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Music Reviews

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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Mike Ladd
Negrophilia - The Album
Thirsty Ear Records

Rating: 9/10 ?

February 15, 2005
The leading, bleeding edges of jazz and hip-hop are intertwined to a point where, at some places, distinction between the two genres is almost impossible to pinpoint. For a good while now, hip-hop has been very successfully been adding jazz lessons to its own repertoire - Blue Note allowed Madlib to raid their archives and create original works inspired by their catalog; Amon Tobin's early catalog relied heavily on jazz influenced beats as well as DJ Cam's Mad Blunted Jazz.

From the jazz side of the genre, Thirsty Ear has created the very successful and adventurous Blue Series, which has paired jazz greats with hip-hop's best and brightest - from the Anti-Pop Consortium's dark rite with Matthew Shipp, to DJ Spooky's trippy Optometry, to El-P's production on High Water Mark. The latest entry in this series is Mike Ladd's foray with drummer Guillermo Brown and pianist Vijar Iyer, Negrophilia - The Album.

For a number of years, Mike Ladd has been a visionary and leader in the New York hip-hop scene, and this contribution to Thirsty Ear's Blue Series was inspired by Petrine Archer-Straw's book, Negrophilia.

Ladd's rhymes all, in some way, reflect his African roots. His lyrics in general are disconnected and ethereal. While only four tracks on Negrophilia feature Ladd's vocals, the influence is still present: On "World Wide Shrink Wrap," Ladd starts the final verse with "Everyday the land we lay looks more and more like LA/From Dakar to Harare/From Bangkok to Taipei, and so my dear who am I talking to anyway?"

Negrophilia is, for the most part, signified by the expert drumming of Guillermo E. Brown as he finds his way around and in-between the beats and Vijay Iyer's piano work. While Ladd limits his vocal contributions, he creates a pent up sense of tension with his programming. The flow is often herky-jerky, and the electronic beeps and blips appear out of nowhere, giving the feel of being led through a dark maze, not knowing what is going to appear around the next corner.

"Fieldwork (The Ethnographers Daughter)" opens Negrophilia with a disjointed selection of electronic noise loosely thrown around an even looser beat. Brown's syncopated drum work really shows up on "Back At Ya," as he winds his hi-hat, snare and bass around Andrew Lamb's bouncing saxophone. Lamb and Roy Campbell trade saxophone and trumpet blasts, as Ladd spits his rhymes with immediate urgency on "Black Negress."

Experimental jazz at this level can go very wrong. There is very little holding each instrument together, yet Ladd interconnects each string-leading-trumpet-blast-into-saxophone-flourish while Brown lays down original phrase after original phrase. Iyer's piano shines on "Nancy and Carl Go Christmas Shopping," made richer by Lamb's oboe and clarinet. Iyer's minimalist lines shimmer off of Lamb's contributions. At points such as "Sam and Milli Dine Out," it is Ladd's programming that holds each atmospheric sound to the next.

It is atmosphere that makes Negrophilia such a great listen. Ladd's drive and focus throughout the entire album keeps the listener's ear, as each moment is unexpected, even after multiple listens. Ladd has created a completely original piece, drawing not only from jazz and hip-hop, but also from electronic genres.

Ladd creates a bouncing beat on one track only to have the listener wandering alone in the midst on the next. This heightened sense of expectation keeps Negrophilia fresh throughout, even on repeated listens. Props to Thirsty Ear for putting together such great artists and creating new organic and original sounds for everyone to enjoy in the Blue Series.

Reviewed by Craig Mertes
Craig lives, works and listens to music in the general vicinity of Orlando, Florida, where he absorbs everything from hip-hop to indie, pop, rock, punk and metal. His all time favs include Hum, Clutch, Dismemberment Plan, and the Reverend Horton Heat. The last we heard, Craig was spinning Vast Aire, Soul Position, Blues Explosion, Motörhead, the Blood Brothers and Dead Meadow. Craig is also a life-long, die-hard Cubs fan, so lay off.

See other reviews by Craig Mertes



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