Recently Added: Quarantine Music

I think it’s safe to say the last few months have changed a lot of plans. Countless goals and dreams and ways of thinking have been forced to adapt, be revised, or be put to rest. One way, both beautiful and bittersweet, that these changes are expressed is through the art we create. Taylor Swift is a good example of what can be created in these unusual circumstances, but there are several other cases of creative projects altered by pandemic that are worth looking at. All the albums listed have recently been ordered for the library and will be available soon.

how i’m feeling now by Charli XCX is an album that was created in a truly unique way, unlikely to have arisen except in the context of self-isolation. The artist announced (where else?) on a Zoom call  that she would be making an album in self-isolation and that she would use only the tools at her fingertips to create the music, album art, everything.  Moreover, she worked collaboratively with her fans to get feedback on tracks, album art, and more. The result has been highly acclaimed by critics and fans.

In A Dream by Troye Sivan is the artist’s third album, following 2018’s Bloom. According to Sivan, this album represents an emotional rollercoaster, where emotions and feelings are shockingly fresh. Similar to Taylor Swift’s journey with Folklore, this album was made while Sivan was in lockdown in Melbourne, and it was facilitated by the boredom and isolation of the experience. Songs were created day by day and it was an unexpected realization to find that an entire album had materialized.

Here On Earth by Tim McGraw, in contrast to previous examples, was planned and recorded before the pandemic, but was unmistakably altered by it. The tour originally planned to accompany the release had to be canceled, and according to an interview with Rolling Stone, McGraw had to reexamine the record in light of the pandemic to see how its emotional impact had been changed. Some tracks, including I Called Mama, were found to have unexpected emotional weight.

ALICIA by Alicia Keys was also planned ahead of time, but struck a timely chord with its themes. Critics said the album struck a balance between hope and despair, and Keys herself said the album showed the value of introspection – something we’ve all had more time to do lately, right? The album was scheduled for release in March, but was delayed by the pandemic until September. In the meantime, various virtual performances allowed Keys to debut songs from the album ahead of its release, including the iHeart Living Room Concert for America.

Key Changes: New Pop Music

Many times, the story of a musician’s career is a sad or depressing one. The pressures of fame and the struggle to stay relevant often have devastating consequences, especially when taken in conjunction with adolescence and young adulthood, which are difficult in their own right. For that reason, I’m always happy to see artists’ work reflect a more positive or healing trajectory. There are many musicians or groups whose growth I could talk about, but for now, here are two examples drawn from my own favorites.

Taylor Swift’s Folklore came out as a complete surprise to her fans, both because no one knew it was coming, and because the sound of these songs is so different from her recent tracks. Swift is a fascinating artist for me purely because you can never quite predict what she’ll do next. She refuses to be bound by a particular genre, always seeming to fit her sound to the personal story she wants to tell. She started out using country-inspired sounds on early albums such as Taylor Swift and Fearless, switching to a more mainstream pop sound with Red and 1989. In 2017, her album Reputation took a much darker tone, only to make a complete 180 to 2019’s Lover, which was much more bubblepop inspired. Now, she’s changed course again with Folklore, which features more acoustic, indie pop sounds as well as an imaginative, fantasy vibe.

Compared to Taylor Swift, Adam Lambert is less famous, but his growth as an artist, culminating in 2020 album Velvet, is equally compelling. A powerful vocalist, Lambert got his start on American Idol in 2009 and finished as runner-up. His first album, released later that same year, was titled For Your Entertainment and leaned heavily into a glam rocker vibe, flashy and energetic. In contrast, his next album, Trespassing, struck a much more muted, darker vibe, with less glam and more edge. The movement into darkness continued with The Original High, which featured many tracks with an emptiness theme – Ghost Town, Another Lonely Night, etc. As a fan, I was concerned that this indicated the stereotypical downward spiral of the rock star. However, around that same time, Lambert started touring with iconic album Queen, lending his showstopper voice to the band’s famous repertoire. This move was a big success, and the start of a new chapter for Adam Lambert as an artist. In 2019, he started releasing tracks from a new album, Velvet. In these tracks, the tone is much more hopeful, empowered, and renewed, with tracks like Superpower and New Eyes.

