This post is part of our program, The Story of Kendrick, an in-depth, 10-part look at the life and music of Kendrick Lamar. Sound cool and want to receive the other installments in your inbox? Go here. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out and share on Facebook, Twitter, or with this link. Your friends will thank you.Kendrick Lamar’s albums are holistic, meticulously crafted meditations on the idea of blackness in America; they’re novels disguised as albums, and one gets the sense that every couplet and every bass lick has been labored over. All this is great, but sometimes you just want to hear Kendrick rap. This is what made his untitled.unmastered outtakes album from 2016 so enjoyable, and also why his guest verses are always so charming. The span of artists on this playlist reflects the central tension in Kendrick’s own music; the transcendent, post-electronic jazz of Flying Lotus nestles beside the rickety soul street reportage of Schoolboy Q. Navigating the space between those two poles is Kendrick, who moves forward and raps his ass off.
Vince Staples came to prominence as an associate of the L.A. underground rap collective Odd Future, making multiple appearances on Earl Sweatshirt’s 2013 album Doris. Two years later, Staples released the acclaimed album Summertime ’06 on Def Jam, which featured an appearance by frequent collaborator Jhene Aiko and established the Northside Long Beach rapper as a brilliant and distinctive voice in hip hop. Despite his irreverence toward traditional hip hop gatekeepers, Staples has proven an able collaborator for conscious veterans like Common and Dilated Peoples, as well as an agile MC who can tackle adventurous tracks from producers like Flume and Clams Casino. With the sheer variety of collaborators he sounds at home with, Vince Staples has enhanced the unique place his solo work occupies in the musical landscape and the ways he can express his sense of humor and political perspective.
Nas may be known primarily for classics albums such as Illmatic and It Was Written, but his work on other people’s tracks reveals new dimensions of his work. On earlier classics such “Verbal Intercourse” or the vastly underrated AZ collaboration “Mo Money, Mo Murder (Homoside),” Nas seems primarily concerned with sensory detail and pure sound -- the clanging consonants and sly insertions of internal rhymes that melt the rusted metal of his harrowing imagery into pure liquid poetry. As his career would progress, he became more interested in carving out meaning, and tracks such as “Road to Zion” -- his collaboration with Damian Marley -- and “Music for Live” are thoughtful post-colonialists critiques set to boom bap. His recent verse of DJ Khaled’s “Nas Album Done” verifies that, 20+ years into an already legendary career, the rapper is still near the top of the game. The power of his voice is matched by the subtlety of his language as he pushes for equality through economic re-investment in black communities. Yeah, it’s admittedly strange this is taking place on a DJ Khaled track, but the track has to be encouraging for all Nas fans.
On Double Booked, his 2009 concept album for Blue Note records, pianist Robert Glasper played around with the idea of being torn between two venues-slash-identities: the dance club and the jazz hall. The first half of Booked found Glasper playing in a hard-swinging acoustic trio anchored by his fearsome piano chops. (That’s where he turned it loose on Monk’s “Think of One.”) And the second half of this double-album set was the debut of Glasper’s electric-fusion “Experiment” ensemble. (This is the band that frequently works with emcees like Snoop Dogg and Yasiin Bey, as well as R&B talents like Erykah Badu and Brandy.) The brief skits on Double Booked were meant to be excerpts from messages left on Glasper’s voicemail (ah, the 2000s!), evidence of different collaborators pulling an over-stretched keyboardist in one stylistic direction or another.But the not-so-well-kept secret is that this creative hustle is the way Glasper prefers to live his artistic life. He signaled his interest in blowing past archaic genre-divisions back in 2007, on his trio album In My Element — also known as the album where he created a medley from Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place.” Since then, he’s used his supposedly “jazz coded” acoustic trio to cover works by Kendrick Lamar (“I’m Dying of Thirst”), while also putting some extended, exploratory soloing into his “Experiment” ensemble (see that group’s performance of the Glasper original tune “Festival”). On the occasion of Glsaper’s latest release with the Experiment, we’ve collected some of his best compositions and performances, whether they draw inspiration from pop, rock, rap, jazz—or all of the above. Naturally, we’ve included his bravura guest-artist appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, too.
