Live From the Underground
6:00PM ET June 10th, 2012
Contributor: Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
"Mama say I'm letting life go by, as if I ain't grinding. As if I don't try."
The lead-up to Big K.R.I.T.'s debut album may not have reached feverish, Drake-like levels of anticipation, but the Mississippi-born rapper has become one of the most respected rhymers in the game--and quietly one of the South's most distinctive producers. Fans of classic southern hip hop fawned over K.R.I.T. for his distinctive blend of U.G.K.-isms and Organized Noize musicality. But K.R.I.T. is no mere throwback artist, he uses the past as a touchstone, but he has developed his own voice.
He's not a revivalist, he's a survivalist.
And K.R.I.T.'s debut Live From the Underground, fulfills much of the promise the young emcee revealed on mixtape after mixtape and via guest appearances with critically-acclaimed artists like The Roots.
This is the thinking man's trap music.
The evolution of a young man's psyche, as well as reverence for classic southern hip hop are recurring themes throughout the album. Eightball & MJG, UGK and Ludacris all make guest appearances. An from the rainy day sounds of "Hydroplaning" to the Dungeon Family-esque "Porchlight," K.R.I.T. isn't afraid to pick himself a part over a stirring string of tracks.
The piano-driven "If I Fall" is a standout, with Melanie Fiona providing vocal-assistant as KRIT raps about perseverance in a percussive flow reminiscent of early Ice Cube one second and 2Pac at his most thoughtful the next. "Praying Man" opens with an evocative snippet of a Southern Baptist Church congregation singing a traditional hymn, which bleeds into legendary bluesman B.B. King's world-weary vocals singing the hook. "They've taken what I had. I'm sure it wasn't much to them but it was all that I grab," raps KRIT, with King's distinctive licks permeating the track throughout.
"Rich Dad, Poor Dad" covers familiar hip hop territory; fatherhood and the struggles that come along with it. But K.R.I.T.'s perspective is one of gratitude for his own father's guidance and the acknowledgement of his own inadequacies. There hasn't been a rapper as unashamedly pensive as this in quite some time. K.R.I.T.'s in his own head a lot.
That could make for a frustrating listen--no one likes a narcissist, after all. But K.R.I.T. puts it all across with a humility and sincerity that never seems self-absorbed. If the album has a flaw, its that uptempo, brag-fests like "Yeah Dats Me" sound a little less-than-convincing when coming from a rapper as notoriously self-questioning as K.R.I.T.
But, for the most part, Big K.R.I.T. reveals himself to be a young man with an old soul--and a sick flow. There are lots of upstart rappers that have technique, but many of them don't have a sharp perspective. Live From the Underground may fall just short of instant-classic status, but there's no shame in that when music is this rich.
This guy is just getting started.
Reggae Singer Makes Music For the Spirit
7:00PM ET June 3rd, 2012
Contributor : Malcolm Strong
A Rocky Williform Company
Its easy to be cynical about a lot of today's music. When so many artists seem to know more about their sales numbers and Twitter followers than they do inspiration and sincerity, audiences and critics begin to dismiss what was once riveting art--in their eyes, it's become derivative product.
But in the case of reggae sensation Ginjah, earnest is never in question. The Jamaican singer is an incendiary vocalist who's music practically explodes with passion. And he says there's no other way he could create it.
"It's not difficult for me to express myself musically," he says. "Music is inside of me. The only difficult thing for me is getting the message out there. That's the most intricate part of this journey; to reach the masses of people. It is very difficult. [But] I kept on doing my thing and I'd never stop because I believe in the Most High Creator, its a joy doing what I love."
Joy and pain are free-flowing in life, and they are the life blood of Ginjah's music. A man of faith and commitment, he knew that music was to be his life's work at a very young age. "I started out at age five and that was when i found out I had this passion [for] music," Ginjah reveals. "But later on in life, when i was in high school, I realized this was what I really wanted to do--nothing else. I went to school, i tried to do my best, but i knew that it was music for me and nothing else."
Born in the parish of Hanover, Jamaica, Ginjah was inspired by the giants of reggae--and he even came under the tutelage of legendary singer Beres Hammond. Hammond invited the young vocalist to join his Hammond Harmony House label, and Ginjah opened for Hammond on tour. "He took me in and showed me the community," Ginjah says of his time with Hammond.
There were other major musical influences in Ginjah's life, as well. "Of course, the reggae king Bob Marley [was an influence]," he says. "Many more. I love music. Internationally, I love Sam Cooke and all of those great artists."
