A. Armstrong – Retrolution – Album Review
Aside from Microsoft Word not wanting to allow me to write A. Armstrong in the title without it attempting to indent and re-space the name to A. Armstrong – there’s been no struggle at all in listening to this record and typing the review. Not going to lie to you…I spent a good ten-minutes on the issue as I have a massive need for symmetry and cohesion in the projects I create…as best I can. But I managed to take in the positive-vibes I was hearing in the music and message of A. Armstrong and become less offended by Microsoft’s need to edit my material. I began to take it like it would be the answer to a question asked…like someone asked what a great combination of social commentary, religious insight, old-school hip-hop and genuine desire to outwork the rest would sound like…and the answer from a multiple-choice quiz naturally came back as:
Because while it might have only been a theoretical multiple-choice quiz…it also might be the one & only solid answer to that question once you start listening to A. Armstrong’s Retrolution if you were to think about it – this guy is more than impressive throughout this entire mixtape. With rhymes that are in-depth, layered and revealing – A. Armstrong has put in the work on Retrolution and you can absolutely hear it from writing to performance to production and final-mix. A diverse catalog of samples ideas and flawless execution all snap together perfectly on this mixtape…A. Armstrong has most likely earned a strong nod of approval from every set of ears within earshot of this record, I have no doubt.
Though I’ll say this…without repeat-listens…these words come at you quickly and the messages are written in tricky ways that you’ll really have to hear a few times to fully absorb; sometimes I wasn’t always sure which side of the ‘argument’ that A. Armstrong was on throughout the record. He stands up for the voiceless, which I appreciate…but I’m not sure I’ve been convinced that the courtesy extends to those outside of his religion…it’s tough to say. There are a few things I heard that made me question his love of everyone as opposed to the more select group of people that follow the doctrine. After a quick intro through the “Fred Hampton Intro” and setting the tone, mood and atmosphere immediately with an old-school funk to the bass that can’t be denied – the bass carries on to be a presence in the “Retrolution Prelude (Victory)” where we hear Armstrong’s words, voice and lyrics for the first time. Confident, clear and precise – he raps flawlessly and makes a statement about what he’s here to do and what he’s all about. Whether you’ll agree with it all…hard to say…again, there’s a lot of good in his intentions…but he’s also taken some time to single out certain groups of personalities and maybe over-generalized their role on this planet…at this point it’s a little unclear on where A. Armstrong would stand on the LGTBQ, know what I mean? I’m not sure there’s an acceptance of that in Armstrong’s world yet. Not that any album should be defined by that…but it seems as if a lot of what’s said in “Retrolution Prelude (Victory)” is said to open the door on that conversation so I figure it’s fair game to bring it up.
Besides…as you listen to “Just Call Me” and “People Make The World Go Round” you’d have to figure I’m hearing this wrong somehow anyway. Armstrong makes himself known to be a champion of the people and against hate in all forms throughout these two songs…so…you see what I mean…I’ve GOTTA be wrong in my suspicions and clearly he’s smart enough to know that we’re all equal no matter what religion, sexual orientation or anything else that’s part of what defines us. Right? I’ve gotta put away my natural critical-instincts here and assume the best of Armstrong here. On the religious front – he’s incredibly well-versed on the subject and can literally rhyme-in specific chapters and reference-points within the bible throughout his rap! Not even kidding – I’ve said many times that religious music needs a real champion to emerge…there are far too many people sharing a thought process that have no music to relate to that it’s almost staggering. Aside from a very, very select few bands/artists out there that have experienced a modicum of success, it’s a category/genre of music that is almost non-existent on a global-scale despite having what could potentially be the largest audience out there in the world. Armstrong works-in his messages, interpretations, thoughts and insights among the music more subtly throughout the opening than he does on “Just Call Me” which has him right up-front and demonstrating skills, knowledge, confidence with incredible writing, rhythm and flow alongside the beat.
I’ve often felt…and well, I STILL feel…that most ‘mixtape’ artists out there tend to say a lot of what they need to say through their transitions and samples. I think the samples in “People Make The World Go Round” not only sound awesome and perfectly mixed into the music – but I also think at the heart of it all, it’s moments like this that offer more insight into what Armstrong is about than anything he might say himself. That’s not a knock on him or his writing…it’s kind of more like how we all feel about writing our own biographies…we can do it – but sometimes someone else out there has already said exactly how we feel about something and we identify with those words enough to have them represent who we are. “People Make The World Go Round” also takes the energy down a notch and chills-out the vibe for a moment; Armstrong made a solid choice in doing that here, it adds versatility and flexibility to the atmosphere early on in Retrolution and really brings out the conviction and strength to his words. He’s got a ton of valid observations on “People Make The World Go Round” and really offers some beautiful insight in amongst some truly thought-provoking social-commentary.