Captain Beefheart was a man, but also an idea, and to write a straightforward piece about him here seems antithetical to his essence. He had a mustache sometimes and other times he had a goatee; sometimes he wore a fedora and other times he wore a cowboy or top hat. Despite having no musical training, he played numerous instruments. Occasionally, he composed at the piano, which he did not know how to play. He was friends with Frank Zappa, who produced Trout Mask Replica. His music is indisputably its own strange amalgamation, but it was still as directly tied to the confusion of the ‘60s as any music ever was, fusing blues, beat poetry, jazz, rock ‘n roll, psychedelic, noise, and avant-garde. His voice was almost magical and he could shift between gravelly falsetto and rumbling baritone at the drop of a harmonica. To try to make sense of Captain Beefheart is pointless, and furthermore, it goes against his very being. Sure, he can be understood as a social phenomenon, but this playlist isn’t about that. It’s called “Captain Beefheart Insanity.” Just go with it.
Subscribe to the Spotify playlist here.Just as the Flamers mixtape series from 2008 to 2010 made Meek Mill the toast of Philadelphia, the Dreamchasers series became the franchise that made him a national star. The first volume in 2011 celebrated Meek’s signing to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and featured his breakthrough single “Ima Boss,” as well as the first of his narrative “Tony Story” tracks, demonstrating the MC’s commanding voice and his chemistry with Philly producer Jahlil Beats. 2012’s Dreamchasers 2 was so highly anticipated that its arrival crashed the servers of mixtape sites, and 2013’s third installment was a star-studded affair with multiple appearances from Nicki Minaj and French Montana. And 2016’s DC4 was a confident comeback after a year of beef and controversy.
Click here to add to Spotify playlist!For over two decades, R. Kelly has been brimming with ideas. In addition to the hundreds of original songs he’s penned, he often revisits his own singles, adding entirely new lyrics, beats, and melodies on remixes. Many of these, such as “Bump N’ Grind (Old School Mix)” and “Down Low (Nobody Has To Know) - Live To Regret It Mix,” became quiet-storm radio staples in their own right, while “Step In the Name of Love (Remix)” even eclipsed the original cut in popularity.In modern rap and R&B, remixes typically add guests to bring extra star power, like R. Kelly’s single version of “Did You Ever Think,” which features Nas. But even “Fiesta (Remix),” with verses from JAY Z and Boo and Gotti, features an update of a beat from the Trackmasters and a rewritten chorus. When writing original hooks for other artists, Kelly goes above and beyond, providing two distinct versions of Cassidy’s “Hotel” and Twista’s “So Sexy.”“Ignition (Remix)” is, of course, the most famous of all R. Kelly remixes, with a dancehall spin on the original track’s groove that almost abandons the song’s automobile-themed metaphor for a string of whimsical riffs. The original and the remix are meant to be heard together as one six-minute epic, as presented on 2003’s Chocolate Factory—and, in hindsight, 2001’s “Feelin’ On Yo Booty (Hypnosis Mix)” can be seen as a dry run for many of the melodic and rhythmic ideas heard on “Ignition (Remix).” Kelly’s revisions have spawned their own compilations—like 2005’s Remix City Volume 1—but our three-hour playlist brings together his remixes, their original tracks, and more. And with R.’s recent overhaul of the 1993 hit “Your Body’s Callin’,” it’s clear that he’ll always be willing to apply a fresh coat of paint to his masterpieces.
We all have our passion projects. For some of us, it’s tending a garden or collecting vinyl, while others write novels or cut vanity records. JAY Z, being JAY Z, thinks on a much larger scale. For the past two years, he has been singly focused on building his fledgling streaming service, Tidal. He’s squeezed favors from friends, spent ridiculous amounts of time and money on promoting the service, and even gotten his wife involved in the proceedings (though, it must be noted, her contribution came wrapped in a bow of marital discontent). At first, this very much seemed like a business decision. Most of us never really believed the line about him trying to empower artists with a (somewhat) more fair streaming business model. The best guesses by industry insiders was that he would build it out, and then flip it for a couple hundred million in profit. After all, he is a business, man.But, increasingly, JAY Z seems to be motivated less and less by altruism, or even business acumen, and more by hubris. This is a man who’s not used to losing, and turning his back on Tidal—either by shutting it down, or selling it for scraps—definitely feels like an L. So, here we are. JAY Z has a new album, 4:44, his first since 2013’s critically panned but commercially successful Magna Carta Holy Grail. And that album will be available exclusively on Tidal. There’s been a lotofinkspilledabout why exclusives are bad for the industry and bad for fans, and those articles seem to focus on two basic principles: 1) Forcing fans to shell out for an additional music service is fundamentally unfair, and 2) it frustrates the fans, encourages privacy, and shrinks the marketplace. We generally agree with this line of thinking, albeit with a few caveats—the streaming marketplace isn’t as frail as it once was, and there are consumers with the resources and the motivation to buy what is effectively a bigger bag of popcorn. But, ultimately, the true casualty of the exclusivity wars is the artform.Music is a living medium. It’s supposed to be heard, discussed, and reappropriated into new forms. In short, it’s a conversation between millions of fans and artists, and if you have that conversation in a closet, or behind a velvet rope, then it’s a pretty shitty conversation. The fact that The Beatles took 10-plus years to get into the subscription music marketplace, and were so protective of their online presence, meant an entire generation had limited exposure to what is undoubtedly the most influential rock group of the past half century. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the retro-minded bands of past decade have gravitated towards the bluesy, garage rock that was championed by The Rolling Stones. It’s simply what they had exposure to, and what they heard. And while the reservoirs of Boomer Beatles nostalgia is nearly endless, the band felt largely invisible to millennials for the better part of a decade.This is not to suggest that JAY Z’s legacy is in any immediate danger—he more or less owned hip-hop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s—but it’s also pretty clear that the release strategy for 4:44 will hurt its overall cultural impact, even if, by some miracle, it boosts Tidal’s bottom line. It certainly hurt Beyoncé’s Lemonade. That was one of the strongest albums of the decade and arguably the best of Beyoncé’s career, but its impact and cultural cachet already seem to be waning just because many people can’t listen to it.To be very selfish, The Dowsers is a magazine exclusively devoted to playlist criticism and analysis. When an important record comes out—say, SZA’s CTRL or Solange’s A Seat at the Table—we pore over its influences, samples, collaborations, and impact in an attempt to put it in a larger context and make sense of it for our readers. It’s our part of the conversation around popular music. But we can’t do that with JAY Z’s 4:44. We can’t even create a playlist around his previous albums; they’ve also disappeared from Spotify. So, instead, we’ve opted to create a playlist that focuses on his guest verses. It’s an awesome playlist, of course, but it also feels like a missed opportunity—and that’s on JAY Z.
Be sure to subscribe to our playlist, The 40 Best Nas Tracks Not on Illmatic, right here.Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic is not only considered his best album, but is regarded as the best hip-hop album ever, full stop. And with good reason: that album revolutionized the genre. Nas captured the ruinous glory of post-crack N.Y.C.. By suggesting that drugs were both empowering and destructive, his lyrics alternately embraced and rejected the idea of ghetto glamour, etching out bits of hard-won wisdom amongst Nas’ piercing observational storytelling. His word-drunk, casual cadences redefined how emcees could rap. And this was all done over peak boom bap production from DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip, among others.But, at this point, it’s boring to talk about Illmatic, or to say that Nas lives it its shadow. It’s a boilerplate narrative, and a lazy, rote mythologization. To be honest, many of the ideas and even a few of the observations I made in the first paragraph were recycled from the various times in my career when I’ve been tasked with paying homage