Various artists, "Star Wars Headspace" (Hollywood Records). How's this for a dream gig? The beat producers were given the keys to the "Star Wars" kingdom by producer Rick Rubin and invited to use the franchise's various sound effects and dialogue however they saw fit. The result is a bleep and bloop party featuring new work by artists including Flying Lotus, Shlohmo, Kaskade, Royksopp and Claude VonStroke. Rubin, long a behind-the-boards presence, even steps into the spotlight to offer his own track, called "NR-G7," as well as a remix.
Each of the 15 tracks is distinctive. Flying Lotus' "R2 Where R U" samples dialogue of C-3PO calling out for his robot buddy. In typical Lotus fashion, the beat is wobbly as the snares jump in and out of time, and oddball R2-D2 bleeps dot the measures. Superstar DJ and producer Kaskade builds his track on minor-key piano chords and the droid C-3PO pondering his existence ("I'm typical," he says). Darth Vader's exhalations serve as rhythm tracks on Miami techno team GTA's "Help Me!," which is centered on Princess Leia's exhortation to Obi Wan Kenobi. The force is strong with this one.
BJ Tha Chicago Kid, "The New Cupid" (Motown). On this new track by the Midwestern soul singer, an Isaac Hayes-suggestive bass line, a Raphael Saadiq sample and strings guide a needle-crackling groove as the young singer faces a hard truth in delicate falsetto: "The responsibility lies on me since Cupid ain't around." The cherub is too busy "in the club, at the bar, rolling up." In BJ's voice and writing you can hear the sound of smooth Midwest soul – Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis tones effortlessly updated and reconfigured. Last year at a private gig at Mack Sennett Studios, BJ delivered a memorable set alongside soul veteran Lee Fields and songwriter and producer Raphael Saadiq. I left convinced that BJ should be famous.
This record has been a long time coming. Best known for a series of mixtapes and vocal hooks on tracks by Chance the Rapper, Freddie Gibbs and Schoolboy Q, BJ (born Bryan James Sledge) signed to Motown a few years ago and started working on the follow-up to his indie debut, "Pineapple Now-Laters." The finished record, called "In My Mind," came out Friday and features guest verses from Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T. and Chance the Rapper. Lamar's verse, in fact, caps "The New Cupid." After BJ tries to deliver his message to Cupid — "If you see him let him know love is gone, a no-show" — Lamar glides in for a lovelorn set of lyrics that name-checks the Commodores before moving into lines exploring an existential crisis. Love is gone, he confides. What could possibly take its place?
Mavis Staples, "Jesus Lay Down Beside Me" (Anti-). A seeker of light and an explorer of darkness meet in a recording studio Taken from Staples' new M. Ward-produced album "Livin' on a High Note," the song was written by Australian musician and writer Nick Cave, whose work with the Birthday Party, Bad Seeds and Grinderman often chews at the gristle of evil.
"Jesus Lay Down Beside Me" is a ballad that offers comfort to her savior rather than vice versa. After Staples sings the title phrase, she asks Jesus to "lay down and rest your troubled mind." Why's he in a knot? Because, sings Staples in quivering voice, "the truth has fallen on deaf ears." Few can comfort like Staples, and Cave's empathetic lines are handcrafted to highlight her voice. Elsewhere on "Livin' on a High Note" Staples offers renditions of songs written for her by Neko Case, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus and others.
Various Artists, "Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol. 1" (Gqom Oh!). The gritty, minimal instrumental tracks that constitute this collection were made by upstart producers based in and around Durban, South Africa. Created in rough-and-tumble townships, the music is unlike any new beat music you'll hear this year.
Think Kanye West's "Yeezus." Each track is filled with volumes of empty space surrounding a rigid, echoed beat. Forgotten Souls' "Sgubhu 6 (Gqom Edit)" enters with an abrasive but simple snare pattern and reverberating tones that sound like sheets of aluminum dropping into an abandoned warehouse. A melody doesn't arrive until nearly three minutes, and when it does it brings beauty to the harsh repetition like a daisy sprouting in a sidewalk crack. Jules Da Deejay mixes a bass-kick beat with layers of finger-snaps, and as the track ascends he dots the bars with cut-and-paste vocal snippets and sampled grunts.