This week, I have been giving a final round of deep listens to a few major acts that I’ve enjoyed over the last month. Khruangbin, Run the Jewels, and Nick Hakim are coming off of strong album releases, looking to enter the new decade as a front runner of their respective niches.
Khruangbin - Mordechai
This Thai-funk trio from Houston, Texas is about to catch the world’s attention with their third studio album. If you have not heard of Khruangbin, then let me give a quick introduction: Mark Speer plays a smooth, yet disgusting guitar- I mean "old whiskey” wicked guitar. Donald “DJ” Johnson plays drums with soul only gained in the best hole in the wall juke joints and most spiritual of southern churches. Then there’s Laura Lee, bassist and the Queen of the Khru. Laura has seemingly come into her own in the band’s rise to prominence in the past 4 years. Her family was the source of inspiration for much of the last LP, Con Tondo El Mondo. It seems that the band has continued to use her stories and experiences in their latest album.
Mordechai takes its name from a friend that accompanied Laura on a spiritually-cleansing trip abroad. The album’s message is the album vibe: enjoying the journey rather than the destination at hand.
For returning fans, the journey has some familiar stops. First, you are given a smooth opener easing you into the vibe. This time, First Class does the honors of honoring the Isley brothers that seem to stem from the same family tree as Midnight and Friday Morning.
Khruangbin gets right the meat of the buffet with the beautiful single Time (You and I). I encourage every reader to watch the music video for this song. It gives volume to the lyrics: finding someone groovy and child-like to match your own spirit.
The best leg of this record comes between the dub-reggae inspired One to Remember, the somber slow jam Dearest Alfred, and the fast-paced funk jam So We Won’t Forget. Laura Lee once again grabs inspiration from her late grandfather to deliver this trio of songs. With an additional music video released ahead of the album, Khruangbin illustrates the best natural way humans tend to remember loved ones who have passed on: fond memories, written communication from the past, and the actions we take to keep a loved ones’ memory alive.
Although Khruangbin typically releases lyric-less songs, this album’s strongest tracks include the subtle, smooth vocals of the Khru. Each song has a specific lyrical structure and language that sets up a different story and experience from the group's past. Pelota is a Spanish rumba and flamingo-inspired track that encourages one to “live like a ball”. The hidden gem in this record is Connaissais de Face (Rough French translation for “Knew from the Face”). A track dedicated to an old bartender from the band’s past, Mark and Laura go back and forth in this fictional conversation where two friends catch up in a bar about old acquaintances.
Aside from the familiarity in sound and the addition of more vocals and lyrics, my only concern is whether or not this band has reached its plateau. As much as no one wants to mess with a good thing, a part of this writer feels as though this band may get too consistent, as I already felt the familiarity of a few DJ drum patterns and Laura bass rhythms. Mark seems to keep his riffs fresh and innovative, but how will it be until fans long for evolution to their sound? Father Bird, Mother Bird was basically a rearrangement of Cómo Me Quieres. One to Remember and So We Won’t Forget were two sides of the same coin (to be fair, Laura Lee states that One to Remember was intended to be a reprise).
Their collaborative EP with Leon Bridges may have given this listener an itch for a sprinkle more of country-western influence in the band’s sound. I believe that consistency and simplicity are key, but maybe it’s now time that the Khru grew and branch out.
The Bottom Line: This group has been a decade of “nasty funk" in the making by seemingly sticking to what they know and do best. If you are a diehard Khruangbin fan, you will love the consistency of this record. If you’re disappointed in this record, then I don’t know what to tell you. The funk is not within you.
The Best Tracks: First Class, Time (You and I), Connaissais de Face, If There is No Question, One to Remember, Dearest Alfred, So We Won’t Forget
The So-So Tracks: Pelota, Shida
The Meh Tracks: Father Bird, Mother Bird
-Cult Influence/Potential: ★★★★★ -Artwork/Visuals: ★★★★★ -Originality: ★★★★ -Choice of Style:★★★★ -First Impression/Enjoyment: ★★★★★ -Staying Power: ★★★½
Final Score: ★★★★
Website - https://www.khruangbin.com/
Bandcamp - https://khruangbin.bandcamp.com/album/mordechai Buy Album Here - https://khruangbin.ffm.to/mordechai Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/khruangbin Twitter - https://twitter.com/khruangbin Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/khruangbin/?hl=en
Run the Jewels - RTJ4
"This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused
For the truth-tellers tied to the whippin' post, left beaten, battered, bruised
For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit
Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, 'Fuck you too'"- Killer Mike
For many, Run the Jewels represents the inner rage of our “woke” generation. Remember when rapper Lupe Fiasco teamed up with DJ/producer Bassnectar and a few other EDM artists after gaining momentum in his “war" with Atlantic Records? I bet that you don’t. No one has yet to really master the subtle blend of party beats and conscious lyricism- besides Kendrick Lamar. Who would’ve thought it would come from a rapper and producer with brands far removed from such polarities?
