The tale of Run-DMC has been told many, many times in numerous forms, from autobiographies to a VH-1 Behind the Music episode. The appeal of Kings from Queens: The Run-DMC Story, beyond its commentary from sundry golden-age legends like MC Lyte and LL Cool J as well as familiar music-doc talking heads like Questlove, is to give testimony about a history that most fans of a certain age will know by heart. The three-part documentary debuted on Peacock on February 1 and, without commercials, lasts around two-and-a-half hours. But it isn’t exhaustive and tacitly avoids some of the group’s controversies. (Run and DMC are listed as executive producers.) Jam Master Jay is rightfully memorialized, but the doc avoids the murky circumstances surrounding his 2002 murder. Jay’s famed protégé 50 Cent is also absent. The group’s final album, 1999’s Crown Royal, goes unmentioned, as does Rev Run’s disappointing solo excursion, 2005’s Distortion. Even their battles with record label Profile, documented in books such as Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin, and Redemption of Run-D.M.C., are glossed over. The filmmakers rightly conclude that old heads will enjoy throwback clips of the trio performing at Live Aid in Philadelphia, and DMC’s heart-rending confessions about struggling with substance abuse and finding solace in Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” But where are the post-millennial voices like Joey Bada$$, Fivio Foreign, or Nicki Minaj? Where are the scenes connecting Run-DMC’s sound with modern-day shouters like Meek Mill? While the filmmakers don’t need to pander to the kids, failing to illustrate why younger audiences should care about these 80s hip-hop heroes seems like a missed opportunity to burnish their legend. Kings from Queens is directed by Kirk Fraser and produced by Believe Entertainment Group.
A common trope of authorized music documentaries such as May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story is that the filmmakers tend to deliver lengthy, single-camera interviews instead of a compelling, dynamic story. It opens promisingly enough with photos and camcorder footage of Little Brother’s rise in North Carolina during the turn of the century and the making of their 2003 classic The Listening. Animated clips, courtesy of Creative Junk Food studio, as well as talking heads such as The Roots’ figurehead Questlove and journalist Dart Adams fuel the narrative. But eventually, the doc slows to a crawl as Phonte Coleman and Big Pooh go back and forth, detailing issues with former labels ABB Records and Atlantic Records as well each other, leading to a 2010 breakup, a reconciliation, and an anticipated reunion album, 2019’s May the Lord Watch. Fans who have followed the Little Brother story won’t be surprised by the absence of producer and group co-founder 9th Wonder. More damaging is that the filmmakers fail to show instead of tell us how Little Brother are part of a “bridge” between Native Tongues and current superstars like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Fewer scenes of the duo sitting in separate rooms, talking into a camera would have helped. And did you know that Big Pooh featured on Lamar’s breakthrough mixtape, Kendrick Lamar EP? Look it up because this film won’t tell you, although it manages to include an unexplained clip featuring Pooh, Lamar, and Ab-Soul. May the Lord Watch is directed by Holland Randolph Gallagher, and was released on YouTube last November. Little Brother and the company Rap Portraits, a collaboration between Gallagher and Yoh Phillips, produced it.
Brooklyn rapper Michael “MIKE” Bonema is a prolific performer — this is his second 2023 project following Faith Is a Rock, a collaboration with Wiki and The Alchemist highlighted by the standout single “Mayors a Cop.” His tics have grown familiar, from his muddy, baritone flow and viscous diction to self-produced lo-fi loops, making it difficult to differentiate between his sundry projects. Burning Desire has a handful of WTF moments that abruptly shift the usual gears, particularly “African Sex Freak Fantasy,” a number produced by North Carolina musician Gawd that’s larded with distorted bass. Mostly, though, MIKE sticks to a well-established formula. Some of his beats are quite nice and buttery, like when he slows-and-chops Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Real Love,” and ends “They Don’t Stop in the Rain” with the Notorious B.I.G.’s chorus on “Crush on You.” His raps have a punched-in quality, a volley of bars that usually last around a minute or so, followed by a refrain to tie them together. (He compares his style to “a Sistine” on “Sixteens.”) The technique, so common among rappers in the 2020s, yields some standout lines, like when he raps, “I couldn’t cope with my feelings like Romeo” on “Snake Charm,” which is produced by Laron. Near the final third of Burning Desire, MIKE invites Lila Ramani of Brooklyn band Crumb to sing solo on “Should Be!” The haunting number feels like a palate cleanser and leads to one of the album’s strongest cuts, “What You Say You Are.” As MIKE raps, “I’m Michael Myers with the dreads,” he invokes the best aspects of his persona: A hungry striver full of Brooklyn swagger, trembling from the city’s elements and overeager to share his troubles. Not coincidentally, “What You Say You Are” lasts over three minutes and feels like a hearty dish instead of the minute-long nibbles that define so much of Burning Desire. The guests include Earl Sweatshirt and Larry June — both of whom deliver solid cameos — as well as British musicians Klein, Venna, and Mark William Lewis; experimental vocalist Liv.e, rappers Niontay and El Cousteau, and others. The evocative album art was illustrated by Ghanaian movie-poster veteran D.A. Jasper. MIKE released Burning Desire on his 10k label. * (Recommended)
“All I want to do is see the girls get a chance/All I want to do is see the bros getting bands,” chants Ishmael Butler on the chorus for “Binoculars.” To that end, the Seattle rapper and bandleader stocks the 24-minute Robed in Rareness with younger prospects of varying experience, from relative unknowns like Royce the Choice and O FINESS to his son and melodic rap veteran Lil Tracy. None of them add much. Instead, the project’s success hinges on Butler’s bejeweled production, which weds electronic funk with spooky, spacey tones. Only “Gel Bait,” which sports an appearance from Geechi Suede of Camp Lo, brings much needed vocal aggression as the two complain about sundry opps and haters. This is Butler’s second major project this year, following an enigmatic outing as Lavarr the Starr on Illusions Ago. That excursion turned Butler into a singer, a shift he has toyed with since Shabazz Palaces’ excellent 2017 single “Shine a Light.” By contrast, Robed in Rareness feels a bit slighter although it closes nicely with “Hustle Crossers.” “Take me away from here,” he pleads in a melodic voice. “I’m lost in a dream.” Rapper/singer Porter Ray appears on “P Kicking G.” Robed in Rareness was released on Sub Pop Records.
And Then You Pray for Me yields another hour of Griselda street heroics by toggling between “drumless” boom-bap and punch-drunk trap beats.