Bilal, A Love Surreal (eOne)
The neo-soul label frustrates this multifaceted Philadelphia-born singer-songwriter, and with good cause - those Erykah Badu and D’Angelo comparisons barely brush the surface. Rather, think Fiona Apple, an equally idiosyncratic vocal talent fond of messing with genre and traditional songform who’s suffered similar record company woes amid bootlegged unfinished products. Having exorcised nine years of label-induced inactivity with the rather piebald likes of 2010’s Airtight’s Revenge, this follow-up is where the loveman indulges in both daisy age vibes and classic rock signifiers. The former can be felt all over the meandering, bottom-heavy production, in the harpsichord tinkles, skanky beats, and moog interjections, along with the burbles of a drum machine seemingly lifted out from under 1971 Sly Stone. The rock power registers not only via the electric guitar swing of “Astray” but through the alt-country shadings of “Lost For Now” and a chorus on “Winning Hand” one can almost hear Donald Fagen delivering. Bilal’s chameleonic activities will no doubt exhaust some, and a few tracks meander without due cause. But he’s the rare hippie visionary adept at steaming up windows, offering to “lick you and roll you” between demands his paramour strip at the front door and ride it to the bathroom. And if his vocal delivery is at times suggestive of the jazz phrasing he studied at the New School, he’s equally comfortable going sanctified, enlivening the spacey “Slipping Away” with hints of Holy Ghost fear before stepping aside to let the electric church guitar climax alongside him.
Serengeti, Saal (Graveface)
Probably not the best place to start with this hip-hop talent - even committed fans might require a few extra spins before the hooks and beats sink in. A twenty-seven minute EP so heavy on the talking it at first comes off like a public reading, these eight character sketches reveal their depth gradually, relying upon the restrained production techniques of Berlin-based Sicker Man to deliver epiphanies no less devastating for their economy. Over strings and synth swirls and guitar plucks, various guises have their say: the happiest man in Glassell Park settling down to watch “a nice rom com / set in a southern state,” a people pleaser so non-confrontational a smashed favorite coffee mug gets shrugged off as “only stuff,” some sociopath threatening/promising to wear false noses and bring bed sheets to an ex’s wedding. Such alternately creepy and endearing personas are offered up by Dave Cohn sans judgement, whether he’s moaning like Moz on “I Could Redo” or sounding so frail on the chorus of “Day By Day” one fights the urge to assure him it’ll all be okay. So a jocular Sherwood Anderson is what he remains, gamely rhyming “ghost dance in Oregon” with “find the Lord again” even while detailing a spilt wine bottle on an L.A. bus ride framing the sobbing abortion clinic patient shrinking away from her tennis-despising pimp’s hard gaze. One refuge from the madness: “Home is the best place / tending to fish tanks”. Another: “Don’t get too excited / and don’t get a heart attack”. If such advise seems lachrymose, consider the alternatives, baldly chronicled on an opener that’s easily the most affecting child abuse number since Kimya Dawson’s “Hold My Hand”. What’s that our bard is saying? “I’m betting on myself again”.
Kool A.D., 19 (self-released)
It’s quite simple, really. Either the sound of a grown man loudly exclaiming “Bieber!” makes you laugh or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, little in these seventeen tracks of admitted outtakes and first-drafts will strike you as anything other than wank-off shenanigans. Also: it’s too goddam long. But if you think “Bieber!” is as inspired an interjection as any, you might find plenty of other jokes to savor inside Victor Vasquez’s third of four mixtapes named after Bay Area bus lines. The NorCal placing is no accident - throughout, Vazquez is as spaced and based as Lil B himself. Yet the ex-Das Racist MC unsettles people precisely because he never once plays down his intelligence even while basking in rhymes and delivery so stupid they get misconstrued as contempt for his audience. Kool seems too elysian to be contemptuous, with an appetite for food and intoxicants outweighed only by his zest for culture high and low. Who else would name back-to-back tracks after Jaleel White (Steve Urkel to you) and conceptual artist Jenny Holzer? Who else might take a self-described “dinky” beat from Ad-Rock and mutter entire bridges stolen outright from Beck and Notorious B.I.G. over the top of it? Who else might boast a compendium of favorite Daves that includes Bowie, Bryne, Foster Wallace, and Thomas (“square burgers” he footnotes drily)? And when he’s finished flipping through his Bobby Seele cookbook, he takes the time on “All Skreets” to quote Toni Morrison and ponder the way weapons move from object to image to symbol. Contempt? “A lot of people say / ‘Kool A.D., I’m a fan of you’ / well, damn, that’s cool / thanks, really, really, thanks”.
