This week seemed to rush by, with the dying embers of summer swirling all around me. It’s been flush with great music, lots of bicycling, and a really fantastic sandwich.
A pair of short hip-hop albums defined my listening, along with a darkly mysterious little techno release that I’ll share. But most of all, I watched the Netflix show Stranger Things in its entirety. I was utterly floored.
Vince Staples – Prima Donna EP
First up is Vince Staples’ followup to his groundbreaking 2015 album, Summertime ’06. To put it in clichéd but true terms: this little EP may be short on minutes but it’s stacked high with great ideas, fantastic flow, and a real sense of artistic growth.
The album begins with spoken word poetry that resurfaces throughout, a raw, cracked-voice take on “This Little Light of Mine,” that crops up between tentpole songs with beats courtesy of DJ Dahi, No ID, and even James Blake. It’s an odd introduction seemingly meant to short-circuit any hopes for something lighter than his deep, dark, revelatory debut album, and it works.
The short set is packed with tight rhymes, clever wordplay, and Staples’ secret weapon: unparalleled storytelling. I’ve already talked about the insane potential of this barely-23-year-old rapper but it bears repeating: there is nobody out there as serious about taking on hip-hop as an art form than this man. His stony deadpan on the cover art is no play; this music is meant to take the genre head-on, move it forward, and make the profound and the fun coexist in a fresh way.
I’m guessing the bobblehead proportions are a commentary on the mountains of praise he’s received in the past year. While I fully believe in it all, I’m excited to know he doesn’t seem to be letting it get to him. Vince Staples’ talent is going to make him unfuckwithable one day.
Instead of a standard music video, Staples dropped a unique 10 minute short film, directed by Nabil. Strap in and enjoy:
Young Thug – No, My Name Is JEFFERY
Just look at that cover art. As someone on twitter said, Young Thug looks like a boss in a Final Fantasy game. Yes, he’s wearing a dress, and yes it’s some striking imagery. But what about the music?
I know very well that Young Thug is not for everyone, much less the hip-hop community at large. For such a progressive, constantly evolving genre, its most ardent fans are often nostalgic hardliners, demanding fealty to the canonical greats and throwing shade at any truly new developments. Young Thug doesn’t make music for those people.
His vocals are the biggest sticking point: a weird miasma of syllables and warbles wrapped in an effortless, often unintelligible flow. His raps treat the English language as a mere jumping off point for expressionist construction. Sure, you can parse the words out and follow a loose narrative, treating it like normal rap. But you’re not going to get all you can out of this music.
Instead, I appreciate Young Thug’s productions as holistic pieces, the vocals inseparable from the instrumentals. This is the kind of music to be fully absorbed in, losing all thought, vibing with the sound. It’s rap to get lost in, an alien language painted in rare stretches of the color spectrum. Approached with an open mind, it’s almost more akin to jazz or instrumental hip-hop than traditional notions of rap, and that’s okay.
The title No, My Name Is JEFFERY is a nod to the rapper’s real name, Jeffery Lamar Williams, and a sly acknowledgement that he’s getting more personal, supposedly, this time around. Along with the cover art, it shows his gregarious sense of humor and adventurous style. Williams isn’t trying to win over the old guard; instead he’s paving a new road for hip-hop’s future, one that can and will coexist perfectly fine with the myriad other fascinating, embryonic strains out there.
Compared to last year’s definitive Barter 6, a release that landed on my best albums of 2015 list, the sound here is stripped down to the essential elements, with more space, less guest appearances, and a deeper focus on what makes his weird style work. It’s probably the best thing he’s released so far.
Because I’m short on time and probably unable to describe the appeal further, just hear it for yourself. Here’s the first track, Wyclef Jean:
The album can be heard streaming on Spotify or purchased digitally on all the major platforms.
Convextion – Acido 22
This one hit me at the perfect moment. A confluence of events created an opening for this slim, untitled 12″ release, allowing it to sail right into my heart of hearts.
