A few weeks back I decided to take the Pepsi challenge and review two albums that were outside of my normal listening scope. I did this to put myself in the shoes of a music critic and to see what writing reviews was really like. For more details on that, please read the last blog I posted titled “Red Rocks, Double Tender, and Album Reviews”.
Review of Lil Wayne “I Am Not A Human Being”
1.Gonerrhea (feat Drake)
2.Hold Up (feat T Streets)
3.With You (feat Drake)
4.I am Not a Human Being
5.I’m Single (feat Drake)
6.What’s Wrong With Them (feat Nicki Minaj)
7.Right Above It (feat Drake)
8.Popular (feat Lil’ Twist)
9.That Ain’t Me (feat Jay Sean)
How do you record and release an album from jail? Since the days of Tupac, rap artists have constantly bent the realm of reality and defied their audience by releasing new albums well after they are dead, or in Lil’ Wayne’s case, releasing an album while in jail. Obviously, he had to either have recorded it before he was incarcerated or he got some form of legal permission to leave the prison to record. Either way it adds up to great hype and continues the magical legacy of rappers’ mysterious ability to release albums while either dead or in jail.
Lil Wayne’s recent album “I Am Not A Human Being”, which was released on his birthday, originally debuted at number two on the Billboard. After two weeks of sales, it had jumped to number one. The new album was released in a somewhat untraditional manner as it was first released only in digital form and subsequently released in physical copy two weeks later.
“I Am Not A Human Being” has numerous guest artists including T Streets, Nicki Minja, Lil’ Twist, Jay Sean, and multiple tracks that include Drake. Over the last two to three years Lil’ Wayne has established himself as a “Top Game Big Money Rapper”. I’d say he’s pretty outside the box when it comes to both fashion and music. He dresses more like a tight black pants wearing hipster rocker, than a rapper. His rap music has more references to rock than most others on the market. But does skater fashion sense and rock guitar riffs on top of hip hop beats make you a musical genius? It has been stated that he doesn’t write any of his lyrics down on paper. He compiles the lyrics in his head and then just lets them flow through the microphone in the studio. He has also been quoted as being highly influenced by Rock music and has shown interest in being a musician in addition to being a rapper. Lil’ Wayne performed on the MTV music awards while playing/holding a guitar throughout his performance.
The lyrical output on this album was stereotypical in my opinion. The main themes repeated were money, sex, derogatory references to women, competitive aggression against any adversary in any arena, and STD’s. The album opens up with a track called “Gonerrhea” (feat Drake). Shocking title for the first song. I can’t say that any track on the album stuck with me or struck me as a hit song. Nor can I say that I connected to any of the lyrical messages in the album. Lil’ Wayne is known as being a contender for the title of “best rapper alive”. The only two tracks on the album that I can say that I gave a head nod of approval to while listening, were “With You” and “I’m Single”.
These 2 songs reminded me of early Outkast slow jam style beats, and Lil’ Wayne proves that he can sing. His singing voice sounds great and he has cool memorable tone while rapping. The rock-oriented tracks on the album lacked the thing that makes rock “Rock”. The riffs weren’t catchy and the groove didn’t take it to the house. It seemed to be more industrial sounding than rock…although I suppose no one said he was trying to do just rock anyway. I like some industrial music. Industrial music that really rocks has elements of Jimmy Page style guitar riffs. These guitar riffs are the corner stone of all rock n’ roll influenced music. They are catchy riffs that you could sing in your head. This is one of the reasons why I think Nine Inch Nails were, by far, the most popular industrial style band and yet still had street credit for not sounding like bubble gum, sissy heavy music. NIN had hooks lyrically and had great guitar riffs.
Overall, I think Lil’ Wayne is a badass. He is probably one of the hardest working people in the business. He’s been in the game since he was an early teenager. He constantly puts out music that people buy and he isn’t scared to change up his style and be outside the norm, whether it’s fashion or music. I think that this album is worth buying if you’ve got the extra money. Will you listen to it over and over and put it on your “top ten island list”? Hmmm. That will have to be your call. I think he has more to come and I think that he has a masterpiece that is yet to be revealed. He could make a statement about personal growth and life besides the stereotypical “Game” related issues of money, women, and power, that could be something of epic proportion. But first he has to get out of jail… Or does he?!?!
I found it difficult to write about something that I didn’t relate to or connect with, without being negative. I can now totally see how writers might get their clubs out and completely bash a record just because they didn’t connect with the artist, style of music, or the message being represented. I tried to identify what it was that I didn’t connect with, and describe how if it were changed in a certain way, I then might be able to identify with it.
