Thursday, November 4, 2010

Curren$y: Pilot Talk (2010)

(Def Jam)


A relatively overlooked New Orleans MC who's meandered around from label to label for the better part of the last decade releases possibly the best hip hop record of 2010? I can get behind that narrative. But Curren$y's own ample skills aren't the bulk of what knocks this one out of the park. Pilot Talk owes much of its instant impact and feel of just-above-underground innovation to producer Ski Beatz, known for placing a sonic stamp on Jay-Z's first few albums; as smart and fast-paced as Curren$y's rhymes are, the virtuosity Ski Beatz brings places this record a cut above with his bent-backward live-band noise but allows it to retain the modest, low-key feel of a mixtape.

Those who doubt that rap has anyplace new to go as it enters its fourth decade would do well to start with the breathlessly vibrant "Breakfast," one of the top jams of the year for sure. Originally produced by Mos Def (who guests elsewhere) for a mixtape, the track is fleshed out now by Ski Beatz with a full-band arrangement that presents jazz-rap as never before, fusing a lonely trumpet with an undeniable beat and an onslaught of clever Curren$y lyrics ("illegible letters in my ledger they can't read 'em"). It moves so fast and cuts out so early (less than three minutes) it will leave you spinning around with a total-WTF expression. As often as this territory has been mined, "Breakfast" somehow comes off as a new angle. And that's merely the tip of the iceberg, the opening of the curtain to everything that will follow.

What initially won Curren$y a cult following, going all the way back to his Young Money days, was his pot-stoked, laid-back flow; his preoccupations are weed and airplanes, and the metaphorical collision of both (note "Skybourne," which is like an airline commercial for smoking up). But what will expand that cult here and hopefully on the sequel (out in two weeks) is the backdropping of his obsessions with expansive, intricate live band work. Most of the songs are still built from loops, but Ski Beatz brings in lush enhancements that suggest all manner of emotions but still persist in pounding with "the potency of the beat." Once you give the record a chance and hit the seventh cut, Pilot Talk does not relent until the end, offering a superb seven-track run probably unmatched by anyone else in any genre this year.

That's not to say the first half doesn't have its keen offerings: "Audio Dope II" is uber-trippy grind and chaos like a video game from hell, as offbeat and fascinating as anything on the album. The others can't match up to that but you'll hardly object to the 1980s neo-soul feel and fiery electric guitar of "Example," the nifty electro-backed but overly plodding "King Kong," and the misterioso kaleidoscopic (with cool guitar loop) "Seat Change," which makes perhaps the most of the pilot metaphors of anything here, dragged down only by a routine Snoop Dogg cameo. "Roasted" is the lone actual dud, and it may be victim of sequencing; its flute dirge is a letdown after "Breakfast," plus it wasn't produced by Ski Beatz and it shows, although the anti-Minute Maid diatribe in Curren$y's verse is significant: "I'm enjoying a lemon press, not that Minute Maid crap / They squeeze the lemons they selves."

All the cuts I haven't mentioned yet? All fucking dope. The most conventional, commercial-sounding track you'll find here is "Prioritize," which proves Curren$y's star power; his calm delivery makes it shine. Everything else is left-field and nutso, from the stoner-techno of "Life Under the Scope" to the intense, over-the-top choral disco of "Address," but exemplified best by the 1-2 punch of "Skybourne" and "The Hangover," both smooth funk/lite-jazz jams with tight-as-fuck grooves and relentless drums that stand up to circa-'96 Roots, both about getting high ("Gotta have eight lungs to come puff with me"); "Hangover" even has an Alfred Hitchcock namedrop. If these don't get you moving even a little bit, attend the nearest UrgentCare. Melodic basslines and intelligent, unassuming lyrics are the only consistency; everything else is up in the air, so you can land on the fucking alien ship of "Chilled Coughphee," driven by a wickedly wrong piano line into a classic disorineting late-'60s rock & soul sound (think an even more warped Betty Davis) as easily as the anthemic hip hop celebration "The Day," with brilliant guest turns by Jay Electronica and Mos Def, bringing it back to the fresh old school and alternative rap at its absolute best.

The guest verses in general are impressive, but part of the reason Pilot Talk is such a massive success is its minimalism -- the songs are mostly short and unencumbered with skits and club pretensions; only three songs exceed four minutes. This is precisely why I find myself responding to Pilot Talk the way I wanted to respond to Big Boi's album, which was often delightful but was fattened up with too much sagging nonsense and went on forever. Immediacy, charm, intelligence, and some of the truly new killer sounds of our time will make Curren$y's Pilot Talk a classic star turn. People are missing out if they haven't gotten around to it.

And finally, confidential note to Island/Def Jam: Release this motherfucker on vinyl, please. Thanks!

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