Few rap records managed to pierce the mainstream consciousness this year like Kendrick Lamar's major label debut. A follow-up to 2011's standout Section.80, the semi-conceptual good kid, m.A.A.d city balances smooth grooves and impressive instrumentation against Lamar's malleable flow and weighty lyrics. Very much an autobiographical piece, gkmc frames Kendrick's adolescence in the rough streets of Compton against the stark counter-pressures of hood conformity and parental aspiration.

 

Each track is exceptionally crafted, affording the skip button little to no utility. In classic concept album fashion, the album opens with a poignant voiceover to be revisited later on. A seamless bass transition drops us straight into opener “Sherane,” a dimly-lit party hip-grinder introducing teenage Kendrick's love interest. On “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick spits coolly over a treble-heavy two-chord guitar track. A heavily quotable chorus more than redeems the overt profanity, and a fully orchestrated string outro slams it home. Guest spots are used sparingly and effectively, ranging from K-dot's Black Hippy label-mate Jay Rock on “Money Trees” to ubiquitous Torontonian Drake on head-over-heels crush ballad “Poetic Justice,” over a rather well-utilized Janet Jackson sample. West Coast rap mainstays MC Eight and executive producer Dr. Dre hit hard respectively on “m.A.A.d city” and “Compton,” firmly entrenching the record in its roots.

 

Lamar's artistic inspirations evidently stray far from Compton, however, as sample-mining the relative obscurity of two Danish groups on “Bitch” and “The Art of Peer Pressure” will show. The latter ends with a particularly candid snapshot from Lamar's youth in which he was passed a blunt laced with PCP, which ultimately shaped his decision not to smoke.

 

By far the most ambitious track falls near the foot of the album. “Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst” is a sprawling 12-minute effort in two parts, bridged by an emotionally draining voiceover that ties together the album's narrative with themes of childhood innocence, loyalty, prostitution and tragedy.

 

Artistic ambition aside, the record isn't without effective single material. “Backseat Freestyle” depicts a brash and overconfident young Kendrick laying down classic braggadocio with abandon, while “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a stone-cold serious track depicting alcoholism may well find itself ironically tossed in amongst this year's party anthems. While Lamar himself has publicly dismissed the “classic” label, gkmc has cemented his heavyweight status in the rap world. In the words of the man himself, now everybody serenade the new fate of Kendrick Lamar.

By: Simon Marsello

Artist: Tragically Hip

Album: Fully Completely (1992)

 

It’s easy to overlook the Tragically Hip. Quintessential Canadiana since stepping onto the scene with 1989’s Up to Here, the Hip have sold out arenas and charmed city-dwellers and smalltown folk alike. Kingston-bred and fronted by Michael Stipe soundalike Gord Downie, their signature brand of mid-tempo riff-rock punctured with folk-tinged balladry has slotted them nicely into any outsider’s conception of the Canadian identity.

Remembered primarily for late-period classic rock staples like their breakout “New Orleans is Sinking” and meaningless beauty “Ahead by a Century,” the Hip formerly existed in my mind as an overrated bunch, relegated to fulfilling CRTC Can-con obligations and obstinately pushing out LPs well beyond their prime. I enjoyed the odd single here and there, but shelved them mentally alongside heaps of overrated ‘90s jock-rock. Boy, was I wrong. It took a summer of landscaping, rattling around in a beat-up Dodge Ram pickup between jobs for me to realize their worth. Every variant of rock station blasted their tunes: classic, hard, alt, new. Commercial success being far from the best determinant of musical value, I decided it was probably worth something and bit the bullet.

To start, I tracked down the records whose singles I was most familiar with, which appeared to be the Hip’s first three: Up to Here, 1991’s Road Apples (apparently a euphemism for iced-over horse manure, given the record label’s pass on the band-proposed Saskadelphia, which allegedly sounded “too Canadian”) and 1992’s Fully Completely. After two months and easily twenty listens apiece, each has found itself in my heavy rotation. Each has its gems and merits, but perhaps the most well-balanced is Fully Completely. Luring in listeners with airwave smashes like “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” and “Fifty-Mission Cap,” Fully Completely reveals a standard of songwriting depth and instrumental layering the surface-level fan may easily pass over, and exemplifies the paragon of an LP without a single wasted track. The existence of lead axeman Rob Baker creates two distinct guitar tracks per song, making the album rife with memorable riffs while creating a guitarist’s play-along dream.

The record is well paced, eschewing the typical front-end load in favour of spacing out key tracks. Near the record’s close, two tracks emerge as shining victors: the plaintive title track and the prairie ballad “Wheat Kings.” “Fully Completely” breathes new life into a played-out minor pentatonic bassline by laying it expertly underneath minor seventh chords, all the while leaving room for Baker’s overlaid soloing and Downie’s tortured vocals. “Wheat Kings” recounts the story of David Milgaard, a Saskatoon man wrongly convicted of murder, and the national spectacle that ensued. Capitalizing on the simplicity of a G-C-D progression and intermittent acoustic and slide soloing, “Wheat Kings” paints an expressive picture of prairie life as much as it explores Milgaard’s story. National clichés aside (the song name-drops both “prime ministers” and “the CBC”), “Wheat Kings” reins the band in from reckless bar chord abandon and kick-snare grooves and drops it down a level or two.

Fully Completely is far from the Hip’s only standout record, but it will transport you from the trunk of an FLQ car to the hundredth meridian to Cartier’s Quebec frontier with surprising fluidity, all the while maintaining one foot in the realm of modern rock.

