Tkay Maidza - Tkay

Hip-hop loves to draw from its influences. Australian hip-hop artist Tkay Maidza draws from her African background in her debut record Tkay.

The Zimbabwean born Maidza has a lot of appeal in her debut. It's not dull hip-hop we've become used to. Instead, colorful instrumentals and melodies accompany her young and refreshing voice. The album begins with the high energy, intense 'Always Been,' a big of a misleading track to open the record yet does hype it up. It's dark and dramatic, the beat strong and the delivery packed with grime influence. The bars are pretty quick fire, but there's a recognizable reference to Kanye West's 'Black Skinhead' in there that'll pique you're ear in case you can't pick up on anything else.

There are several other songs that go hard. 'Carry On,' with Run The JewelsKiller Mike on the track, throwing down above the synthy bass between the upbeat but still urgent chorus. A darker presence envelops 'State Of Mind,' bouncy synths radiating ominous vibes on top of Maidza's gun of a mouth paired paranoid harmonies.

The majority of the record finds itself being poppier. The instrumental of 'Simulation' channels Sia almost blatantly, yet the vocals' light melodies soar high above the 'Cheap Thrills' reminiscent synth. There are thicker, dancier songs like 'Monochrome' that robotically have some groove to them. The muddy instrumental helps elevate the poppier lyrics. 'Drumsticks No Guns' is a fun-loving track, infectiously cute synths bouncing happily throughout the track. 'Castle In The Sky' is the pinnacle of the album's pop tracks, the sweet melodies pairing with the strongest and punchiest instrumental on the record, dynamic brass synths pairing with various acoustic instrumentation and electronics.

Sometimes it goes a little too far. With the pop influence, there are a few annoying tracks, like 'Tennies.' The song starts okay, but there has to be a limit as to how many times you can sing "tennies" before it gets old. The beat features some cool instrumentation, some bongos sounding with a punchy string instrumental, but even those can't save the song from its muddy tendencies. The big vibes of 'Supasonic' are interrupted by pretty annoying lyrics.

Tkay has all of the the uncertainties of a debut record, but it definitely holds its ground. It's an indicator of a new threat on the block with Tkay Maidza - she's bound to be something big in the hip-hop and pop world. It's a refreshing new sound and certainly one that won't be getting old anytime soon. Now we sit back and watch a career unfold.

Favorite Tracks: Castle In The Sky, Always Been

Least Favorite Tracks: Tennies, Supasonic, House Of Cards

Rating: 73 / 100

Run The Jewels - 'Talk To Me'

The hip-hop world revving up, it seems. Yesterday offered up new Drake and new music from Run The Jewels, too!

The eclectic duo of El-P and Killer Mike are back with 'Talk To Me,' the first new song they've shared this year. It's part of Adult Swim's Singles Program running for the next month, and is to be featured on their upcoming effort Run The Jewels 3.

'Talk To Me' is everything you'd want and expect of Run The Jewels. It begins ominously with pounding, brassy synths and an urgent beat with a sort of cartoonish panic in them. The bassy synth carries the low end of the track as various synths and samples sound throughout the track to help carry its slamming nature. There's lots of interesting moments throughout it, including the awesome end where the instrumental distorts itself before it's taken over by powerful scratching.

Killer Mike has been heavily delving into politics this election cycle, and his frustrations of it become clear in 'Talk To Me.' Right from the get-go, he's slamming Donald Trump, the lines "Went to war with the devil and shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan" featuring in the first verse. El-P's verses are just as politically charged, the second verse spitting "Brave men didn't die face down in the Vietnam mud so I could not style on you / I didn't walk uphill both ways to the booth and back to not wile on you / You think baby Jesus killed Hitler just so I'd whisper?" The song's badass nature sends one succinct message: don't mess with RTJ.

