[Williams Street; 2012]
To open the final track on “R.A.P. Music,” Killer Mike lays out his mission statement: “I’ve never had a religious experience in a religious place. The closest I’ve ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion.” The song goes on to pay tribute to the history and power of hip-hop, and while it makes for an epic finish, it could easily serve as a prologue to an album that is from start to finish a sermon on how rap music could (and should) be an influential force, enlightening the listener rather than promoting ones self. Mike follows this statement with a flow that reveals the care put into each and every word he spouts: “What I say might save a life / what I speak might save a street.”
Over his ten-year career that began via collaborations with Outkast, Killer Mike has always approached his lyrics with a vicious drive that is fueled by both passion and intellect (a style he describes as “elegance in the form of a black elephant”), but on “R.A.P. Music” his diatribes take on an even more menacing shape. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed his album “Pl3dge,” but whenever I listened to it, I always felt it just needed a little something more to make it really pop. It seems that Mike has found that secret ingredient in the form of producer El-P. On this full-length collaboration, the duo combine their talents to create an album that is packed with emotional hills and valleys that will take you through the landscape of rap music over the past three decades.
“When did music become so important?” This is a question Don Draper posed to his young, swinging wife Megan a few weeks ago on the critically acclaimed television show “Mad Men.” Not only was it a curmudgeonly, elder statesman complaining about the misplaced values of the youth, it showed a man caught adrift in a sea of change, simply trying to understand when and how the world was pulled out from under him. Only a few years earlier, Don reigned supreme in the world of cool. He could be found mingling in the West Village with beatniks and gypsies or taking an unannounced month off from work to enjoy the swinging life of the California coast. Yet, even in these exotic ventures, Don’s motives were never to be a part of a scene; usually, he just wanted to bed another woman.
[Friendly Fire; 2012]
Recently, Netflix added episodes on their instant que of the VH1 show “Classic Albums,” chronicling seminal albums and providing insight into the creation of each masterpiece. I’ve watched several episodes over the past few weeks, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the insight that the show offers. Why VH1 buried it on “VH1 Classic” is beyond my comprehension. One of my favorite aspects of the program are the moments where the one time producer revisits the mixing board and walks the viewer through the elements that made the album so influential. To see Rodger Bain breakdown the greatness of Black Sabbath as a band on “Paranoid,” one track at a time, is truly an eye-opening experience (most underrated band of all time?).
On the Nirvana “Nevermind” episode, legendary producer Butch Vig discusses the unique process of recording the fragile “Something in the Way.” When unable to capture the instability that Cobain wanted on the track, Kurt came into the studio, laid on the couch, and performed the song for Vig the way he wanted it to sound. Upon hearing his whispered performance, Vig quickly rigged up a microphone above the couch and recorded the song in one take, with Kurt still on his back singing one of the most intimate moments in Nirvana’s brief history.
One element of this mix board analysis hit me the wrong way. After telling the story of how the track was recorded as Vig “…literally held (his) breath,” he then discussed how they went back and added a drum track, a cello, and backing vocals to the chorus. As much as I love the song as it is on “Nevermind,” I can’t help but feel the significance of the moment was tarnished by a bit too much tinkering.
I imagine the scene in the recording studio during the creation of Mirel Wagner’s debut self-titled album was a tad different. While I can definitely imagine the Ethiopian-Finnish singer-songwriter lying back on a couch while performing her unique brand of doom folk, there is never a moment on the album where it isn’t simply Mirel and her guitar. Instead of trying to make the songs jump out at you in emotional swells, producer Jürgen Handlmeier allows the echoes of the studio to create the euphoria. The result is an album that is barebones, honest, and chilling. The fact that the songs were recorded in only two days furthers the feeling that these tracks are capturing a moment, validating the authenticity found within each revealing lyric and squeaking pick of a guitar string.
In the third installment of BDWPS Podcast you’ll hear new tracks from Lotus Plaza, Andrew Bird, Action Bronson, High On Fire, and Magnetic Fields. Also, I talk about the TV show “Quincy M.E.” and the biography of Pistol Pete Maravich. Download the Podcast at iTunes (look up BDWPS) or simply listen to it here: