May 21, 2012

Live: Jay-Z & Kanye West @ O2 Arena, London. 21/05/2012

Posted in Reviews tagged , , , , at 2:30 pm by essentiallyeclectic

“I spoke to Michael Jackson before he passed” explained Kanye West during a rare moment of calm in his and Jay-Z‘s amped up, full-throttle set in the O2. “And he said ‘Kanye, if I’m ever not here, I want you and Jay to take the crown’,” sliding into his hit ‘Good Life’ before anyone had a chance to try and work out what the hell he was on about. Not that they cared much.

Backed by full-on pyrotechnics and a Pink Floyd-rivalling laser show, ‘Ye and Jay prove formidable protagonists in what turns out to be a quite spectacular bit of hip-hop theatre. The duo send verse after verse swimming out over a sea of camera phones, barely pausing for breath from the first notes of ‘H.A.M’ – Jay on a raised platform in the middle of the crowd, Kanye on a similar one onstage – until the house lights go up two-and-a-half hours later.

In-between, they remind us all of quite how many inimitable hits their respective catalogues contain, both together and as solo artists. Tracks from Watch the Throne – the collaborative album this tour is supporting – are elevated in the live setting; pumped up versions of ‘Otis’ and ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ performed early on, the former in front of a giant stars ‘n stripes, the latter in front of video footage of lions taking down gazelles on the African savannah – all part of the show’s pageantry.

Both dressed head-to-toe in black (Kanye, rather impractically, in all leather), it’s Jay-Z who is the business-like professional, while his partner plays the excitable, bouncing rock star full of thespian scowls and exaggerated gestures.

Jay plucks a fine selection of hits for his portions of the show, from versions of ‘U Don’t Know’ and the crowd-participating ‘Jigga What, Jigga Who’, to The Black Album classics ‘Public Service Announcement’ and ‘Dirt off Your Shoulder’.

Kanye is equally happy to please, throwing himself full-on into ‘Gold Digger’ and ‘Touch the Sky’, or falling dramatically to his knees for the last verse of ‘Jesus Walks’. He taints the night slightly when putting his auto-tune to work on ‘Runaway’, breaking the song down to deliver an elongated, robotic homage to the ladies. But when he gives a cry of “this is the best you will ever see in your lifetime” during ‘Power’, it’s easy to see past the egomaniacal bravado and concede that he might be right.

To hear two figureheads of rap endlessly discuss their respective wealth in times of such economic austerity is slightly irksome on record, but watching them fly through a set filled with some of the biggest rap hits of the last decade with effortless composure drives home their achievements as entertainers. The baying hordes in the audience were certainly well-treated; responding in kind as they dutifully put their diamonds in the sky, allowed Jay to reintroduce himself, or brushed their shoulders off on request.

The pair worked their shtick as a double-act throughout, engaging in prepared banter or helping each other on their respective verses. Both visibly enjoyed themselves during run-throughs of ‘Monster’ and a seated, composed ‘New Day’, and the fun just carried on as Rihanna stepped out for ‘Run This Town’ and ‘All of the Lights’, herself all smiles and graces behind big sunglasses.

It’s with closer ‘Niggas in Paris’ that the night peaks, however. It’s not for trivial reasons that its explosive beat is rewound and restarted several times (including three more during the encore), Jay ramping up his opening verse each time, while Kanye – having finally exhausted his dance repertoire – performed some weird, trancelike vogue-ing behind him.

As the arena emptied out, people were still whistling the track’s addictive synth line, comparing photos, and agreeing that yes, that shit was indeed cray.

November 22, 2011

Review: Drake – ‘Take Care’

Posted in Reviews tagged , , , , at 4:17 pm by essentiallyeclectic

Drake – Take Care

Cash Money Records

“This is where I’ll put my Grammys” a young Aubrey Drake Graham, gesturing at some empty shelves in a newly acquired apartment, (half) joked in an interview with Vibe a couple of years ago. It’s an indication of the guy’s confidence that the comment was made before the release of his full length debut, only following the success of a string of mixtapes and one hit single, ‘Best I Ever Had’, a refreshing take on a developing subgenre of rap that’s both sensitive and full of swagger. The aforementioned album, Thank Me Later, displays this style in abundance, serving to position Drake alongside similarly veined performers such as Odd Future’s Frank Ocean and his own compatriot The Weeknd.

