Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Classic Album Review: The Lox, "We Are The Streets"

For close to two years in the late 1990s, the LOX angled for a release from Bad Boy Records to sign and record albums with their original management, Ruff Ryders Entertainment which formed its own label and instantly crafted a classic album in DMX's "It's Dark and Hell is Hot."

After an aggressive campaign waged in the streets, complete with "Let the Lox go" T-shirts, the trio of Sheek Louch, Styles P and Jadakiss were free to link up with their Double R family and in final week of January of 2000, they released their much-awaited second LP, "We are the streets."

"...Streets" was much different than the shiny-suit, pop-sample heavy sound of the Bad Boy Era. Swizz Beats, was still using his highly-popular synth formula, the underrated P. Killer Trackz contributed a banger in "Breath Easy," and D.J. Premier and Timbaland helped the Lox out with memorable cuts.

The tone is set with an opening intro of street-smart folks railing against the Lox for "selling out," followed up by the epic "Fuck You," in which each member shoots down anyone who said they wouldn't survive after Diddy gave them their walking papers.

Each member got at least one solo track to showcase their skills (predicting numerous solo albums from them all). Styles gets first crack with "Felony Niggas," a slick-talking mafioso cut on which The Ghost spits about "business as usual" - drugs and guns.

Jada's up next on "Blood Pressure." Kiss briefly addresses Diddy while flooring listeners with his signature raspy punch lines, including the bars that gave hip-hop's most notorious groupie her nickname ("Got a chick named Superhead, she give super head, just moved in the building, even gave the Super head...")

"Bring It On" was Sheek's solo cut, and it showed the potential he had back then. Of course, he was able to put it all together on his stellar debut album, "Walk Witt Me" three years later.

The rest of the album is Lox posse cuts, including the street-approved bangers "Wild Out" and the Preme-produced "Recognize," which was a match made in Hip-Hop Heaven. Stuttering Eve's usage of the word "Recognize" from "Ryde or Die" over his classic drums and bluesy piano riff, Preme gives the group a certified banger to give the game warning to recognize their gangsta as a group.

Timbo's infectious latin-tinged "Ryde or Die bitch" (or chick for radio) was their cut for the ladies, and who better than Double's R's first lady to lend her voice and swagger to the hook?

Other than most of the Ruff Ryders family, guest appearances are slim and none, with Kasino contributing a quick and hot verse on "Can I Live."

The lone spot of a comedy in a street-serious album was the legendary "Rape'N U Records" skit, in which Kiss plays a shady record label mogul who signs the unassuming Jae Hood (then a mixtape prodigy) to a crappy record deal, illustrating the group's mistrust of the music biz after dealing with Diddy.

Overall, "We Are The Streets" wasn't really designed for crossover success, but it remains the Lox's most popular, highest selling, and most recent album as the Lox to date. Their run as D-Block is highly revered, but it wouldn't have started without this album, where they got back to the streets they love so dearly.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

And I don't need no hook for this hit...

Instrumental songs are rare in popular music because we've become so accustomed to personalities dominating the music biz that being in the background and letting the music talk is no longer an option. I've always been a fan of instrumentals because a lot of times, they help me focus on whatever task I'm handling without lyrics distracting me. So for my first entry on this blog in seven weeks (I thought I was going to update this regularly? LOL), I will share some of my favorite instrumental pieces and hopefully you guys can comment with some of your faves or what you think of my list.

Giorgio Moroder, "Chase" (Midnight Express Soundtrack, 1978): I just got put on to this one recently, like, Saturday. I always knew that the Midnight Express tag team in professional wrestling used a watered-down version of Chase, but I never listened to the full 8 1/2-minute version until Saturday and it was like, "WOW." For the late 70s, it definitely fit in with the movie it was crafted for, and the sound is just incredible. Primitive synth flavor, I like to call it. Stevie Wonder brought synthesizers and clavinets to the forefront earlier in the decade, so Moroder wasn't using anything new, but just the breaks, the 8-part beat, the choice of sounds - just sick. I was also amused to find that CBS used this for its NBA highlights package in the 1979-80 season.

