Mac Miller – Swimming

Image result for mac miller swimmingAfter taking a complete stylistic left turn on his previous album The Divine Feminine, Mac Miller returns two years later with a similar jazz-rap and funk sound that sees him singing more and taking the style even further into neo-soul territory. Dedicated to then-girlfriend Ariana Grande, Miller’s sudden metamorphosis from the goofy frat-rap persona into the soulful romantic on Divine produced his most enjoyable music yet. His fifth album, Swimming, finds Miller in recovery after having lost the inspiration for the sound that coloured his previous work in the wake of his public split from Grande. While the lyrical content of the project is very compelling – Miller trying to learn to rely on himself, rather than someone else, to mend the personal issues that contributed to the split, the music itself can often feel like a more subdued, less fun version of his previous album.

We’re introduced to the album with “Come Back To Earth”, a completely sung track over some orchestral strings and a funk bassline as Miller brings listeners into the emotional state of the album, still clearly affected and looking for a way to get out of his own head, but looking ahead to an optimistic future. This transitions into “Hurt Feelings”, produced by the unusual team-up of J. Cole and Dev Hynes, who I wish brought a little bit more to the table than the extended, moody synths and standard hip-hop beat that frame Miller’s return to more of a rap angle. It’s not the most exciting track, but hearing him describe his active attempts to prevent himself from getting stuck in a rut of depression and move forward continues the theme of the album and gives it more of a hopeful spin than I expected going into the project. Swimming truly picks up on the third track, “What’s The Use?”, which reminds me of Divine Feminine standout “Dang!” with Anderson Paak. Thundercat provides his always incredible contribution to the bassline as Miller picks up a faster flow and one of the catchiest sung choruses here that features backing vocals from Syd and Snoop Dogg. The ease of Miller’s nonchalant flow over a smooth funk instrumental was one of the biggest pleasant surprises in his career progression, and it’s similarly danceable and fun here.

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“Ladders” is another great funk-influenced track here, Miller’s flow at his brightest and most forward, sounding his happiest as the synths pulse in and out and accentuate his flow. The guitar on this track almost reminds me of some old-school Justin Timberlake material, and when the brass section roars in for an instrumental bridge it puts it over the top. It’s the most complex and involved instrumental here. “Small Worlds” reminds me of the shimmering dreamscape of The Divine Feminine more than anything here, as he makes his most obvious lyrical references to Grande as he sheepishly owns up to his faults over some pretty beautiful harmonized vocals, immersing himself briefly in that perfect fantasy world for just another second. DJ Dahi and Steve Lacy team up for another upbeat standout on “Jet Fuel”, where Miller acknowledges the damage he does to himself and his interpersonal relationships due to his drug and alcohol use.

Miller’s singing has never been the best, and it gets more of a focus than ever here to detract from the experience. I understand that he was trying to be emotionally vulnerable with it, but when the instrumentals are emptier than before, driven by some simpler funk loops and giving Miller more space to shine, it exposes that he doesn’t have to voice to carry the style all on his own. It’s fine as a contrast to another part of the song, but trying to carry whole songs with his lower, flimsy vocals can tend to lose the message of the tracks here. I see a lot of people gravitating to single “Self Care”, but Miller’s falsetto chorus and sliding vocal transitions in the interludes are simply not delivered well enough to make the longer track length worth it, despite the pretty decent verses.

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Quite a few of these tracks just never really catch my attention and end unceremoniously, Miller keeping the sound that I enjoyed so much earlier but staying in the murkier lower ends of things and not reaching the euphoric heights of his other tracks in the same style, not latching onto a meaningful motif or melody. The emotion behind it is obviously different, but for all of Miller’s talk of getting out of the stage where he’s “Swimming” in his overwhelming sea of feelings, you’d think the music would reflect this hopeful angle more often. Tracks like “Perfecto” and “Wings” don’t pick themselves up off the ground musically, the instrumentals getting stuck in the watery, creeping synths and sparse percussion, Miller’s off-key choruses not doing much to help the situation despite the strength of his rapping.

Getting lost in Miller’s inner thoughts over the course of this album is a very engaging experience, especially after we saw the aftermath of what he sings about here plastered all over the internet, but if he was going to try to recapture the sound that made his last project work so well, more alterations other than an attempt to make this the sad version could have been made to improve it overall.

Favourite Tracks: Ladders, Small Worlds, What’s The Use?, Jet Fuel

Least Favourite Track: Conversation Pt. 1

Score: 6/10

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Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldTravis Scott’s third album, ASTROWORLD, firmly cements himself in the pantheon of today’s rap superstars with a project where he does everything expected of him and then adds a little more creative flair on top. Of course, nobody is looking to Scott for a work of art, and he delivers fully on a fun and enjoyable summer rap album. While it may not be his best album yet, it’s certainly his most risky, and comes with a truly impressive selection of guests that elevate Scott’s performance to another level entirely. It’s definitely a huge step up from the mundane and disinterested Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (2016), and it’s great to see what Scott can produce when he slows down his speedy release schedule for the first time.

As soon as that fuzzy bassline hits for the first time on opening track “STARGAZING”, we’ve stepped into Scott’s sonic conceptualization of his childhood favourite Houston theme park, since demolished. It’s a frequently surprising and always psychedelic, a magical dreamscape of a place. We hear the sound of a rollercoaster about to drop as the beat completely switches up to this frantic rising synthline as Scott explains the inspiration behind the dedication to the theme park with an expressive, capable flow. The beat switch is a great tactic for Scott, as it shows up again on standout “SICKO MODE”, where Scott and Drake essentially just play around on various incredible instrumentals from Hit-Boy and Tay Keith – Drake brings the same kind of flow he does on Scorpion track “Nonstop”, but the fuller instrumental here, the bass hitting that much harder, is so much more accommodating to him. He actually sounds like he’s having fun! Scott’s deep, slightly melodic voice manages to find the catchiest flow it possibly can on the middle section as well, but this is Drake’s song, and it’s surprisingly all the better for it.

