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The Top Five Albums of 2016

1 Jan

2016 has not been a kind year for musicians. We lost many greats this year, starting with David Bowie in January, to Prince in April, to the double-whammy of Leonard Cohen in November and George Michael on Christmas Day. However, a year that has seen the death of so many singer-songwriters has also been a year that has let loose some of the greatest solo music in recent years: a silver lining, if any. Without further ado, we present below our top five albums of the year.

5. Sept. 5th: dvsn

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dvsn have been shrouded in mystery from the start. When the band first signed on to Drake’s OVO Sound record label, it wasn’t even revealed who the singer was. Since then, they’ve lifted the shroud a little – the voice belongs to Daniel Daley and the beats and words belong to Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jefferies). The mysterious nature suits them, creating an allure that perfectly compliments their sparse, lusty R&B.

And lusty it is. Sept. 5th is essentially about doing the deed with your significant other. Popular music is rife with this topic, but dvsn takes a very respectful approach to the subject matter. “In + Out” (yep, it’s exactly about what you’re thinking it’s about) refers to the partner’s body in royal terms: thrones, highnesses and crowns. On “With Me”, Daley respectfully asks his partner to come over to quench his lust.And on the titular track, Daley knows he messed up and pleads to make it up through – yep, you guessed it – sex.

Beyond the tone of their lyrics, dvsn really excel at creating music that’s sparse and dense at the same time. On “Too Deep”, Nineteen85 layers subtle handclaps, funk sounds, downtempo beats and Daley’s lusty croon, with enough space to co-exist and build off of each other. “Hallucinations” also features just a handful of sounds, but there’s also immense gravity in the negative space – in what isn’t said or heard. It’s almost like dvsn have taken a leaf out of the xx’s book.

Sept. 5th is a highly enjoyable R&B album from a mysterious and highly talented duo. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.

Best tracks: “With Me”, “Too Deep”

4. Blonde: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean’s efforts to release Blonde are nothing short of a drama. The story begins in 2009, when the soft-natured, velvet-voiced Ocean – then inexplicably part of the violent rap crew Odd Future – signed with Def Jam Records. In 2011, Ocean released his critically-acclaimed mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Although its follow-up album Channel Orange was well-received, it was not comparable to the quality and cult following of Nostalgia.

Ocean seemed to have lost his mojo for a couple of years after Channel Orange, although rumors of a follow-up have been surfacing since 2014. Finally, on August 18th and 19th of this year, Ocean streamed a visual album called Endless, effectively completing his recording contract with Def Jam. The very next day – August 20th, 2016 – free of a record label’s controlling hand, he released his real offering: Blonde.

“Smoking good, rolling solo / Solo, solo” incites Ocean on “Solo”, yet another example of the endless battle between creative artists and corporate labels. The freedom suits him, though.

Blonde on the whole is more mellow and meditative than his previous two offerings. Moreover, although Channel Orange and Nostalgia had gospel tinges, Blonde is drenched in them. Nowhere is it more apparent than on “White Ferrari”, a dreamy R&B classic with psychedelic nods to the Beatles. The serenity of the white car offers a nice contrast to the orange Lamb on his mixtape, providing a clue into the singer’s growth since those days. “Sweet 16, how was I supposed to know anything?” he incites, perhaps speaking of the fame that was to follow Nostalgia.

On Blonde, Ocean uses minimalist, introspective music to frame his chocolate-smooth voice and troubled thoughts. Great for rainy, moody evenings.

Best tracks: “Nikes”, “White Ferrari”, “Close to You”

3. “Awaken, My Love!”: Childish Gambino

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Donald Glover challenges the very idea of a triple-threat, a term usually reserved for singer-dancer-actors like Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. Glover, however, spreads his creative talents far further. He got his first break as a writer for Tina Fey on the legendary “30 Rock”. After whittling his comedic talents behind the scenes, Glover moved to the other side as Troy on the equally-legendary show “Community”. As if that weren’t enough, Glover released a critically-acclaimed album, Camp, in 2011. Whatever the Donald does, he does it to perfection (well, this Donald at least).