Paul Hardcastle, "Rainforest" (1984): This has LONG been a favorite, probably going back to those Saturdays and Sundays me and my family would be driving around going to the mall or to the Eastern Shore to visit family there. Didn't find out the artist and the title until Dennis Jones, sports information director at DSU was glad to tell me when I heard it playing in his office about three or four years ago. Definitely one of the best driving songs ever (a blog entry to come on that subject soon, I promise) because if you have great scenery or a bright blue sky kind of day going, you'll be in the car whistling along, getting to your destination with a smile.

George Benson, "Breezin" (1976): The Jazz Guitar legend definitely let his ax do the talking while gentle flutes and a mellow drum kick provide background support. The title really says it all, because you can definitely listen to this one with a breeze flowing and just feel relaxed and happy. More often than not, I feel like I'm on an island somewhere with beautiful women to kick it with and flawless fruit to eat every time I hear this cut.

Kool & The Gang, "Summer Madness" (1974): The Bass Guitar, the synth holler, the rhythm lead guitar, this is as good as it gets. Of course, this is better known to my generation as the joint Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff sampled for "Summertime," but when you're taking it down after a long summer day and watching the sun set and watching the stars in the sky, this joint provides the perfect soundtrack.

The Art of Noise, "Moments In Love" (1984): This one pretty much speaks for itself. The piano intro, the conga drums all equals sexy, seductive and mood-setting. This one still makes it onto a lot of late night slow jam playlists to this day. Back then, folks were making tapes, now we have playlists. How times change.

If you have any instrumentals you want to share, feel free to leave them in the comments or comment on my fave five if you like.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Melodic Memories: "If Your Girl Only Knew," Aaliyah...

Firsts are a beautiful thing to remember most times, and music is no different. We all remember where we were and what we were doing the first time some of our favorite songs hit the radio or we saw the video on MTV or BET.

For me, the first time I heard a 17-year old womanchild come into her own was clear as day. In the fall of 1996, I was working for a youth clean team in Wilmington, Del. as a high school sophomore, basically we were a low-budget garbage crew. I remember the day I heard this ill beat, indescribable then and now. A country baritone gave a former R. Kelly protege the green light to let loose and she began to spin a yarn about a trifling pursuer who was already involved with another girl at that point.

Aaliyah re-emerged from the controversy surrounding her involvement with Kelly, and by request of her management company, was assigned to an up-and-coming beatmaking-songwriting duo, charged with creating her sophomore album. The pair was Timbaland and Missy Elliot. "If your girl only knew" was the first single from the wildly-successful One In A Million album, and it did a pretty good job of setting the tone for a new songbird heroine for teenage girls at that time.

Mary J. Blige was growing up and while still cutting heart-wrenching classics, One In A Million proved to be a pivotal album for that demographic. It gave a certain flippancy, an arrogant strength to the typical angst young girls at the time were feeling in their dealings with boys. If Mary J.'s My Life was the cry-your-eyes-out, I-want-to-punch-this-loser kind of album, then One In A Million was "yeah, whatever, I'm done with him, let me get my girls together and have fun" album.

"If your girl..." just banged from beginning to end, including the break where the drums got harder and the synth became sparse, providing plenty of opportunities for making up your own dances or even following along to routine in the dynamite black and white video.

That song hit me the hardest, not because I was a guy trying to pick up a girl, but musically, it was unlike anything I had ever heard in contemporary R&B to that point. I was raised in an old-school household, so I was late but well-versed in the New Jack Swing sound, created by Teddy Riley. But this? This song right here? This was swinging for the fences R&B. Tim just decided to hit the world with his offbeat brand of sound effects and drum patterns while Missy crafted the lyrics questioning the intentions and scruples a guy clearly trying to cheat on his girlfriend.

