Hits & Misses, Vol. 1: Catching up with Chance the Rapper, Beyonce, Solange

the gift

[Editor’s note: Sometimes an album doesn’t quite rise to the level of a full-length assessment, nor a full-throated endorsement; it can nevertheless be worthy of time and consideration. This post, the first in what’s intended as an occasional series, documents three noteworthy releases from the past few months, each of which offers something of value.]

Chance the Rapper, The Big Day

Theologian Dallas Willard has defined Christian joy as a “pervasive, constant sense of wellbeing,” rooted in the sovereign character of the Divine. It is to the enduring credit of Chicago’s Chance the Rapper that he has channeled this virtue better than anyone else in popular music, specifically across three well-received mixtapes that offer a hopeful countenance as a rebuke to cynical times. His confidence in the LORD is as buoyant as ever on The Big Day— his first proper album, Chance says, though the value of this distinction is nebulous. The problem is that the kind of joy Chance exudes is most affecting when it’s pushing back against something; Coloring Book cast him as a plucky underdog on the road to redemption, trusting God’s goodness to see him through fractious times. There’s not as much dramatic tension on The Big Day, its nearly 80 minutes chronicling the gladness of heart Chance felt at his wedding, when all his cares seemed so far away. No one begrudges him happiness, of course, but the scale of his joy isn’t quite as impressive when it starts up on the mountaintop rather than down in the valley; at worst it feels too easy, at best like it’s lacking critical context, a lighthouse beacon in search of shadows to scatter. His positivity spills over into the music itself, which is always admirable but only sometimes arresting. Despite some of the best technical rapping of his career, Chance allows himself to get dunked on over and over by the likes of Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, even his cousin Taylor Bennett. That he’s such a jovial, hospitable master of ceremonies speaks to the album’s generosity of spirit, even if it also makes it feel oddly uncentered, like an unruly parade of well-wishers who tend to overshadow the man of the hour. Chance designed the record as a tribute to all the music that pulls him out to the dancefloor, and it’s sequenced like a DJ set, alternating between ruthlessly taut beats and crowd-pleasing cheese. The intention is pure but the long runtime results in oversaturation: On the one hand, it’s genuinely exciting to hear Chance enlist both En Vogue and Kierra Sheard for the champagne-popping R&B “I Got You (Always and Forever),” and on “Ballin Flossin” he and Shawn Mendes sink their teeth into lite wedding-reception disco that’s surprisingly convincing. To unearth those gems, though, you’ve got to get through “Do You Remember,” a Death Cab for Cutie confection that sounds like white bread puree, plus some momentum-killing skits and the chirpy James Taylor remix “Get a Bag.”  Throughout, Chance looks upon his nuptials through rose-colored glasses, often coasting on good vibes but occasionally breaking through with commendable wisdom: He’s enough of a realist to know that not everyone who shows up for your wedding will support you through your marriage, that you’ve gotta include vacations in your five-year plan, and that believing in the sacred bonds of marriage has only ever been the province of “Zanies and Fools,” labels he wears with honor. Based on the album’s cool reception among critics, it’s fair to say that not everyone quite buys Chance’s relentless ebullience, nor his laudable reverence for marriage as an institution. Those critics won’t steal his joy, and he deserves some credit for that; but with any luck, the haters will be just loud enough to make Chance the Rapper sound defiant again come album #2. 

Beyonce, The Lion King: The Gift

No need to watch the Jon Favreau film, nor even to revisit the 1994 Disney original, for this movie tie-in to resonate. In fact, there was no reason for Beyonce to pepper her album with little snippets of dialogue from the movie, mercifully brief but totally superfluous in setting the scene. These songs, almost uniformly excellent, speak for themselves, and go even deeper than their source material in navigating the tension between personal destiny and cultural lineage. “BIGGER” beholds the vast expanse of the universe not with nihilistic remove, but with a sense of purpose and place; “MOOD 4 EVA” one-ups the jokey nonchalance of “Hakuna Matata” by reimagining it in the chest-pumping vernacular of hip-hop. A number of songs reflect pan-African pride that’s more specific and more deeply felt than Disney’s take on the Sarengheti, and nothing’s anything less than svelte and purposeful until you reach “SPIRIT,” which may or may not have been written with the members of the Motion Picture Academy in mind. What Beyonce really deserves is an award for lifetime achievement in A&R; her guest list is arguably more impressive than Chance the Rapper’s, and everyone from JAY Z to Tierra Whack to Burna Boy brings serious game.

