With three stellar albums already under his belt, you have to wonder how far Eminem can push the limits of what’s simultaneously shocking and entertaining before he plateaus or even declines in viability. Listening to his fourth disc, Encore, it becomes painfully obvious that there is a set formula for success that Eminem is fully conscious of and, for better or worse, exploits to his full advantage.
Truth be told, Encore plays like an updated version of every other Eminem album, featuring the same tired themes and niche songs coming one after another like clockwork. Encore makes sure to fill the quota of songs about Eminem’s troubled childhood, his intolerable mother, his love for his daughter and his tumultuous professional career. Unfortunately, Encore also makes sure to include the goofy lead-off single, “Just Lose It,” that sounds nothing like the rest of the album, but slowly grinds away at your brain until you can’t help but sing along.
That’s not to say that teh album is a stale record in the grand scale of things, it simply falls under par for the high levels that Eminem has set for himself on previous releases. Most rappers would give up at least one diamond plated pimp chalice for an album on this level, but when you’re the biggest rapper in the world, the scrutiny is bound to be more rigid. Regardless of the initial let-down, there are still a handful of definite highlights in the course of Encore’s 23 tracks, including the Bush-ripping call to arms “Mosh” and the polar opposite pervert rhymes of “Ass Like That.” Eminem even finds a way to take the long-since worn out topic of his ex-wife Kim Mathers and make it entertaining once again on the track “Puke,” putting a tongue-in-cheek freestyle over a simple stomp and clap back beat.
As a pure MC, Encore finds Eminem in as good a shape as he’s ever been. His flows are still as infectious as they are ever-evolving, and his lyrics, despite the rehashed topics, are tighter and more creative than 99 percent of the hip-hop that is getting played on MTV and BET.
With the first signs of his loss of artistic ground popping up on Encore, Eminem may end up back in the position where he functions best – as the underdog with something to prove to the entire world. It would be smart to hold onto a fair amount of hope for Eminem’s fifth album to be the start of a fresh cycle of great albums, if only for the fact that, no matter whom you are, encores are always lame.
Ja Rule is back with his most anticipated album R.UL.E. His latest CD has appearances by artists like R. Kelly, Ashanti, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and Trick Daddy. The combination of R. Kelly and Ashanti on the track “Wonderful” makes this an unforgettable classic song, as R. Kelly and Ashanti make this song work.
Ja Rule had to do a song about the state he’s from. R.U.L.E. also features the song “New York” with Fat Joe and Jadakiss, which features lyrics like, “I got hundred guns, hundred clips I’m from New York, I got a semi automatic that spits next time if you talk.” The lyrics have pointless, violent talk that’s stereotypical feature of some hip-hop artists.
The CD is not all downhill as it features “Life Goes On.” On the track, Ja Rule and Trick Daddy send their heart out to those struggling in the ghetto. It is a touching song that acknowledges how tough life can be in certain neighborhoods. “Life Goes On” is a reminder of how you can miss the ones who are gone or locked away.
“Life Goes On” has a nice message, but unfortunately the song “Gun Talk” does not. The song talks about how you should grab a gun if someone tries to bully you. “Gun Talk” would have been better if Ja Rule rapped about why so many people shoot each other for no reason, but instead he condones it.
Another interesting track is “Get it started.” This is the perfect song to listen to when going out clubbing for the night. It’s all about having fun, meeting that special someone and getting hot and heavy with them. The problem with “Get It Started” is that people have heard the song before, since it’s reminiscent of songs like “Hot Tonight” and “Headsprung.”
This CD has a few standout tracks like “Wonderful” and “Life Goes On.” But the pointless violent talk in “New York” and “Gun Talk” make R.U.L.E. fall short. The pointless violent talk in these songs is a reminder of what rap & hip-hop should stay away from. R.U.L.E. was way over hyped and it’s only recommended for true Ja Rule fans.
