Shem The Pen's Albums Of 2017
SHEM THE PEN'S ALBUMS OF THE YEAR: The Runner-Ups
MIGOS - Culture
Culture reminds me of The Clipse's 2006 gem Hell Hath No Fury. Both albums are built on spare beats that allow the flows to carry the songs. Migos are known for a choppy, melodic style that weaves hooks into verses, and Culture reveals layers and depths with each listen. Not to say that you'll be getting conceptual morality tales from the Migos boys, but like Clipse they have an easy chemistry and certain genius in their drug slang songcraft. Just like Clipse said “Mama I'm so sorry I'm so obnoxious,” Migos builds a hook around the phrase “Mama told me not to sell work.” HHNF took me by surprise in 2006, but the album hooked me and I'll still play it back to front regularly. Culture gives me the same vibe, the same sort of insular instant classic.
ROC MARCIANO - Rosebudd's Revenge
My most anticipated album of 2017 did not let me down. Roc Marciano has been carrying the blunt torch of gritty NY hip hop for since 2010. He raps stream of consciousness pimp talk over scratchy soul beats but there's something distinctive and distinctly artistic about his style. Roc has quietly led a movement of east coast hip hop, rooted in classic 90s but still progressive. (Check out frequent collaborator Ka, who uses a visionary almost spoken word style; and Buffalo's Westside Gunn and Conway consistently release heat with their own aesthetic of detailed crime raps and pro wrestling references.) Plus Roc's production is subtle and fluid, following deep samples down whatever strange paths they wish to go. All of it feels effortless. This album is a cold weather classic, like Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx...
GRATEFUL DEAD - Get Shown The Light
Yes this is a reissue but it includes the Holy Grail of Dead shows - 5/8/77. I have to admit that for a long time I never really got why so many Deadheads rated this particular show as their best. Of course Spring '77 is one of their tightest, funkiest runs but I've always preferred Europe '72 or the spacier '74 stuff. Hell, I even hear great stuff in notoriously “bad” shows like Egypt '78 or some of the drugged out early 80s explorations. But I'm here to say I think I've finally gotten shown the light. They're just so in the pocket on this night and whatever's deep down in that pocket is some really kind stuff. I normally don't go for the Disco Dead, but Jerry's slippery solo on “Dancing In The Street” slides out to the edges of the universe to hippie-dance with aliens for 10+ minutes and it's epic and beautiful stuff. Then there's a funky monster “Scarlet>Fire” into a tasty “St Stephen” sandwich. This box set includes four shows, all peak Dead performances.
KENDRICK LAMAR - Damn
First things first - yes you can play this album backwards and it still works. And yes the supposed Collector's Edition - which just reverses the playlist - might still be a troll on “edition” craze of re-releasing multiple versions of albums. But Damn is built on songs which are conceptual pieces themselves, and the tracklist doesn't unfold a strict narrative as To Pimp A Butterfly. Again the biggest sonic influence feels like mid-70s Funkadelic, the way songs swim through the funk organically without care for structure. I still think Kendrick is almost overstuffing his work with themes and concepts, to the point where a full listen can be exhaustive. Sometimes I just want beats and flows like his classic 2008 mixtape No Sleep Til NYC with Jay Rock. Anyway I'm just waiting for the Extra Special Collector's Edition which will somehow start in the middle cause that's where my favorite tracks are (“Lust,” “Humble,” “Pride”).
JAY-Z - 4:44
I already wrote about my admiration for this album in my Jay-Z article but to reiterate: this is Jay's best album since 2007's American Gangster. And the more I listen the more I think it's up with Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt as some of the best work of his career. But it's different. There were only so many ways for Jay-Z to brag about his business acumen, even though no one in rap has ever done it better. But it took some real personal crises to put him in a more reflective mood. There's just a lot of insight and wisdom on 4:44 - it's like a full home cooked meal complete with fine whiskey and a good after dinner cigar. Like Reasonable Doubt, the rapping feels more like smart conversation than club or party music. And as always Jay's cultural commentary often comes in the form of witty disses, as OJ Simpson, Al Sharpton, and Kanye West all get hit with slick lines. Unlike Kenrick's Damn, this album feels lean and focused - I wouldn't mind hearing Kendrick's version of an album like this someday.
SHEM THE PEN'S ALBUM OF THE YEAR 2017:
RICK ROSS - Rather You Than Me
My favorite album this year is maybe the most formulaic - Rick Ross isn't breaking any creative ground on this one. But he's at the top of his craft, having honed his drug dealing persona into a sort of philosopher king. No rapper has ever created a persona like Notorious BIG on Life After Death, an album with an astonishing atmosphere of darkness, decadence, and power. But Ross comes close. “Santorini Greece” is my favorite beat and song of the year. Not since Pete Rock and CL Smooth have you heard horns this smooth, and there are some real gems buried in the usual boss boasts - “room full of cloaks and they countin' votes” sums up the systemic racism still haunting politics, thus leading to “the fuck I'm voting for?” Ross always picks perfect beats - his sound is like spaced out elegance, dressed up for the best club with eyes red from the best weed. But the centerpiece of the album is “Idols Become Rivals,” a boss level diss track to Birdman from Cash Money. This is an underrated diss that I'd rank up with Nas's “Ether,” particularly because it has that classic track's sense of logic and morality. Ross isn't sending hyped up threats on “Idols Become Rivals,” but laying out a reasoned case for Birdman's treachery. “You stole them boys' pub' and bought a foreclosure” is an example - it's saying that Birdman isn't even a smart businessman, just a big time bungling thief. I hear some real insight on Rather You Than Me, even though it's also mixed in with the usual money, women, and drug boasts for which Rick Ross is infamous. But I'd rather that - it's why I get more inspired by Scarface than Rudy.