Solange, When I Get Home

Allegedly, the album is dead… or at the very least on life support. Nobody told Solange, whose When I Get Home can’t be imagined as playlist fodder. Her previous A Seat at the Table won Pitchfork’s Album of the Year honor and a host of comparisons to classic R&B joints; it was a case study in clean, contoured songwriting, all of which is blown up for this free-flowing suite of synths and floating vocal hooks. Maybe it belongs on the same astral plane as Stevie Wonder’s pastoral Secret Life of Plants soundtrack, or even the shifting grooves of Miles Davis’ 70s records. You might miss her crisp formalism, but in its place you get the humid atmosphere of the Knowles’ family’s native Houston, bottled here for your consumption. These grooves abound with both musical and lyrical allusions to Solange’s geographic center, and to the way place can shape a person. For outsiders, these references are intriguing; for natives, they may very well feel like home.

Bluesmen Next Door: Familiar pleasures from Jimmie Vaughan, The Cash Box Kings

hail to the kings

When Adia Victoria released her album Silences— a chilling, modernistic reworking of Southern blues tropes— she framed it with a simple statement of purpose. “I want to make the blues dangerous again,” she told The New York Times. (Mission accomplished.) You just barely have to read between the lines of that manifesto to find the implicit critique of her chosen idiom, an insinuation that contemporary blues records have largely become comfortable, anodyne, and predictable. 

But what if predictability has its own rewards? Listen to Baby, Please Come Home, the latest album from stalwart bluesman Jimmie Vaughan, and you just might be persuaded. In a relaxed set of quasi-obscurities from the blues canon, Vaughan leads a crack band (complete with brass) through rolling, after-hours ballads and prickly, Chicago-style raves. All of it has the easy flow of a weeknight set at the local juke joint, to the point that you’ll hardly notice when Vaughan slips a couple of live recordings in with the studio cuts. 

It sounds basically like it could have been released at any point over the last 50 years, which happens to be how long Vaughan has been making music. His depth of expertise plays out in songs that follow familiar beats, and where rough edges have been sanded down into smooth contours. That’s not to say the record wants for electricity, but Vaughan is enough of a pro to understand the difference between showmanship and showboating: In the opening title cut, he inserts barbed-wire electric guitar frills between cheerful outbursts from the horn section, his pyrotechnics never threatening the song’s supple groove; when he does erupt into a solo, it’s clean, tuneful, and dexterous. 

This is blues as comfort food: Because you know all the marks well in advance, it’s easy to appreciate how ably Vaughan hits them. And if there’s tremendous power in Adia Victoria’s blues-as-exorcism, there are humble but nourishing pleasures in the way Vaughan transmutes the agony of love and the desolation of heartache into songs so casually, stoically joyful. In “Just a Game,” he’s content to croon rather than wail his blues, a mode he sticks to for most of the album; he’s more at ease playing the seducer than the shaman. In “Midnight Hour,” when he tells you he cried the whole night long, you’ll believe him, but you’ll also believe he’ll get over it. And in “I’m Still in Love with You,” amid humming organ and brushed percussion, he professes romantic devotion in terms that are ordinary and believable.

Blues music can be the most conservative of genres, often entangled in ideals of purity and authenticity. But it’s also an idiom that rewards connoisseurship; the more you know the tried-and-true playbook, the more you value refinement of craft when you hear it. Vaughan’s professionalism helps him to smoothly unfurl a catholic vision of the blues, one with enough space for both sly curveballs (simmering organ and crisp snare pops make “Hold It” a soulful instrumental vamp in the “Green Onions” vein) and feats of interpretation (Lefty Frizzel’s twangy “No One to Talk To [But the Blues]” is reimagined as moaning doo-wop). But the most substantial delights come from the warm chemistry of the band, nimbly navigating rhythms they know by heart. The closing “Baby, What’s Wrong” snarls and struts, swings and sways; it exhibits the deftness of bluesmen whose joy just gets deeper with time.