I could go on and on about how interesting it is to compare musicians’ most recent work with how they got their start – and honestly I might, stay tuned – but for now, my main takeaway from these albums is the feeling of hope and imagination. It tells me that things can get better, that we continue to grow and change through difficult times.

Let Us Entertain You

Have some spare time on your hands?  Looking for new diversions?  Look no further than your local library!

We are pleased to announce the addition of two RBdigital entertainment products to our fleet of online resources, IndieFlix and Qello Concerts.

IndieFlix provides access to over 7,000 high-quality shorts, features, documentaries, classic TV shows and Web series from 85 countries.  It includes independent films from major festivals all over the world, including Sundance, Cannes, Tribeca, and more.

Qello Concerts allows music lovers to view full-length performances, concert films, and music documentaries.  For example, shows by Queen, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Aerosmith, Lady Gaga, Metallica, Eric Clapton, Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Bob Marley, Mumford & Sons, etc.

To get started with either product you first create an RBdigital account.  Enter your Davenport library card number, then fill out a form to provide your library, name, email, and create a password.  It’s that simple.

Your account provides you a 7-day license to stream unlimited content.  The next week, login again to check out another license.

Fair warning:  These products are addicting!

Closer Than Together by the Avett Brothers

guest post by Laura V

The Avett Brothers have always had energetic folk rock infused with some banjos and, occasionally, progressive themes. Closer Than Together, released in October 2019, surprised me with some very political songs intermixed with some new sounds as well as the old familiar Avett sound on other songs. It took a few listens to wrap my head around this album.

Here are the tracks:

  1. “Bleeding White”
  2. “Tell the Truth”
  3. “We Americans”
  4. “Long Story Short”
  5. “C Sections and Railway Trestles”
  6. “High Steppin’”
  7. “When You Learn”
  8. “Bang Bang”
  9. “Better Here”
  10. “New Woman’s World”
  11. “Who Will I Hold”
  12. “Locked Up”
  13. “It’s Raining Today”

My first impression was of the musical group The Black Keys to be honest when I heard Bleeding White. After listening a second time I could hear the Avett brand shine through so this song is a keeper on my playlist. I could dig a whole album of this edgier sound. Tell the Truth is more in line with a typical ballad from previous albums but it feels interrupted by the monologue in the middle.

We Americans is more like an essay than a song. It vaguely reminds me of a long political poem I wrote some 20 years ago. I’m not sure I like this one even though I agree 100% with the sentiments. It’s difficult to condense the immense complexity behind the problems in our country into catchy phrases and choruses so it doesn’t. In their mission statement for this album, they say, “We didn’t make a record that was meant to comment on the sociopolitical landscape that we live in. We did, however, make an album that is obviously informed by what is happening now on a grander scale all around us…because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.”

Long Story Short makes use of the literary device of multiple narrators. It’s a glimpse at the inner lives of several people loosely connected and works really well. C Sections and Railway Trestles is a jaunty tune celebrating recent parenthood. High Steppin’ is the icing on the 10th studio album cake that is Closer than Together. It is pure foot-stompin’ Avettness. (Go watch the video on YouTube, I’ll wait.) It is also split in half by a monologue but it sounds right in this song, not jarring.

When You Learn is more reminiscent of typical earlier Avett songs sure to please long-term fans. Bang Bang is a song that probably won’t go over well with the Avett’s gun-toting neighbors. Awkward. I, myself, have had similar musings about our culture’s predilection for violent movies and intense love of guns. I take the opposite opinion of theirs, however, I think people’s desire for violent books and movies is the reason they’re written, not media inciting violence.

