Your Turntable’s Not Dead: Record Store Day 2013

Here’s an article I wrote in April for International Record Store Day, an event I can very easily get behind.

Eight years ago, while I was at the height of my White Stripes fandom, I discovered an early EP of theirs called ‘A Party of Special Things to Do.’ The EP, which due to the rare nature of early White Stripes material was obtained through means I don’t think I’m allowed to advocate, contained three covers of songs by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. I enjoyed the EP and proceeded to check out the work of Beefheart and co. If it was good enough for Jack White it was good enough for me.

I picked up a copy of Trout Mask Replica, considered by many critics to be Beefheart’s masterpiece, and listened to it.

It confused the hell out of me.

I decided to give it another go, as it took too much effort to find to just give up after one listen. Lo and behold, I started to get it. It quickly became one of my favourite albums and gave me the confidence to expand my taste in music, allowing me to build the eclectic music library I’m so proud of today.

After seven years of filling iPods to the brim with downloaded music and the occasional CD, I received a vinyl record for my birthday. It was a copy of Trout Mask Replica. I instantly took a shine to it, despite previously having little interest in vinyl or even owning a record player. I spent some time just looking at the record: inspecting each of the 12 inch discs, reading the obtuse, colourful lyrics printed on the inside of the gatefold, staring at the man with the fish head on the cover. I bought myself a cheap turntable, sat down, and listened to the record.

I couldn’t remember the last time I sat down specifically to listen to an album. I listened to albums all the time, sure, but I would be doing so while driving, studying, socialising, or some other activity. But this time, I just sat on the floor and listened.

It felt, not to sound too much like a music snob, more pure. It wasn’t just the quality of the sound, or the quality of the album, but the way I focussed while I was listening. It’s safe to say I became a vinyl fan that day.

This is why I implore everyone to go to their local record store and support Record Store Day on April 20th.

Conceived by independent record store employee Chris Brown in 2007, Record Store Day sees fans, artists and independent music stores come together to celebrate the record and all the joy it brings. The day has quickly become a major part of the music calendar, with over 400 records being released for the occasion last year by bands covering the entire gamut of the music spectrum, from ABBA to The Flaming Lips, from Katy Perry to Metallica.

Each Record Store Day has an official ambassador, and this year it is Jack White. Owner of vinyl-heavy record label Third Man Records and its associated record store (slogan: ‘Your turntable’s not dead’), White is more qualified to spruik vinyls than most. White has always favoured records, releasing his early material with The White Stripes exclusively on vinyl (hence its rare nature). In a press release announcing his title as this year’s ambassador, White said:
‘As Record Store Day Ambassador of 2013 I’m proud to help in any way I can to invigorate whoever will listen with the idea that there is beauty and romance in the act of visiting a record shop and getting turned on to something new that could change the way they look at the world, other people, art, and ultimately, themselves.’

So, when April 20th comes around, visit your local independent music store, and perhaps try something different. Steer away from the top 40, stray from your preferred genres, and you just might wind up broadening your horizons. I recommend Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica.

 

This Is The End Review

It’s a bit difficult to explain exactly what makes Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s latest film, This is the End, so very funny – not without spoiling the film, anyway. The film has a number of tricks up its sleeve that combine with the pair’s trademark foul-mouthed humour to make for a strong contender for the best comedy of 2013.

This is the End is over the top in every way, from the apocalyptic setting to the gruesome deaths and the actor’s performances. Each star plays themselves, albeit heightened versions that play upon the public’s perception of them.  From the moment a reporter tells uber-stoner Rogan ‘You play the same guy in every movie, right?’ at the start of the film, it is apparent that the actors aren’t shy of taking a few hits to their ego.

At the party that kicks the film off, viewers are treated to cameos from a who’s who of comedy, including Jason Segal, Paul Rudd, Aziz Ansari and Michael Cera, who deserves a special mention as he dominates the first act as a sleazy coke fiend. But, when fire starts raining from the heavens and a sinkhole appears, swallowing most of the celebrity party-goers, the film kicks up a notch.

