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Coat of Many Colors

Awkword

Lots of rappers spit about the spoils of their stardom—Bentleys, diamonds, Louis Vuitton luggage. Not many, and maybe none, have taken all that money they’ve made through record sales and donated it to charity. Except, that is, New York rapper and activist Awkword. His album, World View, featured contributions from artists in 20 countries and benefited Guns 4 Cameras, a nonprofit dedicated to ending street violence. And though his mission is serious, Awkword’s got a quicksilver wit that permeates most of his tracks. On the buoyant, reggae-influenced “Stay Spittin’, Stay Flowin’” he takes listeners through the chambers of the heart, from the vena cava to the aorta. Then, on “Colors,” he turns his attention to the color wheel, rapping “My blood is red, but I stay blue like Barack” over a Motown loop. Only on “Requiem” do you get a sense of Awkword’s intensity. “I’m here to lift you up / I can also take you down.” Stay on his good side; it’s a pretty inspiring place to be.

Testify

Undergrad

Spirituality is a personal thing. Some people wear theirs on their sleeve, “witnessing” to anyone willing to listen. Others prefer to keep their religion between them and their god … or gods … or goddesses. You get the picture. Wesley Forte, a.k.a. Undergrad, is definitely a member of the first camp. Raised in the church, Forte kept to the straight and narrow, dedicating his life to his beliefs. As Undergrad, he funnels his ministry into pious hip-hop and R&B. On “Man In The Mirror” he declares he’s “trying to build up the Lord’s turf” while a female chorus provides the song’s soulful hook. Digital arpeggios rain down in “What’s Your Mission” as the rapper spits out witty lines like “Is your mission to be like Microsoft and Excel?” On the swaggering “Spark The Dark” things get more urgent. “People selling their souls like retail / I gotta give glory to God.” Preach on, preacher man.

Check Baby, Check Baby

Mike Check

Mike Check started his career in music behind the kit, eventually trading sticks for a pen and becoming a songwriter. Turns out it was a good swap. Today Check is one of New York’s up-and-coming MCs, firing up audiences with fervent lyrics about anything from crime and poverty to Christian Laettner. On the bubbling, synth-driven “Mega Man” Check details his A-game with the ladies, promising to “fade away like Laettner” after its over. The mood gets heavier on “My Back Yard,” a lyrical tour of NYC set to a sample of Benny Mardones’ “Into the Night.” From Fifth Avenue to Ground Zero, Jamaica Queens, South Bronx and Brooklyn, Check explores the worlds of the haves and have-nots. The rapper’s fierce determination to move out of the latter category is on display in “For the Rush,” an adrenaline-filled banger about owning the audience. “Every time I close my eyes never seen another dream,” he spits, like New York’s version of Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith. If it’s true you gotta lose yourself in the music to really make it, Mike Check is well on his way.

“For the Rush” – Mike Check

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Kanye’s “Monster” gets the Muppets treatment

Watching the Muppets rap Kanye West’s “Monster” is both hilarious and distressing. Count Von Count opening with “Bitch I’m a monster / No good bloodsucker” is entirely apropos, but then when Beaker delivers the line about the you-know-what in a sarcophagus you can almost feel your entire childhood imploding. Watch at your own risk.

Josh Groban sings Kanye’s tweets

It’s a very Kanye Friday everyone. Before you cry “Enough!” be sure to watch this one last clip. GRAMMY-winning singer Josh Groban put all of Mr. West’s tweets to music for a bit on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. If you thought they sounded ridiculous in cyberspace, just wait. Our favorite aria has to be “I make awesome decisions in bike stores.” Find out what yours is by watching the clip below.

Love is in the air … so is anti-love

The celebrity musician zeitgeist got a workout this week with multiple hook-ups and break-ups. In one corner we have Kelly Pickler and Carlos Santana getting hitched (not to each other) and Selena Gomez getting with the Biebs. In the other corner, John Mellencamp announced his divorce from Elaine Irwin and Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal split. Love wins by a hair (a Bieber hair, the most powerful kind).

The Bad

Chuck Berry collapses onstage during Chicago concert

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry collapsed onstage in Chicago on New Year’s Day as his guitar was being tuned before the show started. After being rushed off stage, the 84-year-old legend returned 15 minutes later and tried to pick up his guitar to play. A man approached Berry and escorted him back offstage. Finally Berry returned to apologize to fans for being too weak to perform. “They’re afraid I’ll do my scoot,” he explained. Berry’s rep later reported that the singer was suffering from exhaustion.

