Albums of 2014 #1: Run The Jewels: Run The Jewels 2


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More than once I have seen Run The Jewels described as hip hop’s answer to Hollywood’s “odd couple/ buddy cop” duos, and whilst I’m sure they would rather die than admit to any affinity with America’s law enforcement right now (I’ll come back to that later), let’s run with the movie analogy for a minute and flash back to the origin story… The year is 2010; Michael “Killer Mike” Render, a 35 year-old Atlanta, Georgia black man ten years into a rap career that has never really reached the stratospheric heights it has always threatened to, is introduced to Jaime “El-P” Meline, a 35 year-old white New Yorker whose own rap skills have thus far been overshadowed by his outstanding innovations in the field of hip hop production. El crafts a whole album’s worth of beats for Mike, who responds by adding his most enthusiastic, energised performances to date. The resulting record, R.A.P. Music, is released two years later to unanimous critical acclaim, just weeks before El-P’s third full-length Cancer 4 Cure – itself the finest and most well-received work in its creator’s solo discography. During this period, and in the months that follow, living together on a shared tour bus, the two bond over common interests (chief among them marijuana and the curvier aspects of the female form) and become best friends; not showbiz pals, but real best friends. They decide to form a proper musical partnership, and name it Run The Jewels, after a slang term for robbing someone of their watch, rings, chains etc.; they record an album in a matter of weeks, with both men tag-team rapping over Meline’s production which they then proceed to release as a free download, and which attracts even more praise than the previous year’s solo joints. Emboldened by the positive reaction, they head straight back to the studio to work on a follow-up…

…Flash forward to 2014. Unleashed upon the world just in time for Halloween, Run The Jewels’ second album was a blockbuster smash, a sequel in the same mould as better-than-the-original classics like The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight: longer, darker and more bombastic than its already awesome predecessor, RTJ2 was bigger and better in pretty much every way. For a start, Mike and El seemed to take themselves more seriously this time around – which isn’t to say that their debut was in any way slight; it was just obvious to anyone with ears that both men were having so much fun during the sessions that the end result occasionally sounded like, well, two guys goofing around. Here they sounded more focused, as if the first record’s success had instilled in them a renewed sense of self-belief, and provided reassurance that there really was an audience out there (outside of the die-hards that had followed Mike since his first guest spots with Outkast, and El since his Company Flow days) not just willing but eager to hear what they had to say. As if pre-empting the transition from underdogs to real contenders, Meline cranked out his most accessible set of beats yet, peppering his typically apocalyptic sci-fi-influenced productions with funky fanfares and pop hooks, in the process inverting the usual slide in quality that comes whenever underground artists start to flirt with the mainstream. They also took the opportunity to talk passionately about the things that mattered to them, and spat flaming venom at everything and everyone else: haters, fuck-boys, inferior MCs and those who were supposed to care but blatantly didn’t – politicians, the government, the church and, especially, the police. On “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”, featuring a career-best guest verse from that other famously furious firebrand Zack De La Rocha, the pair eloquently detailed their Robin Hood-style agenda (“Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision / The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious / Liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons / The forehead engravers, enslavers of men and women”), having moments earlier suggested to their listeners that the most effective form of protest would be to start a riot or kill a cop; elsewhere, “Early” found Render the victim of racial profiling, hauled off in a squad car for no good reason in front of his young kids and neighbours, having to bite his tongue as the arresting officers manhandled his wife for letting emotion get the better of her.