Those great artists helped influence Ginjah's passionate approach to music. "I sing with a tremendous amount of feeling," Ginjah adds. "I describe my music as feeling reggae music."
Ginjah is prepping his new album, Urge to Love for release. He says the project has been his most personal, introspective work to date. "That was the first time in my life that i expressed myself in that type of way," he says. "I'm singing about a lot of females and what I've been through. If it hurt my feelings, I'm singing about it. I thought I should just sing about it. Its a very wonderful album."
He's toured with his idols, he's one of the faces of burgeoning clothing brand M DYZN; but for all of his musical accomplishments and ongoing journey, the one event in his life that stands as his most amazing was a trip to The Continent.
"My proudest moment so far was when I went to Africa," he says. "It was like a dream come true. Really and truly. Apart from the music, one of my dreams was going to Africa. That came true. I know that dream can really come true. it was like a most beautiful thing. The joy of going to Africa was like when my son and my daughter were born. It just put me in that frame of mind. That's the best way to describe it. More than words can explain."
"I was born with this," he says. "It was from the Almighty. I didn't grab music, music grabbed me. Its in my DNA. An in-born concept. I got this gift from the Almighty. As I said before I realized that i had this talent from a very tender age. that's why I'm so passionate about the music."
His love of music is intrinsically intertwined with his love of God. And for Ginjah, there is no other reason for making music except to uplift the Creator and inspire the people.
"To maintain the message and the spirituality, first and foremost, that is what music is all about," he says. "Many people use it a different way. I want to go back to he Bible and keep it rooted and grounded. King David was a singer. He always sang songs and the songs he wrote are Psalms in the Bible. Generation to come can get inspired by your music. That's my concept of it."
Become friends with Ginjah at Facebook.com/ginjahmusic
Nigerian-Born Pop Star Is Fearless & Focused
7:00AM ET May 23rd, 2012
Contributor : Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
Nenna Yvonne is one of the most accomplished young indie artists in music today. The Nigerian-born pop star has garnered awards and acclaim for her songwriting, performed around the world and shared the stage with superstars like Drake; and her ambitions are only just being realized. Raised in New York and based in Los Angeles, Yvonne has had those ambitions for as long as she can remember. She was put in front of an audience and asked to perform as a precocious five-year-old--and she knew it was there that she belonged. "I had a music teacher that wanted to hear me sing something a capella in front of the student body," she remembers. "I was really nervous and trembling and I remember him asking me to breathe, calm down and just sing the lines on the projector. The rush and the anticipation of being in front of a crowd, it just took me by surprise how much I loved and enjoyed it. I think that was my first initial interest in being an artist."
Obviously, it wouldn't be the last time she wowed an audience. Yvonne's upbringing in New York City and Nigerian heritage both informed her approach to music as she became a teen. The multicultural environment of the Big Apple gave her a seemingly infinite palette of influences to draw from--and her parents' work ethic gave her the drive to put in the effort to get where she wanted. It was her drive that convinced her parents that their daughter's dreams of being a star weren't just the flighty musings of an overactive imagination. "Being born in a different country, it helps you see things from both perspectives," Nenna says. "[Having] those roots and traditional upbringing helped me discipline myself. It also gave me leverage in showing my parents that, even though [they] are diplomats and doctors and lawyers, that's not the only type of career choice that I could pursue as a young Nigerian girl. It really gave me the strength and determination to show them that regardless of your heritage and cultural background, anything that you feel passionate about you can find your voice in it."
Once she had her parent's attention, she had their support. "My mom helped me build my first recording studio when I was sixteen or seventeen!" Nenna shares, laughing at her youthful audacity. "I didn't know the first thing about putting together a studio, I pretty much turned my room into a recording studio--looking at different ways to collaborate with up-and-coming producers Trying to find my way in the industry by creating my own music and finding my voice."
"My dad saw some of the pressures that came with being in the music world, so I really had to find a way to balance my efforts with handling both seamlessly," she adds. "I think that's where his appreciation for me and what I was trying to do came from. I was constantly recording, constantly creating new music. I went to a performing arts high school and I would always get feedback from him and what he thought. He really started taking interest in what I was doing with my music. I definitely had both of them encouraging me."
