A bit less wrenchingly, the album also pays tribute to Johnson, the guitarist, who died this year, and the soul and R&B singer Teena Marie, who died in 2010. A track called Ball & Chain represents one of Marie’s final recordings, and despite some indifferent lyrics, it’s a strong and sinuous performance; Duke is good at making those happen.
He’s a little less good at filtering out the clunkier aspects of his music. The low point here is a treacly pop ballad called Change the World, featuring a small army of guest vocalists, like BeBe Winans, Lalah Hathaway and Freddie Jackson. (There’s no danger of confusing it with the identically titled Eric Clapton hit, or with Michael Jackson’s Heal the World.) Nearly as cringeworthy, for different reasons, is Round the Way Girl, which casts Duke as a leering old man.
So skip those, and seek out the moments on DreamWeaver that ratify Duke’s mastery with vintage synthesizers: a Prophet 5, an Arp Odyssey, a Minimoog, a clavinet. Or head straight to a Latin ballad called You Never Know, which illuminates his stature among next-wave fusionistas like Thundercat and Flying Lotus. Duke does some of his best singing on that track, in a breathy but urgent falsetto, and his message of uncertainty is poignant. “Embrace the cold, go through the rain,” he sings. “Accept the things we cannot change.”
— NATE CHINEN, NY Times News Service
TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS
We the Best/Cash Money/Universal Republic
There’s been no greater act of hip-hop bandwagoneering this year than Ace Hood’s Bugatti. It’s a surge of triumphalism from a rapper who doesn’t appear to have earned it, but what carries the song is the hook, by Future, which sounds as if it were melting out of the speakers, in that characteristic Future way. This isn’t Future at his most creative, but the digitally decaying voice is there — it’s a gift, and it does the work so that Ace Hood doesn’t have to.
The result is Ace Hood’s biggest hit in a five-year career, and what does he do with the currency that a success of this scale has earned him? Unexpectedly, he makes the most socially conscious mainstream rap album of the year thus far.
Granted, this is a preposterously low bar in 2013. The end-zone dance that is Bugatti is far more in keeping with hip-hop’s prevailing mood, and half of this album tries to match it but falls short. But most of the rest of Trials & Tribulations is far darker and more reflective — it’s music for bad moods and self-doubt. Turns out that Ace Hood is obsessed with poverty, redemption, broken families, religiosity, Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till. Plenty of rappers give lip service to the same things, but usually as a means to celebrating overcoming long odds. On songs like Another Statistic, Hope and The Come Up, Ace Hood sounds happy to be mired in the difficult stuff. They sound as if they were teleported in from the early 1990s, when there wasn’t shame in struggle.
But while Ace Hood is occasionally a nimble rapper, he’s rarely an effective one. He raps quickly in a thick, gluey voice, with little tonal variance, like endlessly striking one key on the piano. This is his fourth album, a milestone many better rappers haven’t reached, but he has the blessing of powerful benefactors: DJ Khaled, to whose label he is signed, and now the Cash Money cartel, including Birdman and Lil Wayne.