The Ugly

Will Oldham attacks Bill and Melinda Gates Charity Foundation

Will Oldham

Bonnie Prince Billy wasn’t so bonny in an interview with Fogged Clarity this week. The man behind the alternative folk act, Will Oldham, had a lot to say about the ulterior motives behind Mr. and Mrs. Gates charity efforts. His take on Bill Gates thought process went thusly: “I want to eradicate cholera, so I can get another motherfucker to buy my computer.” We’re not sure that third-world kids will be rushing to the nearest Best Buy to buy a Dell, but what do we know?

Courtney Love’s tweets lead to defamation lawsuit

Courtney Love

After Courtney Love was asked to pay up for custom clothing made for her by designer Dawn Simorangkir, the singer reacted with her characteristic grace, calling the designer a “drug-pushing prostitute” on her Twitter page. Now Love is being sued for defamation of character. The trial is set for February. Hope one of those bespoke garments is proper courtroom attire.

Miscellany

Hip Hop Habit: Mick Lawrence

A transitional year in the world of hip hop, 1998 straddled the change from the gangster rap of the mid 90s to the epidemic of suburban white boy rappers  in the early ’00s. There were many notable releases to drop that year (Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, OutKast, DMX), but nothing that gripped the nation quite like their predecessors’ efforts years before or their heirs’ creations to come. Yet, regardless of what occurred in the mainstream hip hop world during those 365 days, 1998 still remains the very year this week’s HHH featured artist Mick Lawrence took up a hobby that would eventually turn into his lifelong passion.

A product of a lesser known Jacksonville ( in North Carolina, not Florida), Mick’s mission is to conquer the fake one hit wonders plaguing hip hop today with the realness his lyricism brings to the table. Ambitious yes, but if there’s a particularly advantageous place to begin that battle it’s with a piece like “Eulogy,” a song about as real as they come. Opening with a bleak synth triad loop that sets the tone for the grim speech that follows, Mr. Lawrence proceeds to lecture on the unwritten rules of the streets through a non-chronological narrative about a casualty of the game named Marcus. Part urban legend, part hauntingly realistic, Mick tells his story with the wisdom of an old ghetto mystic who’s seen it all, further lending the credit of authenticity (and in this case, fright) to his work, as the chorus warns “I hear them say patience is a virtue/ it’s easy to lie but a lie might hurt you/ careful who you talk to in your circle/ it’d be the last man that you think might murk you.

Mick Lawrence OurStage Hip Hop HabitThe dark clouds part in “Brainstorming” as Mick sheds light on the brighter patches of his history. His adoration for hip hop shines through in lines like “I’d rather die doin’ what I love then to die without tryin’ sayin’ ‘aw because’,” as does a slim portion of his philosophy and current state of mind: “Life is short/ I’m just trying to hold down the fort/ hopin’ this last shot I make it in from half court/ hopin’ that light burnin’ over there’s a flame torch/ guiding me like a ship/ out the ocean to the port.” A down home anthem at its core, Lawrence uses “Brainstorming” as a vehicle to make localized shout outs to everyone from corner bootleggers to area BBQ joints and expresses remorse over the divisions money has wedged in friendships, all the while vowing to right them and beat the system together as a team. The backing soundtrack is of course warm and fuzzy, as a fat bass interplays with chirping, soulful strings, contributing to the overall mood of nostalgia and optimism for the future.

Parallel to his growth as an artist has been his development as a businessman, a journey that now sees him sitting atop the label he’s created, Black Page Entertainment. As his music will express, success hasn’t always come easy, but his vision is more focused now than ever before and will likely see him continue on his upward path until it peaks. He’s already accomplished such feats as landing a Top 10 award for this summer’s Drake “Thank Me Later” competition, so listen to his material and let us know how far you think he’ll go in the comments!

Hip Hop Habit: Yes Lord

Hip Hop Habit LogoAs a man with familial connections to Northern Philadelphia, I’ll be the first to tell you the day-to-day existence there is less than rosy. Needless to say, growing up in that environment is tough, but surviving it with the goal of becoming rap’s next superstar? That’s downright ambitious. Luckily for Yes Lord (born Jamal Tillery), ambition is innate.  Although Tillery bounced in and out of trouble as a teen and had difficulty staying in the same school for an extended period of time, he found his drive after attending college. Since then, he has churned that motivation into 1 BA , 2 MBAs and even runs his own businesses. The music? Well you could say that’s pretty ambitious too.