Applause for the Late Mac Miller’s Heart-Felt Swimming

Sonically and lyrically, “Come Back To Earth,” perfectly establishes the feel of Swimming and encapsulates all the thematic elements of the album: breakups, vulnerability, addiction,  despair, hope, and painful self-awareness. People connect with Mac Miller because he wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He perfectly sums up what depression feels like when he wrote:  “And don’t you know that sunshine don’t feel right / When you inside all day / I wish it was nice out, but it looked like rain /Grey skies and I’m drifting, not living forever /They told me it only gets better.”

Now, the lyrics “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head” are just haunting.

It wasn’t until after Mac Miller died  from a powerful combination of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol that I heard his most recent album, Swimming, and immediately started listening to his other work, Best Day Ever, and The Divine Feminine, among others.  Like the inimitable artists who preceded him in death – Prince and Tom Petty, most recently – Miller’s reputation as a real-deal artist is not diminished due to his struggle with addiction. In a short lifespan, he managed to eat, breath, and sleep his craft, so much so that he was always writing, creating, performing, and improving. Just 26 years old after dropping his self-produced August 2018 album, Miller made an inspired appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series, mere months before his body was found.  His NPR performance immediately struck me as genuine as he bantered with his band and addressed the audience in between songs.  Plus,  Thundercat’s willingness to back you up is evidence of your awesomeness . But moreso: Mac Miller makes me feel  something, and simple though that criteria may appear, it’s an indicator for great artistry. Even though he suffered, he nobly shared his vulnerability, sadness, and hope through his music.

The late Mac Miller

Initially, the song “2009” was one of my fast favorites on the album, probably because of the self-reflective quality that the song conveys, both lyrically and instrumentally. The narrator appears to have looked back on his life having realized some hard-won truths but is ready to embrace a hopeful future. My favorite lyric is when he refers a conversation the narrator had with a woman and he cleverly characterizes her as an angel: “She tell me that I get her high ’cause a angel’s s’posed to fly”. The track has a dreamy wisdom about it that comes through the stripped-down instrumentation. Much of Miller’s music simply makes me feel good. 

Track number three, “What’s the Use” is a funky, laid back, feel-good groove featuring Snoop and that signature Thundercat bassline and  that hits in all the right places and might be my favorite tune on the album because, hello, FIVE STRING BASS in the house

Then you have the trumpet-heavy funk and disco dance tune, “Ladders”, that seems to encapsulate the hope and despair Mac embodied in his music. Such a big, bright song evokes a wild night living large in the city but against the backdrop of a sad truth looming in the near future: that the sun would rise and the fun would be over.  “Somehow we gotta find a way / No matter how many miles it takes / I know it feels so good right now / But it all comes fallin’ down / When the night meet the light /Turn to day.  Where was it Mac wanted to go? Check out his live performance of ladders and the all-star 11-piece band on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Melodically and rhythmically, “Self-Care”(co-written by Dev Hynes of Blood Orange)  is easily one of my favorite tunes on the album (but I’m hard-pressed to find a bad song on the album). Eerily, the music video portrays Miller lying in a coffin and nearly buried alive as he sings: “Somebody save me from myself, yeah /Tell them they can take that bullshit elsewhere / Self care, we gonna be good /Hell yeah, they lettin’ me go”. Given the trendiness of the concept of “self care” in a society marked by millenial backlash against the backdrop of growing social isolation in spite of vast widespread advancements in technology, Miller wanted to take better care of himself: he was envisioning a better life, but the question would be:  how am I gonna get there?

A review in Pitchfork states so eloquently that the feeling  of a work of art is indeed as valuable as the other more technical components of song crafting:  “As always, Miller remains a step behind the prestige artists he emulates—Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, and, increasingly,Frank Ocean, whose nonchalant songcraft looms large here. Swimming is less virtuosic than those artists’ recent works, but no less heartfelt, and the album’s wistful soul and warm funk fits Miller like his oldest, coziest hoodie. He may be unable to escape his own head, as he laments on the opener “Come Back to Earth,” but he’s decided to make himself as comfortable as possible while he’s trapped there.”

