DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better

DJ Shadow was fortunate to come around when he did. He has talent and vision, to be sure, but the fact the he was on the forefront of instrumental hip hop when he released Endtroducing… in 1996 has given him leeway with listeners that other artists don’t have. I honestly couldn’t tell you what I would think about an album like The Less You Know, The Better if I didn’t know who made it, other than it’s all over the map.

One Be Lo - LABOR

One Be Lo may still best be known as one half of the legendary underground duo Binary Star, but he’s been recording and performing as a solo artist fro quite some time. If you’ve been following the Michigan emcee’s career, you know that every album title is an acronym, and the new album is no exception. This time, we’re given several choices as to what LABOR stands for. There’s Language Arts Based On Reality, Love Allah Bills Opportunity Revolution, Land Agriculture Beasts Occupation Resources, Large Animals Bovines Obedient Reliable, and Locusts, Ants, Bees, and Roaches.

Dam-Funk - InnaFocusedDaze

In what is supposed to be a little giveaway four-song EP, Dam-Funk accidentally reasserts himself as one of the most talented and interesting musicians working today. His style is rooted in the electro-boogie of the early eighties, but it’s something he’s made all his own. Just listening to the opening track, “Forever,” with it’s seemingly simple keyboard bass line and down tempo drum beat, I find myself drawn in. On paper, there’s not a lot to it, but it’s just a groove that’s felt so well, and his vocals are stronger than ever.

Optimace - This Music Is Not Music

Only a few months after their debut release, Used Future, Dutch producers/deejays Optimus and Mace are already back with another EP. It continues the fine groundwork they laid on Used Future, and expands their sound even further. On the first track, “Land Beyond the Forest,” we get a mood that was not readily apparent on Used Future. A lone guitar introduces the EP in a blues/jazz style, before vocal samples add an eeriness to the song, as a discussion of the power of vampires unfolds.

Amerigo Gazaway - Fela Soul

Not that long ago, we were treated to Wugazi, an album which combined the unlikely marriage of Wu Tang Clan and Fugazi. The difference between the two groups forced producers Cecil Otter and Swiss Andy to be creative in how they matched the two up and made it into a coherent and enjoyable listening experience. With Fela Soul, Amerigo Gazaway chose a more sensible match in De La Soul and Fela Kuti.

Truth by Design - Timeless

Truth by Design is the Toronto trio of emcee Mizery, producer DTKS, and DJ Lupan. Timeless is their debut EP, and it’s one that shows promise. There’s not a weak leak between the three, and if you went down a checklist, they would receive passing grades. However, the problem with Timeless is one of the simplest to diagnose and one of the hardest to fix - they haven’t found their voice yet.

Colonel Red - Keep Walkin'

Sometimes style can be a musical prison. Colonel Red, a British R&B artist, is a prime example. He can build interest within one song, but is so constrained by a particular style in his singing and writing, it’s a struggle to make it from start to finish on Keep Walkin’. On the opening track, “I’m Colonel Red,” we get introduced to his style - tension is created by short, tight melodic lines that keep repeating along with lyrical phrases.

J-Live - S.P.T.A.

As I’m sorting through tons of new releases, some great, some mediocre, and some unfortunate, it can be a bit overwhelming. Music starts to bleed together in my head. Then I come across the new J-Live album, an artist who has been doing his own thing on his own terms for so long. He’s an artist so comfortable in his own skin and so in tune with my own sensibilities, that I feel like we’ve been friends for a long time, even though we’ve never met.

Evidence - Cats & Dogs

Of all the interviews I’ve done, Evidence was one of the hardest. The guy couldn’t be nicer, but it’s difficult to think of hard hitting questions for someone who’s been consistently good for so long. With Cats & Dogs, his second solo album, we get yet another solid release from the Dilated Peoples emcee. On the album, there are a variety of producers, from usual suspects like The Alchemist, Sid Roams, and Evidence himself, to newcomers like Rahki, Twiz the Beat Pro, and Charli Brown.

Phonte - Charity Starts At Home

Albums like Charity Starts At Home are the hardest for me to review. If you’ve ever met me, there’s a good chance I was wearing my Get Back Little Brother hoodie. I’ve been a fan for years of how Big Pooh and Phonte came together to make smart hip hop that was relatable and honest. I appreciated Foreign Exchange and how Phonte reinvented himself as an R&B singer that was emotionally vulnerable.