As is often the case with singles these days, the song Yes Lord’s received the most recognition for here on OurStage is not his strongest. Winning first prize in last November’s Converse Get Out of the Garage Urban Competition, the tongue and cheek “Hold Me Down” blithely describes the emcee’s adoration for the lady in his life over a moderate beat that leaves listeners asking for more. What’s important to note about this piece is that it carries a trait resoundingly present in much of Tillery’s content: desire. As noted above, Yes Lord has proven himself to be a very motivated person, and once he wraps his mind around what he wants, there’s no stopping him. Such is audible in “Hold Me Down,” where it’s heard through the satisfaction of successfully pursuing the woman he loves. However, his dream chasing really gets inspiring is in ghetto-documenting “Life in the City.”

Yes LordThis track follows the one time delinquent down both the rabbit hole of drug addiction and the rare yet resilient comeback. Opening with promising vocals from featured singer Jeremie Morris over an ironically calming beat, the slow tempo automatically places Yes Lord’s tone into a category of resolve; he’s not happy with the present but he’s confident in what the future can hold. But, if there’s any truth to Slug’s (of Atmosphere) line “Junkies won’t bounce ‘till they hit the ground” then Tillery provides the supporting evidence. Referring to himself as a “coke sniffer, chain smoker, perk popper, and weed mover,” it’s safe to say he was going nowhere fast: “Graduation nah I was agitated/ and fascinated with dice as they scratched the pavement passing payments/ cash that was actually tainted/ crack acquainted/ marijuana sacks is flaming.” After a bust introduces him to rock bottom, Tillery uses a new year as fuel to power his goals of replenishing cash flow and doubling up on real estate.  His story is truly moving.

With enough earned business know-how to run his career independently, it’s pretty safe to say that Yes Lord controls his own destiny. He’s won various awards and performed at multiple hip hop events, but time will show these things were just steps along the way to the big time. Check his tracks out in the player below, and let us know if he enthuses you in the comments!

OurStage Hip Hop Habit: IB

Taming your  jealousy of another person’s success becomes a lot easier when you keep in mind that everyone’s just trying to make it. Same goes for the world of musicians. The collection of artists here on OurStage consists of minnows and sharks with careers both static and mobile, perhaps the latter of which is best exemplified in female emcee IB. To be fair, this girl is connected. Like really, really well connected. From her familial ties to the Knowles family (yes, that would be the family of Beyoncé Knowles) to the star-studded guest spots in her OurStage catalog (Wale makes an appearance), it appears on paper that she’s off to the races. In reality that hasn’t happened yet, but if her fantastic output remains consistent, it will soon.

Hailing from Houston’s storied third ward, IB literally grew up in the shadow of Destiny’s Child. Wanting so much to emulate Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle, IB and her friends started up their own girl pop group and took it as far as they could before realizing they were too young and just weren’t ready for the big time. Whether she regrets skipping out on what could have been is irrelevant, but her rhymes prove that if nothing else, she did a lot of learning in her second lease on adolescence, evidence of which can be found in her fantastic raps.

IB Press PhotoDear Daisy” steps foot in the door with a soggy sax/brass interplay and guitar riff that sounds inherited from boastfully Kentuckian rappers Cunninlynguists. The mood is dismal from the start, as IB uses the mild instrumental tones as a landscape on which paint her sorry past: “Did you grow up with one brother/ no mother/ junkie daddy/ are you happy/ that’s me/ cause if so that explains exactly/ why I’m an easy target so you just attack me.” The justified venting continues throughout “Dear Daisy,” IB leaving no sour character in her past unpunished. From ex-lovers to slighting haters, the stories IB tells down memory lane make the fact that she’s made it to where she is today even more impressive, and gives legitimacy to the meaning behind her moniker, Incredibly Brave.

That down-in-the-dumps mentality is nowhere to be found in “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Me Now,” despite the open verse profiling a maybe/maybe not so fictional drug arrest. If “Dear Daisy” was a slow-paced drive through rotten nostalgia, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Me Now” puts the pedal to the metal as IB uses an extended car metaphor to describe just how commanding her momentum has become. “Within my city they hatin’/ bypassin’ me like I’m fakin’/ there’s way too many takin’ my ideas and runnin’/ but my headlights are bright/ I can see them comin’/ I don’t slam on my breaks/ I smash on the gas a bit harder.” Instrumentally, this tune carries same melancholic atmosphere but the chord changes resolve to a resolution tinted with hope, a resolution cemented in Chris Styles’ empowering chorus soliloquy: “I’m gon’ show the world and everybody who ever hated/ you can’t change it/ I’ve done made it/ ain’t no stopping me now.”