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The experimentation continues on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”, a complete artistic deviation and triumph for Scott that sees him pull from disparate musical worlds to create something completely unique. The pleasant, breathy hook where the title is repeated is backed up by ethereal hums from Kid Cudi, Scott’s Auto-Tuned singing voice in complete command of the slower instrumental – as the track goes on, we get (seriously) some dynamic harmonica solos from STEVIE WONDER, and a final harmonized section from James Blake that’s the most beautiful moment on this whole project. Of course, Scott has no shortage of blistering club tracks either. His quicker flow on moody trap cut “NO BYSTANDERS”, featuring an incendiary hook from newcomer Sheck Wes, is the greatest technical showcase here, and I love how well it complements that quickly oscillating synth noise that comes in in the second half of his verses. “5% TINT” might be my favourite instrumental here, an off-kilter piano loop that sounds like something out of a spooky children’s show, while “CAN’T SAY” is a classic anthemic Scott hook in the vein of a “Goosebumps” or “Antidote”. The Weeknd appears for a feature on “WAKE UP”, framed by a lazy acoustic guitar sample and trap hi-hats as the two get lost in lustful thoughts as only they do, the two trading verses cleanly.

Scott’s genre-hopping is pretty impressive, even if not everything sticks completely. Across the tracklisting, he additionally pays homage to the legendary DJ Screw on “RIP SCREW” with the chopped and screwed, calmer style of R&B-influenced hip-hop he helped pioneer, brings jazz bassist Thundercat and John Mayer together for the wildly spacey and psychedelic “ASTROTHUNDER” and recruits indie band Tame Impala to produce the shimmering interlude “SKELETONS”, which also features vocals from The Weeknd and Pharrell. While none of these tracks are the most structurally cohesive, as I personally am usually looking for something more present from Scott, I seriously have to admire that he managed to pull tracks like these off to some degree of success. Even the closing track, “COFFEE BEAN”, sees Scott’s voice at his all-time clearest, taking the more subdued route of a storyteller rapper for the first time as he speaks out about concerns he had with dating Kylie Jenner as a black man thrust so fully into the private eye, even mentioning that her family had advised against it.

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As a whole, however, ASTROWORLD suffers from the same curse most mainstream rap albums do these days, decreasing noticeably in quality as the album continues and extends to 17 tracks in length. Most of the songs in the back half don’t possess the same degree of experimentation that each one of the preceding tracks do, sounding like relics of Scott’s past work just as most of Birds The lack of polish is evident on a track like “YOSEMITE”, which features some inexcusable mixing problems that undermine a pretty catchy guitar instrumental, while the Migos-featuring “WHO? WHAT!” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” don’t have the immediately catchy hooks that I usually expect from a Scott track, sounding like Scott running out of ideas and opting for streaming numbers instead of the best album he could make. The existence of “BUTTERFLY EFFECT”, a mediocre Auto-Tuned trap cut which was released in May 2017, demonstrates how much less thought went into the back half of the tracklist.

Ultimately, Scott succeeds at painting a vivid picture of the park he loved so much, each of these tracks representing a different ride – “CAROUSEL”, “SICKO MODE” the rollercoaster, “5% TINT” the haunted house … ASTROWORLD represents a similar kind of exhilarating, fleeting joy, a little cheap, but that’s what we all signed up for and expected anyway. I certainly had a great summer day in Astroworld.

Favourite Tracks: SICKO MODE, STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, WAKE UP, 5% TINT, NO BYSTANDERS

Least Favourite Track: BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Score: 7/10

Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13ooI’m not sure anyone was quite ready for Denzel Curry’s TA13OO. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist’s third studio album takes a deep dive into the most tortured levels of his subconscious, dividing the project into three shorter acts – Light, Grey and Dark, which signify the degree to which he gives into and accepts the violence and hatred surrounding him, as well as his own personal paranoias and anxieties. Curry’s lyricism is top notch here, stringing together complex wordplay and extended metaphors that are only bolstered by the sheer force behind his delivery. His confusion and mood swings are additionally represented by his greatest show of versatility yet, mixing his trademark scream-rap style with some extravagant, soulful and jazzy material closer to the “Light” side. This is one of the most essential hip-hop albums of the year without a doubt.

Although the album is broken up into three acts, distinguishing between them isn’t so easy – Curry introduces “Light” singing “welcome to the darkest side of taboo” on the title track. Even at Curry’s most optimistic, trying to distance himself from the issues he speaks on throughout the album, they still weigh heavily on him – specifically as he worries about a friend who had been abused as a child on this track. The sound of most of the Light section, on tracks like “Black Balloons” and “Cash Maniac”, is a complete sonic deviation from what we know from Curry, as he raps in a much clearer, expressive voice and even sings over some dreamy and funk-influenced instrumentals. These brighter instrumentals really allow Curry’s technical skill and lyricism to shine through in a way they never really have before, when we’re not so focused on how hard the beat knocks – this is still saved for later, of course. Curry runs through various characters and alter-egos, as they contradict each other and emphasize his mental chaos – his wordplay seriously verges on an early Eminem level at times here. Not only that, but “Cash Maniac” rides over this old-school 90s West Coast instrumental as Curry delivers a bouncy singsong flow accompanying Nyyjerya’s uncharacteristically catchy pop-rap hook – he does almost everything under the hip-hop spectrum right across the whole album.

