First Listen #44: Latrell James’s ‘Under’

I was just minding my business yesterday, listening to some stuff for the Discover Weekly that was supposed to come out today, when I found out that LATRELL JAMES WAS DROPPING A PROJECT TODAY!!?????!!! SHAKING. IN. MY. BOOTS!!!!!!!!! “No Law” came up on my Release Radar on Spotify, and the beginning of it sounds SO MUCH like Vince Staples’s “Blue Suede.” I was lurking around Latrell’s Instagram and Twitter (I don’t go on either that often, to find if there was a connection there or not, and was greeted by the news that Under (2020) was coming out in like 15 hours. So there I was. Sitting in the living room. LOSING MY MIND. We love Latrell James over here. He just quite simply makes really good music and seems like a really great person (for reasons not limited to the fact that he liked my Album Look Back on Still (2019) and shared it…he ain’t have to do that, and I tear up about it once a month lol 🥺); and it’s obvious from the things he makes that creating music is something that he lives. Still has been one of those projects that has sat with me for a long time, and “Grateful” has been absolutely essential to keeping my head above water over the past six months. I really can’t put into words how much I love that song, but according to Last.fm, I’ve listened to it at least 104 times so far this year (105 ’cause I’m listening to it rn lol), so there’s that. Needless to say, it was very necessary for me to wake up right at 12am today to listen to Under.

Photo Credit: https://www.facebook.com/LatrellJamesMusic/photos/a.366718100032328/3293080037396105/

2020: Under

(via Spotify)

Not surprised at all that I loved listening to this as much as I did; I already liked it after the first listen, but it hit me a little bit different on a second go around. One thing that was clear about this project from the jump – and was something that I experienced while listening to “No Law” for the first time – is that this was not a group of tracks I could listen to while doing something else. It was definitely a project that I had to actively listen to – at least for the first two listens. I was scrolling through my phone a little bit, while listening to “Run Forrest” and had to start it over a couple of times because I felt like I was missing moments in the song, so eventually I just threw my phone to the other side of the bed and finished listening. It became a bit of a meditative moment. I needed to be fully present, which is something I’ve been trying to be more intentional about anyway. And it’s a lot easier with a shorter project like Under; you kind of have zero excuse to not just put your phone down and give Latrell your full attention.

Latrell packs a LOT in a little bit of time, which, if you’ve listened to Still or Twelve (2015), you know isn’t a new thing for him. But it’s not an easy thing to do, so he deserves a lot of credit for that. It’s easy to make a 25-song project with a bunch of 5 minute songs (look at me, talking like I make music and know things for a fact lol), but to be intentional about your craft and create an entire experience in a 15 minute project over the span of six two-ish minute songs requires a lot more patience and work. And Latrell does that here.

“I’m grabbin’ life by the throat”

Latrell James, “When”

There were moments that I enjoyed on each of the songs on Under. Latrell continued his streak of giving us fire intro tracks with “Run Forrest.” Loved the production on this track a LOT. “You’ll Be Fine” was one of a few little inspirational moments on this project. I think part of what makes these tracks so successful for Latrell is that they’re never divorced from reality. Like, he doesn’t try to make it seem like doing and feeling good comes without weathering some unsavory stuff. Latrell opens up – generally in his music, but particularly here – about things in his life that feel unsettled or unsettling, but continues to affirm that things will be alright in the end. So his openness makes the “you’ll be fine” feel real. Small tangent, but I’m remembering now when I watched IDK’s interview with Mike Tyson last year. I had a whole 20 minute conversation with myself about how if IDK told me “you can do it” I’d believe him before I believed someone like Kanye or Beyoncè, which may or may not be different for you. There’s a level of humanness that I feel from IDK that doesn’t really exist with someone like Kanye or Beyoncè, who has kind of ascended to a level past human (I talk in my thesis about the difficulty of Black folks being seen has either subhuman or superhuman – excuse my moment of hypocrisy…I need it to make a point lol). And I think that same thing applies to Latrell, where hearing “you’ll be fine” from him doesn’t feel empty or unreachable…if that makes sense? It’s like he’s telling himself that, as much as he’s telling us.

me when Latrell said that I’ll be fine

“No Law” was just as good with the rest of the project as it was by itself. There was a call back to his song “Okay” in there that I missed the first time I listened to it (the “rule number one, don’t trust politicians” line) that I screamed at when I caught it; that was the song that introduced me to Latrell’s music, so to miss that felt like betrayal. The track gives me the same vibe as “End of Daze” by Spillage Village, “End the Reign” by Fishbone, and “Algorhythm” by Childish Gambino. It’s the heavy, slightly chaotic, musical moment on the project that feels very much like 2020 put into a song, and it stands out much more with it sandwiched between two tracks that have a completely different feel to them.