At the ripe old age of 22, Yvonne's list of successes is significant--and growing. Her 2011 single "Go Around," helped generate Web buzz and turned her into one of indie music's most promising names. She won the USA Songwriting Competition and won the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame Abe Oleman Scholarship. Her music has been featured on "The Mentalist" and she has a strong Web presence, with 200,000 Facebook fans, 300,000 Twitter followers, 300,000 Reverbnation fans and 55,000 songplays on Soundcloud. "That was all stuff that i put in effort to make happen for my career on an indie level," she says, before adding what could best be called an understatement: "I was successful at it."
She performed her single "Kuru Kuru 360" in Tokyo, Japan--adding to that list of accomplishments. "That was a huge deal for me," shares Nenna. "As an indie artist its not every day that an indie artist can perform at the same venue that Lady Gaga performed in. It was a huge blessing for me to have that chance."
Has Nenna Yvonne had endure her fair share of naysayers and doubters? Of course. But the singer's idols include fearless entertainers like Janet Jackson, Grace Jones and Cyndi Lauper. She admires strong women in Hollywood like Jada Pinkett-Smith, Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry; she's not going to let a little negativity keep her from achieving what she's dreamed for her entire life.
"You'll find that with moving along and trying to progress within the music industry, a lot of people will tell you 'no' and a lot of people will stop your drive," she says. "They'll try to hinder your commitment because they haven't gotten through their situations.
"I guess the biggest lesson I've learned so far is to really stick to who you are as an artist and don't let other people's negativity steer you away from what you're trying to accomplish."
"I'm definitely driven," she continues. "I'm definitely a trend-setter. I love taking risks. I think outside-the-box a lot. I'm also the creative director for most of my photo shoots, I'm the one that arranges most of the stuff that I put out there. I'm really the creative force behind it. I'm proud of my work and I take it seriously. This is something that I was born to do. I couldn't see myself doing anything else."
Follow Nenna Yvonne on Twitter at twitter.com/nennayvonne
Check her out at nennayvonne.com
20-Year Old From North Carolina Finds His Voice
3:00PM ET May 9th, 2012
Contributor : John West
A Rocky Williform Company
You hear rappers say all the time that they were 'born to do this,' but very few can make close to a literal claim to that cliche. Hip hop upstart Driicky Graham can say that he made his first appearance in a hip hop video when he was barely walking. He had a cameo as a toddler in a video for Lords of the Underground. "At age three," Graham shares. "If you watch the "Tic Toc" video, I was the baby [on-screen] while Tariq was rapping. I was the little baby with four silver caps in his mouth. That was me."
That rather unique introduction to the world of beats and rhymes was just a preamble for Driicky. The rhymer was a teenager living in North Carolina when he realized that hip hop was something he could use as an avenue of expression. "I waited until around the age of 14," he says of his initial forays into writing rhymes. "That's when I first started writing--[about] family life, my friends, peer pressure, different issues out on the streets. All that stuff."
Once his mother challenged him to figure out what he wanted to do post-high school, Driicky decided once and for all that he was going to pursue a music career full-time. "I took it upon myself," he says. "I came to Jersey, and my father's side of the family [were] kind of connected and they knew people. I was like 'I can really do this.' That's when I felt like 'OK we're about to go in real hard for this.'"
And Driicky went in hard. He's caught a significant amount of buzz from his heartfelt response track to Don Trip's "Letter To My Son." Written from the perspective of the son instead of the father, Driicky poured his heart and soul into the lyrics. "That's more of a personal, heartfelt record that I think everybody can relate to," Driicky explains. His "Snapbacks & Tattoos" has also joined the ranks of Generation Y hip hop anthems and was born out of an experience that virtually everyone can relate to.
"I'm sitting and I'm getting my first tattoo," he recalls. "I was excited about it. Being young, you get excited about the first time you do anything. [And when] snapbacks came out and I went snapbacks crazy. I wanted an anthem-type of track. I'm on a plane leaving charlotte, headed to Jersey and the hook just came ot me. I hooked up with Yung Berg and he produced the beat and so I sat and I waited for at least six months and I heard the beat and was like 'This is crazy.' I don't know what made it click. But all of a sudden the lyrics came out smooth and it manifested itself."
Creativity comes naturally to Graham, but he admits that he's had to learn how to navigate the business side of the hip hop industry.
"Its just that…in this game, we all know there's a business side and there's a musical side," he explains. "I do love the musical side--the business side is just okay. There comes a time when you have your fun, but you have to really get on your job. Its a lot of things that come with it. There are a lot of ups and downs. Certain things aren't going to always go your way. I feel like I still made it and I passed a certain point. It ended up working itself out. I just know that through different experiences, its made me stronger as far as how to deal with both sides."