As long as she doesn’t get cold feet about the biz, there’s little that can go wrong from here on out. Having earned invaluable connections and experience from a management stint with Matthew Knowles Music World Entertainment and opened for blockbuster names the likes of Wale and Drake, it won’t be long before this battered underdog climbs out of the pits and sings for all the world to hear.

OurStage Hip Hop Habit: J

The life of a music journalist often walks a fine line between the excitement of a baited chase for great new musicians and the mental drain that occurs when that wild hunt returns stillborn results. When that seesaw teeters towards the latter, it takes a rare gem of an artist to resuscitate any sense of invigoration back into a writer. J is that kind of artist. From her scant profile and its two obscuring images, little on the surface tells that this petite southern wordsmith is an adept poet. But, one listen will leave you finding faith for a generation of urban artists and begging for more.

J manages to tell the world who she is without ever inserting a concrete autobiographical factoid in what is arguably her best song, the pondering “My Story.” The dense lyrics in this track, if nothing else, teach us that J is an observeran astute observer at thatwho’s realized she’s cut from a different cloth. Her poetic background steps forth in this piece around the halfway point, where her immaculately consistent rapping rhythm morphs into unbridled spoken word, wisdom overwhelming with each and every linefrom shunning materialistic nonsense in“time moves fast/ so hold on to the things you really want to last/ because after all your Js fitted and true religions pass/ you’re gonna want something you can hold on to to questioning the meaning of this thing we call life in “I’m wonderin’ if some of us have to lose/ life just don’t seem fair sometimes and I know it don’t have to be/ and I ain’t even writin’ this cause I want you to be sad for me.” If J’s content paints her as a youth trying to make sense of everything around her, then the beat is sonic cultivation to match. The curtains open with a puffing woodwind ensemble that blends into a cool lavender beat more fit for an R&B song than a hip hop beat, but it works, especially as autotuned vocals find that common ground. As layered voices tenderly suggest taking life in stride over a sweeping piano and whistling synth run, any question as to whether the aforementioned rhetorical questions are tinted with anxiety can be put to rest. She’s just trying to tell her story.

JT MusicThe innocent questioning depicted in “My Story” is swallowed in the sheer blackness of “This Life,” a haunting story profiling two teens falling in love with the streets and losing their lives because of it. As a panicked angelic voice conjuring images of urgent prayers swirls above the blizzard of fatal content, it seems as though the memories of “My Story” were only smoke and mirrors and that J believes “this is real life/ no camera no actors.” Simply put, the track is irreversibly opaque, from murderous gang violence to a colorful portrayal of lethal crack addiction that would be camouflage in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Dire, hopeless and chronicling depressingly anonymous subjects, “This Life” is everything you could ever ask for in a dramatic narrative detailing ghetto tragedies. Now more than ever, the clever connections J makes and splices into her gripping storytelling come across as insight belonging to a mystic four times her age, most notable in lines like “ predestined lessons of a young boy in love with the streets/ wouldn’t let the block rest so they put him under sheets” and “there’s no turning back now/ just gotta react now/ fendin’ like a slave/ the addiction got a chain on her/ the streets took her put their name on her/ stake their claim on her” that leave a lasting impression long after heard.

Taking life in stride becomes difficult when the life lead resembles that in “This Life,” but no one ever said it would be easy, especially not J. For all her talent, this young rapping dame has been polite enough to lyrically profile her progress to the top humbly acknowledging that if she fails, at least she can say she tried. But, rest assured, the day she achieves her dream of “rockin’ mics in front of sold out crowds,” she promises to “scream from the top” so do yourself a favor and keep your ears on. It shouldn’t be too long.

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Eminem and Jay-Z rock Yankee Stadium

Part one of Jay-Z and Eminem’s Home and Home Tour, which took place last week in Eminem’s hometown of Detroit, was a success (to put it mildly). And Part two, which took place this past Tuesday at Yankee Stadium in Jay-Z’s home turf, looks like it was just as epic, if not more so. Featuring repeat guest performances by Drake, Kanye West and Dr. Dre, the concert also featured surprise guests Swizz Beatz, Nicki Minaj and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who joined buddy Jay-Z for a medley that included snippets of “Clocks” and “Viva La Vida.” Check out the clip below—goosebumps on the house.