The thing about the music industry is that you never know what is really going on behind the scenes. To illustrate this point, let’s look at one example of what COULD have happened: Lil’ Wayne gets thrown in jail. His management and record label realize that his last album was released so long ago that by the time he gets out of jail after a year sentence, his ride on the wave of fame will have dwindled. So, they take some of the tracks that he has already recorded, throw them together and decide to release it while he’s still in prison to cause hype. They figure, when he’s released from prison, he’s still on top. He is released, then makes a couple TV appearances discussing his last year in jail. Everyone tunes in to watch, 6 months later another new album is released, and boom…he’s even bigger than before. If they hadn’t released the album while he was in jail, he might have been just enough out of the public’s eye, for no one to care what’s up. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have a huge following and wouldn’t be fine just doing a remix of a New Kids On The Block album… Either way, he’s young, he’s loaded, and people buy his albums. This is just one example of the many possible scenarios.
On a side note, even though the message of the album was somewhat derogatory for my taste, I was pleased to learn that Lil’ Wayne has spent time and money on creating a nonprofit called One Family Foundation. “The mission of One Family Foundation, Inc. is to empower urban youth by engaging them in opportunities to cultivate their talents and skills, educating them to become productive and economically self-sufficient, and motivating them to dream beyond their circumstances.
Review of Jamey Johnson “The Guitar Song”
1. Lonely At The Top
2. Cover Your Eyes
3. Poor Man Blues
4. Set ‘Em Up Joe
5. Playing The Part
6. Baby Don’t Cry
7. Heaven Bound
8. Can’t Cash My Checks
9. That’s How I Don’t Love You
11. Mental Revenge
12. Even The Skies Are Blue
1. By The Seat Of Your Pants
2. California Riots
3. Dog In The Yard
4. The Guitar Song
5. That’s Why I Write Songs
7. Thankful For The Rain
8. Good Morning Sunrise
9. Front Porch Swing Afternoon
10. I Remember You
11. Good Times Ain’t What They Used To Be
12. For The Good Times
13. My Way To You
Hard times, whiskey, country boy lullabys, and a once in a lifetime musical career… That might be Jamey Johnson. Or he might be a deeper well of expression than what would be considered your average country musician. If I can say anything about Jamey Johnson it is simply that he is one hell of a songwriter and he proves it in his newest double album “The Guitar Song”. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard country charts and number four on Billboards top 200.
You can’t mention Jamey Johnson without mentioning Waylon Jennings. But you also can’t mention Stevie Ray Vaughan without mentioning Jimi Hendrix and the list goes on and on, of musicians who pick up the torch where their idols and influences left off. It’s hard for me to picture Jamey’s voice of sweet sorrow coming from such a stern biker appearance. If you look at pictures of his younger days you might say somewhere along the line he said “screw it”. In my opinion, that’s what draws his listeners in. He’s telling it like it is and it ain’t a cookie cutter, let’s get happy, Nashville attitude. That sentiment is reflected throughout the album.
I get the idea that he has had a hard time adjusting to the fame and fortune. Whether you want it or not though, that comes along with being a successful musician. There is a false reality that comes along with success. Who you are, changes, without you doing a damn thing, and that doesn’t exactly go along with the small town, lower Alabama country boy that he was raised as. But whether he likes it or not, he’s big time and this album expresses his woes with the subject. Check out tracks “Lonely At The Top”, “Playing The Part”, and “Can’t Cash My Checks” and see if you get the same feeling.
Cowboy Eddy Long, the pedal steel player, is what sticks out in my mind when I listen to this album. That man is a force to be reckoned with. He plays tasty country licks reminiscent of classic country like the earlier mentioned idol Waylon Jennings. He also takes the instrument and Jamey’s songs, to a whole new level. I have been quoted as saying that there are two instruments that you have to be crazy to play. Those are the pedal steel and the trombone. If that is true, then this man is a bonafide lunatic…and I mean that in the kindest of terms. Jamey’s voice sounds great, the songs ring true and the musicianship from the entire band is outstanding. Eddy Long puts on a workshop of how to play, like a tasty musician with chops on the pedal steel guitar. I was very surprised at how some of the songs depart from a country-oriented sound and almost reach somewhat of a jazz influence via some of the piano and pedal steel work. Check out the track
“By The Seat Of Your Pants” which has an extended jam that gets into a little bit of a Joe Zawinul “Mercy Mercy” groove. Also check out “California Riots”, which sounds like Jim “Moose” Brown on piano. In “California Riots” the band takes a ride, and the piano lines are similar to what you might hear on a Brad Mehldau solo. I find it extremely refreshing that this album lets players play. Country music and Nashville are known for exceptional musicians, yet you rarely hear them really stretch out and play. I also find it refreshing that some of the songs end in a trash can train wreck, where you hear either Jamey or the other guys in the studio laughing at how they just went there, and the music got way out of hand.