Run The Jewels have been hyping up their third album for awhile, and we've all been waiting at the edge of our seats. It's been a long wait, but's almost over. An interlude in the song says "I told y'all suckers, I told y'all suckers. I told y'all on RTJ1, then I told ya again on RTJ2, and you still ain't believe me. So here we go, RTJ3," foreshadowing that their third record isn't losing any momentum or character. If anything, it'll be bigger than the previous ones were. We're ready for it.

Rating: 87 / 100

Phantogram - Three

The threat of Phantogram hasn't been quite so apparent until now. The duo's third record Three shows them at their highest, combining electronica, indie, and even hip-hop flair into one big mission statement.

The New York duo always had a certain swagger to them, and they make the best of it on their new record. There's the blues rock-meets-electronica jammer of 'Same Old Blues' that mixes sick guitar lines with deep psuedo-bass drops. There's also lead single 'You Don't Get Me High Anymore', a slam on a dying love that finds a brooding tone in its demanding bassline in the instrumental and the layers upon layers of harmonies that build the track. 'You're Mine' brings in a different kind of swagger, the heavy beat and challenging vocal delivery that functions as a tradeoff between Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. It's more badass than the swag of the prior tracks, but still proves the point of the band's presence.

Hip-hop isn't something commonly channeled in indie projects, but Phantogram makes it a strong aspect of their record. Perhaps the most brooding and awesome track on the record is 'Run Run Blood', with Phantogram sounding like a rock version of Run The Jewels. The first verse begins with Barthel chanting "Hey wolf, there's lions in here / There's lions in here, there's lions in here / Hey wolf, just see there's no fear / Just see it's no fair, there are lions in here," as Carter follows through with his own interjection of "Extra, extra, read all about it / You think you slow me down? I highly doubt it / I own the paperboys, and you're the buyer / Your world is my world now to live and die in." The chorus backs away from the badass and instead takes a harmonious route with Barthel powerfully calling out that "It's bigger than life / It's bigger than love / It's bigger than us / Bigger than all."

The album closes on a similar hip-hop vibe, albeit resolving with a poppier flair by its conclusion, with 'Calling All'. When songs aren't badass or full of swagger, they're very introspective or uplifting. See the sweet guitar intro of 'Destroyer' that builds sweetly into an uplifting indie rock monster. 'Answer' is much the same, its weird glitchy piano providing as a back for sweet vocals, all leading to a big, uplifting, and confident ending. Other songs like 'Cruel World' delves into a matter of perspective, Barthel singing of her loss in faith in humanity. 

This album may be powerful in those senses, but it does have some weirdness to it. Its start is bumpy, the glitchy atmosphere of 'Funeral Pyre' sounding cluttered as it opens the album. Many songs have to be revisited on their own before they really click and become something special - it doesn't really flow all that well, each song surrounded by others with vague similarities but don't make quite enough of a connection to justify their vast differences. It's an eclectic experience, but one that's worth delving into. It won't click right away, but you have to give it a bit of time to grow.

Phantogram's third album is their most confident one yet. All the pressure is behind them and they're really settling into their place as musicians. Their force is yet to be recognized, but Three is on course to make some waves. Beware their swagger. 

Favorite Tracks: Run Run Blood, Destroyer, You Don't Get Me High Anymore

Least Favorite Track: Barking Dogs

Rating: 84 / 100

Zack de la Rocha - 'digging for windows'

It seems Rage Against The Machine is coming back this year in every way except a reunion. After Tom Morello and co. formed Prophets Of Rage earlier this year, their former lead singer has been busy at work making his own tunes. Zack de la Rocha is finally here with his debut single, 'digging for windows'.

It's safe to say that the song is better than a majority of Prophets Of Rage's debut EP (see our review here). It's not perfect, though. It has a lot of swagger and an interesting electronic based instrumental. It's reminiscent of RATM's typical in-your-face vibe, but not in the same flavor. 'digging' depends on thick, distorted synths with the subtle additions of backing guitars and synth arpeggios later on. It's a less chaotic Death Grips song, really. It definitely has the punk vibe paired with it, though.