The remaining group continuously squabble as they struggle to survive, as their inflated egos and spoiled actor sensibilities get in the way. Apart from Rogen there is Jay Baruchel the outcast, ladies’ man Craig Robinson, a pretentious James Franco, an overly nice Jonah Hill and Danny McBride as a douchebag the calibre of his Eastbound and Down character Kenny Powers. The jokes flow freely from the six mates in a characteristically filthy manner as they barely manage to stay alive.

As mentioned before, the film is full of surprises, which apart from being hilarious, are timely as well. Just as you think the film might be starting to coast, a certain Harry Potter cast member breaks into the stronghold or a demon does something unspeakable to an Academy Award nominee.

This is the End is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, so if you are a fan of Rogan and co’s brand of comedy, don’t hesitate to see it.

Plants Vs Zombies 2 Review

Inexpliciably, Plants Vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time is on my list of most anticipated games of 2013. A game in which the storyline revolves around a crazy hobo travelling through time to find a taco. Well, maybe not inexplicably, as Plants Vs. Zombies was one of the biggest hits of 2009 and was a game that appealed to all but the most cold-hearted of gamers – a rare feat indeed. Despite wearing the dreaded ‘casual’ tag, developer Popcap games have developed a fine reputation for creating games that look harmless but suck away time so well they make Sid Meier proud. With this in mind, the expectations for the now free-to-play Plants Vs. Zombies 2 are much higher than the average iPhone/iPad game. It’s About Time certainly has the charm of the original, it doesn’t quite match the lofty gameplay standard set by its predecessor.

The core gameplay is similar to the original Plants Vs. Zombies, so anyone who played the previous instalment on any of the 100,000 devices it was released on will feel immediately at home. Goofy, shambling zombies are headed straight for your tasty brains and you must collect sunshine, place your army of plants and thwart their plans. Many of the plants and Zombies from the original have returned, as has Crazy Dave. The lovable, unintelligible loony is back and now he has a talking time machine (somehow), which he uses to retrieve his favourite Mexican treat. The story is nonsensical and only serves as a framing device, but that makes it no less endearing. The banter between Crazy Dave and the time machine before levels will always bring about a laugh or two.

As evidenced by the punny title, It’s About Time takes place in three different time periods. Well, not so much time periods as archetypal settings from the past – ancient Egypt, pirate-filled high seas and the wild west. Each world brings its own set of zombies and level layouts. Egypt has tombstones blocking lanes (like in the graves in the original), the high seas has zombies swinging onto your turf by rope, and the west has vertical train tracks that allows movable plants at the price of lawn space. There’s enough variety within these worlds to keep you interested and allow for varying strategies, but unfortunately the night levels from the original are gone.

The new plants are mostly worthy additions to the roster, and are fun to play around with. Highlights include the bonk choys furiously punch zombies at close range, the snapdragons (with dragon heads) breath fire and coconut cannons that one-hit kill most zombies. Oh, and there’s a chilli bean that that makes zombies release a huge toxic fart when they die. So there’s that, which is nice. There’s also some extra plants available to purchase, but at $2.99 a pop there’s little reason to add to the already healthy arsenal – unless you really miss the snow pea.

These plants are complemented by the new plant food system. When you give food to a plant, it will perform a super-powered attack, such as machine gun pea-shooting or cabbage carpet bombs. The plant fun is great fun to use, and you’ll likely find yourself feeding every plant at least once just to see what happens.

Less enjoyable are the new powers you can use on the battle-lawn. By spending coins earned in-game, you can activate a power to pinch, toss or zap zombies using finger gestures. They’re handy when things get hectic, but they kind of seem like an ‘I win’ button. If you have enough coins, you can power your way to victory quite easily.

One of the more notable aspects of Plants Vs. Zombies 2 is the fact that it is free-to-play. It’s this aspect of the game that unfortunately holds it back. There’s no pay-to-win problems (unless you buy lots of coins and use powers the whole time) here, but it seems that the game was designed around the free-to-play concept and as a result it gently nudges you to pay continue through the game through its questionable design decisions.

The level progression in Plants Vs. Zombies 2 goes as such: complete story levels, earn 15 stars through challenge levels (or pay $5.49), progress to next world. These challenge levels, which place extra demands such as limiting the amount of sun or plants allowed, are enjoyable at first but quickly become monotonous. There are gates that hide new plants and generally more interesting challenges, but they require keys found during story levels or another $2.49. The challenges lack the variety of the original (what, no walnut bowling?) and make unlocking a new world a grind, halting all momentum built during the story levels.