“When” gave me “One Call” vibes from Still. I’ve already talked before about how Latrell is very much a “keep the folks you love close to you” type of person, and this is that same energy. Which I love! Especially for right now; it acts equally as a reminder to us to love our loved ones (and a reminder that good things are coming for us and Latrell!). “Spoiled Millennial” has my favorite moment on the project; the transition to the second part of the song had me SHOOK. If I had a wig, it would have flown off into the STRATOSPHERE at that point.

I do think, though, that “Help” is my favorite song from Under. It IMMEDIATELY reminded me of Saba (who I also love), specifically Saba’s CARE FOR ME (2018), and more specifically “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME,” the project’s last track. If you play “Help” and “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME” back to back, you might feel something. I think it’s called “feeling alive”??? And I say that jokingly, but like…I’m serious lol. There’s something so human, vulnerable, and visceral about both of these tracks that isn’t necessarily absent from the other songs on either project, but it’s hyper-apparent here. There’s also a very beautiful moment on both, where Latrell and Saba both kind of leave us in the song by ourselves? Like, the verses stop before the production/instrumentation, so there’s a few seconds (about 30ish in both), where you’re just sitting as the song continues. And I don’t know. Something about listening to those two moments back to back was really impactful for me. We’re left with the message of “it’s coming your way” on “Help” and “there’s heaven all around me” on Saba’s track. And that kinda echoes throughout the rest of each song (metaphorically), and you’re able to just sit and meditate in those final lines.

It’s not a grand ending a la “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America?” on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2013) or “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” a la Tyler the Creator’s IGOR (2019); there’s no gigantic and crescendoing musical moment. But it’s an ending that you kind of take a deep breath after and just exist. LOL I keep bringing in the idea of being present, being in the moment, or “just [existing],” but that’s what this project does for me! And as I get older, I find myself craving music like that more. Don’t get me wrong, I love a song that’s flashy and exuberant. And I’ve been know to move my shoulders to an ignorant track or two. But I also love being able to feel a human to human connection with the artist and the stories they tell in their music. Saba has this really great quote in a Genius annotation for “LIFE,” where he says if someone else wrote that track “it could have the same structure, the same format, and they can just change the moments, the chronological parts…and [that’s] what a lot of people do in how they relate to it. ‘Cause they listen to it from their own life” instead of his. And I think this quote sums up the way Latrell’s music moves for me as well and why (speculatively, of course) folks gravitate towards the things he makes. He very much writes from his own experiences, but there’s a level of transferability there.

When you’re as talented as Latrell James, you make great things. Under is a great thing. I saw him mention that he feels that this is his best group of songs, and something about him leaving “Grateful” and “Tracphone” in the dust like that made me feel a way. But I’m not gonna argue with it lol. I will say that Latrell stays true to what I’ve experienced – in his previous work – on this project. We get the introspection, moments of “damn, I’m really getting older,” moments of “love your loved ones,” subtle and overt social commentary, and him talking to us by talking to himself – all on some fire production. But packaged differently than what we’ve gotten before. And it’s not a “stays true” that doesn’t display growth; there’s plenty of that. Artistically and creatively, Latrell goes places that he hasn’t gone before. But it’s proof positive that Latrell is grounded in who he is (or at least seems to be lol we’re all just floating out here on a rock at the end of the day), and that comes through in his music.

Guess I’m gonna continue to stan ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Overall Project Rating

Featured Image via Latrell James’s Facebook


(listen to Under on Spotify by clicking the image below)

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3 thoughts on “First Listen #44: Latrell James’s ‘Under’

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