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Monday, August 19, 2013

Earl Sweatshirt: Doris (Release Date: 8-20-2013)

        One week ago, Kendrick Lamar set the internet on fire with his jaw-dropping verse on Big Sean's Control (HOF). The track, which won't be featured of Sean's upcoming Hall of Fame due to sample-clearence issues, is a cold-hearted killer, though its status as a conversation-starter might just outweigh its actual sound. Lamar's flow is white-hot and savage, blowing through about a million different subjects, ideas, and references before the MC declares himself the best in the game, even name-checking those unworthy of comparison. Much ink has been spilt over the 26-year-old calling out his competition for inferior work, wether such a blast is pure ego mania, or representative of a competition the game has lacked of late. I see it somewhat differently.

        Having just released what quickly became a revelatory debut album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, Lamar is viewed by many as the best young rapper out there, and when he lists other new genre luminaries, from A$AP Rocky, to J. Cole, to Drake, one wonders if his omissions should be seen as compliments or insults. On one hand, showing up on Kendrick's hit list could be flattering, your name deemed worthy of mention, but having the line drawn with you on its underside can't feel too good. It's a question that's rattled around in my head ever since I heard to song, and one that stuck once I got a hold of Earl Sweatshirt's Doris. Because if Earl didn't make the cut because of Lamar's unstated respect, that's one thing, but if Kendrick thought the 19-year-old prodigy was nothing to worry about, then he'd better watch his back.

        For those who haven't been obsessively keeping up with the youngster's life and career, here's a quick brush-up: Earl Sweatshirt first came to prominence in 2010, when the release of his self-titled mixtape earned him attention and acclaim at the ripe-old age of 16. Having been discovered via Myspace the year before by Tyler, the Creator, Sweatshirt rapped with his mentor's L.A.-based hip-hop collective Odd Future until his voice suddenly went missing. After months of speculation, Complex magazine hit the investigative trail, and discovered that the young rhyme maker had been quietly sent by his mother to a therapeutic boarding school for at-risk youth in Samoa. Thus started a movement to bring Earl, whose proper name was revealed to be Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, back to the states, the crowd chant of, "Free Earl!" soon devolving into, "F*** Earl's Mom!" Thebe returned shortly after his 18th birthday, family issues and sudden fame awaiting him, along with a million-dollar album deal from Colombia records. Expecting a teenager, even one as talented as Earl, to rise above all this noise and release a good debut record seemed like too much to ask. It wasn't.

        Doris is that rarest of things; an album preceded by a juicy backstory and mountains of hype that actually lives up to expectations. Despite what the early string of (incredible) singles might have had you believe, the album is anything but one-note, alternating between bass-heavy trunk-rattlers and sunny afternoon throwbacks with a variety of other flavors intermixed. Even Earl's collaborators surprise and excite, Vince Staples given an entire 16 bars all to himself, while the Pharell-produced Burgundy lasts all of two minutes, and RZA shows up for no reason discernible to man (Molasses). Earl is putting every odd but perfectly-fitting piece into place, and gluing them all together with his indomitable flow. It's a disc that's always one step ahead of its listener, and doesn't mind bragging about it.

        While being aware of an artists' backstory can overwhelm their actual creations, knowing a thing or two about Kgositsile before stepping into Doris only enriches the experience. The nature of his Odd Future affiliation becomes one of the disc's dominant narratives, as almost every single guest artist derives from the same collective. But while Domo Genesis is, "Still bangin' Wolf Gang/As if you n***** didn't know," (20 Wave Caps) and Tyler calls for a return to Sweatshirt's days of, "that old f****** 2010 s***," (Whoa) Earl makes no such shout-out to his old squad, which probably has folks like SK La' Flare and Hodgy Beats biting their nails right about now. His relationship with Tyler is of particular interest; Kgositsile obviously views the Wolf Gang figurehead with great admiration ("Searching for a big brother/Tyler was that/Plus he like how I rap") and even imitates him with some of his pitched-down vocals (Guild in particular) and Burgundy's self-affacing spoken-word interludes. But one gets the feeling that this idolization is dwindling quickly, as Earl easily vanquishes his mentor on the two tracks that they share (Sasquatch and Whoa), and appears to push his styles and cadences into new, decidedly non-Tyler directions with increasing frequency.

        Even more interesting than Earl's ever-shifting relationship with his metaphorical family is the mysterious bond he has with his biological one. Doris shares its name with Kgositsile's grandmother, whom we learn is, "...passing/But I'm too busy tryna get this fuckin' album cracking to see her/So I apologize in advance if anything should happen." This is only the start of many references to the teen's home life, a subject most vividly chronicled on Doris' oldest track, Chum. Released way back on November 2nd of last year, Chum broke a lengthy drought of solo material with an autobiographical tale of its author's adolescence, set to a nocturnal, ruminating piano loop. Picking a specific line or two to encapsulate the song's entire scope would be foolish, as the tune covers relationships with both his parents, Tyler, his city at large, his own personal insecurities, and even calls out Complex magazine by name. It's a captivating, emotive, and unnerving listen, and stands head and shoulders above the competition as 2013's best song not released in 2013 (it also has a killer video).

