is a success. Whether or not his fans will think so remains to be seen, but it’s definitely worth a listen. Standout cuts: “Say You Will,” “Welcome to HeartBreak,” “Love Lockdown” and “RoboCop.”


June 3, 2008

Brooklyn based Santogold’s debut album, despite its unfortunate cover image of her apparently spewing gold flakes, is entertaining, high energy pop. Though Santogold’s been compared to M.I.A., the Sri Lankan rapper with whom she’s performed, it’s not a very useful comparison as Santogold is primarily a singer rather than a rapper, and while her material is filled with some witty social commentary (“L.E.S. Artistes,” case in point), it’s nowhere near as politically confrontational as M.I.A.’s work tends to be. That said, the album is engaging fun, jumping effortlessly from genre to genre. Santogold’s singing voice is reminiscent of Gwen Stefani, before Stefani started making Top 40 junk, and the music itself is fueled by old school rap, hip-hop, reggae and a lot of 80’s New Wave influences by way of Missing Persons, Bananarama, the Fun Boy Three and Blondie, for starters. The strongest material is weighted towards the first half of the album, with tracks like the aforementioned “L.E.S. Artistes,” “You’ll Find A Way,” “Shove It” and “Creator.” I also like “I’m A Lady” a lot, too. I’m guessing this will be the soundtrack for a lot of people’s summers. Definitely recommended.

Rising Down, the new album from Philadelphia based band the Roots, takes its name from William T. Vollmann’s seven volume treatise on violence, Rising Up And Rising Down. (There’s a one volume distillation available, edited by Vollmann himself, for those interested.) The album is a musically stripped down, frequently searing and confrontational look at violence in American society at multiple levels, cultural, political, environmental and societal. It’s hip hop as deliberate political provocation, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard from an already legendary American band. What makes Rising Down compelling and often thrilling to listen to is the band’s usual virtuoso musicianship, along with intelligent, witty rhymes. It starts to run out of gas towards the end, ending with one of the album’s weaker tracks, “Rising Up” (the spoken word track that directly follows makes up for it, however), but in general, this is pretty solid, essential stuff. Standout cuts: “Get Busy,” “75 Bars,” “Criminal” and “I Can’t Help It.”

“You’re probably addicted to all kinds of escape…”

Moody hip-hop from Minneapolis based Atmosphere (Slug doing the rhymes, Ant serving as both DJ and producer) will probably be too serious minded and deliberately paced for listeners looking for party music, but When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is otherwise an intelligent and piercing look at addiction of different kinds, adult and family life disappointments, and parental doubt, set to mostly live instrumentation and classic funk and neo-soul inspired beats. Most of the songs are streamlined, rarely more than three or four minutes, eschewing any excess or self-indulgent touches. It’s the sort of album you’ll need to pay some attention to, and if the material feels frequently downbeat, there’s also a general feeling that often the real triumph in life is to the ability and strength face things honestly and make the best of what we have, clear from the title, and that in order to carry on under bleak circumstances, we are often required to pick ourselves up and make our own hope and our own happiness. That such heavyweight stuff can sound this cool is an achievement in itself. Standout cuts: “Shoulda Known,” “You,” “Guarantees” and “Can’t Break.”

“I got some bad news this morning
Which in turn made my day…”

If you’ve seen the video for “Run (I’m A Natural Disaster),” the first single from Atlanta based Gnarls Barkley’s second LP, The Odd Couple, you’ll get a sense of the juxapositions that run through the rest of the densely layered, emotionally complex album: 60’s and 70’s pop and soul bumping up against modern hip-hip and electronica; breezy, upbeat sounding music over dark, even menacing sounding lyrics and vocals. If the result is occasionally disorienting, it’s also almost unfailingly intoxicating and just plain fun to hear. Even though the strongest material is weighted towards the first half, The Odd Couple is head and shoulders a better album than St. Elsewhere, and that album wasn’t too shabby. Here’s hoping that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse, the two talented musicians behind Gnarls Barkley, are just beginning to build a body of work for their band. Standout cuts: “Charity Case,” “Going On,” “Run [I’m A Natural Disaster]” and “Surprise.”

New Amerykah, Erykah Badu’s latest album, is actually the first part of a planned multi-part work. This part is called 4th World War, and it’s as politically and socially minded as one might think based on the title. The war she writes about is as internal as it is external, and while the album begins on a cynical note with “Amerykhan Promises,” it ends with the first single, “Honey,” a love song about as sweet as it sounds. In between, there’s a lot of less accessible music, some of it very experimental, some of it spoken word poetry and sound collage, all mixed in with the 70’s funk and soul inspired hip-hop she’s been making for some time now. It’s an ambitious, often brilliantly realized work, with hits and misses along the way, but it’s also the sort of album that bears repeat listens to absorb everything Badu and her collaborators have put into it. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of her last album, Mama’s Gun, as the album tends to feel muddled in some places and meanders in others, but as the first part of a larger work, it’s intriguing and very promising. Standout cuts: “The Healer/Hip Hop,” “Me,” “Telephone” and “Honey.”