These gripes aside, Plants Vs. Zombies 2 can be a lot of fun, and can be beaten without paying a cent. So if you have an iDevice, don’t hesitate to download away, though fervent  fans might also want to keep a close eye on the upcoming PC/Mac version, which very well may better this version.

Marvel Heroes Review

Recently I’ve reviewed a couple of big-name free-to-play games for http://www.novastreamgames.net/

The Marvel universe is one that is conductive to quality games. From the revered Marvel vs. Capcom fighting series to co-op action RPG X-Men Legends and the brutal X-Men Origins: Wolverine (a game with the rare distinction of being better than the film it’s based on), gamers have a wide range of ways to enjoy Stan Lee and co.’s caped crusaders. The latest game to pull on the spandex is Gazillion Entertainment’s Marvel Heroes, a free-to-play ARPG with MMO elements.

Marvel Heroes is a game that tries to do too much and winds up not doing anything particularly well. It follows a similar formula to the aforementioned X-Men Legends (and the more recent Marvel Ultimate Alliance series) by creating a combat-heavy RPG that crams in as much superhero goodness as possible. But instead of taking the more streamlined approach its predecessors did, Marvel Heroes opts for a more traditional (read: Diablo-like) loot-heavy approach and adds in the persistent online features of an MMO, all in a free-to-play package.

The game begins in a very familiar way – you select from a range of standard character classes and are told via cutscene that you must find a magic macguffin before the bad guy (Doctor Doom this time around) can use it. To start with, you can choose from five characters – Daredevil (melee attacker), Hawkeye (ranged attacker), Scarlet Witch (magic user), Storm (crowd controller) and Thing (tank). These five are fine and all to start with, but problems arise if you want to play as one the remaining 16 characters available. Keys to characters can be dropped, but during my playthrough I only found one – that of Scarlet Witch after my first mission. The other option is to pay for them using real-world money, which would be okay if it wasn’t so terribly over-priced.

In-game currency costs (‘G’) roughly $1 per 100G, and characters cost from 600 to 2000G for fan favourites such as Spiderman, Iron Man and Deadpool. That’s $20 for a single character. Alternate costumes aren’t much cheaper, ranging from 450 to 2000G. It’s not what one would call great value.
For comparison, Torchlight 2 and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, two recent ARPGs, cost $20 and $15 respectively on Steam, and a copy of Marvel Ultimate alliance can easily be found for under $30.

The core gameplay of Marvel Heroes, i.e. the combat and the looting, is uninspiring. Despite nicely varied environments and enemies that cover a wide range of Marvel lore in colourful detail (highlight: rocket-propelled dinosaurs), what goes on in these worlds are underwhelming. Combat falls quickly becomes dull as an increasing number of enemies fill the screen. The end of level bosses provide room for some strategy, but otherwise you’ll find yourself mindlessly clicking away at hordes of enemies. Looting is just as unfulfilling, as each character only has a small, specific range of gear they can equip.

Lastly, there is the MMO part of the game. In short, it is unnecessary. PvE areas could easily have been taken on via online co-op or solo, but instead there are groups of similar-looking players sharing the same battleground. Story missions can be soloed, but only if you don’t enter a level at the same time as someone else.

It can be hard to criticise a free game too much, but in the case of Marvel Heroes, you are far better off spending some money and getting a more satisfying experience instead.

 

The Machine Girl – A Retrospective Review

I have a new kind of film I want to share with you all. A genre that, while in its formative stages, has an effect on me as a movie-goer and a writer. These films have provided me with the kind of entertainment you just have to share with friends. They are… cheesy, ultra-violent Japanese b-movies.

They are known as J-splatter, J-sploitation or, to my friends, ‘what the hell are you showing us, Lucas?’ Bizarre films drenched in blood and a comical, almost slapstick tone that could only possibly come from one area of the world. Above all,  J-splatter films contain the most ridiculous, jaw-dropping fighting scenes you will ever see.