Zach de la Rocha may have been out of the game for awhile, but he sounds just as energetic and angry as he was in his prime. It was seen when he featured on Run The Jewels' 'Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)' on 2014's Run The Jewels 2 that de la Rocha wasn't out of the game just yet. Coincidentally, it was El-P from RTG who produced the track! The production of the track is perhaps one of its highlights; it's electronic and experimental hip-hop with just enough anger to still give it the punk rock vibes from RATM. 

The song is pretty upfront with the lyrics; in fact, it starts off with him saying that he isn't here for cheerful lyrics - he's in it for some madness: "Fuck that bright shit / The spot or the flashlights / We in L.A. ducking both / In the shadows with lead pipes." The song deals with the narrator being caught by the cops and being taken to prison as well as falling into hard and unfavorable situations in life. He's angry at the corruption of it all, and calls out the big corporates: "Rise every time my cherry glows / On the end of my cig as / The smoke blows through the bars / And the C.O.’s laugh fades / As he strolls away / Says I gotta pay / Off that roll away / Or it's fuck your visitation days." The lyrics are edgy enough to harken back to that angsty yet relevant tone that RATM always had. 

Prophets Of Rage has nothing on Zack. They may cover Rage Against The Machine, but they're missing the main man that made the songs so real. The song has been confirmed to be the lead single of a yet-to-be-announced LP, and this song shows a lot of positive signs. 'digging for windows' is a great return to music for Zack de la Rocha. Now, we wait. This is the true return of Rage Against The Machine - not in the way we expected it, or necessarily wanted it, but the way we needed it. 

Rating: 81 / 100

DJ Shadow - The Mountain Will Fall

Electronica blends with everything on this record. DJ Shadow has returned with The Mountain Will Fall, the long-awaited follow up to 2011's experimental The Less You Know The Better. The album features a wide variety of guests from an array of genres, providing a fresh view on an already complex electronic hip-hop record.

There are two sides of this record - the electronic, experimental and chill side, and the more upbeat and upfront side. The electronic side provides for a more provocative experience. The album features many stranger tracks that play to the experimental side of electronica, some flopping while others being strong and flowing. Stronger tracks include 'Bergschrund' featuring mastermind Nils Frahm, a glitchy and progressive track featuring lots of unexpected changes and movements. 'Ashes To Oceans' is another noteworthy track, featuring jazz trumpeter Matthew Halsall on it. The song effortlessly combines elements of hip-hop with moody jazz and electronics, taking the song through many sections and cleansing your palette with the record. Some of the stranger tracks include the glitchy 'Ghost Town' and the chilled out ending to the record, 'Suicide Pact' - this song could've actually benefitted with a verse over it. Weaker songs like 'Depth Charge' are interesting on top, but don't really progress anywhere of worth. 'Mambo' is the most left-field track on album, and not in a good way - it's lo-fi sample and minimalist beat doesn't have much going for it. The album's opener, the eponymous 'The Mountain Will Fall' leads the album in a good note, providing an easy going sound that leads into more high energy tracks.

The hip-hop and sample-oriented side of the album is where the fun comes in. It begins right after the intro track, with Run The Jewels going hard on 'Nobody Speak'. The song is huge, epic brass blaring confidently on top of epic electronic arpeggios and a signature bassline. That intro is a signature part of the record. This track is an all-around jam - very upbeat and driven. 'Pitter Patter' has much of the same epicness to it, in a more subtle manner. It's largely instrumental but features a sweet guitar line and some dark synth progressions that give off awesome vibes. The only song that doesn't really live up to the hype is 'The Sideshow', a very standard and outdated track.

DJ Shadow didn't make a masterpiece, but he did make something that's very discussable. The album has highs and lows, and takes influence from many places. It's easy to see how this album can be debated among different types of listeners. Electronica combines with elements of hip-hop provide for a refreshing listen in a genre becoming more and more saturated. Leave it to the underground artists to give us a fresh taste of a genre out of tricks.

Favorite Tracks: Nobody Speak, Ashes To Oceans, Pitter Patter

Least Favorite Track: Mambo

Rating: 71 / 100