Although this is the hip-hop duo’s fourth project together, Jaime Meline (El-P) and Michael Rendor (Killer Mike) have evolved from their comical, outrageous lyrics and seemingly cocaine-fueled trap beats, by using their platform as a soundtrack of the near-coming revolution. RTJ4 was released at the perfect moment. The lyricism in the album would make you think that someone dropped a high school American History textbook from 2050 into the laps on El-P and Killer Mike - the duo addresses so many issues in the tone that many Americans share: “This is a cycle. It’s time for institutional racism, socioeconomic inequalities, and the growth of apathy in America need to be flipped and bashed on its head. Let everything short of anarchy and chaos commence!”
The structure of the album was like a reverse mohawk: Party in the front, business in the back. This writer was initially put off by the beginning of the album, fearing a possible lack of social consciousness. But no! It’s just El-P and Killer Mike are arriving on the scene as two action heroes from the latest blockbuster. From Holy Calamaf*** to the end, El-P and Killer Mike take care of business and give balance to the record. There are so many lines and songs to breakdown, but I’ll leave the deep dives to the annotators over at Genius.com. It’s good to have hype rap that can’t be deciphered in one listen. But here are some lyrical highlights:
"Pseudo-Christians, y'all indifferent, kids in prisons ain't a sin? Shit
If even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected, you'd feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don't get it
I'd say you lost your goddamn minds if y'all possessed one to begin with" - El-P
"The way I see it, you're probably freest from the ages one to four
Around the age of five you're shipped away for your body to be stored
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin' prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually, the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, 'I can't breathe'
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give's a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you've been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it'll be
I promise I'm honest
They coming for you the day after they comin' for me
I'm readin' Chomsky, I read Bukowski, I'm layin' low for a week
I said somethin' on behalf of my people and I popped up in Wikileaks
Thank God that I'm covered, the devil come smothered
And you know the evil don't sleep
Dick Gregory told me a couple of secrets before he laid down in his grave
All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin' but slaves
Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state - Killer Mike
"I used to wanna get the chance to show the world I'm smart (Ha)
Isn't that dumb? I should've focused mostly on the heart
'Cause I seen smarter people trample life like it's an art
So bein' smart ain't what it used to be, that's fuckin' dark
You ever notice that the worst of us have all the chips?
It really kinda takes the sheen off people gettin' rich
Like maybe rich is not the holy, ever-lovin'
King of nothin' fuckers, know we know you're bluffin'
You are dealing with the motherfuckin' money-money runners" - El-P
"It'd be a lie if I told you that I ever disdained the fortune and fame
But the presence of the pleasure never abstained me from any of the pain
Been two years, truth is I'll probably never be the same
Dead serious, it's a chore not to let myself go insane
It's crippling, make you wanna lean on a cup of promethazine
But my queen say she need a king, not another junkie, flunky rapper fiend
Friends tell her, 'He could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin'
She told her partner, 'I need a husband more than the world need another martyr'" -Killer Mike
(Ok, maybe I just wanted to highlight the powerful lyrics in Walking in the Snow and a few words for the firing squad - but those are definitely the best songs on the record.)
Could Zach De la Rocha just go ahead a join Run the Jewels? Longtime collaborator El-P obviously has chemistry with this dude. The Race Against the Machine frontman has added flare and rage to each of his RTJ features and does not miss with his combined rebellious bravado and wordplay.
My only complaints stem from the mixing of El-P’s vocals. Killer Mike’s lyrics seem to hit so much harder in the speakers, but when El-P’s lyrics are read, his bars are more bold and savage (Jaime did warn us on the last album that he speaks “with the foulest mouth possible). Pharrell’s feature is a surprise that I wish showed up in more of a production role - but “Look at all these slave masters posin on yo dollar” is a solid hook that could’ve been delivered by anyone.
The Bottom Line: Instead of attempting to preach to the opposition, El-P and Killer Mike made anthems for the young turks and rebels with a cause. The album had too perfect timing. It’s Public Enemy meets Bassnectar. It’s NWA meets Rage Against the Machine. It’s Wu-Tang meets Rick Rubin. Oh, and if these guys aren’t cool enough for you, then how about the fact that they’re selling this treasure for free?