John Legend may have been known as Kanye West’s right-hand piano man. Well, now everyone will get to know him as an artist with his mainstream record debut, Get Lifted, to be released in December. The former child prodigy and University of Pennsylvania graduate has provided the hooks and piano beats for Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Kanye West and Lauryn Hill for the Grammy award-winning The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Get Lifted features a mix of soul, gospel, classical, R&B and hip-hop music. Like Philadelphia’s diverse music scene, Get Lifted features a broad range of music that would satisfy anyone who wants to listen to something unique and different.
In the catchy and soulful “Alright,” Legend pours his emotions into the song about his feelings towards a woman who’s already in another relationship: “Hold up/ I know you got a man but I’m tore up/ And I don’t even care if he rolled up/ You better tell him he don’t want it with me/ It’s alright.”
The up-tempo radio-hit “Used to Love You” blends his signature piano playing with Kanye West’s old school hip-hop beats making the song very clever and addictive with the lyrics, “No, no it’s my fault because I can’t afford you/ maybe, baby…Puffy…Jay-Z would all be better for you/ cause all I could do is love you.”
During the late ’90s, Legend had spent some time in Philadelphia as a choir director for the Bethel A.M.E. church before he began working on this album. He uses influences from directing a choir to create some of the album’s tracks including “It Don’t Have to Change.” Hearing Legend play the piano with a choir’s acapella while singing about the changes in his life and his childhood could get anyone’s spirits lifted.
The classical sound of “Ordinary People” has Legend playing the piano in a classy and relaxing mood that would rival the smooth sounds of Norah Jones. On the track, he gets personal and emotional about a relationship that is going too fast. On the chorus he says, “Cause we’re ordinary people/ maybe we should take it slow/ take it slow…”
With a hit single and years of hard work, John Legend has already created the right formula for success that will keep him at the top of the hip-hop/soul industry for many years to come. Get Lifted changes the face of the hip-hop soul industry that takes a different approach from the typical one-dimensional aspect of a typical hip-hop soul record.
– Alan Gung
Exile in Oblivion
(Fat Wreck Chords)
Strung Out was one of the first bands on Nofx front man Fat Mike’s imprint Fat Wreck Chords. They, along with several others, were also one of the bands that weathered the storm of pop punk’s fleeting popularity in the mid ’90s. They survived the death of founding member/songwriter Jim Cherry. They watched Green Day’s Dookie come and go and neither gave it a go with a major label, nor faded away. They were always just there, consistently making high quality punk rock.
Not only was it good, it was rather unique. Guitarists Jake and Rob (the band takes the ultra punk-rock route of eschewing surnames) were obviously fans of older metal bands, and while this sometimes showed in their flashy playing, they managed to meld it nicely into a punk-rock framework. Drummer Jordan has been one of the more talented musicians in the genre for some time as well. He has always had the ability to consistently write interesting fills while still playing lightning quick. Last but not least, vocalist Jason’s voice, unusually solid for this type of music, always complemented the songs nicely.
Unfortunately, Exile in Oblivion is the second album in a severe backslide by this band. It’s sort of hard to explain what is so wrong with this record and their last release, American Paradox, but there is something wrong nonetheless.
The signature sound Strung Out created for themselves on their best release, Twisted by Design, is still there, it just seems to have become sort of toothless.
They have slowed down their tempo a considerable amount. Ordinarily, a slower tempo is not a big deal, but for a punk rock band, it can be deadly. Being at constant mid-tempo makes Exile in Oblivion a continually dull record that just sort of drags along, the same problem that plagued American Paradox.
There are also no hooks to draw the listener in. After several listens, the songs are still virtually indistinguishable from one another. Unfortunately, one of the major strengths of the earlier Strung Out records was their catchiness, which is almost completely lost here.
Also, the element of fun seems all but gone. The slower less distinguishable songs seem to be stemming from Strung Out’s desire to be some sort of dark metal band. Unfortunately, they worked best as a fun pop punk band with some metal influence. Letting this side of them dominate has caused their songwriting to go way downhill.
Perhaps the band will begin headed back in the other direction, but after this, their second album in this style, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.