Whilst none of its lyrics appeared to directly reference the killing of Mike Brown, or the events that followed in Ferguson, Missouri, one couldn’t help but suspect these – and other similar, less publicised – events were a major influence on RTJ2. But it wasn’t just what the duo were saying that made them such a compelling listen, it was also they way they said it. Dedicated students of hip hop classicists like Scarface and Nas (who loved the duo so much he signed them to his own Mass Appeal imprint), both Mike and El had already proven themselves to be gifted lyricists, but here they took their wordplay skills to the next level, showing they were more than capable of trading tongue-twisters with the best of them. After half a decade hanging out, each man’s style has rubbed off to some degree on the other and El in particular benefited from the exchange, with many of his verses delivered in the same bouncy double-time favoured in Mike’s native Dirty South; you only have to check out the start of “Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)”, whereby he manages to compare Pimp C and Biggie Smalls to God, slyly reference Game Of Thrones and a Marvel supervillain, and come up with an eye-watering analogy for sodomy in the space of approximately twenty seconds for evidence. But irrespective of how good either was individually, it was Mike and El together that was the real draw. Unlike, say, Dre and Snoop’s teacher/ student dynamic, Flavor Flav playing the fool to Chuck D’s straight man or Clipse’s fraternal bond, Run The Jewels’ obvious and irresistible chemistry was all about friendship, both men looking upon the other with mutual respect and admiration, as equals; perhaps the closest comparison would be Ghostface Killah and Raekwon on those early Wu solo releases, two rappers so similar in terms of both style and substance that it was often as hard to tell them apart as it was to separate them.

Of course there was no getting around the fact that, as a black man and a white man standing shoulder to shoulder, they made for a slightly unconventional hip hop pairing, but that only made Mike and Jaime more loveable, and it was almost comical to think of how much the fact of their friendship was likely to offend the inherently bigoted sensibilities of the very people they were fighting to educate. These were good guys, smart, funny guys, tough guys with big hearts who would give their music away for free and yet still inspire enough devotion among their fans to raise tens of thousands of dollars in donations; guys who worshipped at the temple of hip hop but were forward-thinking enough to swerve its most tiresome clichés (allowing Gangsta Boo – one of the finest female rappers around – to completely out-filth them on rough sex anthem “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”) and call out as bullshit the more unsavoury aspects (drug dealing, gang violence etc.) that have for so long given the genre a bad name. Yes, Render may have acknowledged the elephant in the room during his gut-wrenching onstage monologue on the night the grand jury delivered their verdict on Ferguson, pointing out that he knew as a white man Meline’s life mattered more to many than his, but it was clear he knew El himself didn’t share those views: staring down the barrel of 40 and as happy in each other’s company as children playing, it seemed as though as far as the pair were concerned, nothing could cause a rift, least of all the colour of their skin, and it was this heartwarming camaraderie above all else that made this the most compelling, most enjoyable album of 2014. An odd couple, then? Maybe, but Riggs and Murtagh? Mills and Somerset? Nah, fuck a buddy cop movie, and fuck the police; these guys were superheroes, the motherfucking hip hop Avengers, and RTJ2 was a weapon as powerful as Thor’s hammer.
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Albums of 2014 #2: Sun Kil Moon: Benji