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Still, Curry might be at his best doing what he knows best, and there is certainly no shortage of disgustingly grimy hardcore rap tracks here. Single “Sumo” is classic Curry, grit creeping into his voice as he yells his words into the mic, somehow keeping his breath going as he puts everything he has into a quicker-than-expected flow. Charlie Heat’s instrumental comes with fuzzy, industrial bass that injects the track with energy – it’s so hard to write this out as I’m listening right now, because the track just makes me want to get up and move, maybe knock some things over in the process. This transitions into the Grey area with “Super Saiyan Superman”, Curry speeding through the track that comes closest to a modern trap banger here. There’s something about his delivery that makes him stand so far above all of his contemporaries – he’s so present on the track, sounding like a man possessed by some spirit that absolutely needs to get these words out there. The track is punctuated by blood-curdling screams, ending too abruptly.

The Grey area is where we start to see some doubts and worries creeping into Curry’s lyrics, wondering if he’s already subsumed in the cycles he tries to escape from. “Switch It Up” is yet another absolutely searing track, the instrumental sounding like a horror movie as Curry’s flow becomes more stuttered in response to the irregularly cascading hi-hats. The way he switches flows so seamlessly just goes hand in hand with Curry trying frantically to fight off his “mean” persona creeping into his words just as the gravel creeps back into his voice and he starts fantasizing about indulging in his darker thoughts, desensitized to gun violence and expecting his own life to end as a direct result. “Sirens” is the most politically charged track here, getting an assist from similarly grim rising indie pop artist Billie Eilish on the hook and one of the most lyrical current rappers in Dreamville’s J.I.D., making direct references to the presidential election and the resulting state of America, comparing the negative effects of the political divide, the reach of the media and violence in his community to some seriously twisted and decidedly non-politically correct extended metaphors. The passion in his voice makes you understand that he fully believes every word he says.

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The final “Dark” section is some of the most disturbingly nihilistic material I’ve ever heard, but it’s incredibly compelling all the same. He addresses the effects of rappers romanticizing drug abuse on “The Blackest Balloon” and “Percz”, the instrumentals at their most ominous and anxious, menacing bells and deafening bass punctuating Curry’s distressed, mournful voice as he predicts terrorism and the continued deaths of those close to him. The final two tracks, “Vengeance” and “Black Metal Terrorist”, find Curry channelling the hardcore genre, recruiting JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami for some verses that are somehow even more aggressive than his own. It’s some very shocking stuff, and I’ve certainly never heard anything like it, but I can’t deny how much the music takes over my body and senses completely. Curry’s inflections on “Vengeance” are something else – I have no idea how he manages to take his voice to so many different places with such a fast flow.

Curry truly has the full toolkit of a great rapper. It’s so easy to get lost in one of the great aspects of this project and completely miss one of the others – I certainly didn’t understand the importance of most of Curry’s lyrics on the first listen. TA13OO is the most experimental and unique rap record of the year – and is one of the most insane listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Favourite Tracks: Switch It Up, Vengeance, Sumo, Cash Maniac, Super Saiyan Superman

Least Favourite Track: Clout Cobain…?

Score: 9/10

RL Grime – Nova

Image result for rl grime novaElectronic musician RL Grime, fluent in the sounds of future bass, drum ‘n’ bass, and of course grime, defies most EDM artists’ approach to drop a well thought out and cohesive project rather than sporadic singles. Nova is his second full-length, following 2014’s Void, and runs through a high-energy and endlessly fun selection of different sounds and genres, recruiting a great selection of guests as well. Most of these tracks are shell-shockingly heavy with bass and other dominant, flaring synths, and puts RL Grime in a category all on his own by sheer virtue of his ability to craft these tailor-made party tracks that still include a selection of sounds so distinctive and distracting. The transitions and clear album structure, as well, make the usually taxing task of listening to an EDM album, almost an hour straight of one-note dance tracks, much more engaging – though at 15 songs it still does fall victim to a few pitfalls of almost every electronic full-length.

RL Grime has always incorporated elements of trap music into his work, even before the huge boom in popularity of the genre, so he makes an easier transition than most in keeping his brand of EDM relevant to the musical conversation as the mid-2010s brostep wave dies out. The focus on it isn’t huge here, Grime maintaining what makes him unique, but the familiar hi-hats serve as the foundation that Grime builds his dynamic soundscapes on to a successful degree, tracks where hip-hop artists show up some of the best here. “Feel Free” is a great instrumental intro that displays his musicality as it relates to the wonky, perfectly arrhythmic future bass sound – the track is a nice introduction to the rest of his work here, being pretty abrasive immediately but dynamic and experimental enough to surprise the listener as it breaks from formula. I always love when the 2nd drop switches up the sound rather than looping the first half of the song once again.

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As the tracklisting continues, Grime really does show his diversity in running through a lot of different styles here, the album rarely boring to listen to. “Shrine” re-introduces some of his older elements of high-speed drum ‘n’ bass, while “Light Me Up” brings both Miguel and Julia Michaels aboard for a bouncy, tropical pop track, Michaels’ soft and seductive vocals contrasting surprisingly well with the pounding synth line in the chorus.

