ALL: First Impressions


The opening intro of Wham!, a documentary about the early 80s boy band, kicks off with the sound of their first single, “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do).” As Andrew Ridgeley explains, the song — and the band’s name — was inspired by line-dancing at Le Beat Route (which he pronounces “lay bee-trow”). “Wham! Bam! I am the man!” he chanted as he danced. A scene depicts him, “Yog” Panos (aka George Michael), and their friends Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman shimmying to the Funky Four + 1 More’s “That’s the Joint.” “We were fusing rap with disco, and then we added pop,” says Ridgeley. In short, “Wham Rap!” is suffused in Black American idioms. Modern-day commentators have noticed. Several reviews fault the doc’s filmmakers for avoiding issues surrounding white appropriation of Black culture. But it’s still a revealing look at how early rap penetrated the pop mainstream. Key genre codes and aesthetics didn’t exist when “Wham Rap!” debuted in June 1982. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” had only debuted two months earlier. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” wouldn’t hit until later that summer. Thanks to Ridgeley and Michael’s “social” lyrics about being “a soul boy” and “a dole boy” — teenage unemployment was at an all-time high — as well as shout-outs to Britain’s Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), their single actually drew good reviews. New Music Express gave it “single of the week” and put them on the cover. Given the way the duo subsequently conquered the planet, those months when “Wham Rap!” seemed like a canny blend of hip-hop idioms and pop flavor instead of a watered-down approximation are easy to forget.

Valentino, Inc

In the opening credits of 1992 film Juice, Harlem DJ Quincy “Q” Powell mixes two records. The first appears to be a Def Jam release…maybe EPMD’s Business as Usual? (The group makes a cameo during a key robbery sequence.) The second is a copy of Sound Effects Vol. IV, an entry in Valentino, Inc’s Production Music Library. “Q” uses the same two records later in the film when he practices late at night in preparation for a morning audition with Queen Latifah, who’s hosting the “Ruffhouse Presents Mixx Master Massacre” contest. Italian-born, New York-based entrepreneur Thomas J. Valentino formed Valentino, Inc. in the 1930s, and specialized in library music, providing cues for Broadway productions, films, and television. It’s best known for an association with Walter Murphy, who composed “A Fifth of Beethoven,” a disco-fied update of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that became a 1976 chart-topping hit and part of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Judging from a cursory Google search, the company no longer seems to exist except for licensing purposes. Deliciously, and despite a burgeoning interest in golden-age artifacts, the presence of Valentino, Inc. in one of the most popular hip-hop films of the 90s has barely registered online. The edition of Sound Effects Vol. IV used in Juice isn’t even in the Discogs database.

Jay Worthy x Roc Marciano, Nothing Bigger Than the Program

New York rapper Roc Marciano is an underrated producer capable of making oddly hypnotic loops. On Jay Worthy’s Nothing Bigger Than the Program, he weaves a silent film score for “The Field,” and a drumless vocal aria on “The Plug.” His ideas don’t always work, but one must admire his audacity. Unfortunately, his collaborator, Compton rapper Jay Worthy, gives an unconvincing lyrical performance. Worthy can deliver an interesting crime narrative or two, like on “How?” But generally, his boilerplate verses about riding Bentleys, having sex with women, snorting cocaine, and claiming that “the pussy overrated” bore in their thematic familiarity. Worthy is frequently outclassed by his guests, particularly Port Arthur veteran Bun B, who dazzles on “Underground Legend”: “Don’t you be surprised when that throwaway leave you a hickey that won’t go away/It’s like you shaking a Coke, letting the soda spray.” Other guests include A$ton Matthews, Kokane, Ab-Soul, A$AP Ant, and Kurupt. The album was released on GDF Records and Marci Enterprises, with distribution by EMPIRE.

DJ Muggs x Madlib x Meyhem Lauren, Champagne for Breakfast

Champagne for Breakfast highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Meyhem Lauren, who’s best known for riding shotgun on Action Bronson’s various multimedia adventures. He’s got a decent po-faced style and a capacity to crack a few fly bars but lacks the conceptual savvy to elevate his street dreams into something more transcendent than a thug-rap excursion. Over the past several years, Muggs has made himself into the Gothic composer of the “drumless” era — he did excellent work on Westside Gunn’s Flygod Is an Awesome God — and his highlights include “OD Wilson” and “Evolution,” the latter on which Meyhem raps, “I specialize in aeronautics, got a fly team.” Meanwhile, Madlib interjects vocal loops on Muggs’ beats, and his “Triple M Airlines” is a nice, crackly instrumental. The beats attributed to Madlib alone seem aimless in comparison to Muggs, but he eventually achieves synergy with Meyhem on “Wild Salmon,” a light disco-boogie closer. Rap cameos include Action Bronson and Meyhem’s brother, Hologram. Muggs released Champagne for Breakfast on his Soul Assassin Records label.

The Legacy of J Dilla

The New York Times documentary The Legacy of J Dilla covers oft-trod ground. The rapper/producer’s all-too brief life as well as the turmoil surrounding his estate has been the subject of countless articles and Dan Charnas’ bestselling 2022 biography, Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. Directors Chris Frierson and Esther Dere seem to follow Charnas’ book closely, from the sociopolitical conditions afflicting Dilla’s childhood home in Conant Gardens, Detroit to the avalanche of “Dilla Changed My Life” swag and lawsuits between his decedents. The hour-long film’s main appeal is to actually see him (through archival footage), his family and friends speak. They may be spinning a well-told tale, but there’s a certain poignancy in watching them peer into the camera and memorialize a justly lionized musician. DJ Jazzy Jeff’s comments are particularly welcome. The Legacy of J Dilla premiered on FX/Hulu as part of its ongoing documentary series, The New York Times Presents.

