Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones, Pt. 2”
On Tuesday, the rapper Prodigy died at the age of 42. A lot of rappers who released their best work in the ’90s trailed off in the ’00s, but Prodigy stayed prolific and rangy. In 2013, he released the head-turning Alchemist collaboration Albert Einstein, which contained one of his best, grouchiest, old-man-iest lines—“Nobody talkin’ to me, nobody takin’ pictures / You a fan? Name a song on my new album / And buy my shit, you dummy motherfucker”—and even in 2007, his Return Of The Mac was fresher than anyone expected, with Prodigy showcasing his evergreen ability to write about sitting around being depressed and doing drugs. He kept a fiercely opinionated all-caps blog, where he notably got Soulja Boy’s back in 2008 and claimed to be the first rapper with a website. I love Prodigy for all of this stuff, for his fiercely iconoclastic streak and the seemingly eternal perfection of his style. But in the end, I love Prodigy most of all for the way I first heard him, gliding in over an eerie pitch-shifted Herbie Hancock sample and some tornado sirens, icy and eloquent, dreaming of death and laughing at the fear in someone’s eyes when he threatens to stab them in the brain with their nose bone. “I’m only 19, but my mind is old,” he rapped, not weary or despairing, but with a glint of omniscience in his voice. He was almost halfway through his life and he’d already released his first masterpiece; he had a long way to go, a lot of art to make, shit to talk, drugs to do, bars to write, lives to live. Rest in peace, Prodigy, and thanks.
The Free Design, “Love You”
As we barrel into summer—immortalized by the great William Shakespeare as “the shittiest, sweatiest, grossest season that ever got its big, fat thighs stuck to a burning leather car seat”—I take my relief where I can get it. And while I hate many things about the months between June and September (the heat, the bugs, the bizarre insistence from otherwise rational people that it’s fun to eat outside, where the heat and the bugs can touch my food), I do admit to loving summer music. And no band says “the rare good bits of summer” to me better than sunshine poppers The Free Design. Formed in New York in 1967, the band lasted for five dreamy, weirdly childlike years before fading into obscurity. And yet, there’s no group that captures pure, wistful joy better: Listen to “I Found Love,” ”Kites Are Fun,” or especially “Love You” (which I first heard as the theme music for Jesse Thorn and Jordan Morris’ equally delightful podcast, Jordan, Jesse, Go!) without cracking a smile, the heat and the bugs and the rest of summer’s awful detritus be damned.
Harry Styles, “Sign Of The Times”
A few of my co-workers have been enthusiastic enough about Harry Styles’ self-titled solo album to compel me to check it out, and I am surprisingly grateful. His first record on his own finds Styles embracing vocal heights that bring my favorite, Rufus Wainwright, to mind, especially in the anguished “Sign Of The Times,” an epic and bleak love ode that builds on some plaintive piano plinks to a dramatically orchestral conclusion. The whole album is good—“Kiwi” has a buzzsaw guitar riff that shows Styles can rock with the best of them, and “Caroline” tosses in an unlikely Beck vibe. There’s something appropriately dystopian on “Sign Of The Times” that keeps me coming back to it. If we’re all going over that cliff, having Styles’ acrobatic and tortured vocals as a soundtrack would be a beautiful way to go.
Lorde, “The Louvre”
Before Lorde’s new album came out in full, the singer-songwriter from New Zealand had already released some noteworthy singles—including the infectious “Green Light.” In truth, Melodrama earns a front-to-back listen. Over the course of the 11 tracks, Lorde captures the highs and lows of romance—from all-consuming passion to the pit of regret that sits in the stomach when a relationship ends. If you’re looking for a new song to get hooked on, I recommend “The Louvre.” Why that title? Well, it’s a joke buried in the lyrics, and that’s just the first reason to get on board. Lorde is funny. She sings: “Our thing progresses, I call and you come through / Blow all my friendships to sit in hell with you / But we’re the greatest, they’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares, still the Louvre.” There’s irony in the melody, too. The chorus begins in sweeping fashion, but it gets tame when she speaks the repeated phrase in a tone antithetical to her lyrics’ content: “Broadcast the boom boom boom / And make ’em all dance to it.” A sense of dread hangs over “The Louvre,” the kind that comes when you know you’re too deeply becoming infatuated with someone.
John Surman and Howard Moody, “Dark Reeds”
Howard Moody I know next to nothing about; he’s some kind of organist. But John Surman is a sax player (mostly baritone) who’s been in the orbit of the cult jazz-and-beyond record label ECM since the late 1970s. Released in 2008, Rain On The Window is his album-length collaboration between the two musicians, recorded in the dead of winter in a solemn-looking Romanesque church in Oslo, Norway. Moody plays the church organ, Surman plays saxes and clarinet, and the walls fill in the rest. “Dark Reeds” is one of the standout tracks, striking a fine balance between Surman’s lyrical sax playing and Moody’s “post-minimalist Phantom Of The Opera” organwork. File this under albums that sound exactly like the sleeve—in this case, a bleary, dark black-and-white photo of what looks to be a forest reflected in water.