The following run of 3 hip-hop influenced tracks is where the album hits its experimental and euphoric stride, however. Jeremih’s delivery on “Undo” is intoxicating, flowing smoothly over a traditional rap instrumental before Grime unexpectedly drops a quirky, jagged synth melody that sends the track into an energetic overdrive. “Take It Away” is a track that really shocked me, however. Featuring (2018 MVP?) Ty Dolla $ign, it’s one of the biggest musical sensory overloads I’ve ever experienced. The chorus features these gargantuan sliding synths, elevating upwards like some kind of twisted carnival ride, eerie yet completely celebratory and triumphant, alternating with complete silence as the undeniable effortless cool of Ty holds it all together. The same kind of euphoric, top-of-the world feeling is replicated on “Reims” – something about it just makes you feel powerful. The wailing, distorted vocal sample underscores what can only be described as a strobe light in sound form, a completely in-your-face oscillating synth line. “Pressure” is another great instrumental track, a slightly menacing bassline building to the kind of trademark off-kilter future-bass chorus Grime is known for.

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As is to be expected with an EDM project, a few of these tracks have too many similarities to exist on the same tracklisting together, although I do appreciate how Grime tries to make it appear more than rinse-and-repeat with his transitions. There’s only so much pummelling my senses into submission that I can take in one sitting! Actually though, some of my least favourite tracks on this project are when Grime opts to tone it down a bit. “OMG” is an upbeat and fun track, but it pales in comparison to the previous two similar tracks with hip-hop artists, Joji’s laid back delivery not fitting in as well. “Shoulda” introduces a run of instrumental tracks with a more atmospheric sound bordering on chillwave that takes too long to get to its higher-energy conclusion and doesn’t align with his greatest strengths. “I Wanna Know”, featuring Daya, and “UCLA”, featuring rapper 24hrs, feel out of place tacked onto the end of the tracklisting as well farther away from their counterparts.

Nova is one of the most consistently engaging EDM projects I’ve heard in a while, due to RL Grime’s ability to switch up his style all the while inserting himself in the current musical conversation. It’s easy to see why he’s had staying power over quite a few of his contemporaries who started around the same time, and his creativity and adaptability across the board here make him stand out. I’m sure I’d like it even more in a live setting.

Favourite Tracks: Take It Away, Reims, Pressure, Undo, Feel Free

Least Favourite Track: Shoulda

Score: 8/10

Meg Myers – Take Me To The Disco

Image result for meg myers take me to the discoPop-rock singer-songwriter Meg Myers’ sophomore album, Take Me To The Disco, sees the singer discover a middle ground between the upbeat, poppier melodic approach of her debut Sorry and the abrasive, almost grunge edge that coloured her earlier EPs. 4 years after her breakout single “Desire”, Myers still exists in her own lane as a completely unique artist and one of my personal favourite singers who is still moderately lesser-known, blending heavy guitar work and haunting, tortured rock vocal abilities with some aspects that could easily fit on pop radio. However, while still possessing the infectious qualities of songwriting and song structure that knows just how to highlight the greatest parts of her voice, Take Me To The Disco sounds more subdued than Myers ever should be. She never quite recaptures the snarl that accompanied her early delivery, or commits fully to the experimental, pop-oriented angle that appeared on Sorry. Still, Myers delivers another strong body of work.

The title track which opens the album essentially acts as an introductory preface to the explosive lead single “Numb”, one of the greatest tracks here. Myers’ voice on the opening track is featured more due to the more minimal instrumental constructed of orchestral strings and a light, poppier percussion section, but you can still hear the intensity and emotion in her every note, her voice catching and stopping up on certain notes, even if she takes her vocals to a more breathy place than usual. I always find myself wanting her to return to the full-voiced early-90s grunge scream and aggressive, disdainful tone that surprised me so much the first time I heard her – and she comes closest to it on the chorus of “Numb”. The deafening lead guitar roars in after a verse with a delightfully off-putting childlike nursery rhyme melody (“I don’t wanna grow up, la la la la la”, she sings), catching the listener off guard with some serious vocal ability with a huge slide up to an impressive note that she hits at full power, bringing back her catchy pop songwriting that she expresses in the most intense, contradictory way possible that works perfectly regardless.

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“Tear Me To Pieces” is another equally chilling track. I love how she over-enunciates each one of her words, making me feel the anger behind each. Her expletive-laden accusations of her partner’s lies remind me of her older songwriting, and the demonic, distorted lower supporting vocals and the way the song cuts out to highlight her most emotional vocal moments make it a standout. The juxtaposition of the quiet piano section before the final, screaming conclusion never fails to give me goosebumps. “The Death Of Me” reminds me of the pop half of Sorry more than anything here, a much brighter piano riff colouring the track that provides the perfect contrast to the pessimistic and anxious lyricism of the chorus that acts as the biggest artistic risk on the project. Main co-writer Leggy Langdon lends his vocals to the track as well, providing a distinctive, unique lower voice that provides great support for Myers. “Little Black Death” is another pretty flawless marriage of the two styles, the upbeat track taking on an almost disco flavour due to the syncopated rhythm of the chorus melody. It’s a lot of fun to hear a distorted guitar emulating this kind of upbeat instrumental, and Myers taking the final chorus an octave up is a pretty stunning vocal moment.

“Tourniquet”, on the other hand, feels emptier and more underwritten than anything here, the melody too quick and choppy for the quieter, acoustic guitar pattern that dominates the instrumental space, most of the chorus just involving an “ay-ay-ay” extension of the titular word – it’s missing the sharp, often terrifying songwriting that I’ve come to know Myers by over the years, and it feels like she’s trying to play into more of a marketable angle here for the first time. It’s one of her least shocking songs and easily has crossover potential.