It seemed for a while that Glover would continue in a mildly-hipster route in music, as he did with writing and television. After Camp (and in between his myriad other creative commitments), Glover released Because the Internet, a Grammy-nominated ode to the World Wide Web – fitting of the world that Troy and his friends resides in. And thus it comes as a true surprise that “Awaken, My Love!” is, at its core, a thoroughly accessible album.

The creative impetus behind the album seems to be the recent birth of Glover’s first child, with a woman that the world knows next to nothing about. The baby seems to have mellowed out Glover, replacing the smug references with feelings and emotions. The deliberate and intense “Me and Your Mama” is a weed-infused love song for his baby mama, sung with the same passion that created his baby boy (“Girl you really got a hold on me / so this isn’t just puppy love”). At the same time, he seems to understand that his days with the baby mama are limited. On “Baby Boy”, Glover speaks alternately to his baby and to his baby mama.  (“I’ve never lied about us / we were never supposed to be together”), but expresses permanent, unconditional love for his child.

Apart from songs written for his baby, the other key notable theme on this album is Glover’s formidable tribute to old-school funk. On album stand-out “Redbone”, plucked staccato notes support Glover’s surprisingly adept falsetto. His lyrics, too, are top-notch. Redbone is slang for someone with mixed African, Creole and Native American ancestry, characterized by the reddish undertones in their skin. Glover calls his redbone woman a “peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid”: metaphorical, funnily accessible and sweet at the same time. “Boogieman” is a perfectly-named double-entendre: a musical homage to the Boogie but a lyrical homage to the Bogeyman.

Overall, “Awaken, My Love!” is a great new direction for Donald Glover the Musician. Glover’s other personas are doing incredibly well – he’s slated to star in a new Star Wars movie and play a part in the new Spiderman movie – so let’s hope he can still spend some time on his music. Because we love what we’re hearing.

Best tracks: “Redbone”, “Me and Your Mama”

2. Lemonade: Beyoncé

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of the elevator incident. In May 2014 at the Met Ball, Beyonce’s sister Solange physically assaulted Jay-Z with almost inexplicable rage. Few things seemed to explain the intensity of her rage, but the most plausible explanation was that Jay had cheated on her sister.

Beyonce and Jay-Z largely kept mum about the elevator incident. All seemed well in the household of the second-most powerful black couple on the planet (at least by omission). On April 23, 2016 – days shy of the two-year anniversary of the elevator incident – Beyonce broke her silence with a record heard around the world. Lemonade was born.

Accompanied by an HBO film of the same name, the visual album is an exploration of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s extremely high-profile and lucrative relationship. It’s unclear whether the album is a state-of-the-nation report or an “inspired-by-real-life” relationship drama. Whichever it is, Lemonade has got us hooked from start to finish.

The album starts off with a two-level prayer: Beyonce prays she can peep into Jay’s cheating world, and also prays that Jay understands that she knows he’s cheating. The first half of the album fleshes out these ideas. On “Hold Up”, she warns Jay that she’s the best he’s going to get – braggodocio and a plea at the same time. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”, the braggodocio takes over. In the former song (which features Jack White), Beyonce sneers at Jay as a weak man who had to cheat and in the latter, she goes full Queen Bey (“Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye”).

After the rage and fury of finding out about a cheating husband, Beyonce comes back to her family-centered values on the second half of Lemonade. On “Sandcastles”, she is willing to break her promise to leave him. “All Night” is a cease-fire: Beyonce has come to terms with Jay-Z and is willing to take him back, because she knows their love is deeper than that.

Lemonade is an exceptionally well-produced concept album that articulates complex feelings like few pop albums have. Its hooks are irresistible, and its lyrics are well-crafted. Clearly, Lemonade is what Beyonce made after life gave her lemons.

Best tracks: “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, “Formation”

1. The Life of Pablo: Kanye West

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In popular culture today, Kanye West is many things. First, he is a famed rapper, producing beats and albums that are way ahead of the rap game at the time. Second, he is the husband of the woman who is by far the most famous in the entire glittering category of women who are famous for being famous. Third, he is a budding designer, whose shoes and clothes capture the fine line between madness and genius: a line that is basically his home address.