Co-written by Pharell Williams (does he collaborate with everyone?) , “Hurt Feelings” (awesomely described in this article as “weirdly cocksure”)  is another super-catchy tune on the album with a beat that’s perfect for head bobbing, and oddly enough, one of the tunes I crank in the morning to psych myself up for work or life.

Check out “Swimming”  for honest, heart-felt poetry from a young soul who lived the life he rapped about only to die far too young, long before he had a chance to love himself back to life.

My Way by Willie Nelson on CD

Guest post by Laura V.

I became a Willie Nelson fan around 2005. This was also about the same time I became enamored with Patsy Cline and Lyle Lovett. Old-style country is one of the many music genres that has my heart. I also like old-school jazz like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra so this was a fusion of tunes I was eager to hear.

Nelson and Sinatra were good friends so what better way to honor an old friend’s memory? It’s a bit odd to hear Nelson backed by jazz music but the steel pedal guitar and the harmonica brings the music back home to Nelson’s Texas roots. He interprets the well-known and often covered songs in his one-of-a-kind style, a kind of slow half-speaking, half-singing conversation with the audience.

I was not completely awed by My Way but I really enjoyed “Summer Wind” and I found myself a little misty-eyed with his version of “My Way”, the last track of the album. Sinatra fans and Nelson fans alike should give this release a listen.

Janelle Monae All Day

Janelle Monae’s masterpiece album, Dirty Computer, with its socially-conscious future funk and infectious grooves, is as good as it gets. Without question, it’s best-album-of-2018-good.  I’m blown away by how inventive and theatrical the album is while also blending multiple genres. And did you check the liner notes? Read them as you listen to the album to up the ante on your listening experience. Like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., with many layers of complexity, Dirty Computer gets better with every listen.

Dirty Computer  is a painstakingly conceived and executed work of art drawing on inspiration from the late, great Prince whose presence is ubiquitously felt throughout.  Other sources of inspiration are Gloria Steinem,  Barack O’bama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, and myriad literary works including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, and recently release film, Black Panther, among others.  One article offers a recommended reading list “based on Monáe’s dystopian inspirations and Afrofuturist influences, based on a future that is diverse and representative of what some might consider subversion—from being pansexual to polyromantic to black.”

If Monae’s music signifies disruption, than by all means: crank the volume, and signify, people, because Monae’s America is the future. Dirty Computer’s America is not homogeneous, fixed, static, and beige,  but instead decidedly diverse, eclectic, colorful, fluid, shapeshifting, and prismatic. The May 1st 2018 issue of The Economist called the album “protest music done right” and gave it praise for delivering a societal critique without being “self-congratulatory”. This great piece from Philadelphia-based publication-The Inquirer— analyzes Dirty Computer in the context of American Protest Music and compares the the album’s final track, “Americans”, to Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is You Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”.  Author Dan DeLuca sums up the album simply as “party-starting protest music, ” and that’s exactly what it is.

But it’s a new kind of protest music. “Americans”, fused with O’bama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech,  is an electrifying anthem that conveys a powerful sense of change for the better, of a new day on the horizon. Monae states that her intent is to inspire and uplift, and those intentions are apparent from start to finish in this album.  I love rolling my window down on a sunny day, cranking the volume, and singing along with Monae: “Just love me baby / love me for who I am / fallen angels / singing clap your hands / don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land / I’m not crazy, baby / naw / I’m American / I’m American/ I’m American/ I’m American. And check these verse lyrics:

I like my woman in the kitchen/ I teach my children superstitions/ I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand/ A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes /But she’ll never ever wear my pants.
Seventy-nine cent to your dollar/ All that bullshit from white-collars /You see my color before my vision /Sometimes I wonder if you were blind / Would it help you make a better decision?

The message is powerful but you might not even realize you’re getting an education because you’ll be too busy grooving to notice, at least at first.