Tracks: “All Skreets,” “Eroika,” “NPR,” “Beautiful Naked Psychedelic Gherkin Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Ur Face, Flame Grilled Painting”
Jamie Lidell, Jamie Lidell (Warp)
The cool kids will tell you this is where the UK-born, Nashville-habituating singer/producer gets back into the groove after fruitlessly pursuing normality. The cool kids will insist that Jim and Compass failed because their “traditional” “soul” “songcraft” compromised an artist best left unfettered. They may push back gently against suggestions that the real reason both albums failed is because neither recognized the inherent limitations of Lidell’s vocal capacities, and they will point with gusto at an admirably convoluted attention to production detail drawing out every last slap bass and synth flutter from a mythic 1984. We uncool kids might hazard how sonic details alone can’t light up a block party, that many of these tracks are actively unpleasant when they aren’t merely overburdened, and that proceedings lighten noticeably the few times Lidell doesn’t seem embarrassed when caught standing near a hook - both “Do Yourself A Faver” and “Blaming Something” are minor club gems. The cool kids will counter (have countered, actually) that Lidell conjures memories of vintage Prince. At this point, it might be helpful to introduce Midnite Vultures into the conversation. This is more soulful, but just as jive, not least because it perpetuates the myth that last year’s state-of-the-art flourish is always today’s avant-garde.
Tracks: “Blaming Something,” “Do Yourself A Faver”
Sasha Go Hard, Round 3: The Knockout (self-released)
What a relief to discover that even in such reactionary times, the mavens and virtuosos of Chicago’s drill scene seem perfectly comfortable sharing the semi-national stage with up and coming female rappers - Katie Got Bandz is at least as consistent as YP or King Louie, and Sasha Go Hard here proves she’s as well-equipped as none other than Chief Keef when it comes to dispensing anthems of prideful self-sufficiency. Appropriating Toni Basel was an inspired move, and she’s got a fine sense of humor when she wishes to deploy it (rhyming “porn star” with “do me in a foreign car” - well, I laughed). But the droning minimal crawl that defines drill seems emblematic of the limitations of regionalism, bringing aboard Le1f for a guest verse can’t erase earlier “fag” musings, and making room for Kreayshawn is a myth-of-sisterhood bad joke. What a bummer when the ladies prove they’re as prone to bombast as their uglier male counterparts.
Tracks: “Blow My Mind”
Trinidad James, Don’t Be S.A.F.E. (Def Jam)
There’s actually something kind of charming about this guy, from his old-fashioned nom de plume to his malleable metal-worshipping video for monster hit “All Gold Everything,” here offered in remixed (and subpar) form with help from 2 Chainz, T.I., and Young Jeezy. And he’s got some cheek presenting Def Jam with the same thirty-three minutes that was last year’s mixtape for his “official debut”. But his goofy simplicity eventually wears out its welcome - if “you thought this track was over / ‘cause the hook so long” is worth a smile, it’s unclear whether he’s aware of the maudlin nature of a line like “what happens in Vegas…….stays in Vegas,” since an entire song circles around the refrain. And his anti-bitch standup comedy attempt is 1.09 you’ll never get back.
Tracks: “All Gold Everything”