to that particular lodestar. But what happened after Illmatic, and the various ways that his fans and critics have reacted to that output, is a lot more interesting.In the ensuing years (and decades), Nas continued to evolve and experiment, cycling through different personas and tackling difficult concepts, both personal and political. He wasn’t always successful; there are peaks and valleys, and he failed as often as he succeeded. At times, his work has been baffling and self-annihilating, full of contradictions and strange discursions. For every blazingly brilliant observational detail, there’s a weird sex rap or a confounding historical inaccuracy. And Nas, himself, is frequently unlovable. He’s aloof and enigmatic. He’s flirted with messianic imagery and has been accused of abusing his ex-wife. Sometimes it seemed that his fans -- and I count myself among them -- spent as much time apologizing for him as listening to his music. But, the truth is, we’ve hung on. We’ve bought into the idea of his brilliance; we’ve subscribed to his narrative. Sure, it’s a messy and uneven journey, and it’s frequently hard to stomach him, much less listen to his music, but, in a way, that makes him feel more human. He’s not a face on Mt. Rushmore, and he doesn’t carry the extra-human weight of aDylan or B.I.G., but his flaws ground him, and bring his flashes of otherworldly brilliance into stark relief.There has effectively been five distinct Nas periods. The first is Illmatic, which is a deeply autobiographical work that captures key parts of Nas’ childhood. By the time that he re-entered the studio to record 1996’s It Was Written, he had largely abandoned this direct approach. Taking a cue from Raekwon and Ghostface -- who had, the year before, released Only Built for Cuban Linx -- Nas took on the persona of drug lord Nas Escobar. His cadences seem were more calculated and precise, alternately more accomplished and less poetic, and though some of the imagery from that album was still culled from Nas’ childhood in the Queensbridge projects, tracks such as “Live Nigga Rap” and “Street Dreams” were conscious fictions -- Miami-sized coke rap fantasies that were cinematic in scope. He would continue mining this persona over his next two albums, Nastradamus and I Am. The artistic failure of those two albums has been widely overstated -- it’s hard to entirely dismiss albums that produced tracks like “Project Windows,” “Nas is Like,” and “NY State of Mind, Pt. II” -- but by the turn of the millennium, there was little doubt that the Nas’ Escobar persona had run out of steam, so Nas switched it up, beginning with 2001’s comeback album Stillmatic and continuing with 2002’s mid-period high-water-mark God’s Son. His narrative strategy here was more straightforward and reflective, which many took to be a return to the autobiographical raps of Illmatic, but tracks like “Get Down” and “2nd Childhood” were older, wiser, and less nihilistic. They were the stories of a survivor, and not a soldier. And though the role of the “street prophet” was always part of Nas’ persona -- see “Black Girl Lost” from It Was Written -- this period also saw him increasingly turning to socio-political themes. It felt that Nas had reclaimed his glory, and, for at least a minute, his fans reemerged from their closets and re-appointed Nas as the GOAT.This particular stylistic era reached a climax on 2004’s Street’s Disciple. There were moments of greatness on that album, but it was a messy, sprawling double album, and was a relative commercial disappointment. When, in a 2011 interview between Nas and Tyler, The Creator for XXL magazine, the Odd Future frontman admitted that Street’s Disciple was his favorite album, Nas seemed shocked. But Tyler’s reaction is understandable. The album contains some genuinely brilliant material, and the fact that it’s been overlooked makes it seem more personal to his fans. It’s something that we, and we alone, own. Still, the lukewarm reception caused Nas to recalibrate. To put it bluntly, Nas was aging. He was a wealthy, veteran rapper who, at that point, was over 10 years removed from the street life and struggling to adopt a credible public persona. In lieu of this, he withdrew himself from his music, and released a string of high-concept albums that were oriented around a series of thematic conceits. Hip-Hop Is Dead, from 2006, looked at the supposed-demise of hip-hop. It was a moody album that mourned the genre’s childhood innocence and the inondation of commercialism. It was by no means brilliant, and I can’t imagine anyone putting it in their top 3 Nas albums, but its melancholy made it compelling. The follow-up, 2008’s Untitled, looked at race relations in America. The album was originally called Nigger, which, as you can imagine, garnered a sharply mixed response. Nas was still considered a commercial and cultural force, and the title drew criticism from camps as disparate as Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly. Eventually, Nas conceded to the pressure, and named it simply Untitled. Putting the controversy aside, it wasn’t a particularly great album, but there are some crucial tracks, including the spare lyrical workout “Queens Get the Money,” and the crunchy, aggressive “Money Over Bullshit.” But it’s