Rapid Fire Reviews (Justin Timberlake, Black Panther, Rich Brian)

I’ve been pretty busy lately with midterms and the Olympics but a couple of these rapid fire posts should get things back on track!

The cover image features two images of a male, edited to appear as one. Top-diagonal-half image features male in all-black suit and white undershirt, in a snow-covered wooded area. Bottom-diagonal-half image features male in ripped blue jeans, flannel button down shirt in a smog-filled wooded area. Below this title: MAN OF THE WOODS, appears in capitalised handwritten print.Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Timberlake’s fifth studio album and his first in five years follows one of the best pop albums of the decade with a confusing amalgamation of genres and a striking musical deviation into a territory that is a markedly poor fit for the r&b inflections his voice naturally possesses. Inspired by the birth of his son and described as “Americana with 808s”, Man Of The Woods still possesses moments where the talent we all know Timberlake has cuts through the misguided decisions in production, put for the most part tries to do too much and appeal to every music listener, losing its sense of self in the process.

The main problem the album has is its lack of direction. Lead single “Filthy” alone runs through three clashing sections, all seemingly jumping on trends of the past that have overstayed their welcome – and it doesn’t even have any of the country-folk flavour that colours about half of the project. While I can often be a proponent of blending genres together in an experimental fashion, Timberlake’s exaggerated country accent and campfire-song acoustic melodies just don’t work with the trap beats and synth-bass here. Timbaland’s production has been unsure of itself for a while now, but dragging Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes into this was a truly strange choice. He does his best with what he is given, but this style of music simply isn’t his forte.

Timberlake’s lyricism is noticeably weaker here as well, abandoning the suave wittiness of his romantic come-ons for ready-made phrases and Internet lingo, seemingly trying too hard to become a meme or catch the attention of a certain demographic by pandering. It just makes him appear disingenuous – people were appropriately outraged at the buzzword titles at the back end of this tracklist. This ingenuity extends to the instrumentals, it’s as if nobody working on this project is actually aware of the reality of the trends they emulate here. Many of the country elements here are stereotypical and derivative twangy guitar loops that haven’t been in fashion for a long time for a reason. His r&b vocals clash with the obnoxious “country” guitar pattern on “Sauce”, for example. He can certainly save a few of these weird decisions with his charisma and talent – the title track has some impressive harmonies and fun, goofy delivery that’s just campy enough to fit – but for the most part it’s a very confusing listen.

Unsurprisingly, the best moments on this album are it’s most traditionally r&b tracks, at times sounding like Timberlake is trying to recapture some of his earliest work rather than the neo-soul of 20/20 Experience. “Higher, Higher” is a solid old-school r&b track with a catchy guitar pattern that sounds like it could have fit perfectly on Justified, while his duet with Alicia Keys, “Morning Light”, is easily the best track here. The two complement each other well, Timberlake giving us those vocal runs he holds back for the rest of the album. The slight country flavour fits better here, as a meandering, lazy guitar line slinks through the slower bassline and accentuates the two lovers’ sweet words as they lie in bed in the morning. Co-written with Chris Stapleton, it’s got his real, heartfelt soul that the rest is devoid of.

I just … sincerely can’t believe that the song “Flannel” exists. It sounds like if you put a trap beat on the “F.U.N.” song from Spongebob. For someone with so much natural ability this is certainly a huge disappointment, especially for how long it took in between albums. Let’s hope he rights the ship, and it doesn’t take as long this time.

Favourite Tracks: Morning Light, Higher Higher, Man Of The Woods

Least Favourite Track: Supplies

Score: 3/10

Black Panther - The Album.pngTop Dawg Entertainment – Black Panther Soundtrack

Kendrick Lamar and the rest of his label step up to curate the soundtrack to one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, and while the soundtrack format and the commercialization of many of these songs to fit within Marvel’s easily accessible narratives hold it back from the narrative complexity of one of the label’s great albums, it’s impossible to deny all of the talent assembled here and the refreshing African flavour of the tracklist, recruiting some artists from the continent itself.

These artists frequently come much harder than I would ever expect them to on a soundtrack, giving us a number of tracks that could easily stand out on their own. Kendrick appears in at least a very small capacity on each of these tracks, but he certainly makes his presence felt. TDE in-house producer Sounwave is behind most of these beats, and he’s on the top of his game as usual – “X” is one of the greatest rap beats I’ve heard in a long time, and Kendrick’s quotable hook and hilarious, dynamic verses from ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz make the track an obvious highlight. Kendrick’s curation shows that he knows the right artists to put together as well – “The Ways” doesn’t really fit in with most of the album, but the adorable r&b exchanges between Khalid and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee as they long for a “power girl” are cheesy and endearing in the best possible way – the two complement each other very well. And while we’re talking about great teams, Kendrick and Travis Scott link up once again on “Big Shot”, as they dismiss their foes in the carefree and instantly iconic way that only they could.

One of the project’s greatest strengths, however, is the showcasing of smaller artists that give the project its unique sound. African artists, particularly Saudi on “X” and Sjava on “Seasons” deliver most of their verses in Zulu, the instrumentals emulating the popular heavy percussion of African music and channelling the spirit of Wakanda. “Opps” is an absolutely insane, dark and grinding instrumental. “Paramedic!”, featuring a DJ Dahi beat and rising rap group SOBxRBE, is another highly energetic, personality-driven track

I think we finally found something Kendrick Lamar can’t do – on opening track “Black Panther” he tries his hand at production for the first time and the juxtaposition of tones on the brief track just comes across as way too jarring despite his technical dexterity on top. There are quite a few moments on this project when its clear that Kendrick and others are holding back a bit from creating the creative, thought-provoking material we know they are capable of, but I appreciate this for what it is. Even so, Kendrick doesn’t have his typical urgency in his verse on “All The Stars”, not measuring up to SZA’s virtuosic chorus, while tracks like “I Am” and “Bloody Waters” are similarly watered down and the rap verses from individuals like Jay Rock can be underwritten – this isn’t their own, well-crafted work and the effort level can show it at times.