"If your girl only knew" was just the start of the album's singles success with "Four Page Letter," the epic title track and two smoldering versions of "Hot Like Fire" that seared the airwaves in the summer of 1997. The song is definitely one of Aaliyah's best known cuts and is the one that gave her a sound all her own.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Feedback Wanted: Apply Within

So it only took me a solid month to post something new this time, so I'm getting better, lol. Anyway, as I prepare to enhance my internet content on all levels, I certainly don't want to leave this blog behind. So I ask the readers of C.J. Writer's Sound Track these questions: What would you like to read here? What would grab your interest and inspire you to leave comments as well as perhaps in some way be a part of the blog?

I am honestly thinking about a Your Soundtrack post, once a week or every two weeks, where I'll talk to bloggers and friends alike about their musical tastes, memories and their opinions on the state of the art form in our generation. If you want to be one of the ones I talk to and post about, hit me up with a comment.

I also plan to do more reviews and flashbacks, hopefully with more current stuff sooner rather than later, and spotlight musicians and talent that may not have a world-wide following like a select few others.

And don't be afraid to tell your friends about this site. I welcome all who enjoy listening to and discussing music as much as I do. And now I open the floor to my readers. Have at it in the comments and we'll go from there. Hope everyone is having a great Sunday :)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Oh, How I've Neglected Thee....

Four and a half months? I'm so ashamed. Never fear, I bring another album review to you, and we're going into the wayback machine for this one.

In August of 1973, the Stevie Wonder legend tour almost got derailed before it even started. Heading for a concert at a college in the Raleigh-Durham, NC area, the car carrying Stevie was caught up in an accident with a log truck and one of the logs went right through to car and hit Stevie square in the face, knocking him into a coma. The biggest single in his career to that point, the funk spiritual "Higher Ground," was number one across the charts, and it looked like it would be his last hit. Somehow, Stevie miraculously recovered and Innervisions became Stevie's second straight Grammy album of the year award.

Coming out of the coma, Stevie took a little longer than usual to craft the follow-up to Innervisions, and when he did, it was a decidedly darker - for him, anyway - album than Innervisions or 1972's Talking Book. Fulfillingness' First Finale, released in July of 1974, was a 10-song meditation on politics, love lost and a heightened sense of mortality along with awakened spirtuality.

The album's highlights on the surface are obviously the top-five R&B singles "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and with sweet background assistance from the Jackson Five, a political diss track to the disgraced Richard Nixon called "You Haven't Done Nothin'." In "Boogie On," Stevie is enchanted by the way a woman gyrates over his synthesized groove, aided by a gentle showtune piano riff and steady drum play. The lyrics are a bit racy as far as Stevie standards go, but relatively harmless and stands as one of the greatest funk-dance songs ever.

However, there was nothing harmless about "You Haven't Done Nothin'," crafted as Nixon faced intense pressure to resign as President of the United States in wake of the now-infamous Watergate burglary scandal. With crashing drums, a sinister Moog riff and blaring horns, Wonder tells Nixon that his presidency was an epic failure and that America would be better off without him. And who's to say Nixon didn't listen? He resigned on August 9, 1974, not quite three weeks after Fulfillingness was released.

The rest of the album fills out quite nicely, as Stevie encourages all who have a wavering faith in the Almighty to stand strong with the song "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away," and reflects on his near-death experience in the haunting "They Won't Go When I Go." With sparse instrumentation and strong harmony serving as the backdrop, Stevie preaches a sermon of how death would almost seem like freedom in a chaotic mid-70s world.

The subject of a bashful lover hits close to home with many of us, and "Too Shy To Say," a tribute to Wonder's unequaled mastery of the black and white keys, is a beautiful "Do you like me? Yes or No - check one" letter set to music. "Creepin," covered some 11 years later to perfection by the late Luther Vandross, started off on this album as a relaxing, soothing ode to a the start of a great relationship.

However, the one real breakup song on the album, "It Ain't No Use," is a realistic summary of a relationship gone bad and how both parties are still young enough "To find our Winter love in Spring."

The remaining three tracks, the upbeat opener "Smile Please," a plea to live a little and travel ("Bird of Beauty") and the closer, a slight throwback to the Motown Sound called "Please Don't Go" are perfect compliments to the album's overall theme of "Live your life," to steal a phrase from the T.I. and Rihanna smash hit.