legacy was tainted by allegations that Jay Electronica had ghostwritten some of the tracks. Though never proven, it put Nas fans in a familiar space, making excuses and equivocating.Regardless of the album’s authorship, at this point, in his career and in his life, it’s fair to say that Nas had lost his narrative. He was no longer at forefront of hip-hop, either culturally or commercially, and his marriage to R&B singer Kelis had produced a child but ended in a divorce (years later, Kelis would claim that Nas had abused her; and regardless of whether or not that is true, at the very least, it pointed towards a tumultuous relationship). He did what many of us would in his situation: he took some time off. 2012’s comeback album Life is Good was Nas’ most personal work to date, and one of his most compelling. It’s a deeply ambiguous work -- the cover finds him clutching Kelis’ wedding dress, and the entire album is coated in ennuie and disappointment. The opening track, “No Introduction,” is a biography-in-miniature and directly tackles the dissolution of his marriage. Over a lush production from Miami production unit (and frequent Rick Ross collaborators) J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, the song begins with Nas embarrassed, standing in line for a free lunch at elementary school, and ends with the admission that he’s aging and seeking an ever-elusive closure. This sense of melancholy is present throughout that album. The track “Bye Baby” tackles his divorce head-on, while “A Queens Story” traces the arcs of his friendships, and ends with the starkly ambivalent image of Nas the “only black in a club of rich yuppie kids,” getting hammered as he recalls the images of his dead friends.Life is Good would’ve made an appropriate swan song, and he could’ve rode out in the sunset at this point with his legacy intact, but, of course, this didn’t happen, and the follow up, 2018’s Nasir, felt like a retreat of sorts. It was billed as a collaborative album with Kanye West, which seems like every hip-hop fans wet dream (at least in 2005). And while there are certainly flashes of greatness (most notably on “Adam and Eve,” where Nas wrestles with his legacy, both to his public and his children), the emcee sounds strangely detached. He’s abandoned his narrative raps, and his ability to twist the details of his life into poetic imagery fail him. “Not for Radio” more-or-less recycles the vibe and themes of “N.I.*.*.E.R” from Untitled wholesale, except with much-diminished returns, while the seven-minute-long “everything” feels maudlin, and strangely anchors itself around an anti-vaccination rant. But most of all, it's what's missing that's important. Considering that Nas has always been such an honest and forthcoming emcee, it's odd that he didn’t address Kelis’ allegations of domestic abuse. Nas is far from the only pop culture figure to suffer from such allegations, and there has been no supporting evidence, but his silence reads as guilt. Nas fans have defended him many times over the years for a variety of transgressions, but this is probably the most troubling.But, like I said in the beginning, it’s not easy being a Nas fan. At times, he seems god-like and invisible, while at others, he's impossibly bitter and even loathsome. But you take the good with the bad, and hope the former outweighs the latter, as it frequently does. If he would’ve ended his career after It Was Written, he would’ve left the hip-hop with two concise, blazingly brilliant albums, and would’ve been talked about in the same breath as Biggie or Pac, but his subsequent material has revealed him as being merely human, but, in the end, we’re still here, for better and worse.
To state the obvious, Chance the Rapper is a good emcee! The Chicago rapper has a nice, soft voice that telegraphs his “boy next door” charm. He mixes up his flows from verse to verse (and, sometimes, line to line), so things never get monotonous with him. And while he’s not a syllabic-stacking, thesaurus-thumping rappity rapper like a Kendrick or Nas, he’s able to draw thematic through-lines through his tracks and (especially) albums that give his work a narrative focus and arc. In short, he’s more of a performer than a technician -- which is awesome -- and, to be a little more abstract, he’s more of a feeling than he is a place, and that feeling (joyous, personal, a little pious) defines his tracks.This works perfectly marvelous for his own music, but it can make his guest verses hit or miss, but, when the energy works and the vibes align, it’s awesome. Kanye West basically fashioned much of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo around Chance’s swaggering choirboy euphoria -- Yeezy even began to adopt Chance’s trademarks yelps -- so Chance feels more than at home on the deconstructed gospel of “Ultralight Beam,” and the lumbering, twilight R&B of SZA’s “Child’s Play” mines much of the same quixotic nostalgia that framed Chance’s 2016 album Coloring Book.This, of course, requires some alignment or compromise on the part of the hosting artists, but as Chance is a marquee star, and a guest spot from him is becoming increasingly coveted, more artists are willing to go there, which is just fine with us.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.