Overall I think this was a big album for Jamey and the boys in the band. It showed musical prowess and great craftsmanship of song. This album got Jamey further outside the box that he is already outside of. Not only did they step out, but they stepped out flinging middle fingers. In my opinion if you’re going to get outside the box, don’t just ‘kind of’ go there. I think that’s why people enjoy Jamey Johnson. He tells it like it is.
He broke the mold on the cookie cutter operation and he did it like it he likes it.
Looking back over reviewing these two albums…
I found this album to be a lot easier to review than Lil’ Wayne’s. The reason it was easier was simply because I can relate to this style of music. The music is based in traditional song oriented American music. In contrast, Lil’ Wayne’s album was beats and loops and not a lot of reference to song. It was more just a flow of lyrics that ended in a repetitive hook over a repetitive beat.
I can relate to Jamey’s songs that reference his discomfort with fame and fortune. My life forever changed once we won the Grammy for best new artist. I was Coy Bowles, small town boy with a love for life and music. Without doing anything to change, people started calling me “rockstar”. It rattled me for six months. I never wanted to be famous, I just wanted to be respected. You can’t always get what you want and sometimes with the good comes the bad. I was faced with a few different options once my life changed. I could either bask in the new found “rockstar” image, living it up and ultimately become an ego centered musician, I could run for the hills and hide from the world, or I could accept that this is a part of the package and find a way to make good.
I decided that if people want to give me the power of being a so called “rockstar” and elevate me to some form of higher status, then I was going to use that to help others. That’s when I decided to give back to my hometown community and I started my charity “Coy Cares” to support the Gilmore Center, a center for mentally and physically disabled people. The center strives to give people the skills to live a better life and gets them involved in the work force of the community. I also began visiting the schools in my hometown to talk with the youth and inspire them to follow their passion and strive for a better life through hard work, education, and living within their means, until they obtain their goals.
This is not about me though… This is about reviewing albums once I was affected by reading album reviews of the Zac Brown Band’s latest release “You Get What You Give”. In a lot of the reviews I read, I wondered if the critics had even listened to the album. It seemed that their critiques were extremely opinionated and unnecessarily negative. So I wanted to take the so-called, Pepsi challenge and see what it was like to review two albums that were outside my musical listening pallet. You might say. “Well what about the Jamey Johnson album? You are in a country band and he’s a country musician!? He’s not outside your pallet!?” You might not know this, but I haven’t listened to country music at all really.
I grew up listening to southern rock and classic rock and later got into blues, jazz and r&b. I’ve listened to my buddy’s classic country albums while sitting in a field drinking beer and I’ve listened to rap and hip hop while being in dance clubs and hanging out with friends. Either way rap or country isn’t a part of my normal music taste. That’s not to say that I don’t own rap or country albums. I really dig OutKast and I really dig Brad Paisley. I dig them for specific reasons though. I like OutKast because I consider them to be really creative and I think they reflect a lot of different styles in their music, which would be considered rap or hip hop. I like Brad Paisley because I think he’s a bitchin’ guitar player.
I found that writing the reviews was a challenge for me as a writer. I don’t think that having an opinion about anything creative ultimately fits with the real purpose of creativity. I like to enjoy creativity and take with it what I may. But having a strong opinion about it especially if it’s negative is a drag. I don’t think it’s easy to judge something that you are not connected with. If I connect with something I can easily tell you why I’m connected with it after some thought. But trying to explain why I’m not connected with something goes against my natural respect for creativity in general. This philosophy is somewhat similar to “if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all”. But, “happy go lucky, I love everything” doesn’t sell magazines or draw readers to websites. People get paid to write articles that draw attention, especially in the economical times we are in now, and especially in the state of “extreme gossip and who’s sleeping with who” that the American media has so sadly become. In conclusion I think that both Jamey Johnson and Lil’ Wayne are fulfilling an important role in American music. They are both expressing themselves and they are doing it in a way that is outside the box of normalcy. In the end that is all that matters and whether I like it or not doesn’t matter to anyone but me. Can I get an Amen?!!!