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Looking at the larger picture, a few of these tracks do feel like older Myers tropes that just aren’t taken as far as they used to be, exhibiting a few similarities across the tracklist. “Some People” is a slower, orchestral, more introspective track that doesn’t really pick itself off the ground due to Myers relegating her vocal power until a final, explosive section that comes too late and feels repetitive after the similar structure of the preceding tracks. “I’m Not Sorry”, as well, features yet another juxtaposition of a quieter refrain, Myers repeating a strained, breathy “stay”, with a briefly abrasive section that isn’t executed as well as other tracks here.

All things considered, Myers at her least interesting is still pretty incredible and refreshing. There’s nobody else in the current musical conversation coming anywhere close to emulating the combination of sounds that she does, and her song structures are always electrifyingly clean and well thought out. Now moving forward as an independent artist, she should hopefully regain some creativity once again.

Favourite Tracks: Tear Me To Pieces, Numb, The Death Of Me, Little Black Death, Done

Least Favourite Track: I’m Not Sorry

Score: 7/10

The Internet – Hive Mind

Image result for the internet hive mindR&B/funk collective The Internet, now on its 4th studio album after the disbanding of parent group Odd Future, unleashes the collection of subdued, effortlessly cool tracks Hive Mind. Their young producer Steve Lacy, already making hits with other big name artists like Kendrick Lamar, brings his multi-instrumentalist skill to the complex jazz-funk instrumentals here, while ex-Odd Future vocalists Syd and Matt Martians handle the mic, becoming stars in their own right after other members like Tyler The Creator, Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt’s successes. While the project does stand at a meandering 57 minutes, a few of these tracks getting too indulgent and disjointed for their own good, Syd’s captivating vocal work and Lacy’s production holds it together well.

Quite a bit of this album reminds me of what made Kali Uchis’ Isolation, one of my favourites of the year, work so well. Syd’s vocals, often catching the attention of my ears over Martians’ lower supporting voice, have the same kind of aloof and breathy yet determined quality, while the instrumentals share the same degree of refreshing complexity. The tracks that are delegated entirely to Syd are always the strongest here, especially when the instrumental and lyrical content takes on the sensual quality that her voice was built for. A lazy funk guitar pattern and bouncing bassline frames a request to “Come Over” on the titular track. I love how her vocals are layered with her head voice, an octave higher, quieter in the background, like a representation of the genuine excitement behind what she’s saying that she’s afraid to betray to the recipient completely. Instead, she plays it cool with her lower voice in the front of the mix.

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Tracks like “Stay The Night” and “Mood” see Syd step convincingly into the role of a typical R&B seducer as well. Lacy’s percussion (are those wooden instruments?) and funk bassline on the former lends it to a kind of bossa-nova vibe, Syd’s vocals at their most breathy and longing as she whisper-sings “maybe you should stay the night” quickly into alternating ears, surrounding the listener in her voice. It’s pretty convincing. “Mood” turns Syd’s bedroom into a shimmering dreamscape with some ascending synth-piano as she taps into a faster-paced, hip-hop influenced storytelling angle of her successful date plan – even receiving some good luck texts from her friends – dropping into an enticing rap vocal as she finally gets her (female!) partner home. “Next Time/Humble Pie” drops into a pretty fun groove immediately, Syd offering some of the catchiest melodies across the whole project in the verses of the first half of the song – I wish we got more of it instead of the distorted, sparser “Humble Pie” section.

“Wanna Be” is another strong, dreamy track built around a funk guitar riff – it seems like there’s some kind of ethereal, echoing effect on Syd’s vocals as she sheepishly asks if a partner wants to take the next step, while the next track “Beat Goes On” is the only song here with Martians as a primary writing credit, and it’s the experimental track that panned out the best of any of them here. As the title would suggest, it’s built on numerous interlocking, heavy percussion rhythms, verging on drum ‘n’ bass as Martians echoes Syd’s sentiments on “Wanna Be” from the male perspective.

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The project starts to lose replayability as the songs continue to extend past their welcome, many of these tracks existing more as experimental jam sessions than a deliberately thought-out song that one is likely to easily remember – for example, something about that introductory guitar pattern on “La Di Da” doesn’t line up rhythmically with the rest of the song the way I want it to for some reason, the band seemingly going for a noisier, experimental angle. “Bravo”, as well, is built on some explosive percussion stabs that are a little too loud in the mix and throw off the chill vibe of the song as Syd harmonizes with herself beautifully underneath. The hooks are never quite memorable enough to stick long after listening – “Come Together”, the opening track, feels like the hook was structured to be immediately anthemic, but the lower energy of the song and the slightly awkward emphasis placement doesn’t lend it any favours. In other places, the hooks are simply underwritten, but most of the time I’m easily distracted by the prominent percussion anyway. “Roll (Burbank Funk)” lends a bit too much time to Martians’ wavering vocals and a mostly empty hook, but the click-clack of the upbeat, danceable percussion dominating the track’s space turns the song into an inescapable, driving force regardless.

The Internet is essentially the immense talents of five individuals colliding in an often messy and occasionally brilliant way. Syd is a force to be reckoned with all on her own, but The Internet have tapped into a niche in quite a strong way with this project. The replayability factor might not be there, but this is a truly refreshing work.

Favourite Tracks: Stay The Night, Mood, Come Over, Wanna Be, Hold On

Least Favourite Track: Bravo

Score: 7/10

Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgAustralian indie-pop singer Amy Shark, after rising to prominence with her contributions to the Love, Simon soundtrack, releases her debut album Love Monster. Shark takes some clear inspiration from other rising pop artists in her home country and neighbouring New Zealand, as well as some other megastars of the day, but manages to deliver a very strong debut due to her unique vocals and specific and personal lyrical content. A few superproducers hop on board for a single song each, but for the most part, this is one of the strongest debut projects of the year based solely on Shark’s own captivatingly refreshing presence as a newcomer to the music industry.