Another album to ratify the familiar pleasures of Chicago-style blues is Hail to the Kings!, roughly the seventh album from the Windy City’s own Cash Box Kings (give or take some live releases). This is a homegrown blues posse that’s happily devoid of mystique; they’re never anything less than friendly and unpretentious, and when they title a song “Bluesman Next Door,” it sounds like the perfect summary of their innate modesty. But don’t take their amiability for toothlessness: Hail to the Kings! is a loud and raucous good time, the beer-soaked, after-hours barnburner to Jimmie Vaughan’s elegant showstopper.

Like Vaughan, the Kings view blues music as the mouth of the river, but are unafraid to trace its various tributaries. Opener “Ain’t No Fun (When the Rabbit Got the Gun)” kicks off with a Church Berry guitar riff that quickly morphs into a jostling jump blues, complete with gritty Little Walter-style harmonica blasts from Joe Nosek; it sounds like both a faithful adaptation and a gentle remix of golden-era Chess Records. But if The Cash Box Kings are respectful of tradition, it’s never at the expense of good humor. Shemekia Copeland stops by for a bawdy duet called “The Wine Talkin,’” where two lovers scramble to make boozy excuses for their questionable decisions. Over the greasy grind and barroom piano of “Smoked Jowl Blues,” singer Oscar Wilson gets frisky about breakfast food, and leans into down-home ad-libs (“it ain’t nothin’ but bacon from a hog’s jaw, baby”). And in “Joe, You Ain’t from Chicago,” a jaunty Bo Diddley jam, Wilson and Nosek compete to see who’s the realest Chicagoan; would it surprise you to know that their points of contention are largely related to the city’s hallowed eating establishments?

The Cash Box Kings are faithful stewards of a lineage, but they also know how to accommodate modernity in ways both clever and courageous. In the former category there’s the album-closing “The Wrong Number,” an old-timey shuffle that chronicles text message (not landline) miscommunication. And as for the latter, listen to “Bluesman Next Door,” a study in not-in-my-backyard syndrome; Wilson bears witness to the hypocrisy of white audiences who celebrate black musicians on stage, but go deaf and blind with regard to real-life injustices that surround them. The song’s documentation of American racism is pointed enough to include the words “plantation” and “slavery.” Most blistering of all is “Jon Burge Blues,” a hometown protest number about a dirty cop who tortured the city’s black residents; it’s withering enough to cast a shadow over the rest of the album, contextualizing the rowdy good times and the downcast numbers alike. It’s why they sing the blues, and evidence enough that even a “predictable” blues album can pack substantive surprises. 

In Times Like These: Troubadour triumphs from Hayes Carll, Todd Snider

what it is

The sixth Hayes Carll album, What it Is, includes a song called “Fragile Men.” It’s about exactly what you think it’s about, and it’s even better than you might expect. “It must make you so damn angry they’re expecting you to change,” he sings, faux-commiserating with the eternally privileged and the permanently embattled. The subtext, of course, is that Carll (much like your humble critic) is a straight white male, the very demographic that’s high-risk for fragility. But God bless him, he’s doing what he can to stop the virus from spreading, using all the tools endowed to him by the folk tradition to put his privilege in its place: satire, storytelling, whimsy, historicity, some good old-fashioned protest tunes and some even better love songs. Does it need to be said that this is the richest Hayes Carll album yet?

He’s not the only member of his genus to inoculate against entitlement and apathy. Todd Snider— roughly the same level of straight, white, and male— draws from a similar battery of folk-tradition tools  on his casually brilliant Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. (Naturally, it’s the first entry in the series, a catalog joke borrowed from the Traveling Wilburys.) Together, these persuasive albums offer a welcome reassurance: There’s still plenty that dudes-with-guitars can do to speak a prophetic word into a world short on sanity. Long live folk singers.

For Carll, What it Is feels like a full flourishing; the snark and wiseassery of his early records are very much present, but they’re tempered with more empathy than ever before. It follows on the heels of Lovers and Leavers, a downcast and introspective divorce album that Carll made with Joe Henry, taken by some fans as a sign that Carll had gone soft; he hadn’t, but you know how people talk. Since then he’s married the singer and songwriter Allison Morrer, who co-wrote many of these new songs and co-produced the album with Brad Jones. It seems like a grounding partnership for Carll, who opens the record with a fiddle-led tune called “None’ya,” where two lovers take cheerful little digs at each other, their gentle jabs betraying obvious affection. It’s not performative happiness, but rather the natural glow of a couple who’ve found at long last a domesticity that suits them. It’s not a red herring, either; “Be There” is even more earnest in its devotion, a country love song that builds into orchestral elation.