What I love about this album is that it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite song. In “I Like That,” Monae’s voice flows effortlessly over a deep, droning drum & bass foundation and all the hits are in the right spot, complete with that TLC shout-out: “Sometimes a mystery, sometimes I’m free / Depending on my mood or my attitude / Sometimes I wanna roll or stay at home / Walking contradiction, guess I’m factual and fiction /A little crazy, little sexy, little cool/Little rough around the edges, but I keep it smooth /I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong /I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs /And I like that /I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one  who likes that. “I Like That” is a testament to being fearless and proud in your skin no matter what anybody else thinks. My absolute favorite line in the song appears when Monae recalls a memory from her past:  I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off /And you rated me a six /I was like, “Damn”/But even back then with the tears in my eyes / I always knew I was the shit.” The rise and fall of the lyrics–the cadence–is as smooth as Monae’s voice and perfectly executed. I’m amazed by how she sculpts a song and meshes the verse within the constraints of the song structure.

“I Got The Juice”, featuring Pharrell, is a slammin’ proclamation about owning one’s (fluid) sexuality. SPIN magazine referred to the tune as “the best of Dirty Computer’s homages to Prince.” (I can’t say I disagree although “Make Me Feel” would be a really obvious contender. More on that below.) “I Got The Juice” echoes Prince’s “Cream” in how it oozes sex appeal; but this smashing song goes to eleven on a scale of 10. Just as the song builds to a crescendo and you think it’s going to cool off, it  ramps up for one last feminist wave of authority when Monae powerfully declares: “If you try to grab this pussy cat / This pussy grab you back ” which is a clear response to President Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” statement revealed from his pre-POTUS days and now haunting him eternally.  “I Got The Juice” is like an amped up “Holler Back Girl”, the femme-fatale tune recorded in 2004 by Gwen Stefani. And like Stephani, Monae does not merely holler back. If Trump could forego the catcall and move straight to the crotch grab, you know the appropriate feminist response is neither meek nor apologetic.

An incredible rapper in her own right, Monae’s lyricism in “Django Jane” is punch-you-in-the-gut good. A Guardian article entitled “You Don’t Own Or Control Me” looks closely at how personal and political apex in “Django Jane”, described as “Monáe’s rallying cry, a rebellious protest anthem for women in general (“We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you earth,” she sings….[S]he puts down mansplaining with a forceful, deadpan lyric: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” It’s one of Monáe’s most political songs to date, and also one of her most personal, a revelation for a singer whose critics have called her presence “cerebral”, her music “controlled”, her “constructed” look.” The song may be more aptly described as a battle cry, in that the speaker militantly confront the treatment of Black Americans, and particularly Black women. Monae says that Django is ‘a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.'”

In trying to wrap up this post, I’ll just say: give this record a spin. Be blown away by the method and the message.  Want to hear the MOST PRINCE-Y song on the album? Check out “Make Me Feel”: the Prince undertones and overtones are undeniable in the funk guitar rhythm and Monae’s vocal gymnastics – especially when Monae sings “good God / I can’t help it / Ah!”

In saving the best for last, Monae reserves the final dedication in her album notes for Prince-her muse and mentor-and you can’t help but think about how proud he would be of her incredible accomplishment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kesha’s Kaleidoscopic Album”Rainbow” is a Work of Catharsis and Transformation

At first, Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” was my favorite song on the album. In a waltz with the one and only Dolly Parton, Kesha’s resonant vocals are set against a meandering pedal steel guitar which is decidedly “country”; yet the underlying  near heavy-metal downpicking and tambourine on the chorus elevates the tune to “not your grandmother’s”  country shuffle. Kesha and Parton’s vocals complement each other beautifully as a faint doo-wop piano adds to the nostalgia of unparalleled love. Lyrically, love is likened to a flame, of course; but embers, fires, and candles are also invoked to describe the type of love about which singer-songwriter Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt wrote in 1978. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You”) is the only cover song on the album: Kesha does her own writing, which is another reason to love this deeply-personal album.