Ted Leo + Paul F. Tompkins = “Bottled in Cork” video

Lampooning the archetypal rise and fall of a rock star, this new video from Ted Leo is a real hoot, thanks to a comically rich performance by Paul F. Tompkins, who plays the part of Leo’s would-be manager, Reginald Van Voorst. Enjoy the LOLs.

The Bad

Hootie and the Blowfish to get SC monument

It seems mean-spirited to throw this in the “Bad” section, but we didn’t have room for it anywhere else. Honest. And even if we were griping about the expense of funding such a monstrosity (your words, not ours), it wouldn’t change the fact that Hootie and the Blowfish are getting a big monument in Columbus, South Carolina. The band formed there on the campus of USC nearly 25 years ago, and went on to sell 16 million copies of their record, Cracked Rear View. The monument will be unveiled on October 21. Put that spray can down.

Weezer autotunes the news

If you have a sour Hootie aftertaste in your mouth, cleanse your palate with this video wherein Weezer autotunes current events. Catchy and informational!

The Ugly

George Michael sentenced to prison

George Michael was sentenced to eight weeks in jail and a five-year suspension of his driver’s license after he drove his Range Rover into a Snappy Snaps photo store (real name) on July 4th. Somebody won’t be singing “Freedom” anytime soon.

Miscellany

Hip Hop Habit: Lee Emcee

I’ve always been perplexed as to why foreign accents never seem to shine through in song. From acts dating back to the British Invasion like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to modern ensembles like The Noisettes and Florence and the Machine, English voices have always sounded thickly American. Such is not the case when the artist comes from the land down under, as does this week’s featured Hip Hop Habit rapper Lee Emcee. Born to the metropolis of Brisbane in 1989, Lee Emcee (aka Jeames Williams) has spent his 21 years on this earth using his innate musical talent to experiment with a wide range of instruments, compete in freestyle competitions and write raps both diffident and devotional—all in that fantastic Aussie accent.

Australian Emcee Lee Emcee and his signature blue The vulnerable “You Mean So Much” is about just what you would think; Lee paying respects to a lady. The twist appears about a quarter of the way in, where Lee follows love song suit by acknowledging the mistakes both members in the relationship have made, but then surprisingly tells of how he appreciates his partner more for them. In a rare display of humility in a genre infested with unapologetic alpha males, the meek emcee hangs his heartbreak out to dry “I’m a man I’m not afraid to tell you how I feel” and explains his reasons for staying: “choices you and I make can be wrong/ but together in arms we belong.” This rocky romance narrative travels on top of a contemplative landscape, where Lee’s musical background is put on full display in an elegant symphony of orchestral sounds replete with a crooning oboe, lush piano and full string accompaniment. Together the content and its sonic counterpart create a cozy nesting mood, poised to inspire listeners to achieve the benefits of togetherness.

Williams’ passionate saga journeys on in “Music Makes the World Go Round,” another song sporting content not drifting far from its title, this time laying it on the line for his art form of choice. This track’s introduction is unique in the sense that it slowly seeps in through echoing keyboard vamps that revolve around your head with a great use of panning, each of which seem to grow to an overwhelming point until the familiar bass & drum beat drops. Emotion in this track is tame, and the jazz influenced beat stays chilled throughout compared to the aforementioned audible bleeding heart, but that doesn’t prevent Lee from instilling in his listeners how important he perceives music to be. Lee Emcee hard at work in the studioThough the consequences he lists of music’s potential absence are overdone and thus only mildly threatening (“without the sound/ we’ll cause a riot underground” and “without music in my life then my soul would detach”), there’s always something to be said for an artist sticking up for what they love, especially when it’s done with such loaded optimism: “music will carry on like the human race.”

After receiving some hard earned awards at battle competitions in Australia (he took 3rd at Megiddo Street Battles in 2009), Lee has decided to keep riding the wave and has plans to release an EP and mixtape some time soon. With concurrent projects underway across three continents, his offbeat brand of hip hop, trademarked by honesty and alluring sun burnt accent are destined to bubble up to the surface some time soon. Keep him on your radar and let us know how you feel about the puzzle that is Lee Emcee in the comments!

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