 

Simon Marsello 


Simon Marsello

I remember the day fondly. It was in the evening of Dec. 14, and the geniuses at Facebook’s marketing division finally decided to serve me up a semi-relevant sidebar ad. For once, rather than hawking the flavour-of-the-month Farmville imitator or peddling underpriced washer-dryer combos, this usually irksome service was tempting me with something fresh and unparalleled.

It seemed that Facebook was reimbursing me in some small way for thousands of hours spent trolling our generation’s bottomless social piss pit. My day had finally arrived; the ad proclaimed that Tool was coming to Toronto.

If this sounds melodramatic, it should. Let me backtrack for the benefit of the unfortunately uninformed. Formed in Los Angeles in 1990, this musical assemblage is best thrown somewhere under the umbrella of “progressive metal,” edging aside the high-flyers of the grunge era and burying itself somewhere in the part of the brain reserved for loveable cult bands.

My introduction to Tool was only two years ago, when I purchased their 2006 release 10,000 Days on a whim, a blind shot at a new musical pathway. My previous knowledge of Tool was limited to the label of “that stoner band,” and I was blown away. 10,000 Days fused pounding percussion and hopping bass with enchanting vocals and spacey otherworldliness.

Being entirely sold, I acquired what remained of their discography and embarked on full-tilt fandom. Checking their website every month or so for new tour dates and being repeatedly disappointed, the Dec. 14 revelation via Facebook required at least a triple-take. After confirming the ad’s legitimacy and amassing the few weird friends of mine that actually liked Tool, the tickets were in the mail.

Flash-forward to the concert date. We hurtled towards our destination, gunning down the QEW in my friend’s Mazda and blasting Tool tunes in anticipation. Barring overpriced parking and hellish crowds, the pre-show excitement chill set in. The Tool show served as a beacon for every outlier in a 20-mile radius: the stoners, the junkies and the freaks. I was home.

Filing through the established turnstile-and-pat-down custom, we raced to our seats as the powerful crash cymbals of opener “Hooker with a Penis” resonated through the stadium. Setting aside our mediocre view of the stage from section 306, we took our place amidst the thrashing mob and followed suit.

As the band segued neatly into eight-minute epic “Jambi.” Lighters flicked in chorus and the ensuing weed smoke began to wind its way around the dome. Mid-set, Tool ripped through early-period favourite “Sober,” prompting my buddy’s obligatory, “Dude, is this fucking awesome or what?” And indeed, it was.

Jumping from album to album, Tool took us on a musical journey coupled with stunning backdrop visuals reminiscent of their award-winning album art. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan, pied piper of this unlikely personality cult, conducted his sinister orchestra from the back of the stage, gripping the mic with conviction as he bore his demons before the hungry masses. It was totally sweet.

When the cheers subsided, the lights came up and it finally became apparent that the boys of Tool would not be joining Toronto for a second encore, I trudged out of the stadium, feeling somewhat short-changed. My wish list of songs was nowhere near fulfilled.

But looking back, the energy delivered by the band was phenomenal. Each tune was nailed perfectly, and despite the relative lack of intimacy offered by the cavernous Air Canada Centre, the ticket was worth every penny.

Whether you like Tool or not, my feeling at that show is something to which even the casual music fan can relate; spending an evening with one of your favourite bands is always something to be cherished.

 

Simon Marsello

 

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Directed by: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Kal Penn, John Cho

Harold and Kumar should have quit while they were ahead.

The original Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, while not quite worthy of the “classic” stamp, was a downright hilarious tale of two stoner-buddies’ epic journey to mini-hamburger heaven, while Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the second installment, was markedly less inspired but still good for a few cheap laughs.

Unfortunately, our culture continues to demand third helpings of every marginal film franchise in existence, so movie-goers worldwide must endure mind-numbing drivel to the tune of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

The title says it all. Forcing the cultural hot button of the 3D-movie onto a B-comedy insults the innovation of the former and piles a layer of superfluous cheese on the latter. A new Harold & Kumar movie might have been a welcome addition to the fall film lineup, but prematurely jamming it into the Christmas-movie mould adds “unseasonal” to H&K 3’s heap of dubious accolades. Needless to say, my expectations entering the theatre weren’t too high, though the possibility of a pleasant surprise still lingered. No such luck.

The premise is simple: a few years after the events of the previous film, the movie finds Harold Lee a successful, married businessman, desperate for the approval of his father-in-law, and Kumar Patel still a shiftless idler whose marijuana consumption shows no signs of slowing down. A mysterious package reunites the separated duo, and when Kumar unwittingly torches Harold’s father-in-law’s perfect Christmas tree, the old friends are forced to work together to procure a new one, which, for notorious stoner-slackers Harold and Kumar, proves no easy task.

Laughs, which should abound along such plotlines, were few and far between. Lowlights include a small typecast role for Amir Blumenfeld, who is nearly impossible to separate from his character on CollegeHumor’s Jake and Amir, numerous shameless meta-references, an unnecessary claymation segment, and a short-lived tangent in which Santa Claus takes a shotgun bullet to the face.

As expected, the film’s saving grace was the Harold and Kumar universe’s fictionalized version of Neil Patrick Harris, who reprises his role from the first two films and delivers an outrageous Christmas-themed musical number as only NPH can.

If your inner adolescent tells you that the Harold & Kumar 3 box must be ticked off on your to-see list, treat its viewing as a shout-out to the Ghost of Comedy Past and nothing more, and you won’t be disappointed. Expect comedic gold, and you will. As NPH bows out of his refreshingly funny segment, he takes a hammer to the next wall in proclaiming, “See you in the fourth one!”

One can only hope the franchise cuts its losses before then, allowing its fans to remember a glorious time when sophomoric penis-and-boob jokes still made us laugh.

 

 

 

 

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