The album opens with a minimal, acoustic chord progression on the song “I Got You”, immediately introducing us to the perfect storm of what a star on the rise should harness on their debut album as the trap beat and catchy pop melody quickly cascade in. It’s a combination of sounds that’s been done before, of course, but something about the brightness of the acoustics, the way the beat doesn’t dominate the track, and Shark’s cheery lyrics delivered by a voice with the inflections to make her sound emotional even when completely casual creates a wonderful welcome to a surefire star in the making who uses trends sparingly to display her own personal artistry on top. The most obvious parallel you can draw to Shark’s work is Taylor Swift, especially the better half of her recent reputation. The way she throws her entire emotional being into her vocal performance, as well as the smartly written pop melodies and very slight hip-hop edge to charming pop tracks mirror the megastar in the best way.

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“All Loved Up”, produced by Swift and Shark’s common collaborator Jack Antonoff, is one of the most pop radio-ready tracks here – the verses feature Shark in a kind of hurried, out-of-breath delivery of faster-paced lyrics, as if she’s barely succeeding at fitting all of the many emotions running through her mind as she takes the exciting leap of faith into a committed relationship into her verse. The chorus is just as catchy as any here, but what sells it is Shark’s likability and relatability as she lays all of her emotions out. The next track, “I Said Hi”, is pop euphoria – and Shark has said she wrote the lyrics and melodies in an impassioned 10-minute burst of creativity, hurriedly recording it after the realization it was “Grammy Award-winning”. The trap-acoustic theme is played up to its maximum power here, with an absolutely monstrous drop into one of the most pristine pop melodies I’ve heard all year and hilariously passive-aggressive lyrics aimed at her doubters – I’m excited for her future if she can assuredly make something this excellent so quickly. New Zealand pop mastermind Joel Little assists on “Never Coming Back”, a lighter track where Shark plays up the sweet, breathier side of her vocals over some shimmering synth lines that remind me of Little’s excellent work with Broods. The track features some great harmonies leading up to an explosive conclusion.

Shark’s emotional songwriting reaches its heartbreaking peak on a song like “Leave Us Alone”, describing the best memories and feelings of a past relationship in vivid detail, repeating the titular “alone” in a much quieter voice that contradicts the stronger front she tries to put up. This continues on “Don’t Turn Around”, another complete knockout of a track where Shark fantasizes about reconnecting with an ex upon seeing them at an event, internally criticizing herself for it – “You’re two rows behind me and it’s hard not to turn around”, she says, as a distorted, higher-pitched voice sends the track into pop overdrive with some quicker, rhythmic vocals that complete the sonic picture the bright trap-pop instrumental paints. Shark’s versatility across this project is quite impressive, harnessing the appropriate volume and emotional delivery of tracks with more of a louder rock edge on the Mark Hoppus (Blink-182) featuring “Psycho”, to the EDM-leaning “Middle of the Night” to the quiet indie-pop variety that makes up the majority of the tracklisting here.

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If anything, 14 tracks feels just slightly long, a few of these tracks standing as slightly less effective versions of counterparts earlier on in the tracklisting. Placing a song like “The Idiot” after the stellar “I Said Hi”, the song possessing similarly dominant guitar stabs and a knocking hip-hop beat, makes it slightly redundant despite being pretty great in its own right. Shark does wear her influences on her sleeve as well, constantly bringing to mind the lyricism of Lorde, instrumentals and harmonies of Broods or the emotion of Swift. Her own personality does shine through though, and the added variation of any future material will likely confirm this.

Love Monster is the most confident and self-assured pop debut since Billie Eilish’s don’t smile at me EP, Shark quickly establishing herself as an artist to watch by endearing herself to the audience with her honest emotional delivery and specific, smart lyricism. Meanwhile, she capitalizes on the sound of the moment to a small enough degree that it doesn’t feel like trend-hopping. I’m very excited to hear more from her.

Favourite Tracks: I Said Hi, Don’t Turn Around, All Loved Up, I Got You, Mess Her Up

Least Favourite Track: Adore

Score: 9/10

Wiz Khalifa – Rolling Papers 2

RollingPapers2Cover.pngNot to be outdone by Drake’s smash hit Scorpion, Wiz Khalifa’s sixth studio album Rolling Papers 2 has arrived in the similar form of a 25-track album by a rapper who sounds like he’d rather be anywhere else most of the time, save for some infrequent bursts of the charm we’ve come to love from them in the past. Khalifa’s latest certainly falls victim to loading an album with filler to benefit in the streaming game, especially when Khalifa’s subject matter or delivery has never been the most varied, slowing most of these tracks down with his sluggish flow. Still, there are a surprising amount of hits here all the same – Khalifa stands out when he’s audibly having fun, bringing to mind the joys of his older material.

“Hot Now” and “Ocean” are two pretty weak opening tracks that preview most of the material here – Khalifa was never meant to be an autotuned trap-rapper, but everyone seemingly adapts to this mold nowadays regardless. The sung hooks here sound so much less exuberant than the more natural, fun ones on a classic track like “Roll Up”. His flow on these tracks and many others here leaves a lot to be desired as well, leaving a lot of empty space without the technical skill to elevate the moodier trap instrumentals that are in fashion at the moment. Khalifa’s detached and slightly off-kilter flow doesn’t line up on most occasions here, but when the tracks get more energetic he does demonstrate abilities that can exceed even his guest features here – he delivers easily the best verse on “Blue Hunnids”, speeding up his flow and injecting his delivery with more emotion, I’m just left wondering why he doesn’t come as hard on most of these songs.Image result for wiz khalifa