While many soundtracks can seem entirely phoned in and commercialized in the pursuit of a radio hit or two, not many have Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment behind them. The phoned in version of these artists are still sitting firmly at the peak of culture right now, and what better way to show it than with the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther.

Favourite Tracks: X, Paramedic!, Pray For Me, King’s Dead, The Ways

Least Favourite Track: I Am

Score: 8/10

Amen RichBrian.jpgRich Brian – Amen

The viral 18-year-old Indonesian rapper drops his debut album – and his previous controversial name – and displays his unique artistry and approach to the genre across a full-length project for the first time. Produced almost entirely by himself, Brian accommodates his deadpan, slightly comedic delivery with some spacey, synth-oriented beats that draw more attention to his words. While this lack of variation in his delivery and similarity across a few tracks withhold it from being truly great, Brian’s legitimate technical skill, great personality and unique production makes Amen an impressive debut.

The project opens strong with “Amen” and “Cold” – the first of which just introducing us briefly to his surprising level of technical prowess for someone who exploded onto the scene with a song like “Dat Stick”, while “Cold” sees everything click into place at the same time for him – the instrumental sounds like it comes from a 90s video game, Brian’s cadence and the off-kilter production reminding me of some of the best work on Tyler, The Creator’s latest project. When the beat drops and you hear just that little bit of extra spark in Brian’s voice it’s a refreshing sonic experience – nobody is doing it particularly like this.

“Introvert” is another great track that shows off Brian’s unique production style – it is calming and chilled, yet so appropriate for when he starts rapping some outlandish punchlines on top. An appearance from Joji – or as you may know him, YouTube’s Filthy Frank – only increases the early-Gambino kind of quality to the music. It’s funny and endearing, but there’s not a particular, overt reason why – this is just a talented guy who learned how to rap through the Internet and is having fun as his exposure peaks. There’s something about his cadence that is aggressive and percussive even though it is quiet and reserved, and when it links up with these hi-hat-infused beats it just goes ridiculously hard, all the while he’s dropping jokes about everything from ISIS to The Incredibles. Brian’s carefree and unexpected lyricism is another highlight, showcasing exactly who he is for the project’s full runtime.

Some tracks, such as “Glow Like Dat”, feature more of an r&b approach, toning back the rap percussion and letting Brian’s ethereal instrumentals dominate. Brian’s intentionally sleepier approach to his bars doesn’t translate as well to his singing, going a bit too off-key to be enjoyable. Across 14 tracks as well, some of these songs begin to sound too similar to counterparts in the album’s earlier stages – even something as early as “Trespass” is the same style of trap banger with a moderately straight, monotone flow he had already demonstrated 2 or 3 times, quickly becoming forgettable. It’s certainly a trademark artistic choice that makes him stand out – but this flow can only take you so far across a full project. Someone like 21 Savage only stands out as contrast to someone more energetic.

More variation in his cadence and flows would benefit Brian well in the future, but at the moment we have to remember he is still only 18 – and this much of a fully defined artistic vision is quite impressive for someone as self-taught as Brian is.

Favourite Tracks: Cold, See Me, Kitty, Attention, Introvert

Least Favourite Track: Glow Like Dat

Score: 7/10


Above & Beyond – Common Ground

Image result for common ground above and beyondVeteran British trance trio Above & Beyond meet a wider audience with their fourth studio album, Common Ground, and while they succeed at the genre’s basic aim of calming listeners and absorbing them in an ethereal realm of sound, some of the poppier elements they add here make the album feel increasingly uninteresting, utilizing the same patterns to achieve their aims each time. Above & Beyond’s music is clearly very carefully crafted, each tiny blip of sound in exactly the place it was intended, but ultimately becomes very forgettable, not pushing itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness.

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The project opens with expansive, cinematic synths, drawing listeners in to the slower pace of the project. While the instrumental opener “The Inconsistency Principle” is certainly very beautiful, it’s not something I see myself having any desire to listen to repeatedly. The main thing about Above & Beyond is that their music feels like the kind of widely appealing and yet disposable music that appears as the backdrop to commercials and documentaries.

Some of the greatest moments on the project are when Above & Beyond opt to get a bit more rhythmically complex, a track like “Naked” reaching a thrilling climax in the middle of the chorus as a faster-paced synth arrives to disrupt the slow crawl of the sweeping soundscapes associated with many of these tracks. The best track here is “Sahara Love”, vocalist Zoe Johnston delivering some great harmonies on the soaring chorus as her voice is digitally manipulated in the perfect way. The song sounds less like a dance track than any on this project, relying more on the strength of the vocals and driving guitar riff than tried-and-true formulas of the buildup to a drop and calming, higher-pitched melodic elements.

After getting a few tracks in the formula becomes increasingly evident, as Above & Beyond deploy a constant melodic, shimmering synth line and softer-toned, ethereal vocalist before getting suddenly louder with the same brand of rhythmic, syncopated and danceable synth stabs that have been echoing through EDM sets since the beginning of time. The trio are certainly good at what they do and have settled into a groove that have allowed them to conquer in their specific niche, but the best dance music is beginning to move past this and discover some new trends. At the end of the day, I’m looking for music that aspires to more creatively than the exact sounds the average rave attendee would want to hear in that moment, exhibiting more of a sense of musical innovation.

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Above and Beyond essentially present themselves as the Coldplay of EDM on this project, with easily consumable charm, frequently eye-rollingly cheesy lyrics and catering their sound to fit arena-sized ambitions. The vocalist Richard Bedford in particular appears a few times to deliver lyrics about boundless happiness, indulging the trio’s most overtly cloying tendencies to their absolute limits. “You can never take my soul” he emotes repeatedly on “Northern Soul”. By the time we reach the middle of the album and some less eventful tracks begin to take over, the nearly 6-minutes without much of a satisfying moment for the amount of restraint a track like “Is It Love? (1001)” shows becomes hard to sit through.

