Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Best Artist You Never Heard Of or... My New Fav'rit Rekkid

Soweto Kinch maybe the greatest artist working in the world today who is all but completely unknown in the United States. Many people have attempted to fuse hip hop and jazz with varying degrees of success, and even when it works out well, it seems that the original discipline of the artist always shines through. Branford Marsalis' Buckshot Lefonque always feels like a jazz musician incorporating hip hop into his work. Likewise the best efforts of Madlib or Q-Tip, fabulous as they are, somehow feel like a hip hop artist incorporating jazz into their work. Soweto Kinch is that rare master of both forms.

Equally at home as a talented, thoughtful, and witty (sometimes gut-bustingly funny) wordsmith and MC, as well as being a truly fabulous post-bop composer and alto sax player (as evidenced in the above video), Kinch has released four fabulous albums to widespread critical acclaim in his native UK, including landing a Mercury Prize nomination. Yet he remains a virtually unknown entity on this side of the pond. He needs some colonial love and I think we all should give it to him.

His latest double album, The Legend of Mike Smith came out early in 2013 in the UK, but I have only recently been able to manage to buy it here (and only then in mp3 format). Like each of his previous rekkids, it may take some searching to get it in the US, but the rewards are well worth the effort. It is an ambitious, conceptual concept album which casts parables of the seven deadly sins upon one day in the life of an aspiring rapper, trying desperately to get to an important session. On the way he deals with nightmares of war, incidents of racism and police harassment, and the distractions of his own temptations, all the while with the voice of an impish, prankster Beelzebub in his ear.

On the whole, the album plays like a movie for your ears, and demands the kind of attention that such a description implies. Rewards can be found in the casual listen, but it really is best to take the time and experience it as one piece. It segues quite naturally from radio-play like narrative bits to masterful, sometimes very poignant, and other times riotously funny raps, to blazing outings of hip hop inflected, Ornette Coleman inspired jazz. Much like his previous salvo (2010s The New Emancipation, which also gets my highest recommendation), The Legend of Mike Smith is by turns beautiful, satiric, topical, beguiling, raucous, and rapturous, and always entertaining. It will likely pull off the double act of being both my favorite hip hop album of the year and my favorite jazz album of the year, and it is my current "New Fav'rit Rekkid".

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Few Words About the Talking Heads

I was just listening to the Talking Heads' utterly transcendent cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River", and it dawned on me that the true genius of the Talking Heads is in their remarkable transparency. Which is not to say that they are without substance, they are,in fact, quite substantial. I mean transparency in the sense that they seem to actively eschew any form of musical obfuscation. They not only create great works of art, but they create those works in a way that allows the observer to see (or hear) exactly how that work of art was made. All the pieces of the whole are easily distinguished and identifiable, yet the whole itself is never diminished by this fact. They somehow manage to produce work which is perfectly seamless while simultaneously showing you every seam.