Driicky's "You Gotta Start Somewhere" mixtape is almost street-ready and the ambitious rapper is just getting started. He expects his debut album to be released in late 2012 or early 2013 and has no limits on how far he can go. "I really work hard on my craft," he says. "I really want Artist of the Year. [laughs] I just wanna be looked upon as a serious artist that's here to stay."
Follow Driicky Graham on Twitter at twitter.com/driickygraham
Check him out at YouTube.com/top40ent
Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
6:00PM ET April 4th, 2012
Contributor: Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
Nicki Minaj has gone from Internet sensation to global pop star in a little more than two years. In that time, her image has transitioned from hypersexed battle rhymer to cartoonish button-pusher, with many of her critics deriding her stylistic schizophrenia and controversial performances as tell-tale signs of an artist more concerned with gimmickry than artistry.
On her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Minaj doesn't exactly shatter that perception.
The album, divided glaringly between a hip hop-centric first half and a more dance-pop themed second half, showcases all that her fans love about Young Money's First Lady--and everything that her critics despise. On the positive side, her rhymes are as nimble and oddly quotable as ever--and when she's on, she's one of the more clever and inventive rhymers in mainstream hip hop today.
But when she's off?
Well...we'll get to that part later.
The Afrika Bambaataa-referencing "Roman Holiday," despite its famously-loathed Grammy performance, is an entertaining oddity that reintroduces Minaj's male alter-ego Roman Zolanski. Not that the character is as central to the album as the title suggests--'Roman' is barely a focus throughout the remainder of the album.
The bass-heavy "Beez In the Trap" is a banger and benefits from an appropriately loopy 2 Chainz appearance; and the frenetic "Come On A Cone" features Nicki at her most boastful and off-the-wall, rapping lines like "Put the b*tches on lockout, where the f**k is ya roster?" and "Put me on ya song/But ya know it'll cost six figures long." It's easily the best thing on the album. "I Am Your Leader" re-treads similar territory as "…Cone" and suffers by comparison, with spirited-but-unremarkable guest turns by Cam'ron and Rick Ross.
The Lil Wayne-featured "Roman Reloaded" is fairly standard Young Money, seemingly echoing Weezy's own "A Milli" but without an ounce of that tracks infectiousness. Nicki attempts to remind everyone that she began as around-the-way-girl and gives shout-outs to the the Violas, Sherikas, Lauryns and Ieshas on the triumphant "Champion," one of the album's strongest, if somewhat formulaic, tracks.
The second half of the album sags considerably under the weight of Nicki's half-baked pop vocal aspirations. "Sex In the Lounge" is almost amazingly uninspired. A song about sex shouldn't be this unsexy and features far too much Bobby V. in what can best be described as a phoned-in performance.
Sadly, things go downhill from there. As hip hop's most high-profile female emcee decides to shoot for Katy Perry-ish Top 40 pop and Gaga-influenced dance grooves.
And she falls decidedly short of even attaining either of those fairly-modest ambitions.
Minaj is at her best as a fire-breathing bizarro wordsmith with idiosyncratic voices and references; so the generic material she's chosen to display her vocal 'abilities' comes as something of a disappointment.
"Starships" is sub-LMFAO dance pop, with its banal hook ("Starships were meant to fly…") and run-of-the-mill production. "Pound the Alarm" and "Whip It" both feature more of the same: bubbly Eurodance with generic hooks and none of the charisma or wit that Nicki displayed on the album's hip hop-focused first half.
The album closer, "Marilyn Monroe," is Minaj's heavily-AutoTuned attempt to ape the Clarkstons and Ke$has of the world, and is robbed of any emotional resonance by Minaj's cybernetic vocals and a cluttered production.
Nicki Minaj is one of the more polarizing superstars in music today, and Roman Reloaded is likely to be a polarizing album. Minaj should be applauded for her willingness to take risks, but the musical detours on …Reloaded feel so forced and phoned-in that its not a stretch to believe that not even Nicki believes in them. It's telling that the dance pop songs are herded to the album's second half, and she never sounds comfortable aping Madonna.
Its a shame, because if Nicki truly believed in her sound as much as she claims, she could've made quite a compelling album. Instead, Roman Reloaded stands as a half-baked miss that showcases an artist in the midst of an as-of-yet unrealized transition.
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