        The varied soundscapes and windows into personal life might come as a bit of a surprise, but Earl's status as a virtuoso wordsmith does not. Wether he's crafting rat-a-tat-tat tongue twisters, ("Momma often was offering peace offerings/Think, wheeze cough, scoffing and he's off again,") thoughtfully relaying the troubles of his metropolis, ("From a city that's recession-hit/Stressed n***** could flex metal with peddle to rake pennies in/Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish/But most n***** Hyde, and Brenda just stay pregnant,") or just making lewd jokes, ("Yeah, the miss-adventures of a s***-talker/Pissed as Rick Ross' fifth sip off his sixth lager") there's a density to his every line that invites endless revisits. His guests, while expertly chosen, most frequently appear before Sweatshirt on their respective tracks, only the album's two best outsider verses (the aforementioned Vince Staples Hive flow, and Frank Ocean's smart-allack surprise on Sunday) allowed to take the mic instead of handing it off. Otherwise, it's Earl doing the heavy lifting, and with a pen by his side, he might as well be Hercules. It's been one week since Kendrick dropped the challenge, "I'm gunna get it ever if you're in the way/And if you're any better, run, for Pete's sake." Let's hope he's ready for the can of worms he just opened.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fruitvale Station (Limited Release Date: 6-12-2013)

        On December 31st, 2008, Bay Area 22-year-old Oscar Grant was gunned down by a BART cop who pulled his trigger in a state of senseless panic. I make no buts about opening my review in this fashion because I am merely following suit; the film itself begins with real-life footage of the fatal incident, a harrowing clip that hangs like an ominous raincloud over the rest of the proceedings. But Fruitvale Station isn't about a tragedy so much as it is about a man, a multi-faceted individual at a crossroads in a life that is just about to end.

        Chronicling the last day of the young man's existence, Ryan Coogler's directorial debut follows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) from sun up to sun down, viewing his entire life in a fly-on-the-wall microcosm. He's got a lot on his plate: Oscar's girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) harbors resentments from fidelity issues, his mother (Octavia Spencer) has trust problems of her own, and employment troubles seem to keep throwing him back into the weed-slinging game in order to provide for his young daughter (Ariana Neal). With the help of a solitary flashback to his days of incarceration, FS plays it completely chronologically, observing Grant's many failures and graces, all leading up to its deplorable conclusion.

        Taking on the hyper-realistic angle for which Coogler strives is a tricky gambit; while his mood and tone engage the viewer immediately, even the most slightly tacky moments or scenes stick out like a sore thumb. This is particularly obvious in the case of foreshadowing, as characters continuously implore Jordan about his future, their answers always involving a tomorrow that we know will never come. The climactic scene at the BART station, however, suffers from none of these problems, absolutely scorching in its recreation, positively enraging in its effect.

        Jordan, it should be noted, is excellent in the picture, capturing the screen from start to finish, elevating the lesser-written sequences seemingly single-handedly. But the movie that he's in, for all its righteous indignation and powerful recent history, is a decidedly by-the-numbers affair. Everything it does, from its day-in-the-life trappings, to its race-relation observations, to its faux documentary style, has been done both better and worse by many other films. Fruitvale Station is by no means a bad movie, and if Jordan snags a Best Actor nomination, he will have earned it, but familiarity and occasional lapses in realism really blunt its emotional impact. Absolutely a story you need to know, but not necessarily a movie need to see.

Grade: B 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Prince Avalanche (Limited Release Date: 8-9-2013)

        Five years after the fact, David Gordon Green still feels like an odd choice to direct Pineapple Express. Creator of such indie darlings as George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green defied nearly all expectations by signing on the helm Seth Rogen's stoner action comedy. The film has both its advocates and its detractors (file me in the former category), though you'd have a much tougher time discovering anyone willing to sing the praise of his pair of raunchy comedy follow-ups, The Sitter, and the putrid Your Highness. So, after a five-year, three-movie detour into cannabis-fumigated multiplexes, Green begins the journey home with Prince Avalanche, an impossibly small indie with lingering affectations from its director's stint in the big leagues.

        Set way way back in the long-forgotten time of 1988, Prince Avalanche chronicles the lives and troubles of a pair of road workers as they re-paint lines on the asphalt in wildfire-ravanged Texas. The senior member and self-appointed leader is Alvin (Paul Rudd), a type-A personality focused on doing his job, living well, and sending money back home to his sweetheart, Madison. Lance (Emile Hirsch), the brother of Alvin's girlfriend, is a perfect foil; willfully juvenile, haphazardly crass, and disinterested in just about anything not involving women or booze. Trapped in the pre-internet purgatory of the beautiful southern landscape, the two bicker, play, ruminate their stations in life, and paint endless yellow lines on a charred road to nowhere.

        Those expecting the bawdy, broad laughs of Green's recent work would be wise to curb their expectations, but so would those expecting the man to be either purely minimal or even kind of straight-faced. In fact, the precarious balance Green strikes between his two filmic universes is the movie's greatest strength, vacillating from moments of poignancy and heartbreak straight into tension-slicing comedy. It's the kind of tonal tightrope walk that few directors are ready to entertain, and fewer still are capable of concocting; Green hardly misses a step.

        Matching Green's effort behind the camera are his actors in front of it, Hirsch and Rudd developing both their characters and their relationship with an unhurried delicacy. Hirsch might just be America's most under-appreciated young thespian, natural every second he's on screen, but this is Rudd's movie. Uptight, understated, and believably wounded, he carries the emotional core of the film all while keeping the giggles coming, seemingly never in on the joke. Prince Avalanche is a tiny, thinly-plotted little movie, and those requiring either pratfalls or suspense would be advised to pass. Those who take pleasure in well-drawn characters, confident craft, beautiful music, stunning cinematography, and whatever other superlatives you want to throw at it ought to take notice. This is a warm, breezy little gem, and I wanted to give it a hug from first frame to last.

Grade: A-