Too many of these tracks begin with a promising melody from the vocalist before the drop hits and Above & Beyond resort to the same EDM tricks we’ve heard far too many times, which might work on the dance floor but fail to make much of an impact on active music listeners. It’s easy to see why the trio have come as far as they have, but Common Ground is too formulaic for me.

Favourite Tracks: Sahara Love, Naked, Cold Feet

Least Favourite Track: Is It Love? (1001)

Score: 4/10

Migos – Culture II

Culture II.pngAtlanta rap trio Migos return with the sequel to the album that catapulted them to superstardom, which extends to a gargantuan hour and 45 minutes in length and recruits some high-profile guests as they flex their newfound muscles in the industry in the way only they can.

While the project is very excessive, not varying as much as it certainly should for such a long runtime, the album frequently surprises you by how much the Migos still have a firm grip on the sound that they helped popularize, their technical skill elevating them to another level amongst the scores of trap-rappers today and still finding ways to surprise the listener despite the oversaturation of the group and its individual members. Sure, the album is a chore to get through, but Culture II is full of sure-fire hit singles.

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Can we just talk about “Narcos” for a second? This might be my favourite song associated with the rap trio yet, displaying their ridiculous personalities and quotable lyrics (“Magnifico!”), technical skill and a more innovative beat than usual all in the same place. I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t explode – it’s set over a great Latin-sounding guitar sample that actually originates from Haiti, Offset settling into that chorus perfectly while Quavo provides the melodic hook and Takeoff absolutely demolishes the final verse in a technical showcase. This is the interplay between the trio’s strengths working at its absolute finest.

Speaking of innovative instrumentals, Migos are at their best on this project when they deviate from their formula and still succeed at displaying their chokehold on the pulse of current hip-hop music. They recruit Pharrell on single “Stir Fry”, apparently a leftover beat from T.I. in his prime, and demonstrate their versatility on the more Neptunes-esque production, adapting their flows to more of a swung tempo for a rare moment of deviation from the norm. Also, none other than Kanye West appears on the 21 Savage-featuring “BBO”, which still has a trap beat provided by co-producers – but West’s flipped brass section sample is still refreshing for the group.

Although we’ve heard the least from Takeoff since the Migos takeover, he is the star of this project, often trusted with the final verse and displaying some serious technical skill. We’ve heard everything the other two can do at this point, and the increased role for Takeoff is still giving us some new surprises. There’s too much content on this album to fit into a short review, but some other highlights include Post Malone’s hook on “Notice Me”, and the great piano instrumental, actually produced by Quavo himself, on “Crown The Kings”.

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Major production contributor DJ Durel recently confirmed that Migos only spend 45 minutes at most on each song – and you can tell that they’re basically on autopilot here (They even have a song with that title on this project!). When you’ve defined an entire cultural movement, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but listening to 24 tracks straight is tiring, especially when you begin to recognize the same tricks they use on many tracks. The lyrical themes become increasingly thin and repeated, a chorus of repeated lines such as the disappointing Drake-featuring “Walk It Talk It” or a carbon copy of an earlier song like the “Deadz”-emulating “Open It Up” leaving me wondering why the album wasn’t cut down to the pristine effect of the trap masterpiece that was the original Culture.

There are far too many filler tracks on here to proclaim the successes of the project’s highest highs – I will never listen to this album in full again, simply picking out my favourite tracks and forgetting about the rest. Not that the album doesn’t go as hard as you’d expect it to at all times, but for so many tracks, when the beat or the hook is just a bit subpar in comparison to its counterparts, songs quickly become expendable.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting something that even closely resembled an album after the nearly endless stream of Migos content we’ve received since “Bad and Boujee” hit #1, but in comparison to the original Culture this plays as more of a mixtape quality project. It’s not enjoyable as an album at all, but it’s still absolutely impossible to deny that Migos energy and the interplay between the members that sparked the whole resurgence of a genre. Culture II is just fun enough throughout.

Favourite Tracks: Narcos, Stir Fry, Notice Me, Crown The Kings

Least Favourite Track: Flooded

Score: 6/10

First Aid Kit – Ruins

Image result for first aid kit ruinsSwedish folk duo First Aid Kit’s fourth studio album continues to display the sisters’ airtight harmonies and excellent storytelling while settling into a satisfying and consistent niche throughout its 10 tracks. While the album isn’t particularly abundant in musical risks, this is the sound of a band in full control of what works well for them, and they deliver some enchanting fireside melodies here. First Aid Kit edge slightly closer to country territory on this project, their vocals possessing a slight twang over the trademark acoustic picking and background strings.

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One of the greatest strengths of the project is the consistent ability to surprise when you think their songs are one-dimensional. Opening track “Rebel Heart”, despite its emotionally powerful chorus, doesn’t change much in terms of energy throughout its first two-thirds before a brief moment of silence – which I thought signaled the end of the track – gives way to a much more upbeat and rhythmically complex instrumental section, the vocals coming back strong on top.

The sisters are masters of the slow build, often beginning tracks quietly before the instrumentation swells and the harmonies kick in stronger than before for some truly captivating vocal moments. I wish “To Live A Life” lasted a bit longer, the power they display at the end of the track isn’t quite satisfying for how much buildup it took to get there, but it’s a great example of how well they can pull off sudden shifts in energy. Another great moment is the bridge of “Distant Star”, which suddenly twists the bright major key with some more ominous notes that are barely noticeable, but give the track a definite and inexplicable feeling of unease that fits with their unsuspectingly dark lyrical themes.

“It’s A Shame” is possibly the greatest vocal showcase on the album, backed by a stronger foundation of some quicker guitar chords for the sisters to get a bit louder over. The harmonies are at their cleanest on the chorus, the artists’ proclaimed love for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours never more evident as they juxtapose their rather grim lyrics about loneliness with the sunniest sounding song here.