“Straighten It Out” makes use of the talents of Elder Tyronne Brown for the second of three-times on this record…he sounds great mixed into the music with a real soul-sound to his voice that adds perfectly to Armstrong’s old-school-infused beats. “Straighten It Out” is another track that puts on a real clinic for how emcees can/should string their words together in perfect harmony with the metering of the music – Armstrong is flawless each time he grips the microphone on this track and throughout Retrolution with the kind of strength that makes you realize quickly just how clearly he was born to write rhymes and rap it all out for us to hear. Combining messages, personal beliefs, doctrine references and an awesome beat that roams through all the corners of the old-school playground, “New Style” brings it all back to the roots while taking it all forward. A real medley of different beats, sounds and styles – in under three-minutes Armstrong takes you through what sounds like the entire history of hip-hop on “New Style” – a real highlight when it comes to showing how many layers of depth there are to his abilities.
Seriously…the guy’s selection of samples is incredible. Listening to the “Reflection Of God” – I KNOW for a fact that this song in its original form would not be ANYTHING I’d listen to willingly…I KNOW that. I might not turn it off if I was in the room…but I’d never be putting that on myself…and yet, here I am, listening to this jam from Armstrong and all I want to do is turn this UP! Really smart combination and blending of ideas & sound on “Reflection Of God” – and it’s right around here that I felt more than anything that our man A.A. began to go on a real roll that kept the energy of his eighteen-song epic right up to the rafters and our attention & interest on-high.
Because if you’re the kind of person that thinks for any reason that somehow an indication of religious-beliefs would imply that a dude can’t be HARD or show some real aggression – think again – Armstrong is about to bring it! “Beats To The Rhyme” is less than two-minutes long and the whole rhyme just rips-by bar-after-bar with a professional-precision and emphasis hitting all the right syllables, every time. Some of my favorite lyrics on the entire Retrolution record come straight from this track…a real case of it’s not just what he says, but the way that he says it; his understanding of his writing, his message, his mission all leads to an incredible confidence that is audibly intoxicating to listen to. I felt the same towards “Knowledge Supreme;” which while it might incorporate a smoother-vibe and more-gentle tempo…that conviction and belief in the words he spits into the mic is nothing short of admirable. A big fan of the beat and feel to “Knowledge Supreme” and throughout these past three-tracks, Armstrong has really held-up Retrolution where many modern-day albums tend to drag slightly. This album never stops jamming, never stops being entertaining and the moment it starts to repeat is the same moment you realize that you’ll want to spend another full-rotation listening to Retrolution – it instantly grabs you and really never, ever, lets you go.
And JUST when you think it can’t get any better…the best of the best of Armstrong comes out in “ME.” I try not to cite any one specific track as my favorite in any review that I write, but sometimes something stands-out so brilliantly that a guy just can’t help it. Even I’m kind of baffled by it – I like the music, but it’s not my favorite from the record if I was to only examine that…there are other beats that I liked more, but this one WORKS SO WELL with the lyrics that the combination and total sum of its parts is incredibly strong. “ME” basically says it all…I honestly don’t know how much of the story is ‘story’ as opposed to the ‘way it actually is’ – but I’d assume that this tale represents the real story behind Armstrong’s rise to the microphone and doing what he does today. It is described with extraordinary detail and perfectly told – every second of this track is right in the place that it should be; every word, every syllable possesses an energy and bounce that grinds perfectly along with the beat.
And then…to cap it all off…A. Armstrong literally says everything I’ve been thinking about his music all along, right there out in the open: “You ain’t gotta agree, but you can’t name an artist with more passion than me.” After listening to Retrolution in-full…I’d be seriously inclined to agree.
“Lamb’s Blood On The Doorpost” puts one of the more diverse & extreme beats onto the record…a little closer to the feeling of “Beats To The Rhyme” in terms of its straightforward intensity. After a quick sample intro, Armstrong steps to the mic and delivers a solid, confident verse that never quits. Seriously…I’m not sure he even got an air during the minute-plus he rhymes in – he just rolls and rolls and rolls along, lyrically-struttin’ skills and strollin’ through his music. He’s put in the work and practiced these all perfectly pre-recording I’d assume…everything I’ve heard on Retrolution sounds like owns his material completely when it comes time to push record. Though…you can definitely tell that a song like “It Takes II” really shows that dedication and time spent listening to the greats in hip-hop…so those old-school instincts are bound to be ingrained in him by now…but still, there’s nothing I’d take away from Armstrong in his music, he’s completely his own man and doing his own thing no matter what. He possesses an inspirational amount of determination that I certainly respect.
