Free and legal MP3:Coincidence Bizarre (sleek, sonorous hip-hop)

A concise and atmospheric number from an anonymous Los Angelese-based ensemble.

Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” – Coincidence Bizarre

“Invisible Man” is a concise and atmospheric number from a group or ensemble or collective that calls itself Coincidence Bizarre. Outside of their location in Los Angeles, the folks behind this effort are keeping themselves purposefully hidden. Meaning, I can’t even paper over my congenital lack of hip-hop knowledge with information about the artist. With an upfront understanding that my musical affinities are rooted in melody and therefore my ears have always felt at sea in the hip-hop world, I find myself engaged by the sleek and sonorous “Invisible Man.”

Why? Not exactly sure. I like the gentle texture of its careful construction, the way there is always something of aural interest happening but without melodrama or turgidity. I like the wit on display. Even just the way it starts, with something resembling a jazz guitar noodle, gives me a good feeling. As a bonus, my ear notes not one but two hooks, one with lyrics (the “Skip along, Sam” part) and one instrumental (the little run on that same guitar, immediately following [e.g., 0:42]). And I do not at all underestimate the simple power of an appealing voice in this context. For better or worse (and it’s probably an age thing), the aural character of what strikes me as a typical rapper’s voice has been a longstanding turn-off for me. The sound to my ear is bratty and self-involved. (Just for context, I didn’t much like the bratty and self-involved vocal character of someone like Johnny Rotten either.) The rapper here, whoever he is, conveys depth and spirit, humanity and complexity. I want to listen to him, and he layers his voice within a cunning amalgam of samples, effects, and surprises. Don’t miss the eerie insertion of something choral-sounding in the mix (around 1:56) as the song trips along to its conclusion.

“Invisible Man” is the A side of a single released in mid-May. It is the only Coincidence Bizarre release to date.

Free and legal MP3: David Ramos (jagged, hip-hop-inflected allure)

It is not clear what Ramos is singing about specifically but the overall vibe is at once troubling and peppy, the sound of a man coming to grips with life’s vicissitudes, or trying to.

David Ramos

“Digital Memory” – David Ramos

With some very computer-like beeps and boops, “Digital Memory” lurches into a jagged, hip-hop-inflected verse, the syllables piling up at the end of each line, and each succeeding line adding more syllables to the pile-up. You rarely hear rapping and singing blended so effectively, as Ramos really does seem to be doing both at the same time. You also rarely hear this kind of rapid-fire outpouring of words so fully framed by the underlying music rather than merely grounded in the confluence of beat and rhyme. It’s cool in fact to hear how Ramos isn’t really rhyming that much here, which to me gives the rapping an unexpected allure. (A confession: my ear has never been attuned to the kinds of conspicuous rhyming hip-hop fans appear to treasure.)

The chorus—concise and mysterious—is sung, the rhythmic hiccup of the verse slightly smoothed out but still intact. It is not clear what Ramos is singing about specifically but the overall vibe is at once troubling and peppy, the sound of a man coming to grips with life’s vicissitudes, or trying to.

Ramos (first name pronounced the Spanish way: dah-VEED) is a drummer by trade; he was in fact named one of the top 10 progressive drummers by Modern Drummer magazine while still a student at Wesleyan University. He played for years in the loose-knit ensemble Anonymous Inc., along with his brother Ceschi. “Digital Memory” is from Ramos’s third solo album, Sento La Tua Mancanza (“I miss you”), which was written in the aftermath of the death of his grandmother, who had been a kind of parent to him (his father was an addict, and not there for him). Ramos had gone to Wesleyan largely because it was not too far from her, and upon graduating he started the label Fake Four right in New Haven, where she lived. With his grandmother’s health declining, Ramos moved in with her and did not leave the state for three years. She died in 2010.

Free and legal MP3: The Roots (terrific reworking of MOF tune)

The Roots

“Dear God 2.0” – the Roots

That’s Jim James (ok, Yim Yames) at the beginning and it’s the same “Dear God” as appeared on the Monsters of Folk album—that is, until the Roots’ Black Thought takes over. (I like, by the way, how long he waits. This is a confident band. And check out that great “Uh-huh” with which he starts his rap after James, both times.) I don’t think you have to be a big hip-hop fan (lord knows I have no expertise in the area) to sense the glory in this performance. The voice rumbles more with weariness than anger, or even pain; words tumble out but with great discipline; thoughts pile onto thoughts almost haphazardly but stark themes emerge; and—nimble trick, this—words that don’t really rhyme are made to sound better than if they did. (e.g. “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?/And why is living life such a fight to the finish?”) And everything floating on top of a jazz-informed soul groove, soft but persuasive, with some really sweet chord progressions, if you wait and listen for them.

And listen, I know the distance I tend to keep from hip-hop is a generational thing. I find it hard to warm to music without melody and (often) without a lot of actual instruments, and hard to warm to vocalists who seem to all want to sound the same, not to mention lyrical content that often seems so bleak and short-sighted. But never mind all that right now. This song’s the real deal, and so is this band.

“Dear God 2.0” is from the Roots’ new album How I Got Over, due out next week on Def Jam. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Free and legal MP3: Dan Black (transmogrified rap, with melody and heart)

“HYPNTZ” – Dan Black

I know next to nothing about rap and hip-hop; I listen to bits and pieces occasionally but I just don’t fathom what’s going on–music without melody rarely resonates with me; when compounded by cockeyed wordplay about personally distasteful things, I pretty much check out. So needless to say I had not known of the song “Hypnotize,” by the Notorious B.I.G., but it’s a rap landmark–a posthumous #1 hit for Biggie, himself an industry legend at this point. He was killed in a drive-by shooting 15 days before the album containing “Hypnotize” (Life After Death) was released. The album is often considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time.

“HYPNTZ” is a re-conception of Biggie’s “Hypnotize” by a Paris-based Londoner named Dan Black and it mesmerizes me. I have no business liking this–beyond its rap foundation, it steals a relatively bland beat from a top-40 song (Rhianna’s “Umbrella”) and blends in samples from the soundtrack to the movie Starman (quick shout-out to fellow Karen Allen fans). I routinely run the other way from mash-ups and remixes and all that slice-and-dice stuff. And yet to my ears this thing is some weird kind of brilliant. The simple melody Black creates for those harsh, bombastic lyrics, combined with the pathos of the soundtrack sounds and the stark, repetitive beat, generates poignancy and power. A harsh slice of street braggadoccio transmogrifies into a plaintive plea of some kind. Who’d’ve thought.

Not much is out there about Black at this point, but his people are working the PR channels, so he’s not some entirely unaffiliated knob-twiddler. The storyline from the press release–only semi-believable–is that he had not intended for anyone to hear this. He is busy, we are told, putting together an album of original material. Because so much of “HYPNTZ” is in fact original, however much constructed of existing parts, I’m inclined to think he’s got something worth hearing in the works.

(Note that “HYPNTZ” is no longer available, but Black subsequently reworked the song and released it as “Symphonies,” featuring a rapper named Kid Cudi. I liked “HYPNTZ” better but if you’re curious, “Symphonies” is available via Better Propaganda.)