I really do love the interplay between their voices here, the album is seriously carried by the vocal talent more than anything else. The breaks in their voice as they jump up to a higher note and the slight melismatic tone throughout is somehow perfect for the brand of stark, confessional lyrics. They frequently sing over constant harmonized vocal support in the instrumental, a track like “Fireworks” bringing it all together perfectly.

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Despite the project’s shorter runtime, there are a few noticeably weaker tracks. When the sisters aren’t at the top of their game vocally their approach to the genre doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. A track like “Postcard” is more subdued vocally, and does contain a great piano solo midway through the track, but the instrumental is at its closest to classic country tricks here, and I feel like I’ve heard this track quite a few times before.

Additionally, the more powerful moments on this album make the tracks that don’t spend as much time progressing towards a triumphant goal at the end feel much weaker – “My Wild Sweet Love” never really reaches a climax as immediately captivating as its counterparts. The full-voiced belt seriously takes the listener aback, often dropping on them unsuspectingly, its what makes you really admire the full extent of the musicianship here.

Ruins is a very solid effort that continues to establish First Aid Kit as they slowly assert themselves in the public consciousness. The level of raw talent and songwriting ability here is impressive – the band knows exactly what they’re doing right.

Favourite Tracks: It’s A Shame, Fireworks, Hem Of Her Dress, Rebel Heart, To Live A Life

Least Favourite Track: My Wild Sweet Love

Score: 7/10

Fall Out Boy – M A N I A

Fall Out Boy - Mania.pngVeteran rock band Fall Out Boy’s seventh studio album, delayed for four months after their bassist Pete Wentz explicitly admitted the songs weren’t good enough in an interview, is certainly a lot more impressive than I’m sure most people expected. However, as evidenced by opening EDM misfire “Young & Menace” remaining on the project, M A N I A is still inconsistent and directionless at times. But standing at only 10 tracks, there is not much room for filler, and Patrick Stump’s trademark vocals and the band’s dedication to heavier instrumentals are still as powerful as they’ve ever been.

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It appears that Fall Out Boy was at least partially inspired by labelmate Paramore’s transition into retro-pop on their fantastic After Laughter, offering some similar tropical pop chords infused with their trademark style of guitar riffs on “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. The effect of someone with a voice as commanding as Stump’s transitioning to a more modern instrumental is quite powerful – he hits some huge notes in the chorus, bringing the stadium rock anthem into a new era. As the tribal drums hit in the track’s bridge and he holds that note on the final “knife” to his voice’s breaking point, I can already picture the scores of crowds singing along to that final chorus.

“The Last Of The Real Ones” brings frequent Weeknd collaborator Illangelo on board, and the track evokes the same kind of indescribable dark energy that a song like “The Hills” has. I give credit to the band for still sticking fast to emphasis on the musicality of the band, actual instruments (especially that impressive drum work!) prominent on every song here where most rock bands turn to more produced pop beats and synths – where this would frequently sound dated, Fall Out Boy bring just enough modern elements in to keep the classic idea of the heavier rock band at the forefront of pop culture alive.

The back to back tracks “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate” might be the band’s best work in years, Stump channelling every ounce of soul in his voice for some more R&B influenced tracks. The latter especially features a beautiful doo-wop instrumental and Stump harmonizing with himself on some seriously impressive high notes before giving the chorus everything he has, showing restraint and emotional vulnerability at just the right moments.

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There are certainly some lyrical shortcomings on the project that bring you out of the songs for a second – especially when comparing the group to the work of some fellow surviving bands lumped together under that “emo” umbrella from the mid-2000s. Where many have grown up in their lyrical themes, there’s something a little weird about hearing a 33-year old structure a chorus around the lyric “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour” on “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)”. Adding a few awkwardly shoehorned pop-cultural references into the mix only exacerbates this – especially when they’re as poorly timed as their villainizing of Tonya Harding on “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea”.

The juxtaposition of that track with preceding “Champion” is noticeable for the repetition of the same tired tropes of self-empowerment they already had a big hit with in “Centuries”. They do know what they’re doing though – “Champion” is much less contrived than the former, and when everything collides together at the end it is legitimately an electrifying experience despite being derivative. Stump still possesses a live wire of a voice that can break through the mediocrity. The project can’t seem to settle on a concrete direction either, jumping between dance-inspired electronic guitar effects, finger-snap poppier tracks, and even a strange feature from Nigerian artist Burna Boy that attempts to jump on the dancehall trend.

The project is at its best when Fall Out Boy adhere to what got them here in the first place, making it less blatantly obvious that they’re trying to fit in when they incorporate some more modern pop trends on tracks like “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. Still, even on such an inconsistent project, you have to give the band credit for sticking to their guns as much as they do, still capable of making some pretty great music even as the modern pop landscape starts to pass them by.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven’s Gate, Church, HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T, The Last Of The Real Ones

Least Favourite Track: Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea

Score: 6/10

BØRNS – Blue Madonna

Borns - Blue Madonna.pngRetro-pop singer-songwriter Børns’ sophomore project continues to display his old-soul mentality, reviving the classic pop sounds of groups like the Beach Boys while infusing the style with more modern synth-based production and moody lyrical musings that attracted a prominent collaborator in Lana Del Rey to the project. Made with only a single producer in Tommy English, Blue Madonna is an exhilarating and upbeat experience, if the slightest bit inconsistent. Still, its highs are experimental pop at its best.

The album really hits its stride in its middle section of four, elevating itself from the slower nature of the first four tracks and kicking the album into a higher gear that never lets up. The track “Man” immediately snaps into a bouncy synth piano groove as Børns forms his own backup vocal trio with some harmonized embellishments and he demonstrates just how strong that falsetto belt can get. “Iceberg” might be my favourite song of all, a more laidback track that is the most sonically experimental thing here. Børns tenderly croons the title as the synths shimmer like the glow on ice behind him, each time he drops into the verse the main synth-bass hook getting stronger before everything converges for the rhythmically dramatic conclusion.