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Calling Mark Kozalek’s masterful sixth Sun Kil Moon studio album Benji a great record doesn’t even begin to do it justice. To talk about it in the relatively trivial terms of something you might put on in the background while you cooked a meal or cleaned the house just doesn’t feel right; it wasn’t really a driving album, and you certainly couldn’t press “play” and settle down with your iPad to browse your favourite websites. Like a novel, Benji demanded every last bit of your attention, Kozalek filling each line with the kind of details most lyricists would never dream of putting in a song, weaving meandering, interconnecting stories about the mundane, odd and – most often – tragic events that had coloured his life, and the lives of those around him, over the last few years around sympathetically sparse classical guitar and soft rock arrangements. On opener “Carissa”, Kozalek dolefully recounted hearing that his cousin had died: “Yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area code calls/ I called my mom back and she was in tears and asked had I spoke to my father?/ Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire in her yard in Brewster/ Her daughter came home from a party and found her/ Same way as my uncle, who was her grandfather/ An aerosol can blew up in the trash, goddamn, what were the odds?” A sad tale, told in the same rambling way a friendly drunk might regale the person on the next bar stool, but whilst the devil was in the detail (i.e. the missed calls from unidentified Ohio numbers, presumably family members whose names Kozalek had never added to his phone’s contact list) it was the “hook” – in as much as a song like this can have one – whose simplicity struck like a well-placed gut-punch and brought a tear to the eye: “Carissa was thirty five/ You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” Death was all over Benji: death from illness, unexpected deaths following freak accidents, mercy killings, mass murder, fear of the inevitable loss of a parent. But, incredibly, it never came across as particularly morbid, Kozalek channeling that bar-room storyteller to imbue its chapters with humour and real warmth. The same uncle mentioned previously – cousin Carissa’s grandpa – is later eulogised in “Truck Driver” as a loveable redneck, whilst “I Love My Dad” praises the guy that would use brute force to put the young Kozalek in his place but also taught him “how to care for those in need and show respect” by taking him round to his disabled buddy’s place to watch wrestling on TV and “shoot the shit“; “Jim Wise”, meanwhile, finds Koz, now in his forties, spending an afternoon with another of his father’s pals, an old man under house arrest and staring down the barrel of a life sentence after euthanising his terminally ill wife, the cruel irony being that he would have taken himself out too had the gun he used not jammed when placed against his own temple. It may sound like a dumb comparison, but Benji reminded me of The Wire – and in particular its “all the pieces matter” tag-line – in so much as both featured huge, sprawling ensemble casts, all of whom had parts to play in their respective bigger pictures, no matter how inconsequential they may have seemed individually. The family, friends and strangers Kozalek talked about here were all people that have shaped his life in some small or not-so-small way, and on Benji, like a travelling minstrel singer from days of yore, he did what the very first humans to put words to music did: he paid tribute. So here’s to his mom and dad, his grandma, his uncle and aunt, Micheline, Brett, Katy Kerlan, Mary-Anne and Deborah, Jim Wise, Mark Denton, Richard Ramirez, John Bonham and Jimmy Page, Ben Gibbard, Carissa and everyone else mentioned by name or by allusion; the folk legends of a future generation, immortalised in song.
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Albums of 2014 #3: Swans: To Be Kind


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Whilst the birds that gave the band its name are majestic creatures with a foul temperament that hide their disagreeable nature behind a facade of graceful beauty, what you see with Michael Gira’s veteran avant-rock collective Swans is what you get, and what you get is almost invariably rotten, from the surface right through to the core. To Be Kind, Swans‘ thirteenth album – and third since Gira resurrected the group after a thirteen year hiatus in 2010 – was a child-eating, motherfucking beast of a record, a two hour long triple-LP that included four ten minute-plus songs and one that ran past the half-hour mark, but the imposing length felt almost incidental in comparison to the overpowering aura of sheer malevolence that emanated from the record’s grooves; huge, brutal and ugly as hell, To Be Kind was a monster in the most literal sense of the word, its dissonant drones, pummelling drums and thunderous crescendos casually sweeping aside any notion that the band might be content to lighten up and enjoy the spoils of a thirty-plus year career. If this record were a person, it would be the cantankerous old man in the run-down house across the street that your parents warned you not to talk to because nobody really seems to know whether he’s a grieving widower or a sex offender. If it were a drink it would be bourbon laced with drain cleaner with the contents of an ash-tray at the bottom of the glass; if it were an animal it would be a starving, pissed off wolf. This was music that you don’t mess with, three decades’ worth of clanging post-punk, industrial noise and cracked Americana – and half a lifetime spent railing against God, authority, love, life, death and the whole wretched human race – condensed into six sides of vinyl; a weary, blood-caked bruiser of a rock record on an almost operatic scale. A defiant middle finger to mediocrity, and a ferocious “fuck you” to everything and everyone, To Be Kind was a must-hear for anyone who has ever gazed up at the night sky and found beauty not in the shining lights of the moon and stars but in the inky black stretches of infinite nothing.
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Albums of 2014 #4: St. Vincent: St. Vincent

