A Sentient Roomba’s Guide to Music: Little Simz and Solange drop the first great albums of 2019


The Beat Report is a bi-weekly music report on some of my favorite new stuff music has to offer, as well as some great albums celebrating anniversaries.  

Little Simz – GREY Area (Hip-Hop)

“I’m Jay Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days” is a bold statement for anyone to open their album with, no less an underground rapper. 

Boldness is a running theme on the London rapper’s third album, and Little Simz makes good on her braggadocious opener “Offence,” delivering the rare album that’s directly inspired by classics – she cites “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” as examples – without sacrificing its voice. 

On an aesthetic level, one might miss the presence of such influences. It’s hardly a West Coast gangster story album with Dr. Dre production cues a la Kendrick Lamar’s opus, nor an hour-and-20-minute behemoth like “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” 

Rather, we’re getting a streamlined experience: 10 tracks spread across 35 minutes paced out beautifully from the attention-grabbing “Offence” to the somber conclusion “Flowers.” With lyrical density and rapid-fire delivery, the attitude fluxuates from conscious grime to sobering soul, be it the soft introspection of “Selfish,” the reflective reggae of “Wounds” or the in-your-face brashness of “Venom.” She excels in fierce storytelling, exploring themes of interpersonal struggle as the result of one’s environment and intrapersonal struggle as the result of one’s feelings. Themes we’ve heard before, yes, but Simz’s unique narrative voice (heavily accented to pronounce “thing” as “ting”) and experiences offer a welcome addition to the genre, a large part of why this will stand as one of the best rap albums of 2019. (“Offence,” “Selfish,” “Wounds,” “Therapy”). 

Solange – When I Get Home (R&B)

Shame on those who refer to her as “Beyonce’s Sister.” It’s like calling Little Simz the best new “female rapper” or calling Noel Gallagher “Liam’s brother.” Technicality true, but missing the point completely. Solange is a talented songwriter in her own right who deserves to be recognized without such impersonal superlatives. 

And I contend that “When I Get Home” would challenge any of Beyonce’s best work and, outside of “Lemonade,” come away the victor. Silky smooth R&B with a politically conscious edge is what she’s selling, though the politics take a backseat to the personal side of Solange and what it means to be black in America.

 It’s the sister project to 2016’s critically acclaimed “A Seat at the Table” – a thoughtful work of dreamlike rhythm and bass that emotionally stimulates more than galvanizes. Odd Future teammates Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt appear in production roles along with Blood Orange and the omnipresent Pharrell Williams. I hear a little Frank Ocean and Thundercat in the bass-weighted compositions, a little D’Angelo in the neo-soul sound. “Almeda” has song of the year potential. Purposefully repetitive – “Down With the Clique” features the same instrumental on repeat for over three minutes – don’t be shocked when it mesmerizes you. It will if you let it. (“Down With the Clique,” “Stay Flo,” “Dreams,” “Almeda,” “My Skin is My Logo”)

Soundgarden – Superunknown (Rock / 25-Year Anniversary)

Hair metal followed a formula that valued style over craft, a formula that worshipped the guitar masturbation of Slash. Dress up, play your hits, get paid, repeat. It sucked. 

Then Grunge came along and changed everything, even if the singles marketing of “Superunknown” was still in the shadow of the formula: the fun hard rock tune “Spoonman” and the wistful ballad “Black Hole Sun.”

 Comparisons to Zeppelin and Sabbath aren’t unwarranted on an aesthetic level, though the group’s first few albums were more punk than anything; a punishing blend of heavy guitars and screaming vocals. “Superunknown” is the band’s most accessible and refined work. Nobody could belt quite like Chris Cornell, a fusion of raw power with bluesy emotion, and nobody could rock odd tunings and exotic interpolations quite like Soundgarden. 

 Since his tragic passing, I’m most drawn to Cornell’s reflective lyricism. Listen closely to the B-sides, and this is a depressed work of a depressed man: the self-destructive sludge of “Mailman,” the evocative doom of “4th of July,” the now all-too-real “The Day I Tried to Live.” The most poignant song is the one that goes: “I’m only faking when I get it right…’cause I’m fell on black days.” (“Fell on Black Days,” “Mailman,” “Black Hole Sun,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “4th of July,” “Like Suicide”)

Madvillain – Madvillainy (Hip-Hop / 15-Year Anniversary)

Madlib on the mix, MF DOOM on the mic: a combo born to deliver the ultimate abstract hip-hop record. Madlib’s samples old vinyl bits chopped up straight off a record player, mixed in with retro TV clips and video game sounds.

 For exmple, the Loop Digga interpolates Frank Zappa’s “Uncle Meat” (“Meat Grinder”), Chun-Li’s taunt from Street Fighter 2 (“Do Not Fire!”), and the intro to the ’60s detective show “Ironside (“ALL CAPS”).

 Somehow, this mish-mash forms the perfect radio play for the villainous doings of the metal-faced DOOM, a caricature invented by Daniel Dumile in the late ’90s to cut through the B.S. of the visually obsessed hip-hop mainstream.

In context, “Madvillainy” was an unexpected gem. At the time, hip-hop hadn’t ditched the bloated bling rap of the early 2000s for more skeletal, trappier pastures. 

By contrast, “Madvillainy” has no hooks and no choruses; just two minute slices of verbal wit. Unlike the more accessible rappers of his time, DOOM doesn’t tell easy-to-follow stories as much as he toys with language, spitting dense, precise bars with his signature silky-smooth flow. “Meat Grinder” is a master class in DOOM’s complex rhyme schemes.

 DOOM’s bravado is as intoxicating as the weed he endorses in “America’s Most Blunted.” No line will ever be as perfect as “got more soul than a sock with a hole” and, for the love of god, just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man’s name. (“Accordian,” “Meat Grinder,” “Curls,” “Figaro,” “ALL CAPS”).