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“Second Night Of Summer” and “I Don’t Want U Back” stray closer to pop territory, but Børns’ ability to switch between his softer, indie-pop vocals and his full-voiced rock and roll wail in the chorus is what gives these tracks a truly special and individual quality that could only come from him. Those crunchy synths as he extends that note on “throwin’ me that shaaade” give the track a great electronic groove. I’m not sure if another song captures Børns’ retro aspirations better than the single “Faded Heart”, which sees him reach high up into his falsetto for the kind of lovesick, saccharine and pleading chorus that could have come straight from someone like Frankie Valli – it emphasizes the effect when a kind of muffling effect is put on his vocals later on in the track, like we’re hearing the track played on an ancient gramophone.

Many of Børns’ melodies have the kind of crunchy, surprising quirks in note choice that simply aren’t around as much anymore, evoking a different time perfectly. I also certainly wasn’t expecting this album to leave me completely heartbroken at its conclusion, but the painfully real songwriting on closing track “Bye-bye Darling” is beautifully bittersweet, reminiscing on the good times and emphasizing that nobody will ever know what they had – but of course that just makes it worse in the end.

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Opening track “God Save Our Young Blood” brings Lana Del Rey out from her backup vocals position with a full feature credit, and I’m not sure if this was recorded before her brilliant Lust For Life album, but she brings out Børns’ worst tendencies for a rare misstep. He demonstrates later on in the album how much more than this somber, swaying mood music he is, and something about the chord progression into the chorus really doesn’t sit well with me, especially as the key changes closer to the end of the track.

While his trademark falsetto is often very strong at communicating the overall feel he aims for, the real charm comes from the joyful, twinkling instrumentals that accompany them, and sometimes making an album with a single producer can create some tracks that lag behind others in this regard. A song like “Sweet Dreams” is a solid track, and we feel every word he says, but the production isn’t as rhythmic as the other tracks and as a result isn’t as immediately impactful.

We’ve certainly been hearing a lot of retro flavour in pop music recently, but not many artists are going quite this far back with such a clearly loving dedication to the style they pay homage to. Børns certainly avoids the sophomore jinx here with some smart songwriting and enticing vocal delivery.

Favourite Tracks: Iceberg, Man, Bye-bye Darling, Second Night Of Summer, Faded Heart

Least Favourite Track: God Save Our Young Blood

Score: 8/10

Camila Cabello – Camila

Camila (Official Album Cover) by Camila Cabello.pngCamila Cabello’s long-delayed debut album, establishing herself as a solo artist after leaving Fifth Harmony, comes in the wake of smash hit single “Havana”, which the album was supposedly restructured around. While I can’t immediately see how this was done, as the album contains many slower ballads and more standard pop tracks, Camila is a brief glimpse at Cabello’s artistry apart from the group that is very solid, if not yet spectacular. Produced mainly by Frank Dukes, who has recently worked with numerous visionaries in Lorde, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, Cabello’s unique voice and slight Latin edge she brings to most of these tracks establishes an artist in control, even if most of her choices stay safe for now.

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“Never Be The Same”, recently released as the follow up to “Havana”, is a great example for where most of this album stands – the chorus is absolutely explosive and an earworm of the highest degree and seriously showcases Cabello’s potential as a main pop artist going forward, but the surrounding energy of the track falls slightly flat at times. The pre-chorus features her singing primarily in her upper register without much instrumental support, and she hasn’t quite figured out this area of her voice yet. As it stands, it is thin and squeaky and doesn’t convey much – but once those backing vocals swell in to support her powerful lower range on that chorus I’m immediately sold once more. The vast majority of the album showcases a select few fantastic musical moments with a single choice that holds it back from becoming truly special. “Havana” still stands out as a spectacular track due to its fully established musical direction and fuller instrumental, distinguishing from the minimalist ballad tracks that populate most of the album.

Don’t discount Cabello as a songwriter either. “Consequences” is easily the best track here. The stripped-back ballad took my breath away, and in a rare occurrence, made me stop my first listen to hear it a few times more. Cabello offers her most personal, confessional lyrics and brings some serious emotional depth to her vocal delivery as she sings of the negative effect of the end of a relationship on her mental health, losing the “steady place to let down my defenses”. The quiet piano chords backing up her softer, breathy vocals complement the track perfectly, swelling at just the right moments as Cabello hits the emotional peaks in her lyrics. This track alone gives me full confidence in Cabello’s ability to become a global pop superstar in the future – not everyone can deliver a track that affects me emotionally this much on a debut album.

I really do love the Latin, tropical flair Cabello brings to a lot of these tracks – even if something like “She Loves Control” carries elements of the dancehall craze that is dominating the radio waves at the moment, there is a greater degree of authenticity in Cabello’s delivery – this isn’t Drake with a fake patois, and an artist who can turn something like “Havana” into a hit single is very refreshing as aspects of Latin music are increasingly popularized. Those few seconds of a Spanish guitar at the end of the track are a great touch and brings the listener further into the bigger picture of what Cabello represents in today’s musical landscape.

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“Real Friends” and “Inside Out” are a couple of fun, tropical pop tracks that carry the same Frank Dukes feel over from “Havana”. While much more lyrically basic, getting inane as the track continues to its conclusion, hearing pop music based on something like the island piano loop on “Inside Out” is enough of an interesting sonic experience that the novelty of the project is enough – when she starts singing in Spanish on the bridge it just carries it even more.

Ultimately, Camila gives a brief, introductory glimpse at the picture of Cabello as her own solo artist, free to add the artistic flourishes that a more manufactured group like Fifth Harmony lacks. As a result, the project has a much greater degree of personality than her ex-bandmates’ latest effort, even if they are both solid yet unspectacular pop projects. Still, there is no filler here, these are all well-structured and catchy pop tracks that suggest Cabello is here to stay.