. Annie Clark’s eponymous fifth album as St. Vincent contained much to delight all sections of her devoted fan-base. For those in love with that voice there was the way her purr turned to a roar as effortlessly as a sleepy lioness admonishing her overly boisterous cubs, and there was enough technological trickery to keep the gear nerds puzzling for months; there were the finger-in-the-mains solos that came out of nowhere and still managed to shock a dozen listens later, and the clipped, funky beats that sounded as if they were played by a robot programmed to sound like a human drummer pretending to be a robot. There were nods to McCartney (“Regret”) and Bowie (“Severed Crossed Fingers”) and, of course, former collaborator David Byrne, and songs so clever and so catchy you didn’t even realise they’d mutated into something else entirely by the time they finished. There was elegant, understated Annie (“I Prefer Your Love”) and scary, over-the-top Annie (“Bring Me Your Loves”), experimental Annie, raunchy Annie, bruised Annie, funny Annie and more, and these songs were their profile photos, the pictures they took of each other to prove they really existed. Whether they ever did was another matter – Clark blended fact and fantasy as skilfully as any writer – but amongst so much inane digital waste it felt irrelevant; these were status updates that actually deserved your attention, from an artist that truly deserves your love.
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Albums of 2014 #5: Ariel Pink: Pom Pom


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If Ariel Pink is the kind of person who believes there is no such thing as bad publicity – and one strongly suspects that to be the case – it’s likely he spent much of the last couple of months rubbing his hands together gleefully like Scrooge McDuck counting his coins. LA’s weird-pop wizard was given a pretty hard time, and a fair amount of column inches, over a series of misogynistic/ misconstrued (delete as applicable) comments he made in interviews during the press campaign for latest album Pom Pom, but whilst the “controversy” was doubtless fascinating to some I for one just couldn’t bring myself to pay it much attention; partly because a lot of it seemed to be an unfairly balanced storm in a teacup, but mostly because I was too busy enjoying what was by far the best record of this divisive artist’s highlight-heavy career. Pom Pom was a true magnum opus, a mind-warping 17-song, 70-minute double-LP set that ricocheted between moods and genres like a speed-laced, tie-dyed Chihuahua in a rave-themed doggy sweet shop, Pink haphazardly slopping neon slime and jizz over an already garish collage made up from scraps of glam, punk, new wave, surf, disco, dub, goth, electro-Klezmer, kids’ TV themes and who-knows-what else. As usual, the most obvious reference point was Frank Zappa (whose one-time collaborator Kim Fowley contributed a number of understandably trippy lyrical assists from his hospital bed whilst on a morphine drip undergoing cancer treatment) but though the former’s juvenile spirit lived on in Pom Pom‘s satire-spiked psychedelic sleazy listening, the album also included the most indisputable evidence yet of Pink’s song-writing genius: “Put Your Number In My Phone” was a gorgeous slice of West Coast jangle pop, “Four Shadows” was full-on coke-fuelled Thin White Duke period Bowie, and “Goth Bomb” was snarling “Helter Skelter”-esque proto-metal; “Lipstick”, meanwhile, came across like the better-looking, smarter older brother of his own earlier hit “Round & Round”, whilst soft-focus torch song “Picture Me Gone” shocked by swapping sarcasm for real sentimentality. Of course, some lyrics – like the grubby strip-club scenarios in “Black Ballerina” – wouldn’t have helped persuade anyone Pink wasn’t a sexist pig, but as James Brown, John Lennon, R. Kelly and countless others have shown us, being a brilliant artist and being a pretty sucky human being aren’t mutually exclusive. Most people listening to Pom Pom would agree Ariel Pink was one or the other; the enlightened might say he was both, and love him all the more for it.
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Albums of 2014 #6: Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness


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Compared with its sparse, spectral predecessor Half Way Home, Angel Olsen’s sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was a testy she-wolf of a record, Olsen baring her fangs between strained smiles on grunge-coated rocker “Forgiven/ Forgotten” and imagining herself as some kind of elemental goddess “singing the stars back into the universe”.  Her new band – Stewart Bronaugh on bass and drummer Josh Jaeger – and producer John Congleton proved the perfect creative foils, adding depth and texture without drawing attention away from the real star of the show, and what a star Olsen proved to be: on “Hi Five” she’s the cool girl at the barn dance, shimmying to countrified glam pop with a beer in her hand, oblivious to the drooling cowboys sniffing at her heels whilst “High & Wild” finds her later that same evening, emboldened by booze, taking the stage and winning over the ladies too with an impassioned turn that bounces from Emmylou to Sandy Denny to Polly Jean and back again. In this kind of company, the small handful of songs that revisit Long Way Home‘s hushed, intimate sound – “Enemy”, “Dance Slow Decades”, Cohen-esque dirge “White Fire” – are almost startling in their skeletal simplicity, Olsen apparently exerting less effort than it takes to speak in order to create music of almost overwhelming intensity, and it’s this balance of rockers and ballads that makes Burn Your Fire so powerful, and Olsen such a rarity: an album that will break your heart and warm your soul, and an artist that makes both seem as easy as breathing.
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Albums of 2014 #7: Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty


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If someday evidence is uncovered offering irrefutable proof that hip hop weirdos Shabazz Palaces were actually higher beings from an extraterrestrial civilization, sent back through time and space to bestow upon those humans clever enough to listen the wisdom to help them survive some unspecified forthcoming global catastrophe, it would not in all honesty come as a complete surprise. Listen to the sprawling, densely packed passages of bop poetry Ishmael “Palaceer Lazero” scattered over Lese Majesty and it’s not hard to picture the former Digable Planets MC in his mirror shades and armour-plated zebra-print shirt on the holodeck of some interplanetary craft serenely preaching the secrets of the universe to Earth’s expatriates whilst multi-instrumentalist partner Tendai Maraire cooked up a heady brew of sci-fi electro boogie in the background. For the most part, Butler’s lyrics felt like cryptic steps to enlightenment (even when playing the playa with his “syndicates of girlfriends” on “#CAKE” he did so in such a graceful manner as to make himself sound less like a sleaze than a scholar) and whilst there were obvious nods to previous Daisy Age dabblings – in the lush textures as well as the trippy hippy vibes – the overall effect was decidedly futuristic, with production that fused airy jazz and tech-savvy sonics to brain-bogglingly psychedelic effect. Tribal percussion collided with skittering processed beats, crooning soul divas chased chanting monks into African dance parties and doomy minimalist drones segued seamlessly into slinky lover-man R&B; even taking into account the late ‘90s/ early noughties avant-pop hybrids of Timbaland and the Neptunes, hip hop hadn’t sounded so much like an alien language since Public Enemy burst onto the scene in the ‘80s, and never had the idea of surrendering yourself to the mothership seemed so appealing.
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Albums of 2014 #8: FKA Twigs: LP1


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Even if you chose to hear Tahliah Barnett’s remarkable voice as just one instrument among the many sound sources assembled so painstakingly (by Barnett herself, with assistance from Paul Epworth, Arca, Clams Casino and others) on LP1, the music of FKA Twigs was unmistakably a very sensual thing. Taken as nothing more than a series of coos and moans and excitable squeaks, the artist formerly known as Twigs’ vocals merged symbiotically with swooning synths and shuddering R&B-influenced beats to create a deliciously dark strain of cyberspace erotica; the aural equivalent, perhaps, of Chris Cunningham’s oddly arousing video for Bjork’s “All Is Full Of Love”, where cold, unfeeling machines build robots for the specific purpose of replicating the experience of human physical intimacy. Listen to what the singer was actually saying, though, and LP1 became a very different animal – still sexy, but in a much more hot-blooded way. Barnetts’ lyrics painted her variously as a vamp, an ingénue, a potty-mouthed dominatrix, the perfect girlfriend and jealous ex, teasing (“How does it feel to have me thinking about you?”), torturing (“Feel your body closing/ I can rip it open”) and threatening (“Pull out the incisor/ Give me two weeks, you won’t recognise her”) the object of her affections over a backdrop of mutant electronica so trippy the overall effect was as disorientating as waking up drugged and bleeding and tied by the wrists to your stalker’s bedposts. Twigs’ allure was obvious, but she wanted you to know: mess with her and you’ll come away with your fingers burned – and other appendages likely missing altogether.
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Albums of 2014 #9: Ex Hex: Rips