As an introduction to the bonkers world of J-splatter, I’d like to talk about my favourite film in the genre – The Machine Girl.

The film comes from the fantastically immature mind of writer/director Noboru Iguchi. Along with Yoshihiro Nishimura, the pair have laid the foundation for J-sploitation and created  other cult films such as Tokyo Gore Police, Robogeisha and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (which is not only a crazy splatter film, but a well-done parody of the Twilight series).

The Machine Girl follows the well-worn route of the revenge flick. The protagonist, Ami, is a typical teen girl who has the extra burden of having to raise her younger brother after their father committed suicide after being wrongly accused of murder. However, Ami’s brother gets into debt and is killed by the son of a Ninja-Yakuza boss. Ami vows to avenge her brother’s death, but is captured by the Yakuza. She escapes, but it costs her an arm and a leg… well an arm and a creepy, over-complimenting friend.

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Along the way, this happens

Ami joins forces with Miki and her husband, the parents of another child who died at the hands of the Yakuza’s son, to take down the Ninja-Yakuza, who build a custom machine gun for Ami. After Miki’s husband is killed in a ninja ambush, Ami and Miki’s quest for revenge hits full steam.

Bar the machine gun arm, The Machine Girl seems like a stock-standard action film. But then again, The Room is just a drama about a love triangle on the surface. It is all about the execution (pun intended). The film starts with a flash-forward, giving viewers a taste of the over-the-top carnage to come in one of the more memorable movie openings you will see. Afterwards the first act is relatively tame (but no less ridiculous, see the tempura-fried arm above) as it establishes the plot. But once Ami puts on the machine gun arm, it’s a one-way ticket to violence-town, population: rapidly declining. Ami and Miki tackle ninjas, Yakuza ninjas and mourning parents-cum-ninjas, before taking on the Yakuza boss and his wife, who isn’t a ninja but rocks a bra made of drills.

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Why a drill bra? Don’t ask stupid questions

It’s not just the constant violence that makes this film what it is, it’s how it happens. Blood doesn’t just squirt out of a severed limb, it sprays everywhere like a hose on full blast. No-one is hit with a few bullets, they are shot at until just a red, chunky mess remains. The actors know what kind of film they’re in and ham it up accordingly. For example, when characters are hurt, they will express their pain by yelling out exactly what just happened to them. The best of these coming from a Yakuza henchman getting nails hammered into his face:

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Like all great b-movies, The Machine Girl and its contemporaries are best enjoyed with friends. Laugh with your gore-hungry friends as you consider that you maybe, just maybe, are terrible people for enjoying it so much. Watch with joy as unprepared viewers gasp with astonishment as a chef is forced to eat sushi made from his own fingers. Just remember to tell your brain to shut up and stop asking how or why things are happening, and you’ll have a blast. A blast filled with enough fake blood to drown a grown man.

Clerks – A Retrospective Review

 

Something http://www.novastreamovie.com/, a site I write for, like to do is have theme months. For ‘March memories’ I decided to write about my most favouriteist film, Clerks.

For most aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers, one film stands as a turning point. One film that makes them say ‘yes, I want to do that.’ For me, that film is Clerks.

A portly, bearded geek in his early twenties by the name of Kevin Smith, inspired by Richard Linklater’s film Slacker and his love of pop culture, decided to write and direct his own film. He sold his beloved comic book collection, used money from an insurance settlement and maxed out several credit cards to finance the film, and films in the convenience store he worked at. Smith took Clerks to Sundance, where it won an award and was picked up by indie film giants Miramax. Clerks made over US$3 million at the box office and kick-started the career Kevin Smith. Clerks was a labour of love, made by an average young man with the help of his friends, that became a hit – it’s the independent filmmaker’s dream.

Clerks follows Dante (Brian O’Halloran), a 22 year old employee of the Quick Stop convenience store, who is asked to work on his day off. Problems keep on piling up for Dante: He’s pelted with cigarettes thanks to an unscrupulous gum salesman, he’s on bad terms with his girlfriend after an argument about her sexual history, and the ex-girlfriend he’s been in contact with has gotten engaged without telling him. His filthy-minded friend Randal (Jeff Anderson), who barely works at the video store next door, provides further frustration for Dante.