As it turns out, “Spaceship”, track number 14, is my absolute favorite song on the album.  Kesha’s voice is paired with a banjo (and also a mandolin?) on the verses as she sings:  “I always said when I’m gone, when I’m dead / Don’t lay me down with the dirt on my head / You won’t need a shovel, you don’t need a cold headstone / You don’t need to cry, I’m gon’ be going home.” Due to the minimalism of the song, I am able to hear the beautiful timbre in her voice which is not buried (but instead enhanced) by the stripped-down instrumentation. “Spaceship” is essentially a dirge about how the narrator wants to be treated at the time the she departs the earth. I can think of no creative act on par with the self-penned elegy that is perhaps the penultimate act of staking one’s little claim on this spinning earth. The elegy song is basically akin to a living will for artists and one of the greatest works they can write.  The narrator of the song laments her life on Earth and states that she’s from another galaxy and will one day return home. Note the ethereal backing vocals on the chorus and how they creates a ghostly ambience that is not quite of this world. In my lil humble opinion, “Spaceship” is the best song on the album, because in a really beautiful, inventive way the artist confronts her mortality, contemplates her place in the world, and explores her interest in what lies beyond. The existential lyrics contemplating one’s mortality on “Spaceship”  immediately liken the mundane verse in “Tik Tok” to mere fodder for some otherworldy sacred cow.

“Woman” is a righteous, feisty song and gives voice to female empowerment and staking your ground,  dominant themes of Rainbow.  A saxophone full of attitude paves the way for the famed Dap-Kings horn section (who backed the inimitable, late Sharon Jones). Kesha sings: “I buy my own things/ I pay my own bills / These diamond rings / My automobiles /  Everything I got I bought it / Boys can’t buy my love/ Buy my love, yeah / I do what I want / Say what you say / I work real hard everyday / I’m a motherfucking woman, baby alright.” The song is part cabaret, part pop, and all sass, and Kesha sprinkles in some expletives for good measure (and I’m not mad at her for it). In fact, I love her for it because artistic integrity is not sanitized and flawless. Kesha is the antithesis to the Insta-world where all things appear perfect but are far from it: she is the raw and the real. In other words, beauty lies in imperfection. Sometimes, what is most real is disheveled and rough-around-the-edges. Check out “Boots”, which is a little bit like the “answer” to “Woman” and “Hunt You Down”, a pantomimic ballad about murdering a lover who has done you horribly wrong. Either way, this kaleidoscopic genre-bending album showcases Kesha’s dynamic vocal ability and range.

Forgiveness, prayer, and redemption from suffering (at the hands of loved ones) are also major themes of Rainbow. You’ve likely heard “Praying” at this point, which was released with a stunning,  video depicting a narrator who is letting go of the pain of all of those who have wronged her. If you haven’t seen her late night television performance of “Praying”, it is an awe-inspiring performance. The use of repetition andguttural belting of the lyrics “praying” and “changing” make it the centerpiece of the album, no doubt. But “Rainbow”the song after which the album has been named–has quickly become another of my absolute favorites. Kesha wrote “Rainbow” when she was in rehab  for an eating disorder, so this song both embodies and symbolizes healing, growth, and survival.  “Rainbow”–with its swelling string arrangements–evoke the magic of a Disney scene in which the lead character performs her triumphant soliloquy in a sunlit forest. Kesha sings: “I used to live in the darkness / dress in black / act so heartless / but now I see that colors are everything.” Thematically, colors  are a key vehicle for communicating personal transformation, and if you’ve seen the album artwork, you know what I mean. “Rainbow” signifies a new beginning or a re-birth while “Spaceship”–a song contemplating mortality–is the perfect final cut.

And that leaves “Bastards” which was described in the Rolling Stone review as a “ballad ripe for a campfire singalong”. And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, “Bastards” echos the sentiment my father still eschews to his kids today. This pep-talk of a title track is Kesha’s inner dialogue turned outward: ” Don’t let the bastards get you down, oh no / Don’t let the assholes wear you out /Don’t let the mean girls take the crown / Don’t let the scumbags screw you ’round / Don’t let the bastards take you down.” And that’s pretty solid advice.