Convextion is the moniker of American techno artist Gerard Hanson, who was influenced by greats in his home country and Europe, including Basic Channel and Juan Atkins. He released his debut LP in 2006 and disappeared for a while, but it was such a monument – often compared with the stratospheric heights of Deepchord’s frigid, spacey techno – that he never really left the radar for deep techno fans like me.
Recently, a friend pointed out that there was a new full length release finally, but when I went to look for it, I realized I was a bit early. Instead, I found this nameless 12″ release from Acido Records. It was like providence, because nothing could have sounded more perfect at that moment.
Instead of massive pads, infinite icy beats, and hypnotic loops, I was greeted with ominous synths, a slow drone rising, and spaced arpeggios. This hits more like the cosmic sounds of Tangerine Dream, the Blade Runner score, and even the fantastic soundtrack of Stranger Things.
I should mention that, during this time, I’ve been playing the new game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The soundtrack, as with all the games in the series, is packed with massive synth explorations and deep nods to classic Detroit techno. So with the game and the television show occupying much of my free time, it felt like pure serendipity to hear a similar sound coming from an unexpected but beloved artist.
If you’re interested in jetting off into the far reaches of spacey mindscapes, I can’t urge a listen enough.
Here’s the full set, a pair of 10-ish minute tracks that wax and wane, ebb and flow, build and disappear, leaving a faint ring of mystery and awe in their wake.
After the fourth close friend recommended Stranger Things to me, using a variation of “this is exactly your type of thing,” I had to check it out. How could I ignore the insistence, from multiple trusted sources, that it was right up my alley? Riding high on hope and hype, I pressed play Sunday night.
My views on television have irrevocably shifted.
The entire eight episode series unfolds a perfectly told, perfectly paced story that almost negates the idea of a feature film in the classic style – the hit films of days past, when pure spectacle wasn’t a requisite for blockbuster success. Movies like ET and Raiders of the Lost Arc were utterly modest compared to today’s effects-saturated mega hits. Look at the listings for your local cinema and you’ll see that there really isn’t room for adventurous storytelling anymore: it’s either a hundred million dollar production or a prestige-bait indie, with nothing in between.
They’ve been saying for years that TV is where all the good stories moved to, especially once Hollywood embraced the superhero franchise model, but Stranger Things finally cemented this idea in my perception.
This show proved to me that today’s television landscape has truly has taken over where thoughtful, mainstream filmmaking left off years ago. Stranger Things is not aiming for grand metaphor, critical acclaim, or the avant-garde. It’s simply a very, very well constructed monster mystery, bringing classic storytelling tropes into a more modern, inclusive world. Sure, it’s set in 1983, but the sensibilities behind the writing couldn’t be more 2016. Hindsight gives us 20/20 vision after all, and series creators the Duffer Brothers have seen exactly what made the best crowd pleasers of the 1980s really work.
First of all, the show centers on a quartet of nerdy boys in 1983, their respective families, and the wider community at large, as dark forces seep into the pristine picture of small town Indiana. Instead of heading off in David Lynch territory, peeling up the underbelly of American life, the setting is a vehicle for a straightforward adventure story, tinged with horror and flavored with well-earned humor and real affection for its characters.
One of the boys goes missing, and his friends decide to take action. Instead of finding him, they counter a mysterious girl with a shaved head and only a number for a name. Thus begins an expansive journey that makes room for countless nods to the kind of stories that I and the show creators grew up on. It’s equal parts Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, shrieking terror and wide-eyed wonder. The grounded family conversations give way to flights of narrative fancy, setting the far-fetched sci-fi elements into a tangible, relatable space.
I’ll be writing more about the show next week, especially a moment near the end that connected deeply with my own memories, but for now I wanted to focus on the big picture of why this show signals an important and final sea change.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the show, looking back, is the fact that this was the first straight up popcorn-style, crowd-pleasing show that’s been crafted as stylishly and smartly as the big prestige shows. It proves that you don’t need to aim for the operatic heights of Breaking Bad or the worldwide tapestry of Game of Thrones to make an artistically brilliant, aesthetically dazzling television show. It proves, in other words, that television is truly the best home for classical filmmaking at this point.
If you haven’t yet watched, just start now. It’s the most rewarding eight hours of TV out there right now.