Lil Yachty, Let’s Start Here

Lil Yachty’s Let’s Start Here has earned notice for its decidedly space-y and vaporous tones, the result of a collaboration with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, Jeremy “SadPony” Raisen and his brother Jeremiah (best known for work with Lizzo and Yves Tumor), and bassist Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Yachty aims for Gen-Z psychedelic fervor: think Travis Scott, Tame Impala, and Swae Lee’s Swaecation half of Rae Sremmurd’s SR3MM. On “The Black Seminole,” Diana Gordon squalls as if mimicking Clare Torry in Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.” For “I’ve Officially Lost Vision,” Yachty harmonizes, “I did way too much drugs, I’ve been swimming in space.” Texturally, Let’s Start Here is ear candy. Who doesn’t love laconic, shoegaze-y guitars? But it also seems banal. Given groundwork laid by similar explorers such as Andre 3000 and Kid Cudi, Yachty doesn’t commit much of himself. The predominant theme in this Urban Outfitters-bound soundtrack is molly-tinged dream-pop euphoria and coy sentiments like, “Meanwhile/You’re done/Had a little too much fun/I cannot stop touching you” on “We Saw the Sun.” Early praise for Let’s Start Here from industry mandarins such as Questlove and Apple Music’s Ebro Darden may have prompted backlash from a segment of rap fandom that objects to any whiff of maximalist stench. But give Yachty credit: He knows how to assemble and sequence an hour of shambolic melodic charms, even if his dusted symphony feels more like a wispy breeze than a desert storm. Guest vocalists include Justine Skye, Fousheé, and Daniel Caesar. Other producers include Jam City and Magdalene Bay. Tory Lanez’s name is in the credits for “Paint the Sky.” Do with that information what you will. Quality Control/Motown Records.

Thes One, Farewell, My Friend

In an L.A. Times interview with Oliver Wang, Thes One described former group People Under the Stairs as defined by their “outsider-ness.” He and high-school friend Double K, who passed away in 2021, made music informed by a community of rare breaks, and that sense of not being the “cool kids” in L.A.’s turn-of-the-Aughts indie-rap scene inspired bristling, ornery raps, adding tension to the sunshine melodies. Yet time heals old grievances, and Farewell, My Friend, a tribute to Double K, is unabashedly soft and yearning. The filtered jazz-funk loop on “Young Mike and Chris Floating Free” and the disco breeze of “Mike and Chris Leave for Their First Tour” are rendered in a nostalgic glow for those halcyon years. Musically, they’re a reminder of how crucial Thes One’s sound has been to the “chill hop” aesthetic, and why he deserves to be mentioned with more celebrated beat makers like Fat Jon and Nujabes. Sequenced like a tone poem, Farewell, My Friend is nevertheless familiar territory for Thes; even as he put out PUTS albums, he also issued instrumental projects like 2007’s Lifestyle Marketing. Double K’s edgy yet good-natured thug-isms are missed. The album includes contributions from keyboardist Kat010 and bassist Headnodic, both formerly with Bay Area group Crown City Rockers; drummer Paul Caruso, and guitarist Saint Ezekiel. Their musicianship take center stage on the second half of the album, particularly “The Bell Tolls for People Under the Stairs” and “Survivor Syndrome.” Thes One released Farewell, My Friend on his label, Piecelock 70.

Oddisee, To What End

Oddisee’s first album in three years find him deepening his skill as an arranger. His past experiments with live instrumentation on albums like 2017’s The Iceberg often felt stilted and monochromatic. But he develops a warm, pleasant sensibility through tracks like “Already Knew,” “Hard to Tell,” and the deep house grooves of “Try Again,” although some of the cuts also suffer from honeyed sung choruses that are too sugary. He mostly raps about his neuroses, and his distinctively gruff voice masks his no-frills approach to lyric writing. On “People Watching,” he calls himself an “introvert” who “became an entertainer as to hide in plain sight. The guests include Bilal and Freeway; “Choices” finds him in a cipher with Phonte and Kay Young, with singer Bemyfiasco on the hook. Toine Johnson delivers a memorable guest rap on “Bartenders.” The final track, “Race,” closes with a stirring guitar solo. Modern rap needs more guitar solos. To What End is the second release Oddisee has dropped on his own Outer Note Label; the first was 2020’s Odd Cure EP, which took stock of the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Skyzoo x The Other Guys, The Mind of a Saint: A Soliloquy

As a homage inspired by the FX series Snowfall and the character Franklin Saint, The Mind of a Saint kinda works. Skyzoo has a fussy style that leads him to crowd his beats with stanzas. “The revolution wasn’t televised, but it was spoken word/And I heard every part of it,” he raps on “Panthers & Powder,” one of the album’s stronger tracks. He’s a charismatic voice, even if one wishes he found ways to let the music breathe a bit more. The Other Guys, a D.C. production duo best known for their work with Lessondary crew like Von Pea and Rob Cave, pairs Skyzoo with the brightest melancholia this side of Apollo Brown. They set the mood at 3 p.m. on Saturday, but the subject matter seems to require more ominous tones. Lyrically, The Mind of a Saint stays in grind mode, save for the closing tracks, when Skyzoo aka Saint tries to reckon with the damage his drug dealing has caused. It closes with an ill-timed suite of 80s “Just Say No” arcana. One can’t help but compare it to American Gangster, a 2007 album where Jay-Z conjured heartlessness with ease. First Generation Rich/HIPNOTT.