I haven’t heard much of Kesha’s work aside from her 2010 album, Animal; but after listening to Rainbow, I’d count myself among the ranks of her adoring fans. After just a few spins of the album, there are some standout tracks that I would say are “great”, due either to the result of her collaborations with other (great) artists, her emotive shapeshifting vocals, or how content/lyrics, vocals, instrumentation, and overall production quality culminate in beautifully-crafted songs. As it turns out, the punchy, poppy dance tunes are my least   favorite songs but are catchy in their own right.  The songs I am drawn to and that have the most substance, in terms of lyrical content, also happen to be the most minimally arranged.

In general, Kesha really shines when her emotive voice gets to take center stage without competing with a spastic instrumental backdrop (“Boogie Feet” comes to mind). It’s easy to pass judgement on an artist like Kesha who has achieved the all-too-evasive super-stardom; but check out some of her live performances from “Rainbow” and if you’re like me, you’ll be moved by how she has completely lived the experiences about which she sings. “Spaceship”, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You)”, “Rainbow”, “Bastards”, and “Praying” are beautiful and honest songs that I will return to again and again. If you’re the least bit privy to the legal battles and alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her former producer, “Dr. Luke”, it’s not difficult to see that Rainbow  is a work of catharsis and metamorphosis. It’s fantastic to witness her return to her country roots because, yes, she isn’t merely a manufactured pop-star: not only does she write her own songs, but she can really sing. Check her out!

 

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

When fans say Kendrick Lamar is the Tupac of our time, it’s an understatement that his music has already made a profound socio-political and aesthetic impact. Let’s not forgot that “Alright,” a song from his 2015 masterpiece album To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) became a rallying cry for unity within the Black Lives Matter Movement and acknowledges the epidemic of police shootings that disproportionately targets  Black Americans.   TPAB fuses multiple-genres and voices while the finely-crafted DAMN, by contrast, is am exercise in minimalism. Repetition and reverse instrumentation perfectly reinforce the cyclical  format of the album and the album’s themes after which the songs are named (BLOOD, DNA, FEAR, LOVE, GOD, HUMBLE, LOYALTY, etc).  Where some artists overcomplicate and muddy their waters, Lamar expertly tells stories that perfectly accentuate the cerebral/mundane & sacred/profane dichotomies present in his lyricism. And he often does so with painful self-awareness and contradiction (good & evil, dark and light). Check out some of the reviews of Lamar’s 2017 masterpiece, easily my favorite album of 2017.

The process of listening to DAMN.  has been both discursive and linear, which is to say I’ve listened from beginning to end, end to beginning, and most points in between . The rewards of mindful listening –keener insights into social and cultural references, for example–inspired me to look further into the literary references in Lamar’s work. As an album, DAMN. is particularly circular as well, which is to say the album doesn’t have a definitive beginning or end.   DAMN. is a departure from the ventriloquism of TPAB,  but it nonetheless features what could be construed as Lamar’s conscious and subconscious “voices”. For example, “FEAR”–easily one of my top 3 favorite tracks on the album– is an examination of life told from a few different standpoints. Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr’s voice can be heard early on in the song asking: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/ Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? / Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.” One fan noted that this particular stanza could function to represent Lamar’s subconscious inner dialogue. But there is a second movement in the tune in which Lamar shape-shifts into the persona of (his) mother: “I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back/I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?/You stole it, I beat yo’ ass if you say that game is broken/I beat yo’ ass if you jump on my couch/I beat yo’ ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes”. This movement in the song continues for 23 more stanzas before transitioning into another “movement” wherein Lamar lays bare his anxieties about how he might die: “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges / Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’ /Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax / Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast.”