Another track that was a favorite of mine was “Vapors.” The message in this track is massively-strong and something that I think that a lot of people can relate to. Lyrically, Armstrong has once again carved out a perfect flow to his words that fits the music with insane-levels of perfection. “Vapors” really speaks to a lot of musicians out there as well…a lot of it deals with the feelings of never really being heard, especially by the ears we care about most. How when we pass out our CD’s or music that they end up on the shelves instead of the players and stereos they’re designed for…and how the music he’s making is meant to be PLAYED and not collecting dust. “Vapors” makes clear the intent of Armstrong’s sentiment and really explains a lot about what’s important from the artist’s perspective…again, something I think that many of you out there will be able to strongly relate to.
The longest song on the record is also one of the most powerful by far…for many it’ll be the strongest track on the record, and I’d probably agree with that in every conversation no matter how I feel about “ME.” Some things in life are more important than “ME” – and Armstrong knows that too…that’s why he made this record and why songs like “What’s Love?” exist. By his own admission – he knows this is the kind of subject that you ‘don’t write songs about’ – but thankfully, he’s insightful enough to know that this is the exact kind of subject that NEEDS to have a strong voice and the kind of subject that SOMEONE needs to speak on. Brave enough to take that mission on; “What’s Love?” deals with rape and delivers a tough narrative on the personal-impact this kind of tragedy can induce. The female vocals included deserve an AWARD…they’re crushingly heartbreaking and personal…and the final words are so incredibly NECESSARY for so many people out there to hear that I want nothing else but to thank and applaud Armstrong for making this track available for those ears that need it to be able to hear it. Incredibly personal, incredibly powerful and incredibly strong – “What’s Love?” is a massive highlight.
Armstrong has played this mixtape smartly throughout…the flow is completely in-place and on-point. I thought for sure that there would be no way to follow-up “What’s Love?” with anything that would make an impact…it’d be one of the toughest spots on the record to do so and one of the hardest atmospheres/subjects to switch-back out of and back into the good-times. Magically…I think he pulled this off with another huge masterstroke of genius – I LOVED “John Doe Vigilante Interlude.” Even though this track doesn’t actually have Armstrong on it…again…this is where the artist often speaks more clearly than when they’re even on the mic – and this is that time. The vocal sample in “John Doe Vigilante Interlude” is massively-powerful, strong, bold and dramatic; nestled-in amongst one of the softest-vibes and gentle-musical atmospheres on this entire record – those words spring to vibrant life in our ears and resonate strongly within us while we listen.
He continues to speak his truth…and while I agree with all of the racial-aspects of the subject of “A Salute To Paris (P-Dog The Bush Killa)” and would never deny the current problem that exists in the world when it comes to racially-inspired killings…he does eventually go back into the LGTBQ territory as well by the end of this short track. He’s courageous enough to speak his truth whether or not we agree – and I respect that. I also know that, because of that trait in his personality, he’ll have no real choice but to accept that I personally don’t agree with many of his arguments when it comes to this particular issue…respectfully of course. He speaks his truth…I gotta speak mine too – that’s why I’m here. “Pillar Of Hope” even takes it there for a verse too…in amongst a whole-pile of love and good-time vibes…I just find it surprising that a person that is so completely focused on the positive even takes a moment to drift into a slightly sexist-attitude every now & again. Perhaps it’s me…maybe I’ve got the wrong read on it…I just think his message of inspiration and positivity would probably make more of an impact without exposing that in the lyricism. That being said…”Pillar Of Hope” also takes on priests that end up molesting kids too…and I think that took some courage to bring up on an album that supports God from so many of its corners. Armstrong is clearly unafraid to bring-up, talk-about or rhyme-on any subject…again – I got a lot of love and respect for that kind of conviction and character in a person.
I know…I know…I know…I’m into my 5th page here…BUT…c’mon – the best albums that we listen to give us a lot to think about and talk about. What’s worse than a five-line review whereby someone just says the same thing as the dude before in a slightly different order? I think Retrolution has given me an incredible amount to think about, a lot to examine, and an overall vibe that can’t be ignored. It’s been completely interesting all the way through and flowed perfectly throughout; the final track “Wishing On A Star” really ended this experience perfectly. Leaving Armstrong nearly all on his own throughout the beginning – his final words ring-out clearly and possess every ounce of the confidence that he began the record with. His consistency in performance, matching the music to the words, and his attitude are all completely professional and have a real power to be admired…and I think that deep-down, Armstrong really does have love for all. I think that some of the words on Retrolution reflect his search for that acceptance and struggle to find it at times…but I also think that it also speaks a ton to how much love the guy really does have and the good of his overall intentions.
Beyond all – I appreciate an album with a real point of view and one that gives me something to really think about. I could go on for another five-pages I’m sure, but I’m also way behind on putting this review out there. I’ve had this album for a while now…but I wanted to make sure that I got what I wanted to say out right…and after listening to the care and precision that Armstrong has put into every word & syllable on Retrolution…I know he’ll respect that, wordsmith to wordsmith.
Find out more about A. Armstrong at his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/page/227341624131088
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