Dante’s day becomes more chaotic by the hour as he and Randal take to the roof for a (very short) game of hockey and go to a wake, only to be chased out when they knock the casket over. To make things more complicated, Dante’s ex-girlfriend arrives at the Quick Stop to announce she is breaking off her engagement and wants to rekindle the pair’s romance. The climax of Clerks is excellent, combining rising tensions with a shocking surprise.

The characters and dialogue really make Clerks shine. Dante represents the many, many men and women in their early twenties who don’t know what to do with their life, while Randal provides a perfect foil the all-too-serious Dante as he disregards, disrespects and even spits on customers throughout Clerks. The pair really click as they discuss the trivial, and often crude, matters in life, such as the contractors aboard the second Death Star and the wage of the cleaners at peep shows.

This is not to mention Kevin Smith’s most enduring and popular characters – the cartoonish drug-dealing duo Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith). The pair’s scenes act as vignettes depicting the day in a life of a pair of young lowlifes loitering outside the Quick Stop. These scenes act as a contrast between the unambitious slackers loving life on the outside of the store and the unhappy Dante working inside of it.

Clerks is a film for anyone who has worked in a dead-end service job or struggled to make sense of life in the post high school world, or both. It is not a perfect film – the camera rarely moves and the acting is not exactly Oscar-worthy – but it relays the feelings of a generation of people, something that few films can do.

S.L.A.M. Day

It seems that every other week there is a fresh blow to the Australian live music scene. Whether it is the closure of a beloved venue, a street press going out of print, proposals of restrictive new laws or a festival going under due financial pressure (or in hip-hop festival Supafest’s case, extreme stupidity), there seems to be no end to local music’s case of the blues.

However, lobby group Fair Go 4 Live Music and their S.L.A.M. (Save Live Australian Music) initiative plan to rectify this.

On February 23rd, 2010, the inaugural S.L.A.M. rally saw over 20,000 punters take to the streets of Melbourne in the largest cultural protest Australia has ever seen. The protest was triggered by the Victorian government’s findings that unfairly connected live music with high-risk and anti-social behaviour. The rally certainly struck a chord (no pun intended) and later in the year, the Live Music Agreement was drawn up, a document that among other things announced that live music does not cause violence. Fair Go 4 Live Music’s commitment to their cause, not to mention their results, received plaudits from the music community as a whole.

Last year, February 23rd was the first National S.L.A.M. day. It was such a rousing success that it is back this year for another day of celebrating local music scenes all over the country. Over 200 venues (and counting) are registered for S.L.A.M. day gigs with big name artists such as Elvis Costello, Tim Finn, and Pete Murray joining an endless list of local favourites playing in all corners of the country.

That said S.L.A.M. day isn’t necessarily about the big names. It’s about going to a nearby bar, squeezing into the front row and dancing/swaying/rocking out/head banging with your sweaty compatriots. So grab some friends, pick a gig, any gig, and celebrate Australia’s rich live music culture on February 23rd (don’t worry 9-to-5ers, it’s Saturday).

To quote Billy Bragg, ‘You can experience a download but you can’t download an experience.’

Kim Salmon and Spencer P. Jones – Runaways Review

Unfortunately, Novastream Music Oz has shut  down. So, I’ll put a couple of the articles I wrote for it here because, well… I need more things to put on this blog.

When two veterans of the Australian rock ‘n’ roll scene get together to play gigs you expect raucous time. That’s exactly what punters got when Kim Salmon and Spencer P. Jones joined for a month-long residence at Melbourne’s Old Bar yearly last year. The Beasts of Bourbon band mates wrote brand new songs during this period and now have recorded them, along with an eclectic range of covers, for their album Runaways.

Runaways is an old school rhythm and blues album at heart, and simplicity is the key to many of the tracks. There’s no studio trickery here, no army of producers, just two mates and the hired help of a rhythm section.