The same goes for his lyrics – on tracks like “Rolling Papers 2” and “B Ok”, we get some of the most personal and compelling lyrics we’ve ever heard from Wiz, speaking about his strategies to avoid getting caught up in the extravagance of fame and even opening up about the heavy emotional toll of his relationship with Amber Rose and the death of his transgender sister on the latter. However, on the vast majority of songs here we get repetitive and redundant hooks and the same old punchlines and subject material regarding Khalifa’s drug of choice – he’s got the potential to be so much more than an average party rapper. I definitely understand why Khalifa does go in this direction, I just wish there was more balance, especially on an album so long. “Late Night Messages” might be the most egregious example of all these negative aspects colliding, as Khalifa attempts to layer his Auto-Tuned vocals on the hook, the result being pretty unlistenable since there isn’t an actual harmony there. Khalifa is at his best at his most authentic – we’ve always been able to get a pretty good idea of who he is, for better or for worse, but seeing him chase trends so hard is disappointing since he’s not exactly one of the more talented or innovative rappers out there, losing the one aspect that makes him interesting.

Of course, on 25 tracks, some things have to connect and we do get moments of all of Khalifa’s best aspects, and sometimes the best parts of the track do come from the many features. Relatively unknown identical twin duo THEMXXNLIGHT deliver a great hook on “Mr. Williams/Where Is the Love” that also has a technically skilled verse from Curren$y that makes Khalifa’s slurred vocals sound laughably out of place. This transitions into the best track here, “Penthouse”, where Khalifa and Snoop Dogg reignite their undeniable chemistry over a looped, minor-key piano instrumental and fun trap instrumental that accommodates Khalifa’s hook and an absolutely hilarious verse from Snoop well. The two are intentionally goofy on the track. Snoop says “wheeee!” in a high-pitched voice as an ad-lib. Hearing the two have fun is what sells it.

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“Hopeless Romantic” is essentially just a Swae Lee song, but his catchy, childlike melodies over the Young Chop beat and a better-than-average verse from Khalifa where he shows off his triplet flows make the track a standout. Khalifa’s always sounded like he belongs more to an older era of rap music, and his old-school sing-song flow on a song like “Karate/Never Hesitate” and G-Funk homage on the excellent “Gin and Drugs” stand out amongst the endlessly repetitive trap instrumentals here. “King” is one of the best solo tracks here for similar reasons I mentioned earlier – Khalifa delivers a fun and quotable hook and turns up the technical skill for the 2nd verse.

Rolling Papers 2 might have been a legitimately good album if it was cut down significantly by a Khalifa who had a better understanding of where his greatest strengths lie. In it’s current format, it’s quite the chore to get through at times despite the moments where he does what he does best and gives us these endearingly goofy and fun rap tracks, but Khalifa’s adherence to trends that don’t fit him here bring the project way down.

Favourite Tracks: Penthouse, Gin and Drugs, Hopeless Romantic

Least Favourite Track: Late Night Messages

Score: 4/10

 

Years & Years – Palo Santo

Image result for years and years palo santoBritish electropop trio Years & Years unleash their sophomore effort Palo Santo, an endlessly danceable homage to the upbeat and explosive synthpop sounds of the 80s that features refreshingly openly gay lyrical content that dives further into the real stories of frontman Olly Alexander – often with the use of religious imagery. I wouldn’t blame any listener for missing out on the lyrics completely though – while not the most consistent or original of albums, slowing down its frenetic pace in the middle and lifting some recognizable melodies and rhythms, many of the tracks that populate Palo Santo are simply ridiculously fun, built on inescapable rhythms that reach levels of modern synthpop mastery on an equal playing field with someone like a Carly Rae Jepsen.

Alexander doubles as a theatrical actor, and the extravagance of live performance is reflected through his expressive and dynamic vocals. Quite a few of these songs veer into pretty heavy territory, Alexander speaking about his romantic experiences as a gay man, without concealing any of the giveaway pronouns in the process, with the veneer of religion. He speaks about his desires both as something inappropriate and sinful that he finds some kind of absolution in regardless, asking a man who claims to be straight to “Sanctify” him or comparing partners to a religious figure “preaching a lie”. The album first sets off its ethereal dance party on its second track, “Hallelujah”, however, Alexander finding the spiritual healing that he seeks through dance and the escape of pop music. Produced by veteran Greg Kurstin and written with help from Julia Michaels, the percussion unremitting as Alexander delivers a rapid-fire, harmonized chorus. The beat dropping for the final time as he extends his note on an ascendant repetition of the title phrase is one of the greatest moments here.

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This leads directly into “All For You”, which might be the best song on the whole project. Another Kurstin track, the chorus is one of the most immediately infectious you’re likely to find all year. The slowly swirling synths eventually build into a buzzy, syncopated rhythm that’s echoed by the vocals as Alexander gets caught up in burning desire. The delivery on that opening “you look like you’re so damn scared” is electrifying, especially when the music cuts out briefly for the final chorus. Years & Years aren’t scared to slow things down either, “Hypnotised” a quite aptly named track as Alexander’s voice is allowed to shine without the surrounding pizzazz for an aching, beautifully harmonized track where his acting talents can be clearly heard.

Palo Santo can suffer from a lack of originality at times, even if the music is so fun you’re a lot less likely to care. A track like “Karma” is so heavily inspired from late 90s-early 00s female R&B hits that you could apply certain sections of the track to individual songs. It’s a lot more similar than it should be in a world where musicians are being sued for emulating a “vibe” – remnants of Lauryn Hill and Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits haunt the song, but it’s still very upbeat and fun by adding a prominent synth line that the aforementioned artists never had. “If You’re Over Me” stands out in the tracklist for all the wrong reasons as well. For the most part, this is forward-thinking pop music that seamlessly updates an older sound for modern purposes, but this song essentially copy-and-pastes the car-commercial-esque synth line from American Authors hit “Best Day of My Life”, and the surrounding track is just as dated and uninspired, produced by the increasingly bland Steve Mac, who just landed the biggest hit of his career with “Shape Of You”.