I’m astounded by how Lamar crafts songs that build great intensity and ferocity through the sheer volume of lyrical stanzas alone: strip away all of the layered instrumentation and the lyricism–poetry–would stand independently of its own accord. “FEEL” is another standout song on this album because Lamar utilizes a “stream-of-consciousness” approach set against a dreamy, synth-n-bass backdrop. Lamar is righteously vulnerable in this song and lays bare his anxieties, summons his heroes, and appears to turn his anger inward for a moment. On a really simple level, “FEEL” is a song about anxieties: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe
Look, I feel like I can’t sleep/Look, I feel heartless, often off this/Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with/Darkest hours, lost it/Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’/Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/Fill up the banks with dollars/Fill up the graves with fathers/Fill up the babies with bullshit/Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’…I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”  Something that is conceptually remarkable about DAMN. is that it is an honest exploration of what it means to be human. It is considerably difficult for an artist to not only tap into but to give voice to the wide spectrum of emotion without censoring oneself.  Lamar goes into the depths of his soul in this album, which is an act of bravery unto itself. When asked what he would do differently the second time around?: “I’d go deeper”,  he tells Rick Rueben in a fantastic interview.

“DNA” is my favorite song on the album because of it’s unapologetic boldness in which Lamar attacks the microphone and takes no prisoners. For the reason that hip -hop allows the artist to re-fashion him or herself into the larger-than-life master of her own destiny, I am perpetually drawn back into its magic again and again. Unlike other musical genres, the best hip-hop acts as a springboard not only for reflection but for personal (and thus social) revolution and transformation not lost on Lamar: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”  If you watch the official music video for “DNA”, you’ll see an incredible performance between Don Cheadle and Lamar that features Lamar administering a lie detector test to Cheadle. A sample of a Fox news brief features two news pundits mocking Lamar’s massive hit song “Alright” that calls out police brutality. I personally love how Lamar takes these two news pundits to task and challenges their snap-judgements and assumptions.  Like Nina Simone said, it is an artist’s job to “reflect the times.” Lamar does just that.

DAMN. becomes more revolutionary the more you listen and allow yourself to be awash in the poetry, politics, and existential philosophy. Having listened to DAMN. at least twenty-five times, I am amazed by Lamar’s “fast and furious” lyricism. A Pitchfork reviewer who gave the album a heavy-weight champion score of 9.2 opines that  “Lamar’s recitation is so effortless you wonder where he breathes, or if he does at all.”     Indeed, I also wondered when, exactly, he would find the space to take a breath during the recitation of his lyrics. If you haven’t heard this album yet, just listen with an open mind, which is to say with a neuroplastic mind, since we now know that the brain is not fixed but rather capable of change and charting new territory.

 

Meet Maria Nhambu

Last fall I wrote about Maria Nhambu’s memoir, Africa’s Child. You can read my blog about it here. It tells the story of how she grew up as an orphaned, mixed-race child in Tanzania. The first book in the Dancing Soul Trilogy, Africa’s Child is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. It leaves you wondering where she went from there.

I am thrilled to share that the second book, called America’s Daughter, has been published. In it, Nhambu chronicles what it was like for her leaving Africa. She was eighteen years old with a newly-adoptive mother who was barely four years older than her. She found a vastly different culture in America and began building a new life in it.

Laugh and cry with her as she recalls the many differences between Tanzania and Minnesota. She reveres education as her key to escaping a life of poverty and oppression. It is no surprise that she chose a career as an educator (at one point, she taught a soon-to-be famous musician named Prince Rogers Nelson.) Nhambu has a love for music, especially African music. She went on to create a program called Aerobics With Soul. It incorporates African dance into a fitness workout.

Nhambu still spends summers in Minnesota, but lives in Delray Beach, Florida during the winter. Thanks to family ties she has to the Quad Cities, she will be visiting us at Eastern on Saturday, Sept 9 at 10:30am to share her story with us in person. Joining her will be her adoptive mother and sister. Refreshments and copies of her books will be available. If we are lucky, there will be dancing. 😉

Nhambu is a gifted storyteller whose candor has made me cry, then cheer for her. Come meet a fascinating woman whose indomitable spirit has proven that love truly does conquer all.