New album Take Care appears less than 18 months after Thank Me Later, a swiftness replicating the speed at which Drake’s generation of internet-hyped artists must move in order to catch their respective waves. This isn’t the only nod to the cultural capital of his demographic – one raised on the same post-MTV urban diet as himself – it’s also reflected not just in the people involved in the Drake machine, but the lyrical and musicological references in his music. Numerous tributes to Aaliyah, sampling off Youtube and borrowing wholesale Jamie xx and Gil Scott Heron’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ for the Rihanna featuring title track – an instinctual collision of under and overground that proves to be one of the album’s more interesting moments – are second nature to an artist used to pooling influences from a myriad of sources.

A rapper with the inventiveness of Kanye at his most self-conscious, the industry guidance of Lil Wayne behind him and seemingly free use of Jay Z’s address book, Drake has no business dealing with the bland end of the R&B/rap spectrum, and yet falls into that category disappointingly early on Take Care. The R&B inflections of ‘Shot For Me’ mix an irritably egotistical lyric with the first example of Drake’s singing – not an altogether unlistenable delivery, yet one performed without the singular confidence of style displayed by The Weeknd on his guest appearance on ‘Crew Love’. Here, the Toronto king of introspective cocaine-fuelled paranoia offers some pained phrasing alongside cogent lyrical gems (opening line “take your nose off my keyboard/what you bothering me for?”) to the detriment of Drake’s lacklustre, self-eulogising rap.

Nonetheless, it’s Drake’s vocal versatility that remains his biggest asset, switching effortlessly between the drawl of his fashionably-accented rap style and his almost nasal singing – melodies that sound influenced as much by the autotune subtly applied to them as the phrasing of any figure in musical history. Perhaps this is the reason for their forcible position in the mix: often brashly foregrounded to fully ensure the lyrical themes are communicated.

At their best, these introspective themes are classic, alcohol-drenched, late night soul searching (the delicate ‘Marvin’s Room’). At their worst, they’re moping and whiney (‘Doing It Wrong’, ‘Look What You’ve Done’). ‘Headlines’ finds Drake relinquishing himself of all responsibility for his changing personality in the face of fame, also showing a keen awareness of the pressure that the pace of the industry he’s found himself in requires: “I be yelling out “money over everything, money on my mind”/then she wanna ask when it got so empty/tell her I apologise, it happened over time/she says “they miss the old Drake”, girl don’t tempt me/”if they don’t get it they’ll be over you/that new shit that you got is overdue/you better do what you supposed to do””.

 

Production-wise, the tracks are polished, sometimes unnecessarily so. Beats like the dragging ‘We’ll Be Fine’ show that Drake could be well suited to the screwed, more lo-fi melancholia of Clams Casino, while The Weeknd’s creative wails on ‘The Ride’ leave a nagging disappointment that with a little more guile and bravery, Drake’s could be a voice synonymous with more forward-thinking rap. For despite all of its refreshing qualities, Take Care seems to be taking it safer than its predecessor, perhaps sensing its star’s potential for game-dominating status. There is nothing with the explosive dynamism of The-Game’s ‘Yamaha’, or as perfect a marriage of beat and voice as Frank Ocean’s ‘Novacane’. Instead, those looking for rap’s future must make do with the lively ‘HYFR (Hell Ya Fucking Right)’ or ‘Lord Know’s (in which Drizzy lazily muses about whether he is descended from Marley or Hendrix over a classically worked Just Blaze beat). The features come thick and fast: Nicki Minaj providing some scattergun vocals to ‘Make Me Proud’, Weezy popping up with both vocals and an eagle eye at regular points, even Stevie Wonder pops up with some harmonica on ‘Doing It Wrong’.

 ‘Underground Kings’ vividly depicts Drake’s obsession with the southern-fried rap of his hero Lil Wayne, an influence that runs consistently through his work, and when Weezy himself shows up on ‘The Real Her’, it’s to help out on a tedious homage to the girls of Houston, Atlanta and Vegas over a sub-R Kelly slow jam beat that even the ever-welcome flows of Outkast’s Andre 3000 – popping up for a final verse that sounded like a last minute inclusion – can’t save.

The album has its high points, but so often does Drake’s indolent inward gaze appear only to serve up bland contemplation of money and fame that its difficult to keep in mind that this is a young man still only on his second album (an early career marker that Drake himself seems to forget on the world-weary ‘Headlines’), and really drives home how long and bloated Take Care is: its better cuts could just have easily have got the message across without the tiresome filler they’re wedged between.