Rhapsody Radar, Week 2: Kreayshawn, Ashton Shepherd, Miguel, Dirty Beaches, Frank Ocean, SMOD
Welcome to week two of Rhapsody Radar, our series highlighting 24 up-and-coming artists we're thrilled about, augmented with all manner of playlists, videos and other such ephemera. This week we've got a blog-rap sensation, a couple of idiosyncratic soul/R&B rookies, a small-town country belter and more. Take a look, and then take a listen.
Kreayshawn: The Improbable YouTube Rap Sensation
Picture it in skywriting above the Golden Gate Bridge: "Nobody gettin' over me/ I got the swag and it's pumping out my ovaries." Whether that's one giant leap for feminism or just a rallying cry for swag rap's female generation probably doesn't matter much to Bay Area native Kreayshawn. She raps about being an Adderall dealer; it's doubtful she cares what you think. Born Natassia Zolot, the 21-year-old rapper/filmmaker has enjoyed a meteoric career trajectory over the last year, dropping an Internet-acclaimed mixtape, earning accolades from the likes of Snoop Dogg, garnering many millions of YouTube views for her (ridiculously addictive) "Gucci Gucci," and, perhaps most important of all, establishing herself as down with hip-hop's most notorious crew, Odd Future.
Zolot's aesthetic is as compelling as it is bizarre: she's like an escapee from the Mickey Mouse Club raised by hip-hop kids on the streets of Oakland. It makes for music that at times is as goofy as Salt-n-Pepa's, and at others is as graphic as Tyler the Creator's. If Kreayshawn can develop it into a sound with appeal outside the insular swag-rap community which Columbia Records, who recently signed her, is betting she can then we may be witnessing the birth of one of the most puzzling, controversial pop stars since Lady Gaga. Garrett Kamps
Key Tracks: "Gucci Gucci," "Bumpin Bumpin"
Ashton Shepherd: The Small-Town Girl with the Huge Voice
When Ashton Shepherd's debut, Sounds So Good, was released in 2008, it offered a striking alternative to the country-pop fluff blasting across the airwaves. Shepherd, a native of Coffeeville, Ala., was proud of her small-town roots, and used her thick Southern twang to stellar effect. Steeped in pedal-steel guitars, her traditional sound put her on a "zig" trajectory while the country music machine was in full-on "zag" mode. Her latest single, "Look It Up," is a sassy kick-him-out-the-door anthem with clever lyrics (opening line: "The word is 'faithful'/ Look it up") punctuated by that trademark twang. It's become an anthem of sorts for fed-up ladies everywhere, creating near-riots when played live.
Shepherd wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 10 songs on her sophomore effort, Where Country Grows (out July 10), and admits to being slightly intimidated this time around, co-writing with some of the biggest names in Nashville (Dean Dillon and Bobby Pinson among them). But Shepherd dug deep and came up with a treasure trove of new, very personal songs, including "I Am Just a Woman" and "Rory's Radio" both of which she wrote herself. Other songs, like "Beer on a Boat" and "More Cows Than People," spotlight the positive side of small-town living, and are in written from the heart so beautifully, even the most hardened city slicker will think twice about what they're missing. And how often does that happen? Linda Ryan
Key Tracks: "Look It Up," "Sounds So Good," "Takin' Off This Pain," "Beer on a Boat"
Miguel: The Soul-Drenched Iconoclast
It has taken its slow, sweet time, but hip-hop-drenched soul crooner Miguel's debut single has gradually inched its way up the pop charts. That measured progress makes some sense: with its quietly slinky and dustily vintage grooves, subtle rock licks, and plaintive/provocative vocals (is he begging? balling? bawling?), "All I Want Is You" doesn't sound like much else on the club-obsessed charts. And that's just how this fiercely individualistic young artist likes it. Growing up in L.A., Miguel Jontel Pimentel steeped himself in a rich range of sounds: his dad's classic rock, old-school funk and soul, hip-hop of both the mainstream and underground varieties. When he started writing, all of it filtered into his music.
Such a heady brew wasn't an immediate or easy fit in the often-myopic music industry, but gradually, people started paying attention especially to Miguel's considerable skills as a songwriter. He worked his way up penning thoughtful, multilayered tunes for bigger artists: Musiq Soulchild, Asher Roth and, most prominently, Usher. (Miguel co-wrote much of Raymond v. Raymond.) In the meantime, he was hard at work on his own solo debut, which dropped in late 2010. Featuring production by Salaam Remi, All I Want Is You shimmers with Miguel's resonant tenor, a contemplative perspective on matters of both the club and the heart, and delicate glints of diverse, decades-spanning musical styles. It's a thoughtful and yet youthfully wide-ranging effort that showcases his exciting potential as both an artist and a proud iconoclast. He might not have an easy time of it, but he wouldn't have it any other way. Rachel Devitt
Dirty Beaches: The Noir-Pop Nomad
Dirty Beaches is an apt name for this project of Alex Zhang Hungtai. His lo-fi sound has an undercurrent of retro-breezy surf pop, but it's all locked in the trenches of minimalist industrial grime. A bit of a nomad his entire life, Hungtai was born in Taiwan, and has lived in China, Honolulu, Montreal and, most recently, Vancouver. That drifter lifestyle informs much of his music, which he began working on roughly half a decade ago, first releasing 7-inch singles and, finally, his debut album, Badlands, earlier this year. The record is eerie and evocative, painting monochromatic pictures of dark alleys, desolate open roads and seedy underground nightclubs from a past lifetime; the films of David Lynch are a palpable inspiration.
