Album of the Week: Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place (2011)

“I feel big, you know what I mean? Like, not big in the sense of weight, like, gaining weight or nothin’ like that. Like colossal.”

***

I guess I can believe it’s been 10 years, especially because the last one has felt so long. Still, Julianna Barwick’s debut feels big, which is all the more impressive considering how little equipment went into its recording. Here, it’s just her multi-tracked vocals and one or two instruments added in.

With hardly any discernible lyrics and a consistent, tried-and-true approach, Barwick’s music can be difficult to write about. Wyndham Wallace of The Quietus admitted as much, writing that “Critics have fallen over themselves to conjure up grand metaphors that encapsulate the experience” of her music. There have been comparisons to Enya, Eno, Cocteau Twins, and any other classic music so often described as “ethereal”. But really, it’s not that deep. Barwick described herself as “a pretty happy, easy-going person who is really excited about life.”

By her own account, Barwick always loved to sing. And so, by simply improvising vocal lines and layering the .wav files in GarageBand, she made her breakthrough album. There’s a good video from the Magic Place era that shows her doing it:

It’s not hard to reason why Barwick has named her albums The Magic Place, Nepenthe (“that which chases away sorrow”), or Healing Is a Miracle. There is peace in her music. “White Flag” was always my favorite, and it’s kind of hard to describe without sounding corny (like the gates of heaven opening?) I will say that early 2011 was not a particularly great time in my life and this was music like I’d never heard before, simultaneously calming and exhilarating. Back then, Asthmatic Kitty wrote that “Bob in Your Gait” “sounds the way humans should treat one another.” In a much more recent interview, Julianna said, “I’ve heard from a lot of people that The Magic Place in particular has gotten a lot of people through some dark times in their life, so I’m really glad for that. That makes me feel really good…” You can add me to that list!

I like everything she’s done, and the extended versions of Healing Is a Miracle from last year really blew me away. But it’s hard for me to find any faults in The Magic Place. Even its sequencing is flawless. “Envelop” starts the record off by doing just that, drawing the listener in. “Flown” is a perfect conclusion, like lying down in bed at the end of a gratifying day. I’ve been a fan since this release and Julianna Barwick’s music is a treasure. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to see her perform live.

Check out The Magic Place on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Yelawolf’s Trunk Muzik: 0-60 (2010)

Say what you will about Yelawolf, and since it’s 2021 you’re probably not saying anything. But back in 2011, Yelawolf was in the same XXL Freshman class as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, YG and Mac Miller, and showed at least some of the same commercial, if not artistic, potential. The “Freshman” Yela was already in his 30s, having independently released his first album CreekWater in 2005. CreekWater wears the influence of ATLiens (1996) on its sleeve, which as hip-hop touchstones go is a pretty good one to use as a springboard, even for a white boy from Alabama. Listening to it today, it’s clear that from the early days of his career Yela could both rap and carry a hook well (see “Breathe”). In this early stage he wasn’t showing much Eminem influence (besides being a white rapper), but that connection would come to full fruition by the end of 2011, when he was signed to Universal’s Shady imprint by Em himself.

Even on 2010’s Trunk Muzik the comparison is hard to avoid, since Yela presents himself as a sort of Southern Slim Shady, spitting fast and hailing from the trailer parks of Gadsden, Alabama rather than the trailer parks of Detroit. But Eminem himself is nowhere to be found. I think, then, that this was a sweet spot in Yela’s career where he could operate as a still-gritty, rural counterpoint to Em without being overshadowed by the influence of the superstar, who was far past his prime even ten years ago.

