Monday, June 09, 2008

REVIEW: Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter II" (Cash Money/Universal)

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Backstory: First hitting the hip-hop scene as part of New Orleans Cash Money crew the Hot Boys in the late ‘90s, Lil Wayne has steadily come up through the rap ranks with popular solo releases and a high-profile cameo on Destiny’s Child hit “Soldier” in 2004. After blowing up the charts in 2005 with full-length album “Tha Carter II,” Wayne has spent the past three years on a determined conquest to become “the best rapper alive,” showcasing his increasingly impressive and abstract lyrical flow on a seemingly endless string of mixtapes and cameo verses on other artists’ records.

Why you should care:
Currently the “people’s champion” of hip-hop, Wayne’s in-your-face persona (including a high-profile drug arrest and a penchant for “syrup,” a homemade codeine cocktail) and ability to melt microphones with the hottest metaphors and one-liners this side of prime Eminem and Ghostface have made him the ultimate rock star of 2008. Already owning the pop charts and dance-floors with the mainstream R&B of first single “Lollipop,” “Tha Carter III” has the potential of putting Wayne in line with such hip-hop icons as Tupac, Biggie and his mentor/nemesis, Jay-Z.

While this uneven effort is far from the defining Lil Wayne album that he’s obviously capable of, “Tha Carter III” is still loaded with exemplary tracks. Hardcore numbers like “A Mili” and the jazzy swing of the Swizz Beatz-produced “Dr. Carter” show Wayne at his best, displaying a lyrical dexterity that’s undeniably brilliant. Kanye West provides a clutch of radio ready beats, like the smooth R&B of “Comfortable” and Motown mood of “Let The Beat Build” (Wayne should seriously consider making a whole disc with West). Sadly, those gems are cast amidst a slew of half-baked beats and meandering melodies, creating an unfortunate ratio of jams to rejects. Still, Lil Wayne is the most exciting rapper in the world today whose masterwork is ahead of him and can make even the wackest tracks at least listenable.

Wayne’s not afraid to take big chances, from teaming up with crooner Robin Thicke on the acoustic ballad “Tie My Hands” to profanely calling out activist Al Sharpton at the end of the politically conscious “Misunderstood” as “just another Don King.” Recently dissing mixtape DJs resulted in one of them leaking this CD a week before official release.

(Originally published on

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

15 Minutes with Pharrell Williams

“We know that our fan base is different than fans of Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco or Rihanna,” admits Pharrell Williams on the phone from New York during a rare break before embarking on this summer’s highly anticipated “Glow in the Dark” tour. “We’re going to introduce ourselves to that audience, even though there is a lot of crossover there. But the N.E.R.D. energy is different. We’re there to literally rock the party.”

The iconic producer, fashion designer and cultural flash point is excited to talk about the forthcoming third album from his eclectic rock outfit, N.E.R.D., titled “Seeing Sounds” and tentatively scheduled for a June 10 release.

“The title is in reference to a phenomenon called synesthesia, which is when one of your senses sends electric impulses to unintended parts of the brain,” he explains in his raspy drawl. “So for some people, when they hear music, it also stimulates them visually. We wanted people to recognize that and see the sounds of this album.”

“We’ve always had a hybrid sound, so there are a lot of different things going on,” he says of the band’s new record. Williams speaks of drum-and-bass influences, citing the mosh-pit-ready tune “Spazz” as an example. He continues: “The album is definitely hard, guitar-driven and angst-ridden. We recorded the record with the live show in mind. We want people to be up and having a good time at our concerts. If you interview any of the kids that were at any of our warm-up shows in secondary markets like Pittsburgh, they’ll tell you how crazy it’s been. I’d bet those parking lots are littered with empty Red Bull and Monster energy-drink cans everywhere. The shows have been filled with intelligent kids letting go and having fun.”

N.E.R.D. made a huge splash at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, playing high-profile shows such as the controversial Perez Hilton showcase.

“It was incredible,” Williams raves about the trip. “Our fan base has really grown. It’s wonderful to see how culturally diverse our crowd has become. Our fans are intelligent, have a strong individuality and distinctive opinions about life. At our shows, the skaters don’t mind hanging with the hipsters, who don’t mind hanging with the fashion students, who are cool with the b-boys and the punks. They’re all there, and it’s all love. It’s this patchwork army of kids that are all on a similar wavelength. It’s incredible the energy they send us onstage. I promise not to abuse this position that they’ve put me in.”

That position includes helming the Star Trak record label, which recently signed R&B upstart Tayanna Taylor and preppy pop outfit Chester French.

“I think Chester French are geniuses. To me, they sound like Brian Wilson singing over Motown tracks,” Williams enthuses about the recent Harvard graduates. “We’re so lucky to have them on our label.”

There’s also his successful run in the fashion industry, with Williams behind the Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing lines, creating limited editions that command top dollar from obsessive streetwear collectors around the globe.

“The fashion has been fun,” he says casually. “I’ve been studying under Marc Jacobs over at Louis Vuitton for the past couple of years, which has been invaluable.

“It’s all about establishing a relationship with our audience,” he stresses finally. “I want to give them things they really want, be it a pair of shoes, a sweatshirt or a record.”

(Originally published on