In short, Kanye West is famous. Really famous.

Where does all that fame land him?

It lands him in bed (literally) with a host of other really famous people: Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump to name a few. These are the world’s foremost leaders at running the hype and fame game. (See: 2016 presidential elections.)

It gives him a fascination with several incarnations of Paul. Pablo Escobar, famed druglord with an alter-ego as a Robin Hood for Colombia’s poor. Paul the Apostle, carrying forth Jesus’ words and, in essence, his fame.

It provides him a deep, undying love for the thing that matters most: family. Even if that family includes a woman whose claim to fame is a sex tape with another black man. Kanye loves Kim and Nori and baby Saint very, very much – no matter what the naysayers may say.

It also shows him the underbelly of fame: cousins stealing laptops as ransom, acquaintances fronting as friends, friends fronting as real friends.

Life of Pablo is about all of these things. It is a greatly stripped-down album compared to the flamboyance of his previous albums. Much like Childish Gambino, Yeezy has been changed by the birth of his children. But in essence, Life of Pablo is a highly accurate painting of Kanye West as he is right now. It’s a masterpiece, as always.

Best tracks: “Famous”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

26 Feb

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That The Life of Pablo is a masterpiece is immediately evident. There’s none of the difficulty of To Pimp A Butterfly or the earlier Yeezus here. This is approachable from the beautiful, gospel-like opening of “Ultralight Beam” to the end. There’s an attention to detail in all of Kanye’s albums that leads to quality that you just cannot find elsewhere.

This album sprawls pretty far though. Musically, it jumps from point to point incessantly and like MBDTF before it, the album features a wide supporting cast. Those artists are at their best here though. The Weeknd’s piece on the brutally emotional “FML” is the best hook of his career, the clarity of his voice plays beautifully against the breathless nature of Kanye’s rap and the menacing, sparse beat. Similarly, Frank Ocean’s closing verse in “Wolves” was exactly what that song needed to cap it. Even Ty Dollar $ign on “Real Friends” is excellent. His collaborators seem to have subsumed themselves for their songs. Even people as individual as Rihanna or Young Thug just appear as a part of the music and not the whole package that they normally provide.

This is why for an album as rambling as this one, there is a surprising consistency. Where Yeezus or 808s and Heartbreak were about single emotions, this is about the full spread of Kanye, and so this album can be difficult if you’re not so into him. You have him referencing the Kanye Fresh meme and talking about the old Kanye to being impossible to relate to when he takes needless shots at Amber Rose or chants the word “couches”. Both To Pimp A Butterfly and Beyonce were similar in how they forced a (possibly alien) viewpoint on their listeners and so can cause discomfort, but Kendrick and Beyonce are much better people than Kanye and that makes them easier to listen to. Neither of them really care if you agree with them, but they use that callousness for social progress, Kanye just uses it to be Kanye. This is how he can go from “I didn’t mean to instigate” on the heartfelt “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” to the intentionally instigating Taylor Swift line of “Famous”, it’s just who he is.

He is also a musical genius though. The music is deep enough to always find something new and things work together in ways that I have never seen before. The Life of Pablo is a magnificent album and I highly recommend it.

@murthynikhil

Outside Lands Day One – 8/8/2014

10 Aug

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Outside Lands is the largest music festival of the year for San Francisco. It’s cousin from the South, Coachella, is larger in every way, but it is still a big thing for those who stay in the City by the Bay. Normally I skip these things, but for this one that wasn’t an option. You’ll find out why below.

Run the Jewels

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My Outside Lands experience started with Run The Jewels, the hip-hop duo consisting of Killer Mike and El-P and they started it well. They came out aggressively and ran an intense set. Run The Jewels was one of the best rap albums of the past year and made for a fun live show. Killer Mike also took some time to respect the bay, remembering Mac Dre and calling Too $hort his father figure. They even brought out SF native and hometown hero DJ Qbert who ran the turntables like a champ. This was quite the opening to a day full of music.