I remember seeing the video for “Pop the Trunk” on MTV back in the day, and its slightly cartoonish, eerily vivid atmosphere is still an effective representation of what Yelawolf is about (“This ain’t a figment of my imagination, buddy / This is where I live”). But my real introduction to Trunk Muzik was “I Just Wanna Party”, which I discovered deep into my Gucci Mane phase of 2012-2013. The hook is absurd (I love it), but Gucci kills the shit, declaring himself a partying rockstar in the company of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Paul McCartney in a rapid-fire verse. Fans of Big Boi’s 2010 solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot should recall that both Yelawolf and Gucci had great features on that album. Indeed, Big Boi himself appears in the “I Just Wanna Party” video. Rittz kills it on “Box Chevy”, another cool ode to cars that finds him rapping fast over a laid-back beat, bringing Houston’s Z-Ro to mind. “Love Is Not Enough” spins Rick James’ “Hollywood” (also sampled on Three 6 Mafia’s “Da Summa”) into a pained tale of high-school love.

This era of late 2000s-early 2010s rap music is special to me because it reflects my early teenage years. Trunk Muzik 0-60 is not one of the best rap albums of this era. “Get the Fuck Up!”, “Billy Crystal” and “Marijuana” are all pretty bad songs. Yelawolf is now 41 and it’s doubtful that he will ever regain anything close to the traction he had a decade ago. But I think this music is worth revisiting. After all, a rapper giving props to Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Beanie Siegel and Pastor Troy on the same album doesn’t happen that often. Yelawolf is the real deal.

Listen to Trunk Muzik: 0-60 on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Erika de Casier’s Essentials (2019)

Copenhagen’s Erika de Casier just announced her next song “Drama” with an eye-popping Instagram post, so to celebrate I decided to revisit her debut album Essentials, which blew my mind upon first listen nearly two years ago and sounds amazing today, too. Now signed to one of my favorite labels, 4AD, I can’t wait to here what she has in store for her follow-up. Below is a slightly edited version of my Essentials review, which I wrote in 2019:

I love Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Craig David, Usher, Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, and so on.

Erika de Casier wears her influences on her sleeve, as Essentials makes quite clear. But this isn’t some trendy gimmick. As the above quote (from an interview with i-D) demonstrates, the 90’s nostalgia comes from the heart. And with the help of mysterious Danish production team El Trick (aka Central) and DJ Sports*, de Casier’s debut is as much an enjoyable blast of nostalgia as it is a refreshingly new pop album.

The hits come early and just keep on hitting. After the lush pull of “The Flow”, the g-funk bounce of “Do My Thing” delivers her M.O. in its earworm chorus (bonus points for the brilliant no-budget video). It’s hard to pick stand-outs from the rest of the bunch because the sound is so fully-formed and consistent, but its worth mentioning the three-song arc of “What U Wanna Do?”, “Rainy”, and “Space”, tracks which in their moodiness work as effective contrasts to the sunshine of the album’s first half.

Erika de Casier’s vocal presence is warm and light, allowing her to float perfectly in the mix of the airy production. Lyrically, this is pretty standard pop fare that could have been written for most any Destiny’s Child song 20 years ago, but there is a repeated theme of de Casier urging her lover/listener to put their phone down and enjoy life (“Good Time”, “Intimate”), which I can totally get behind. Multiple listens reveal a handful of funny quirks and adlibs which are hard not to love. There are no features and other than “Photo of You”, which I think samples “Summer Madness”, there are no discernible samples.

I did a double-take on first listen here and it’s fair that you might too. But as she says on “Story of My Life”, Not tryna hide nothin’ / yeah I’m just comin’ real wit it. A superb debut that holds up well.

Listen to Essentials on Spotify.

*For more on these two, check out this p4k sampler and their distribution website.

Album of the Week: Lil B’s Gold House (2011)

“Gold house n****, only n**** with a house” – “Tiny Pants Bitch”

Lil B went on his most prolific run from 2010-2013 (2013 being the first year since 2009 that he released less than 5 mixtapes), and a decade later I’m inclined to agree with Tinymixtapes that 2012’s White Flame best exemplifies what is most incredible about this output. Admittedly, I’ve probably heard less than half of his 60+ full-length (or longer) projects, but recently I’ve enjoyed immersing myself in the mystifying ocean that is the Lil B discography. It helps that it’s all streaming. Whomst amongst us remembers downloading Basedgod tapes from Datpiff, often loaded with dozens of songs, only to find our laptops running low on space? Thankfully, the massive Lil B catalog came to streaming platforms in 2019, and now sampling any tape is as easy as a click.