While darker in tone, theme and content compared to the albums sandwiched around it, Fulfillingness' First Finale earned another Album of the year nod and is easily the most underrated of Stevie Wonder's album since he took creative control of his career in 1971. He would return to his upbeat classic form with the seminal Songs In The Key Of Life in 1976, but Fulfillingness remains Stevie Wonder's most human and realistic work.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Channeling My Energy Elsewhere

Keri Hilson is a woman of many labels. Supermodel gorgeous with serious leg cleavage as her strongest physical trait in a man's eyes, Hilson is also a supreme songwriter (she's a top member of the ATL-based songwriting clique The Clutch) who is stepping out there as a singer with her album that's set to drop shortly "In a perfect world." Her lead single "Energy" adds a new title to her list of credits for this blogger - Superheroine.

As anyone who has read my personal blog (The Post Game Show) knows, I spend entirely too much time angry, hurting, sad, shedding silent tears, punching walls, etc., over women who could care less about me. Basically I'm expending a ton of - yep, you guessed it - energy on something I can't control right now. When I first listened to this song in depth, it was one of those cathartic, climactic moments that ended with me thinking, "YES! I owe myself SO much more!" The bridge is what I mean, when she sings "now, I can feel you changing me, and I can't afford to slip much further from the person I was meant to be."

That bolded statement is key because what she's saying is, "I have things that I have to do for myself and right now, you're holding me back from doing those things." I swear, I take that passage of the song to heart nowadays because I know that while I am getting older (as if 27 is elderly), I can't make something happen that's not there. Right now, women aren't feeling me, and even worse, I haven't figured out what there is for me to like about myself. I can be thankful that my pursuit of women and sex hasn't interfered with my professional life, which is what should be the most important thing right now. So I guess it is finally time to spend time with me, get comfortable in my own company and develop the self-love that is necessary to survive. Whatever happens with women happens. I have to live with myself forever, might as well learn to love Chris as he is.

So thanks to Keri Hilson, "I'm not afraid to walk alone," but I really won't be walking alone. I'll be with someone special who has needed my love the whole time. And that's a cause worth spending my energy on.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Many thanks, Charlie Ray....

Raphael Saadiq is a fool for this one....

Growing up in a decidedly old school household in Wilmington, Delaware in the late 80s and 90s, I secretly envied my elders who got up and put down the hottest dances from the 1960s whenever a Motown classic glided through the speakers of my mama's ridiculously huge stereo. As a child, that unbridled passion, the motivation to move and thrive in a love song with an upbeat tempo was not (and let's be frank about it - STILL AIN'T) a part of my musical generation...til Raphael Saadiq unleashed this gem, called "Love That Girl." A lot of times, in all genres of music, artists and producers stretch and strain their musical abilities to create a "retro sound," with urban musicians falling short of the feel of Berry Gordy's Hitsville, USA or James Brown's fried chicken/collard greens/mashed potatoes/sweet tea brand of funk.

Saadiq, however, pulls off a song that Eddie Kendricks is looking down on from Heaven with MUCH delight and approval. The lyrical content - simple but elegant like Smokey Robinson. The bass feels like the late James Jamerson is playing those notes himself, and complete with cymbal taps and sharp tambourine shakes, Raphael sings about this girl that is "so sweet and tender," making the listener opine for the days when it was alright to refer to a woman's personality and demeanor as her best attributes, or her physical beauty in a complimentary and respectful way.

Of course, Raphael has been a talented musician forever, so his skill is nothing new to me or anyone who may read this entry. But for him to really step on a limb and release this cut as the lead single from his new album "The Way I See It," just shows a strong conviction to his art, and he is to be commended and respected for it. It's wishful thinking that one song by a veteran musician could spark a widespread return to real instrumentation and talent, but it's a welcome diversion from Autotune-Pain and radio-obsessed production that is dominating our ears today.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some Philly dipping and Funky Broadwaying to do.