Favourite Tracks: Consequences, Havana, Real Friends, She Loves Control, Inside Out

Least Favourite Track: All These Years

Score: 7/10

CupcakKe – Ephorize

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Cupcakkeephorize.jpgCupcakKe, the raunchy rapper and proponent of memes, releases her third studio album and continues to establish herself as much more than a source of exaggeratedly sexual punchline raps. Ephorize, while still certainly containing some of the material you might expect, expands on CupcakKe’s persona with some more personal tracks, while the improved level of production allows her to flash more of an impressive technical skillset. Still only 20 years of age, Ephorize is the beginning of CupcakKe coming into her own as a well-rounded artist – as long as you can go along with the joke when the more nauseating side of her work kicks in.

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The project opens with two of its strongest tracks in “2 Minutes” and “Cartoons”, which immediately exceeded my expectations. Both tracks show CupcakKe’s dynamic mic presence, her lower, huskier voice and quicker flow showing full command of the instrumentals. “2 Minutes” shows her emphasizing the value of her tireless work ethic over calming piano and choral samples, while “Cartoons” is an absolute banger – the clinking pots and pans remind me of an old-school beat from Bangladesh, and she seriously displays her talent and technical skill over a very demanding beat – the thematic references to cartoons are a nice touch, and her punchlines, even the obscene ones, are often quite hilarious.

CupcakKe says whatever’s on her mind, and the result gives her music a genuine, endearing quality – we love her at her most ridiculous, and when she becomes more introspective it is legitimately affecting. She introduces “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” by explaining “I was hungry as hell writing this” before dropping into a chorus where she essentially yells the track’s title as loud as possible. I have no idea why it’s so funny.

Tracks like “Self Interview”, in which she offers a touching self-examination of how her actions and her artistry ultimately effect people’s perceptions of her and desiring to be viewed as more than a caricature making songs “about sex and killing”, and the LGBT-positive anthem “Crayons” show a more well-rounded side of her over some larger-than-life beats that let her, and the listeners, have a lot of fun while doing it. Some of the metaphorical connections she draws could only come from her mind – “Navel” sees her getting violent over a “Mask Off”-esque flute instrumental as she punctuates another impressive flow by comparing a bullet hole to the titular body part

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Although a track like “Duck Duck Goose” was clearly structured to be somewhat of a centerpiece to the album, with a pretty catchy Eurodance style instrumental reminiscent of Katy Perry’s recent “Swish Swish”, I can’t sit through these tracks where CupcakKe approaches her lyrical content with no intentions other than shock value. Her breathy delivery introducing the chorus are clearly meant to be taken as a joke, but this isn’t something I’m going to giving repeated listens to. Don’t get me wrong – CupcakKe is miles above anyone else when it comes to actually effectively communicating this shock value, and that says something in and of itself, but there’s a point where a joke goes a bit too far.

Standing at 15 tracks, the project overstays its welcome a bit as tracks closer to the tail end start to get more similar. It would be beneficial for CupcakKe to vary her delivery more, as many tracks start to simply become standard trend-riding instrumentals, her voice constantly at its most energetic level of attack, and tracks with a loosely thematic lyrical concept with the odd sexual punchlines thrown in. “Total” and “Post Pic” are pretty bland tropical-house style tracks, while an aggressive rap track like “Meet and Greet” feels rather redundant near the end of the track listing as better prototypes came before it.

Despite all of this, CupcakKe overrides just about anything with her genuine and hilarious personality, and now that she’s shown she has a lot more than meme material in the tank, it’ll be very interesting to see how the young rapper’s career progresses from here. She’s shown a lot of potential here and there’s only room to keep improving

Favourite Tracks: Cartoons, Fullest, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Self Interview, 2 Minutes

Least Favourite Track: Meet & Greet

Score: 7/10


Travis Scott/Quavo – Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho

Image result for huncho jack jack hunchoIn yet another rap collab that dropped as 2017 came to a close, not to be upstaged by fellow Migos member Offset, Quavo recruits a kindred spirit in Travis Scott for a solid but unsurprising effort. The two stick to exactly what they know and exactly what they’ve been doing for the rest of the year, and since they are more similar in terms of artistry than many collaborative projects over the course of the year, it seems like the album doesn’t have much to offer that we haven’t already heard before.

While I personally wanted to hear more bars and less mumbled, autotuned crooning that the two have become known for, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho shows two artists who are as understanding of their audience as they possibly could be, delivering a select few great moments in a sea of mediocrity.

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The project opens with its most immediately catchy song in “Modern Slavery”, which features a more energetic trap beat than most of the generic offerings on the rest of the project and features Quavo “shaking his demons off” and then “dipping his dreams in sauce”. The shorter length of the track, as well as the multiple delays on the project, makes me think that the logistics of the project did not come together as well as most, since this album basically exists solely due to internet hype on Twitter. I wish it had gone on for longer.

The only features on the project come from fellow Migos members Takeoff and Offset, and it really speaks volumes to how well Migos work as a trio, since the distinct voices they bring to their respective tracks really breaks up the monotony here. Scott and Quavo are almost indistinguishable here, not playing off of each other at all or complementing each others’ strengths because they essentially do very similar things on each track.

The tracks “Dubai Sh*t” and “Best Man” stand out as well, the former demonstrating the quotable, goofier side of their respective rap personas (if you can ignore the similarities to Drake’s More Life highlight “Gyalchester”) while the album closer “Best Man” offers something a little different from the trap sensibilities and rhythmic adherence to rather straightforward beats. The collaborators express their brotherhood and tell some stories of their early friendship over Young Thug producer Wheezy’s more spacey, ambient beat that accommodates their melodies better.

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Scott and Quavo’s more freeform, flowing style doesn’t contrast as well with more dynamic beats, since almost all of the energy of the track is lost when a beat calms down due to the rappers not explicitly sticking to a solid rhythmic pattern. While there is certainly appeal in the style, as evidenced by the two rappers’ enormous popularity, after a slew of collaborative projects that only served to amplify artistic aspects that weren’t as prominent on solo work, the safe approach to this project didn’t sit as well with me. Too much of the project sounds like an amalgamation of just about every track Travis and Quavo appeared on over the course of 2017, using the same flows, same beats, same adlibs and same lyrical content and even some of the same punchlines.

