Roastface Killah (right) and Chicki Minaj and Notorious P.I.G. (left)

Dos Amigos: Let’s Taco ’bout Expansion

If you were to ask the hungry customers who patiently wait in line by the truck, any one of them can testify that the amount of creativity that goes into the names of the food is equally met by the amount of care and flavor of the food itself. And while all the items on the Dos Amigos menu are spectacular, a bevy of new artists have risen to newfound stardom, and multiple albums have been released since 2015, when the truck first hit Ithaca’s roads and found its permanent resting place in front of Cascadilla. Let’s look at some of the potential new items that Dos Amigos could add to their already stellar menu, while continuing the hip-hop/rap theme:

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TEST SPIN: Big Sean — I Decided

Establishing an identity is one of the most vital parts of being a rapper. Unlike certain pop artists, who can attain fame simply by having a well-produced beat and catchy lyrics that they may not have written, rappers typically need to connect to their listeners through their personalities and the messages that they convey. This isn’t to say that pop music is an easier genre to succeed in, but rather that rap, stemming from its creation by oppressed people rebelling against systems of racism and poverty, has always emphasized the importance of the voice. Through absorbing a rapper’s words, the audience can start to piece together a preliminary mental image of who the artist is and subsequently relate their own experiences to this identity. Not all personas that rappers give off have to be real, and not all messages conveyed have to have moral substance in order for the commercial success to be gained.

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TEST SPIN: Reach — My Shoes

Growing up in Chicago, I often heard the phrase “Imma make a mixtape.” Inspired by rap titans such as Chance the Rapper and Kanye West, who were birthed from the same city streets I walked (or at least lived in somewhat close proximity to), students would often jokingly fantasize about creating their very own rap project that would propel them to stardom. In between passing periods and behind the watchful eyes of teachers, my friends and I would pen our own lyrics with the hopes that with the right producer and beats, we could make a best-selling record. Alas, while I still have a notebook chock-full of hot 16s, I was never able to quite get around to making an album. Though I remain a fan of hip-hop and rap, I thought that the world of music-creation and album-production was best left to the professionals. The best I can do is be an educated and informed critic and consumer.

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TEST SPIN: Chance The Rapper & Jeremih — Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama

A holiday wishlist in 2016 is a strange concept, and I’ve found mine filled mostly with things that I don’t want. In no particular order: I don’t want any more surprise election outcomes, I don’t want music and film icons to continue dying in such quick succession and I don’t want to walk into another store that’s playing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” I should have known that what I really wanted — what we all wanted — was a Christmas mixtape from Chance The Rapper and Jeremih. The surprise project arrives as a much-needed dose of relief, in particular for those faithful to the Church of Kanye West left rudderless by their leader’s newfound bromance. Last holiday season, I wrote a column on the sacred tradition of Christmas-themed rap songs, a small but undeniable canon that originated with Run-DMC’s classic “Christmas in Hollis” (which, not coincidentally, Chance parodied on last week’s SNL). In one fell swoop, Chance and Jeremih have nearly doubled the size of that canon, contributing nine original songs in a project more cohesive than it has any right to be.

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TEST SPIN: J. Cole — 4 Your Eyez Only

In all honesty, I feel let down by Eyez. As a J Cole fan since 2009’s The Warm Up, I cannot say that Eyez stacks up to his previous efforts. Eyez has a lot going for it. The instrumentation is lush; from the strings to the trumpets one cannot fault the production quality. From the bold trap hit “Immortal” to the minimalist masterpiece on the title track to the gentle vocal-driven melodies seen on She Mine Pt.1 & 2, Eyez is both an instrumental and melodic success.

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TEST SPIN: Childish Gambino — Awaken, My Love!

This isn’t what we expected. Maybe if you attended Donald Glover’s PHAROS concert, or if you took him seriously when he said that this project would be completely different, you weren’t caught off guard. Though, for most of the casual listeners, the switch from hip-hop to soul/funk/R&B is an unprecedented move. Being that Paper Boi, a central character on Glover’s his hit television show, Atlanta, produced rap music, it seemed that Glover himself would continue on this path. Nevertheless, the decision to switch from his original genre didn’t result in a flop; rather, “Awaken, My Love!” is a masterful collection of Childish Gambino’s premier work.

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TEST SPIN: Various Artists — The Hamilton Mixtpe

Hamilton… a mere mention of its name opens a bevy of conversation. But really, what more can be said about ten-dollar founding father, that has not already been said? Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway behemoth already has a Grammy Award-Winning soundtrack that reached #1 on the Rap Albums chart (apparently the first cast album to ever do so), and its shows have been consistently sold out, with some re-sale tickets going upwards of $2,000. Yet Miranda’s involvement with recent films like Star Wars The Force Awakens and Moana, seemed to signal his departure from the musical.

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Spinning Singles: Pusha T, “H.G.T.V.”

Rap’s John Grisham, El Presidenté, Blowbama — these are just a few of the titles that Virginia rapper Pusha T appoints to himself on his latest single, “H.G.T.V.” Those last two, in particular, feel like a coronation years in the making for the 39 year-old MC, who just last year became president of Kanye West’s label, G.O.O.D. Music. Braggadocio and cocaine puns have anchored Push’s brand of rags-to-riches lyricism since at least the early 2000s, when he first garnered widespread attention as one half of Clipse — the now defunct rap duo formed with his older brother. But unlike his contemporaries from that era, the rapper born Terrence Thornton has only gotten better with age, showing time and again his ability to work with this week’s in-demand producers while making music that is distinctly his own. “H.G.T.V.” continues that hot streak, condensing plenty of quotable Push-isms into a single verse over menacing, bass-heavy production. Last year’s Darkest Before Dawn featured some of the weirdest beats on a major label rap album in recent memory, with known quantities like Timbaland mining for left-field samples to operate in Push’s gleefully menacing orbit.

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TEST SPIN: Baba Brinkman — The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos

I have a lot of admiration for music as a way of sharing information and ideas. It has the power to bring people joy and excitement, to catalyze casual or critical thinking and to incite discussion and reflection on problems. Music also teaches in a way that’s memorable and comprehensible. It has incited social and political change time and time again, and has ingrained all sorts information into minds. Because of its capacity for influencing and teaching, musicians like Baba Brinkman have tried to capture its power for education. Baba Brinkman’s 18th educational hip-hop release, The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, takes on climate change, spitting verses on everything from policy to ecology to religion.

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TEST SPIN: Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition

Right off the bat, I want to let you know that I’m not going to review this new record, Atrocity Exhibition by the Detroit rapper Danny Brown, objectively. Danny Brown is my favorite rapper of all time, I’m disposed to review this record positively, and it’d be dishonest to pretend otherwise. I also want to let you know that even though Danny Brown is a great, great rapper, he’s also extremely transgressive and sometimes difficult to listen to; his music is so weird that it inspires obsessive love in some while alienating many more. Accordingly, Atrocity Exhibition is as uncompromising and bizarre as it is brilliant. Danny raps in a nasal, high-pitched squeal that mimics the effects of stimulant abuse, and his music is dissonant, arrhythmic and stressful.