Gold House (alternatively Goldhouse) was released on Christmas 2011, about a month before the aforementioned White Flame. What I love about this era of Lil B is the energy and off-the-wall performance, and I think a lot of this has to do with the production here. After White Flame came God’s Father, which has its own fanbase (it’s currently Lil B’s highest-rated project on RateYourMusic at an average of 3.77/5 from over 2500 ratings). However, God’s Father contains spacier, cloudier production. Over atmospheric production, Lil B is often more likely to loosen his flow and rap in a lethargic drawl, and this is where I feel he falters most as an artist.

This cloud-rap production is hard to find on White Flame and Gold House. Rather than the atmospherics beats of Clams Casino and the like, we get a style much more indebted to New Orleans: No Limit and Cash Money Records’ glitzy, turn-of-the-millenium bangers. Indeed, White Flame‘s album cover pays homage to Soulja Slim’s Give It 2 ‘Em Raw, he directly shouts out Cash Money here on “Im Like Killah Remix” and the ridiculous “Awsome” beat is simply a slowed “Go DJ”. An energized Lil B is rapping within one second of the opener “Green Card” (“Imma call you Homer, you got no dough”). The rapid-fire “I Love Strugglin” provides just one of many abstract kernels of Lil B’s unparalleled perspective: “Bitch Mob bitch, suck a dick / Gold House bitch, we love strugglin'”.

Lest you think Lil B solely exists in a fantasy realm, peep “Gangstas Smile” which begins, “My girl had an abortion, changed the game / I’m not ready to be a dad”. Damn. And all this over a gorgeous soul sample. Gold House concludes with “Based Gangstas Prayer”, a solemn conclusion to an otherwise rambunctious mixtape.

“Keep that love in your heart.” – Lil B

Listen to Gold House on Spotify.

Album of the Week: E-40’s Poverty and Prosperity (2015)

In 2015, E-40 had spent the past 5 years releasing double- and triple-albums (The Block Brochure had a whopping six installments). But then, the 47 year old rapper decided to switch things up by releasing an anomaly in his discography: a 7-track EP with themes of family, introspection, and god-fearing christianity.

So here’s an easy litmus test for this one: If a 7-minute version of “Across 110th Street” as interpreted by E-40 sounds good to you then you’re in luck, because that’s exactly how Poverty and Prosperity starts. No, he doesn’t sing the chorus (that’s Park Ave.), but his repurposing of Bobby Womack’s classic anthem into a tribute and commentary on his hometown of Vallejo, California is a surprising and welcome start to this release.

More surprises abound: The soulful Mike Marshall (who sang the iconic chorus of “I Got 5 On It”) helps turn “The Way I Was Raised” into a gospel dirge; “Appreciation” is practically pop country! Although its Uncle Kracker sheen may be overly saccharine to some, the sincerity of “Appreciation” pours through 40’s preaching. “I’ve been speakin’ these real deep messages for many moons, man,” he begins, before addressing the importance of loving family, difficult relationship issues, and how to help a friend addicted to drugs. Almost surreal in its honesty, it stands as one the more unique rap songs I’ve heard from a seasoned veteran and is a successful experiment in genre-blending.

Poverty and Prosperity is not without a classic Yay Area slapper. “Gamed Up” truly endows the listener with indispensable “game” (meaning knowledge or wisdom): “You can hate / Or you can learn”. But my favorite track is the closer, “The End”. Beginning ominously with a sample of Revelation 1:7, 40 then enters this dramatic track by reminiscing on a lost friend. In the second verse he rebukes Satan while owning up to his own habits (“Show me where in the Good Book say I can’t smoke a Taylor!”).

E-40 has always been in his own lane, but his messages of love and devotion are universal. As the man himself would say, “I ain’t above you, I ain’t below you, but I’m right beside you.”

Stream the EP on Spotify.