Quavo’s voice is the hip-hop universal solvent at this point, and Travis Scott at his most energetic can be truly invigorating, but it is clear that there wasn’t a high degree of effort put into this project, not wanting to delay its release to 2018. There are certainly moments to enjoy here – these two have exploded into the public eye recently as they continue to shape exactly what modern hip-hop sounds like, and this can be partially credited to the strength of their prolific collaborations – but usually, their presence is a welcome juxtaposition and different perspective to a track by someone with a completely different approach. These artists aren’t as one-dimensional as this project makes them seem.

Favourite Tracks: Modern Slavery, Moon Rock, Best Man

Least Favourite Track: How U Feel

Score: 4/10

BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2017

Without further ado, here are my favourite projects of 2017. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • blackbear – digital druglord
  • Migos – C U L T U R E
  • Tove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]
  • Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom
  • Betty Who – The Valley
  • Kelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life
  • Bleachers – Gone Now
  • Kelela – Take Me Apart
  • Niall Horan – Flicker
  • Jay-Z – 4:44

25. Metro Boomin/Offset/21 Savage – Without Warning

Image result for without warningIn one of his many collaboration projects this year, quintessential trap producer Metro Boomin recruits two rappers who couldn’t be more different for a Halloween-themed mixtape. Court jester Offset perfectly counteracts the blunt, deadpan 21 Savage as they enter a villainous partnership through song.

24. Alvvays – Antisocialites

Image result for alvvays antisocialitesThe dreampop quintet blends genres together in an overall vintage sound, frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals possessing the quieter sensibilities of dreampop but juxtaposing this with the louder guitar instrumentals that verge on punk-rock. The project is a brief whirlwind of energy.

23. Poppy – Poppy.Computer

Image result for poppy.computerThe greatest viral marketing scheme of all time? Poppy’s surreal YouTube videos prepared us perfectly for this project, where the …character…? continues to satirize our cultlike dedication to all things technological and celebrity through a series of upbeat, bubblegum pop tracks.

22. Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkThe virtuoso jazz-funk bassist, now with a wider audience after his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s work, releases a conceptual and incoherent experimental jumble of sounds that makes you feel just as the title suggests. The whole album is framed as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and the rapid bass playing and Thundercat’s comedic lyrics as his mind wanders to absurd topics complete one of the most ambitious projects of the year.

21. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Image result for flower boyTyler drops the shock value raps of his past here for more lavish instrumentals and contemplative, confessional lyrics as he finally comes to terms with what he feels the toxic masculinity of the hip-hop industry often tried to repress – his homosexuality. Tyler’s lyrics always offered a deep journey into his consciousness, but now hearing his stories of his struggle with acceptance are truly captivating.

20. Charli XCX – Number 1 Angel

Image result for number 1 angelHer first of two mixtapes this year, Number 1 Angel excels by offering experimental spins on pop music but not getting so obscure as to lose the party-girl personality that made her music so fun in the first place. Her collaborations with PC Music producers mean the beats hit harder than most pop music, and the whole thing is just a sassy, confident snarl that’s hard not to love.

19. Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgThe versatile DJ reinvents himself on his 5th studio album, moving away from the bland pop sound of his past for a more musically complex journey into the world of funk and hip-hop. In a tweet, Harris denied that this was “feel good music”. No, he says, it’s “feel INCREDIBLE music”. He’s absolutely right, tapping into exactly what summer sounds like with a diverse roster of guests that never fails to surprise.

18. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1

Chris-stapleton-from-a-room-volume-1.jpgThe first of two albums this year in his “From A Room” duo, the seemingly limitless vocalist blends together his brand of outlaw country music with aspects of soul, blues and southern rock, genres which better accommodate the gravel in his emotional delivery. His harmonies with his wife on most of these tracks are something to behold, but the pure emotion he puts into every note is what makes his stories stand out.

17. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Image result for masseductionThe futuristic pop artist delivers another rock-influenced album featuring her own impressive guitar playing, teaming up with producer-of-the-moment Jack Antonoff to deliver satirical takes on how easily we can be indoctrinated to advertising, religion and the like. Her voice is extremely dynamic and capable, making magic out of the minimal as much as she does the genre-defying chaos here.

16. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Image result for lust for lifeFor the first time, Lana Del Rey smiles on her cover artwork, and it’s a great representation of the new direction of her music. While her tropes were getting somewhat tiresome, she switches things up on her fourth album. Adding a political edge we hadn’t really seen before, her music is made more compelling by adding an element of hope in the dismal times she sings about. Her voice is still instantly recognizable, her lyrics high-concept and darkly brilliant. Del Rey is finally coming into her own.

15. Kesha – Rainbow

Image result for kesha rainbowKesha drops the dollar sign – and the contract with an abusive producer – and flourishes in this comeback project that’s all about her own personal strength. Finally able to let loose with her musical ambitions, this project runs effortlessly through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock as Kesha displays an incredible singing voice that most people never knew was there.

14. Miguel – War & Leisure

Image result for war and leisureLike most this year, Miguel’s fourth studio album is more political than usual. He draws explicit reference to the threat of nuclear war, but like the album title suggests, is frequently trying to find ways to stay positive despite everything we see in the news. His funk-heavy R&B tracks always sound like a celebration, many songs clearly inspired by Prince here in their psychedelic reverence.


Image result for sweetsexysavageBreaking the sophomore curse, Kehlani continues to establish herself as a leading voice in the R&B scene with this project. The title derived from a classic TLC album, Kehlani would have fit right in with the girl group as the project is broken up into the 3 categories the title suggests. While I prefer her lyrics when they’re at their most savage, the harmonies across the board and overall musicality here is pretty incredible.

12. Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for tell me you love meOne of the most technically skilled pop vocalists finally returns to her strengths after two albums of bland electropop, taking much more of an R&B direction with this project and demonstrating just how effortless her singing ability can be. Not only does she rediscover that dramatic soprano belt, her low register is just as passionate and intense.

11. SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlWhile my initial reaction wasn’t as immediately strong, this project grows on you like no other and you’d be hard-pressed to find another album that made as much of a cultural impact this year. SZA’s honest lyricism carries this project, finally a female in the urban scene that speaks as bluntly as the men do. Her delivery is more like a rapper’s here, replacing bigger vocal moments with lyrical smacks in the face.

10. Ed Sheeran – ÷

Image result for divide edOK, OK, maybe it’s not the perfect score I initially gave it. The project received criticism for being too safe, but I still believe that Ed Sheeran is one of the strongest male vocalists and songwriters at the moment, and he demonstrates this across the board here. His passionate rasp and immersive romantic lyrics paint a picture of something that we all strive for.

9. Tennis – Yours Conditionally

Image result for yours conditionallyA love letter to all things 70s pop, the husband-and-wife duo get minimalistic with their production and allow Alaina Moore’s calming vocals to shine through as they search to find the purest sense of human emotion. The harmonies and the earnest, joyful way Moore sings about her romantic life here never fail to put the widest smile on my face, and watching videos of the two performing together is the most wholesome thing you’ll ever see.


Image result for no one ever really diesOne of the most experimental albums of the year, one of 2017’s greatest albums dropped in the final week of music releases. Pharrell Williams and his old bandmates return for the first time in 7 years, recruiting a diverse roster of guests to build their brand of funk production around as Williams channels his inner James Brown to deliver some rallying chants. You lose track of how many beat switches this project has – it’s something to get lost in as it never stays the same for long.

7. Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa coverThe debut album from the 21-year old DJ never takes its foot off the gas pedal. He brings a unique take on the rising tropical house style to his music, flying through a diverse array of guests but frequently connecting them all through his trademark chime patterns. Many of these tracks impress with their rhythmic complexity and layering, bringing the musical motifs all together at the end for a euphoric climax. The vocalists all sound like they’re inviting you to join them at some kind of an incredible party, and if the DJ is as competent as this rising star it should be a good time.

6. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe folk artist’s third album perfectly encapsulates all that was 2017 in his darkly comedic lyrics and satirical analysis of … just about everything, taking a more rock-influenced route than his quieter tracks of the past. Yes, the album can be crushingly depressing at times, but like he consistently reminds us over its lengthy runtime, what can we do but laugh about it? Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. This album is so dense it’s impossible to sum it up here, but it’s a very rewarding listen.

5. Jhene Aiko – Trip

Image result for trip jheneThe closest thing we got to a sprawling, interconnected concept album this year, the hour-and-a-half long Trip never feels like its length due to the hypnotic quality of Aiko’s mesmerizing and comforting vocal tone. The entire album framed as a drug trip, the hallucinations taking numerous positive and negative twists and turns as Aiko begins to envision her real personal events such as the death of her brother and her new romance with “soulmate” Big Sean, the spoken interludes here help to tell a complete story as the sound of the project is broken up into sections corresponding to different drugs. Aiko has given extensive description on deeper, personal meanings to the thematic layers she explores here, showing just how authentic the emotion she shows throughout really is. Trip is less of an album, and more of an experience.

4. Paramore – After Laughter

Image result for after laughterAnother complete reinvention, Paramore’s first album since 2013 arrives in the wake of numerous legal disputes and lineup shuffling, emerging on the other side with a brilliant 80s-pop revival nobody could have expected. After Laughter contains some deceptively despondent lyrics amid the sunny melodies, both sides colliding into  the band’s most fully realized album yet. A track like “Fake Happy” signifies just how far the band has come, a complete musical journey that offers about three surprising musical twists midsong that includes both their most poppy synths of all and the return of their heaviest guitars. Hayley Williams is still one of the most capable leads in the industry, her dynamic vocals guiding the band through this new direction with ease.

3. Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me

Image result for don't smile at meYes, an 8-track EP by a 15-year old is this good. The indie pop prodigy teams up with her brother, actor and producer Finneas O’Connell, Eilish’s aching, paper-thin voice serves in stark contrast to the energetic trap and EDM-flavoured instrumentals behind her and her dark and disturbing lyrical content. An artist having such a clearly established sense of artistic identity and creative vision at such a young age is hard to come by, and as she completely harnesses her brothers’ skittering and rhythmically complex beats while singing about a killing spree in the sweetest voice she could imagine, you can only imagine how bright her future will be. The capability to write a song as beautiful and affecting as “ocean eyes” at the age of 13 is something very special, and she has flawless vocals on top of that.

2. Lorde – Melodrama

Image result for melodramaJust as Lorde perfectly documented the complete experience of being a 16-year old on her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde transitions to adulthood here in a believable way. In collaboration with another great songwriter in Jack Antonoff, she details her accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world now at the age of 20. Lorde both revels in the greatest parts of youth and criticizes the romanticization of other aspects, especially with regards to partying, which most of the album revolves around. Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here and pairs it with some minimalistic and experimental pop instrumentals for one of the most well-thought out projects of the year.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Image result for damn“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?” Lamar’s latest work is all about dichotomies, many of his high-concept, single-word album titles serving as direct opposites. On DAMN., the dense and conceptual rapper swings in a slightly commercial direction for the first time, turning up the pure hip-hop energy but maintaining the important messages he began delivering on his previous works. If anything, the blunt, angrier deliver that results  only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made albums like Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process. Simply put, nobody else in hip-hop has as much of a complete toolkit as Lamar does, and he shows off different parts of it on different tracks here. We hadn’t seen him make a pure pop song in “LOVE.”, but he shows us he excels at the slower, melodic rap too as the song shoots up the charts as we speak. We hadn’t really seen him go just as hard as he does on “DNA.” either. Regardless, the best part of any Lamar album is always the running themes – “Nobody praying for me”, he continues to assert, as the album continues to return to the same motifs and wraps itself up by rewinding to the beginning at its conclusion. With his incredible trilogy of albums, Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation.