What are you listening to this week?
Mary J. Blige, Strength Of A Woman
Mary J. Blige has been through some shit. Depression, addiction, abusive relationships—not only is she not afraid to talk about these things, but she’s built a career out of it. Blige’s latest record, Strength Of A Woman, arrives in the middle of her acrimonious and much-publicized split from husband/manager Kendu Isaacs, and there’s a reason it’s her highest charting album in years: It is ferocious, stacked with the kind of monumental, beat-forward confessional songs that Blige all but invented. When I saw her on the first night of the album’s supporting tour last weekend, she was especially raw, embodying anthems of resilience like “Love Yourself” and “U + Me (Love Lesson)” with vulnerability, then delivering pure venom on missives like “Set Me Free.” Mary J. Blige enjoys a modern relevance that few of her generation can, and Strength Of A Woman is a testament to that staying power. Twenty-five years on, she’s still leaving it all in the ring.
Rap music was born in New York, but in recent years we’ve come to associate the city more with vest-wearing artisanal folk-rock than raw emceeing. The 18-year-old Bronx rapper Mike’s new LP May God Bless Your Hustle is the best in a recent wave of bombed-out, spacey, poetic hip-hop that treats the city’s mid-’90s heyday like an echo ringing throughout a megastructure. But like the best of that era, Mike’s a striver; you hear it in his voice throughout the ghostly, collage-like record, as on “Pigeonfeet,” which flips a William Basinski-like beat into a display of verbal firepower. Since the album’s release, people have marveled over the maturity of his style, like the unconscious breath control throughout the entire first verse (“Harder to place, so I’m hard with the games / And the stars hold my faith, father god and my name”) or the cantering playfulness of his delivery on the hook: “Niggas want war with me orally, nah / By now would be normally done, but I’m on.” After a second verse the track mutates into something skittering and familiar, a bug alighting from concrete to skylight and out back into the city. It’s one of the year’s best rap records—smart, tough, and blindingly beautiful.
Donald Byrd, “Love Has Come Around”
The late, great trumpeter Donald Byrd was an incredible musical chameleon. His roots are in bebop, but throughout his career he made classic albums in divergent styles, from the spiritual jazz of A New Perspective to the funk fusion of Black Byrd and his other Blue Note releases. As the ’70s came to a close, Byrd’s alchemical experiments no longer gelled as well as they had, and his post-Blue Note albums never attained the same luster as his past work. But as a sucker for cheesy post-disco numbers, I adore some of the songs that came out of that period. 1981’s Love Byrd, for example, was less a Donald Byrd album than an Isaac Hayes album, with the latter handling most of the arrangements, playing many of the instruments, and producing. In principle, it’s an artistic disaster for the jazzman whose name still graces the cover, but hot damn, “Love Has Come Around” is an absolute jam. Byrd’s horn lines are perfectly laid down and placed to cut through the groove, and Hayes, meanwhile, bangs out a piano line that absolutely demands to be danced to. What really does it for me is the killer bridge, where a slap bass fights for the spotlight with warbling keys, only for both to be outdone by the vocal flourishes of the Hot Buttered Soul Unlimited quartet. Is it as lustrous or graceful as “Cristo Redentor”? No, of course not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a listen.
Kodomo, a.k.a. Chris Child, released one of my favorite albums of 2014, Patterns & Light, which found the NYC-based producer taking small samples of classical artists like Chopin and Debussy and feeding them through digital processors, creating meticulously realized mini-concertos that effortlessly straddled millennia of musical composition. His new Divider EP doesn’t have that same epic sweep; it’s largely a subdued, ambient exercise that’s informed by field sounds and Arvo Pärt, and several tracks have more in common with patient minimalists like Loscil or Christopher Bissonnette. But it retains that impressive craftsmanship throughout, and on “Son,” he puts all his considerable talents on display, building from a warped bass-bend groove to an explosion of sparkling arpeggiated synth and back again with a cinematic command of tension and emotion.
The Beatles, "Helter Skelter"
I was understandably and justifiably rocked by my first and likely only time seeing Paul McCartney last week, which sent me down a bit of a Beatles/Wings wormhole. Like many idiot concertgoers, I am often plagued by the songs I didn’t get to see; for example, McCartney performed my favorite Wings song, “Jet,” for the next night’s audience, but not for mine. Even worse than that, though, may be the omission of “Helter Skelter” (one playlist I looked up called it a McCartney concert staple, but again, not for me), which is why I’ve had it on an almost continuous loop ever since. The more I listen to it, the more I hear the beginnings of heavy metal, of punk rock, of anyone who just wanted to scream into a microphone. The fact that it was written by the same guy who wrote “Silly Love Songs” just makes it even more astounding.
McCartney said he was inspired by a 1967 interview in which The Who’s Pete Townshend told Guitar Player he was going to write the loudest, dirtiest song, and then came up with the tame-in-comparison “I Can See for Miles.” McCartney wanted to see how loud and dirty he himself could get; given the unbridled marathon recording sessions on the White Album, that mania comes right through in the studio. The harmonizing vocals seem to be making fun of The Beatles’ earlier, sweeter songs, as do McCartney’s lyrics, as he forgoes all his usual lovely floral language in favor of “Do you don’t you want me to make you?” His savage vocals take lead, but as in the best Beatles songs, the rest of the band backs him up ferociously, with George Harrison in particular equalling McCartney’s brutality on guitar. The song’s cacophony then continues to fuck with you, as a few fake endings slide in and out until Ringo knocks over some cymbals and yells that he’s got blisters on his fingers. The song’s over, but a bazillion new rock genres are just beginning.