Lead single ‘A bitter Projection’ kicks off the album with an example of the kind of rough and tumble music you can expect from the two, with a hook sung with a gruff yet playful manner. The other four songs written by Salmon and Jones cover as much of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum as a band can in four tracks. ‘It’s All The Same’ is a rollicking blues track that is fun and doesn’t outstay its welcome, whereas the noise-laden ‘Loose Ends’ drags on a bit too long. ‘The Monkey’ is an instrumental slow jam featuring ‘Eagle and the Worm’ saxophonist Ross Beaton and ‘Scorched Earth Pearl’ sees the duo shift into country mode, driven by gritty slide guitar and a great slow tempo banjo riff that Mumford and Sons could learn from.

The covers on Runaways are as diverse a range of songs as you will see on an album, from Peggy Lee to The Stooges, Jeffery Lee Pierce to Kanye West, and the results are mostly positive. The pair gives the necessary grunt and rough edge to nail The Stooges ‘I Need Somebodyand The Gun Club’s ‘Jack on Fire.’ Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is’ is given a fantastic foul-mouthed makeover with tales of debauchery and strange bald men. It’s akin to your drunken uncle reliving tales from his youth, then singing a Peggy Lee song. The closing track, The Only One’s ‘The Whole of the Law’ is a rambunctious ballad and makes for a strong finish to the album.

Not all the covers are complete winners, though. The pair’s version of Kanye West’s ‘Run Away’ is missing the epic scale of the original and Chester Burnett’s ‘I Asked for Water’ lurches onto the repetitive side.

Overall, the debut collaborative effort of Kim Salmon and Spencer P. Jones is a strong album. Jones’s renowned guitar playing skills and Salmon’s raw vocals make for an engaging slab of blues rock.

 

Novastream Music Oz

I’ve started writing for an Australian music blog called Novastream Music Oz. My first article is up now, it’s about SLAM day:
http://novastreamusicoz.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/slam-day.html

2012 in Retrospect: A Year in Dirty Lyrics

2012 was a great year for music, with plenty of new music to please everyone’s tastes, not to mention the increased presence of Australian music thanks mostly to Tame Impala’s Lonerism and the US’s continued obsession with Gotye’s ’Somebody That I Used to Know.’ Yet despite all this quality, one thing that struck me was the amount of bawdy lyrics in some of my favourite songs from this year, usually heading straight to the gutter. So, here are my favourite potty-mouthed musings from 2012.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Wanz – Thrift Shop

Draped in a leopard mink, girls standing next to me
Probably should’ve washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets
Pisssssssss. …but shit, it was 99 cents

Some things will always be funny, like toddlers swearing, men that aren’t you being hit in the nads, and the fact that R. Kelly once peed on a minor.

Lana Del Rey – Cola

My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola

If the prospect of spending some private time with the lovely Ms Grant wasn’t tantalising enough, we know now that her nether regions taste like a delicious fizzy drink instead of, you know, genitals.

OFWGKTA – Rella

Nigga don’t believe me, kiss your lady
And where you gonna get those heebie jeebies?
Nigga my dick stay way diseasey
I make it look easy

Since their inception, hip-hop fans can rely on the Odd Future gang for some off-colour gems, usually from ringleader Tyler, the Creator. Not that you should be proud of your diseasey dick, Tyler.

Ben Folds Five – Draw a Crowd

Oh-oh if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall

When introducing this song, Ben Folds says ‘that there are two types of bands, those that play and are successful and those that play and are not… those who aren’t wind up drawing dongs on the bathroom stall.’ So when you see a crudely drawn member staring at you as you pee, blame the shitty support act that played last week.

Die Antwoord – XPEN$IV $H1T

I rub my dick on expensive shit
I rub my dick on expensive shit
It’s like a dream come true
I’m living the dream bro
Rubbing my dick on expensive shit

What, you’ve never dreamt of rubbing your wang on a Porsche? Stop lying.

Kanye West ft. 2 Chainz, Big Sean & Pusha T – Mercy

Drop it to the floor, make that ass shake
Whoa, make the ground move, that’s an ass quake
Built a house up on that ass, that’s an ass state
Roll my weed on it, that’s an ass tray

Big Sean likes big butts. He cannot lie. He also likes to dedicate songs to them (as seen here). And everyone knows there is no better was to declare your love to someone (or their arse) than with puns. On this Kanye West track, Big Sean drops three glorious (or perhaps arse-stounding) puns in a row. It’s a good thing he didn’t go for a forth, it might make him sound ridiculous.

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