the-gifted.jpgWALE: The Gifted
Warner Music Canada, 70 minutes
Rating: 3 / 5

Wale’s The Mixtape About Nothing (2008) remains one of the strangest successes in modern hip hop. Structured around the rapper’s Seinfeld fandom and utilizing a wealth of audio clips, it deftly outplayed its own gimmickry. Wale took the sitcom’s humorous observations on women, materialism and artistic integrity and applied them to his genre’s own neuroses.

Deep into Wale’s third official album The Gifted he revisits Seinfeld by actually getting the man himself to participate in a skit. It’s a tongue-in-cheek response to rumors of an (entirely unlikely) full-album collaboration with the comedian, but inadvertently highlights the identity crisis Wale has been stuck in for years.

Wale isn’t consistently funny or actively removed from hip hop cliche in the way that, you know, referencing Seinfeld would suggest. Across his three sporadically interesting major label albums he’s played the part of thug, intellectual, game-changer and team player. Collectively he’s tried to be everything to everyone, which hasn’t really worked out for anyone.

The Gifted is more consistently listenable than Attention Deficit (2009) and grounded than Ambition (2011) but it provides no clearer view of who the hell Wale thinks he is. The “from bottom to top” arch of “Heaven’s Afternoon” is incongruous with his career path; on his early mixtapes he earned hype by being creative and surprising, not fighting for success like a street scrapper. Nor has he yet reached “the top” of anything, commercially or critically. Admittedly there are few-to-zero bad songs on The Gifted (“The Bricks” and “Black Heroes” are notably relaxed without feeling lazy) but its best moments don’t belong to the same personality, let alone the same album.

Rykka_Kodiak_AlbumCoverArt.jpgRYKKA: Kodiak
Vissen Records, 38 minutes

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Rykka is a successful reinvention for Christina Maria. When we first met her Maria was making music that held promise but lacked backbone. She seemed comfortable in her shy skin. For Kodiak, she sheds it with a vengeance.

The album goes big and bold, turning out blues-rock jams (“The Brink”), soaring indie anthems (“Map Inside”) and Joan Jett-style punk-pop (“Blackie”). Even returning to her folkier roots on the brief, beautiful “Sirenia” with a stronger sense of melody yields reward.

In a practical sense this kind of career reinvention can be difficult for today’s artists; there’s no hiding the past, or chance of deflecting every bit of cynicism directed at such an about-face. But it’s hard to believe anyone comparing Kodiak to Maria’s previous work would find it anything but a good idea.

GoldPandacover.jpgGOLD PANDA: Half of Where You Live

Ghostly, 49 minutes
Rating: 4/5

Places are spread across Gold Panda’s new album Half of Where You Live. There’s the residence suggested by its title, as well as “An English House,” “Brazil,” “The Most Livable City,” “Community,” “Junk City II,” and others.  

It’s an interesting recurrence for a semi-anonymous artist. Gold Panda’s real name has not been officially revealed, but some specifics of location have: he was born in London, raised in Essex and studied Oriental and African Studies. It’s possible to dig up more specific biographical info, but why bother? Half of Where You Live feels like the soundtrack to a dance party organized collectively by some futuristic, nationless Earth and that’s how it should stay.  

For all that is implied by their titles, there are few specific cultural signifiers to, say, “Brazil” or “My Father in Hong Kong 1961.” GP takes cues from ethnographic music, certainly - his apparent worldliness is well-used - but the album is more a celebration of unity than diversity. It’s not hard to imagine listeners of widely different backgrounds will be grooving to Half of Where You Live all summer.

DarkForDarkCoverWeb.jpgDARK FOR DARK: Warboats
Self-released, 31 minutes

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Dark for Dark is a group fronted by Halifax songwriter Rebecca Zolkower. Centered around her simple songs, it benefits greatly from the small-yet-significant contributions of others; Zolkower herself thanks her permanent backing vocalists for “transforming these clumsy songs into beautiful music.”

“Clumsy” isn’t the right word for what Warboats might have been if not for the support. “Skeletal” fits better. Zolkower’s songs are thinly-drawn but generous in the way they make use of subtle additions. They do not hurry forward in any particular direction, but what is found along the way proves the most interesting: the ghostly vocals of “How Or Why,” the hovering mellotron in “Wake Me When It’s Over.” There’s a thin skin of texture across the album that takes various shapes, always holding the music together.

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