Hungtai is also enthralled with '50s and '60s pop culture. His epileptic yelps and detached mumblings hint at the King of Rock 'n' Roll, while his allusions to roads, cars and horses share the rebellious mystique of biker movies and spaghetti westerns. But what truly sets his retro stylings apart is a crunchy machinist grind that recalls Suicide. This juxtaposition creates a feeling of disquiet and doom that can be as enigmatic as the work of Nick Cave it can be a challenging, harrowing listen, but it's worth every minute. Stephanie Benson
Frank Ocean: The R&B Innovator
If you load Frank Ocean's much-lauded mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra into iTunes, it lists the genre as "bluegrass." You could interpret that two ways: either the New Orleans artist thinks he's too good for the R&B crowd, or he just wants to break the glass ceiling that too often keeps soul artists off the Coachella and Pitchfork Festival bills.
Let's just assume that Ocean wants to be considered an innovator equal to James Blake or any other heavily blogged newcomer. On Nostalgia, he intersperses sounds of a tape deck opening and shutting throughout, describes an "American Wedding" (aka an inevitable divorce) over the instrumental to the Eagles' "Hotel California," argues with a girl as Radiohead's "Optimistic" hums in the background, and closes with "Nature Feels," which appropriates music from MGMT's "Electric Feel." On "Songs for Women," he subtly weaves together impressions of several girls, including one who "keeps playing Trae in my car," and then ends by clowning on the dude who asks "if I sing songs to get my women." He forms a bridge between R&B love kings like The-Dream, the amniotic electronics of synth-pop, and the introspective droning of Kid Cudi and Drake.
Formerly known as Christopher Breaux, Ocean has been signed to Def Jam for years while collecting production and songwriting credits from Brandy, John Legend and others. His reported frustration with being stuck in label limbo a state that Sean Garrett, Johntá Austin and other talented songwriters with unrealized star ambitions know too well led him to first join forces with rising L.A. collective Odd Future, and then leak the long-gestating Nostalgia online in February. A resulting wave of critical acclaim led Def Jam to reclassify Ocean as a priority artist, issue "Novacane" as a radio single, and make plans for a retail release of Nostalgia this summer.
"Novocane" may be the most outrageous track on the album: it begins with Ocean and a girl meeting at Coachella ("I went to see Jigga, she went to see Z-Trip/ Perfect"), and ends with the two engaging in sex-and-drugs escapades. The single plays off Ocean's association with the lyrically debauched Odd Future, but it's not characteristic of the album's strengths. On "We Try," he declares his support for gay marriage (or "between love and love") and a woman's right to choose; then he makes love to a girl in the garden, purring "Tell me how my nature feels" with a mixture of sincerity and confidence. Next up: reported collaborations with Nas, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Mosi Reeves
Key Track: "Novacane"
Click here to listen to our Introducing Frank Ocean playlist
SMOD: The Familial Afro-Pop Firebrands
SMOD isn't the catchiest of names, but that awkward moniker nonetheless represents what this buzzy, hip-hop-infused Malian outfit is all about. The letters stand for the names of the band's three members: Sam, Ousco and Donsky, three friends who bonded over hip-hop in their teens, started working on their own classic rap albums and performing with a slew of Africa's hottest MCs, and slowly blended African pop and traditional sounds into their aesthetic. The 'M' stands for fourth friend Mouzy, who immigrated to Europe, though the group still considers him familyfamily and community being core parts of what this Bamako-based group is about. Sam is the son of much-beloved blind duo Amadou et Mariam, whose gentle yet dynamic Afro-pop is a clear influence; in fact, the group works out most of its creative processwriting, practicing, even recordingon the terrace of Amadou and Mariam's home. That's also the place where they met global pop star Manu Chao, who visited Bamako and fell so in love with what SMOD was doing that he produced their new, self-titled album, out in May.
The group's warm, nuanced tracks nonetheless often back a serious punch, building on hip-hop's propensity for anti-establishment critique, targeting politicians and even fellow musicians who might be ethically compromised. Sam, Mouzy and Ousco call their hybridized style "Afro-Rap," but it's more complex than that name implies: SMOD's sound bridges hip-hop and folk, African and American pop, yes. But it also excavates and exposes those points of intersection, finding ways to make each musical language speak to the topics and issues that impact both local and global communities. Rachel Devitt