Warpaint

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Next on my list was the excellent indie rock quartet Warpaint. Their sounds have the gossamer delicacy of fine silk and intrigue of a murder mystery. Simple to the point of being almost unadorned, their pop has a natural beauty that is incomparable. Unique and wonderful, their show was a delight.

Chromeo/Grouplove

Sadly, the show then hit its low point with Chromeo. They drew quite the crowd and an enthusiastic one at that. Their show however took all their flaws and magnified them. They lost what little charm their albums hold and came off as purely unintelligent and unlikeable in concert. The high point of their show was choosing to leave it.

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I crossed the field just in time to listen to Grouplove cover Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love”. They couldn’t do it full justice. Beyoncé’s voice is exquisite. Still, they tried and the result was worth the listen. They followed it up with a couple of mediocre songs and a couple of good songs. I’m not going to buy tickets to a full Grouplove concert anytime soon, but I could have done worse than to watch them for half an hour.

Tegan and Sara

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Next on the list were Tegan and Sara. The indie rock duo was more fun than anyone else in the concert. Their songs were upbeat and bouncy and they kept breaking up their set with some quite amusing banter. I was quite sad that I had to leave them early, but I wanted to make sure I found a good place for the next concert.

Kanye West

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I bought tickets to Outside Lands purely to see Kanye West and he did not disappoint. Intense, challenging and of unparalleled quality, this is exactly what I wanted from a Kanye West concert. I just didn’t know how well he would deliver.

He opened with “Black Skinhead” eliciting the expected crowd excitement, and the following hit “Mercy” kept the hype rolling, but it wasn’t until later that we really began to see what this concert could be. In the middle of “Clique” he broke off the song to speak about the hate he gets and how his listeners are his clique. Chanting the chorus took a new intensity immediately after.

His anger in “New Slaves” was nothing short of palpable. One of his oaths in that song physically rocked me back. The crowd naturally knew most of his songs, so he kept cutting them up into pieces and making the crowd go over certain parts multiple times. You could say he was a leader and we were followers.

Kanye West is not the kind of guy to pander during a concert. He did shout out to SF during “The Good Life” instead of the normal second set of cities with the Bay Area line. We must have gone over “Blood On The Leaves” five times because he wanted mosh pits for when the bass drops in that song. “POWER” was abruptly broken because he felt like switching songs. Kanye does what he wants, and that’s why I go see him.

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The later part of the show featured quite a few of his older hits. He started with “All Falls Down” to bring back the memories and then kept going. “Jesus Walks” still holds up as one of his best songs and works very well in a crowd. Also, “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” was quite the throwback. I remember watching that song on TV back when it first came out. “Touch The Sky” and “Stronger” also came out to represent one end with “Bound 2”, “All of the Lights” and “Run This Town” pushing the other. The man has quite the discography.

As always with Kanye though, a large part of his appeal is being able to relate with his sentiments. Often, it seems like he is the only angry person left in music. This time for me it was “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”. It has been quite a while since I last heard it and it was the right song in the right place. Shouting the chorus with the crowd was nothing short of cathartic and “I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/And what I do, act more stupidly” hit all the right notes.

During an extended singing part of “Runaway”, Kanye stated that his songs are about promoting self-confidence and that being a fan of Kanye was being a fan of yourself. This is the kind of concert that makes you be both.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2013: Nikhil’s List

30 Dec

It’s been a pretty full year for music and now as it comes to an end, it’s time to separate the gods from the frauds. These are the five albums that struck deepest within me.

5. The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe is a hard person to describe. Adjectives flow easily; inventive, bold, imaginative, talented, but as she proudly states, she defies every label. The Electric Lady makes parts four and five of her seven part science fiction concept album series and lives up to the high standard of the previous entries. This albums sees her a little more free and a little more comfortable than in her previous work. While The ArchAndroid is still definitely the better album, the soul that fills the second half of The Electric Lady is still wonderful. Janelle Monáe has consistently been one of the most interesting people in music since Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) was released in 2007 and The Electric Lady does nothing but reinforce her already solid status. This is a fun, danceable album and I recommend it to everyone.