There are tributaries of humility and compassion that flow through even the shit-talkingest songs on the album. “Fragile Men,” with its eerie backdrop of junkyard percussion, is Carll’s most strident note of moral witness-beating, and surely it’s no coincidence that it’s followed immediately by a swampy blues called “Wild Pointy Finger,” where the singer deflates his own knack for sanctimony. Elsewhere, on “Times Like These,” Carll rides a driving Chuck Berry groove and tries his best to downplay swiftly-escalating temperatures– maybe literal, maybe symbolic (“it’s sure gettin’ hot around here in times like these”). 

Pitched somewhere between the romantic songs and the topical ones are a couple of bona fide Hayes Carll classics; songs that speak to the times from a place of weary wisdom and battle-tested compassion. In “Jesus and Elvis”– a song way too good for Carll to leave it all for Kenny Chesney– the Lord and the King strike a truce in behalf of all who are heavy-laden, offering sweet salvation in multiple flavors (“so if you need a shot of Dickel or redemption…”). And in “American Dream,” written with Moorer, Carll remembers that beneath all the outrage and all the issues there are people who are just looking to find their slice of heaven, often getting trampled in the process. Carll, like so many dudes-with-guitars before him, sings for them.

Snider doesn’t have a guru like Allison Moorer in his corner, though on at least one of his new songs he gets a supernatural assist from “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.” It’s not as surprising as you might think. After all, Snider recorded Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 in Cash’s old bungalow, and it’s mostly just him singing and plucking at a guitar or a banjo. (Jason Isbell, who recently produced a fine Josh Ritter album, shows up to sing and play on “Like a Force of Nature,” and he and Amanda Shires roll into the hootenanny spirit of the album-closing “A Timeless Response to Current Events.”) The songs crackle with live immediacy, and the set flows with the easeful grace of an impromptu open-mic set, right down to a brief spoken-word “Dedication” for one song and what sounds like an unscripted “Explanation” for another.

The economy of these recordings leaves Snider nowhere to hide: The charm of Cash Cabin Sessions is purely in his formal command, his rich imagination, and his impish humor. You can hear a little of all three on “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a historic survey of how the entertainment industry’s been slowly eroding our ideals and our norms at least since Milton Berle. Snider has it both ways by ratifying a familiar form and also breaking the fourth wall to comment on it; go along with his art-as-criticism and criticism-as-art and you’ll be rewarded with a devastatingly pithy summation of the rise and fall of Michael Jackson (“reality killed that video star”). And if you like that one, just wait til he gets to the part about the 45th President.

Not every song is so barbed; “Like a Force of Nature” ennobles the aging process, and the harmonica-puffin’ “Watering Flowers in the Rain” empathizes with an Elvis roadie who dreams of seeing his own name in marquee lights. But the songs that define the album are the ones where Snider brings his wit to bear on the state of our fracture, which happen to be the album’s most formally sophisticated. He plucks away at “The Blues on Banjo” to trace dark money’s influence from the French Revolution through the Iraq War, but also to comment on an American minstrelsy tradition that responds to real evil with artificial sanguinity (“so zippity-doodah, motherfucker, zippity-ay”). “A Timeless Response to Current Events” is a bravura showcase for free-associative rhymes and dense allusions, but it turns out the most eloquent protests are often the simplest: “Ain’t that some bullshit?” goes the sing-along chorus.

These sharp Snider songs may put you right back in Carll’s headspace, and particularly the state of mind he conjures in What it Is standout “If I May Be So Bold.” The title portends bloviation and the jostling rhythm suggests a con man’s hubristic hustle, but actually it’s a straightforwardly aspirational rallying cry for troubadours everywhere. “There’s a whole world out there waitin’/ Full of stories to be told/ And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all/ If I may be so bold.” It’s a statement of purpose that both he and Snider live up to, and it’s never seemed more badly needed than in times like these.