The Best Tracks: Oh La La, Holy Calamaf***, Goonies vs ET, Walking in the Snow, Ju$t, Never Look Back, Pulling the Pin, The Ground Below, A Few Words For The Firing Squad
The "So-So" Tracks: Yankee and the Brave, Out of Sight,
-Cult Influence/Potential: ★★★★ -Lyricism: ★★★★ -Originality: ★★★★★ -Delivery/Performance: ★★★★ -First Impression/Enjoyment: ★★★½ -Staying Power: ★★★★½
Final Score: ★★★★½
Download the album for free here: https://runthejewels.com/
Nick Hakim - WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD
'There seems to be a complexity to being kind
To your space, to your temple, to your neighbors.'
In a year filled with panic, stress, and pain, we’ve received a plethora of emotional albums fitting to the times that have been long in the making. But Nick Hakim seems to have hit the nail right in the stud of our spirits.
"BUT IT’S ALSO TRUE THAT I'M STILL TRYING TO FIGURE THIS RECORD OUT. PEOPLE HAVE TOLD ME THAT IT’S CONFUSING OR THAT IT’S MESSY—THAT’S FINE. THERE’S SO MUCH PRESSURE ON ARTISTS TO COMMIT TO BEING ONE THING, OR TO RESTRICT AN ALBUM TO EXPLORING JUST ONE SUBJECT OR SOUND. BUT MY LIFE ISN’T LIKE THAT, AND SO MY MUSIC CAN’T BE LIKE THAT EITHER.” -Nick Hakim
WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD - stylized as WTMMG - seems like a clustered collage of sounds amongst a pleasant acoustic guitar. I was still expecting this to sound more along the lines of his past songs I Don’t Know, Vincent Tyler (Original Version), and Roller Skates. However, Nick shifts from the sex and love slow jams of his debut project Green Twins and takes things in a darker, grittier tone.
It’s painful chords of All These Changes - matched with the whistles that could only signal the arrival of the horsemen of the apocalypse - sets this album's somber tone. The song is another message about how humanity is killing the Earth, but with the added notion that our way of living is killing humanity. Nick continues this message on the title track, which compares the uppers, opiates, and prescription pills to the various other legal vices that our world says “will make me good".
Amongst all the new sounds Nick Hakim delivers, All These Instruments, Qadir, Seeing Double, and Whoo take fans back to familiar ground. Qadir is easily the best track on this project; with lyrics written amidst Nick mourning the suicide of a friend for whom the track is written. We are once again fed a fine track that perfectly illustrates the questioning that the survivor of a suicide victim may ask regarding the state of the society that drove someone to take their life.
When Nick isn’t giving sermons warning us of our sins, he delivers soulful - nearly gospel - tracks such as Let It Out and God’s Dirty Work shed the lyrics and just gives listeners a meditative mantra.
I must admit, I was disappointed with the rework of Vincent Tyler. The powerful lyrics describing the horror of discovering the body of a murder victim may have been lost in this newest version However, the change was a perfect fit for this album. Lyrics take a back seat to instrumentation - not always for the best.
However, the album ages like wine. With the constant updates in the news and media on what could possibly go wrong next, Nick Hakim is a calming project that gives an hour of therapy to the psychedelic fan with love for gospel, soul, and/or old school R&B.
The Bottom Line: Nick Hakim is best described D’Angelo on mushrooms. He is indie psychedelia gospel. You might not vibe with him on your first listen, but his sound ages quite well. Amongst the chaos and uneasiness of 2020, I highly recommend pouring a small glass of tea - or your vice of choice - and feed your soul with this album.
P.S. I missed Mac Demarco’s feature on the single Crumpy. These two artists blend maybe too well. Let’s hope for harmony amongst the two vocals in the future.
The Best Tracks: All These Changes, WTMMG, Let It Out, Qadir, Crumpy, God’s Dirty Work, Whoo
The "So-So" Tracks: Bouncing, All These Instruments, Vincent Tyler, Seeing Double
The "Meh" Tracks: Drum Thing
-Cult Influence/Potential: ★★★½ -Lyricism: ★★★½ -Artwork/Visuals: ★★★★ -Delivery/Performance: ★★★★ -First Impression/Enjoyment: ★★★ -Staying Power: ★★★★★ Final Score: ★★★½
Website - http://nickhakim.com Bandcamp - https://nickhakim.bandcamp.com/album/will-this-make-me-good Twitter - https://twitter.com/nick_hakim Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/en_hakim/ Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9tY0BWXOZFtfCw_SbA0z3G37T7dB_29Q Spotify - https://open.spotify.com/album/5wHIOaV0DXf73kL7i5blmM Apple Music - https://music.apple.com/us/album/will-this-make-me-good/1501267251?ign-gact=3&ls=1
Marc Avery is an aspiring songwriter and producer from Atlanta, Georgia. His primary genre is trip-hop; blends of elements from funk, surf rock, chill hop, blues, synthpop, and psychedelic rock/jazz.