You can read the full album review here and our review of her concert here.

4. Without A Net by Wayne Shorter

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Wayne Shorter’s return to Blue Note after 43 years is an astounding piece of modern jazz. This is fiery jazz, the kind that forces you to sit up and take notice of it. Not only is it of unparalleled technical proficiency, but the band members are almost psychic in how well they play off each other. They’ve been working with each other for over a decade now though, so I suppose that is only to be expected. Although this is beautiful jazz, it may be a little too obscure for people new to the genre. For anyone who has heard Wayne Shorter before though, not having this album would be a sin.

For those still on the fence, the full album review is here.

3. Days Are Gone by Haim

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Each of my final three albums is an emotion and this one is happiness. This is a fun album to listen to and a fun band to watch. There’s none of the pretentiousness that characterizes so much of the indie scene. This is a very varied and consistently excellent album and doesn’t feel the need to shove the fact in your face at every turn (I’m looking at you, Arcade Fire). It’s hard to single out any songs in particular, “Honey & I” feels like Stevie Nicks at her best, “My Song 5” has an incredible bass riff, “Running If You Call My Name” is heartfelt, all of their songs are worth talking about. This is the band that loves making their music as much as I love hearing it.

We’ve already put “Falling” on our album review and “The Wire” on Neeharika’s Top Five Songs of the year, so for this list you get “Don’t Save Me”.

 

2. Silence Yourself by Savages

If you’ve never heard the album, then it’s hard to explain why this album is so important. After all, indie musicians borrowing heavily from past music is nothing new and this is just Joy Division with a female singer. The thing is though that this album is very, very good. Painfully, brokenly good. Each of these last three albums is an emotion, and this is depression.

This album burns with a searing, undecorated intensity. Jehnny Beth screams and taunts throughout while the rest of the band perform their bludgeon-work upon your prone body. This is not a subtle album, an album with whom you can reason and share quiet moments by the fireside. This will shout at you, often just a single word, and you will listen because you know that the rest of the day is just going to be a pale echo of those submissive moments.

1. Yeezus by Kanye West

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Yeezus (full review here) is Kanye at his biggest, his most brash, his funniest, his most aggressive. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is still probably his best album, but that did not make the sort of statement that Yeezus did. This album’s emotion is anger. Leaving aside the refusal to release singles until well after the album released, the music is intentionally difficult, the lyrics intentionally off-putting. Discomfort is the aim, but not without reward as well.

“I’m In It” for instance is some of the most menacing music I’ve heard this year, but has no problems juking you with unexpected comparisons and a mention of swag-hili. It is then followed by the exceptional “Blood On The Leaves”, which samples Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit” beautifully. “New Slaves” is rage coalesced (and fully reviewed here) as “I Am A God” is hubris. Every line in “Black Skinhead” is a call to action. Even “Bound 2” makes for an excellent closer.

You can see the work, the brilliance and the anger behind every line. You can, in fact, see Kanye West.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Songs of 2013: Nikhil’s List

26 Dec

2013 was a great year to be into music. It’s hard to think of the last time that things have been quite this interesting. There have been stellar debut albums and big name comebacks (including a return to Blue Note bandleader after no less than 43 years). There has been major rap release after major rap release after major rap release after major rap release (with a very refreshing minor rap release thrown in for good measure). We even managed to see the return of science fiction. It’s been a great year with great music and here is my take on its top tracks

Honorable Mention: “Valentine’s Day” by David Bowie

Adding an honorable mention to lists like this is cheating, but I couldn’t write this without touching on this song. “Valentine’s Day” was both heartfelt and topical. With barely anything at all, Bowie manages to paint a complex picture of the eponymous Valentine. His description of the planned school shooting is extremely personal and that lets you fill in what pushed Valentine this far. The song itself shifts from tender as he goes over his treasured plans and power trips to frenetic as he is about to take action. Frightening and remarkable, this song is David Bowie as good as he’s ever been.