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Ex Hex’s brilliant debut LP Rips was a treasure trove of rock ‘n’ roll riches sure to make the antennae of anyone still in love with the sound of a slightly overdriven electric guitar twitch and throb and extend towards the sky. Whilst certainly closer in spirit to Wild Flag (her short-lived “supergroup” with 2/3 of Sleater Kinney) than the grunge-era bands she made her name with (Autoclave, Helium), the album found Mary Timony – ably assisted by Betsy Wright on bass and drummer Laura Harris – slinging the kind of lean, wiry power pop that ruled the airwaves as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s. So on “How You Got That Girl”, “Waste Your Time” and “Radio On” we heard echoes of Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe, “My Best Friend’s Girl” by The Cars and The Knack’s “My Sharona” – all squealing guitar hero(ine) solos and back-up “whoa-oh-oh”s – whilst the snarling “Beast“, “You Fell Apart” and “Waterfall” sounded like Blondie and the New York Dolls in an amphetamine-fuelled attempt to out-glam each other, Wright and Harris the rattling runaway train and Timony the steady-handed if somewhat daredevil driver. Rips was a joyous romp through a less complicated past when lifelong friendships were decided by hairstyles and patches sewn onto jackets and scumbag exes (and new partners alike) were forgotten after one good night out; when you could cruise around your neighbourhood with the window down, drumming on the steering wheel and singing along to the radio at the top of your voice and not have to question whether or not you were cooler than the kids pointing and laughing behind their hands. Whilst some of 2014’s biggest critical hits were big, sweeping statement pieces Ex Hex made the most succinct point of all: “ROCK N ROLL RULEZ OK”.
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Albums of 2014 #10: Aphex Twin: Syro


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As the first collection of new music under the Aphex Twin name in 13 years, Syro was a big deal to many, but for me it was probably the most exciting thing to happen since my daughter’s first steps: Richard D. James was my first real fanboy obsession (the line in my bio about me liking music that sounds like a broken washing machine came from an ex after I spent two whole years listening to nothing but James and artists within his Warp/ Rephlex/ Planet Mu orbit), and remains one of my biggest musical heroes so, naturally, from the moment a big green blimp bearing the Aphex Twin logo appeared above a London beer festival in August to its release a month later, Syro had me buzzing with the kind of anticipation I hadn’t felt since the days before advance streams and album leaks, when the “first listen” was usually via Discman on the way home from the record store. Hopes were admittedly higher than expectations – how likely, really, was it that anything here would change my musical world the way “Girl/ Boy Song” or “Windowlicker” did? – but the former were rewarded and the latter far exceeded: James, in full-on mad professor mode, spewed forth an hour’s worth of joyous, brain-bogglingly complex mutant rave fare, twisting familiar electronic tropes (4/4 thump, junglist breaks, acid squiggles etc.) into unrecognisable new shapes and peppering the whole thing with weird, unsettling earworm melodies – and then capped it with a gorgeous and genuinely moving Satie-esque piano outro just in case we’d forgotten he was a gifted composer as well as a goonish, grinning gear nerd. Whilst it was anything but predictable, Syro broke with tradition by sounding like… well, an Aphex Twin album, but this was in no way a bad thing; even after giving the rest of the pack more than a decade to catch up, James’ triumphant return proved there’s still nobody out there that can do the things he can do the way he does them.
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