You can read our full review of his album here

5. “5 AM in Toronto” by Drake

It’s easier to laugh at Drake than to like him. Nothing Was The Same did nothing but reinforce how soft he is. I mean, have you seen “Hold On, We’re Going Home“? It wasn’t actually a bad album though and that speaks volumes about his talent. “5 AM in Toronto” though is Drake going hard and is excellent. Look at this

The part I love most is they need me more than they hate me
So they never take shots, I got everybody on safety
I could load every gun with bullets that fire backwards
You probably wouldn’t lose a single rapper
Niggas make threats, can’t hear ’em over the laughter
Yeah, that’s cause I’m headed to the bank, nigga

Why he chose not to put this in Nothing Was The Same is beyond me, but album complaints aside, this is just really good rap. At the end of the day, this boy has talent.

You can read our review of his full album here.

4. “Lies” by CHVRCHES

So, CHVRCHES have finally arrived. Now that they’re here, I was disappointed by their album, but had a ton of fun at their concert. I like intelligent pop with female singers, and this covers that in spades. This song pulls off the same sound that made me fall in love The Knife and Lauren Mayberry’s voice is glorious. Besides, that chorus just can not be resisted.

This is dark, beautiful and glorious to listen to. Her story of self-confidence through control over her lover is splendid and made much more so by the motif of lies. This is perfect pop.

Again, album review here and concert review here.

3. “New Slaves” by Kanye West

When I first heard Yeezus, it was actually “Blood on the Leaves” that straight up convinced me that Kanye West was still on top of the game. It has been a while though and “New Slaves” is the song I most return to. The menace on that opening beat is palpable. You could cut a block out of it with a knife and use its inner fire to heat a home for a month. And that’s before Kanye opens his mouth.

This song is rage. This is pure in the way so few songs are. This is Kanye upset and rightfully so and calling out things that are wrong. You shouldn’t have to be a god to do this, but of all of the players this year, no one else has proven godhood as convincingly. Everything I’ve said until now though does nothing but diminish the song. Rage and menace is worthless if not as crafted as this song. It may have been forged in a crucible instead of handwoven on an ancestral loom, but this is masterwork nonetheless.

Album review, link. You’ve got this by now.

2. “She Will” by Savages

The Savages’ debut album was one of the most intense things that I heard this year. There are very few albums that affect me so deeply that I need to carefully monitor when and how much I listen to it. Silence Yourself acts on me the way Unknown Pleasures does, and that is a very high bar to reach. Songs like “She Will” can absolutely break me.

Jehnny Beth is scathing and confident in her takedown of gender roles. Although takedown is far too mild a word for this song. Evisceration is much more apt. Fay Milton’s drumming is primal and the guitar and bass work could be a song in themselves. These individual points are meaningless though because their sum is so much more. Everything fits in, everything works together and as a listener all you can do is what it says. This picks you up and hurls you where it wishes. That repeated refrain of the title at the song end is far to commanding to ignore.

This is the kind of song that you need to sit alone in perfect silence and breathe after. You can still hear it though. You’ll never really escape it.

1. “Control” by Big Sean (feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica)

Let’s be clear about this. No matter what the title may say, this is K.Dot’s song. I haven’t seen a song been snatched quite so hard since a young Eminem killed Jay-Z in his prime on “Renegade“. The other verses are fine, but I’m not even going to go over them.

Kendrick Lamar has put it down with this song. Rap is going to change because of this and with it music and with that society. The world has moved and his verse is what did it. Let’s start with the easy part to talk about. He just claimed both coasts. With one hand, no less. He name-dropped everyone. Even people performing on this very song weren’t safe from him. Enough nice-guy rap, things are going to go hard again and Kendrick has brought the golden age back.

Now, let’s get to the song. Kendrick’s flow is still impossible. He rides this beat so hard it dies the moment he gets off it. Honestly, its heart probably stopped beating minutes before and K.Dot pushed it anyway. That moment when in the middle of calling out competition he takes a breath because the list is so long, that’s as much of a statement of confidence as wearing the crown. Don’t even talk to me about the replies. The mic was dropped with that verse and not even Thor has the ability to pick it back up. We’re done.

@murthynikhil

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