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As the tracklist reaches its end, the revelry continues, it just doesn’t reach the same levels as the early goings, one small part of the track missing before it reaches its full potential. “Preacher”, for example, is constructed out of a flashy bassline and Alexander’s falsetto ‘woohoo’s, but I feel like the chorus lags one measure behind where it should, leaving too much silence. It finds its footing once again on penultimate track “Lucky Escape”, however – the hi-hats slow things down to a more R&B leaning half-time tempo, synth-piano and falsetto harmonies driving one of the catchiest tracks here, put over the edge by Alexander’s triumphant and sassy inflections as he celebrates “dodging a bullet”.

Palo Santo certainly expands Years & Years’ musical range from their debut, in a rare feat of improving rather than falling victim to the sophomore curse. The religious themes throughout make the act of enjoying pop music feel like a kind of spiritual liberation, and the collaborators here knock it out of the park in an homage to a genre past. Even if it comes off too close to replication at times, it’s a great step forward for the trio.

Favourite Tracks: All For You, Hallelujah, Hypnotised, Lucky Escape, Sanctify

Least Favourite Track: If You’re Over Me

Score: 8/10

Future – BEASTMODE 2

Beast Mode 2 by Future.jpgSuperstar rapper Future continues his torrid release pace with the sequel to one of his breakout mixtapes, 2015’s Beast Mode. Teaming up with the same producer as the former – innovative trap pianist Zaytoven – for the project’s entire duration, Future continues to do what he does best. While there certainly are some pretty great beats on here, Zaytoven flexing his classically trained muscles to give the run-of-the-mill trap instrumental a higher degree of musicality, it’s honestly getting increasingly difficult to get legitimately excited about Future’s brand of slurred, Auto-Tuned delivery over consistently basic hi-hats in a world where trap artists who put in more noticeable effort exist. BEASTMODE 2 is far from a bad project, the formula’s just getting boring – I heard a similarly average Future mixtape in SUPER SLIMEY only 9 months ago. Still, Future’s trap bangers get the baseline job done more consistently than most.

Most of these tracks give an immediate burst of energy as Future descends onto the track for the first time and the beat clicks together, but over the course of the whole track it manages to fizzle out completely by the end. On more than one occasion on my first listen I thought I had finally reached the first track to truly wow me on the project, only to end up getting bored of it by its ending. “WIFI LIT”, the opening track and apparent fan favourite, is nothing we haven’t heard before, featuring a woodwind instrumental and Future’s flow never deviating from the norm. It possesses the initial euphoric rush that most trap songs have, but the same kind of thing goes on for too long.

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Tracks like “RACKS BLUE” and “RED LIGHT” that prominently feature Zaytoven’s work on the keys are where the project shines more, especially the latter, the intro of the track displaying some seriously impressive rapid-fire scales up and down the keyboard. “RACKS BLUE” is one of the more memorable tracks on the project, the trap beat enhancing Zaytoven’s work up in the piano’s higher register for a contemplative and rhythmic pop-leaning sound, one of the catchiest instrumentals here. The song “DOH DOH” is the only track with a guest feature in Young Scooter, and his cleaner, more distinctly rhythmic approach was very welcome to my ears after 5 straight tracks of low-effort Future delivery. Future’s melodic hook here is him at his best as well though. The frenetic instrumental features a menacing low brass note in place of a bass line that anchors the track well, and the jumpy, high-pitched synths inject more energy into the song than most here.

For a project that’s only 31 minutes long, too much of this feels like filler. Of the two, I expect more creativity from Zaytoven, so when he resorts to more straightforward trap instrumentals the quality suffers. “31 DAYS” is one of those, and Future’s lazy lyricism and awkward flow suck most of the fun out of the ode to mutually understood brief relationships as well. Of course, Future has always been so much more about the way he says things than what he says, but he hasn’t been varying this up much recently as his release schedule gets more crowded. There’s nothing here as instantly iconic as a “Mask Off”, a “Jumpman”, a “March Madness” – 3 tracks that are great for very different reasons. “WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT” is definitely a pretty fun track, but it could have been even better – the cascading piano is inexplicably buried deep in the mix in lieu of Zaytoven doing the same “Dilemma” pitched vocal sample trick that’s shown up in quite a few popular songs recently, while “SOME MORE” is the poppiest track Future’s ever released, his muddled voice sounding out of place on the uncharacteristically pleasant instrumental.

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The high-pitched and plaintive sounds of the piano do allow Future to take things to a more personal place, however. At times, the natural vibrato his voice possesses sounds more like a waver before he breaks out into tears – and it makes closing track “HATE THE REAL ME” one of his most compelling ever. “I’m tryna get high as I can”, he repeats on the infectious hook, but he sounds more remorseful about it than anything, the faintest hint of emotion creeping into his tough-guy persona. Over the course of the track, he details his excessive drug use as a result of trying to escape his inner demons and anxieties, changing himself into someone else in the pursuit of love and the other excesses of fame. When so many huge artists sound whiny when talking about struggling from success, it’s Future of all people who sounds completely genuine, and Zaytoven’s expressive production helps to bring this out of him.

BEASTMODE 2 is pretty standard Future fare for the most part, and it’s clearly been working out well for him as his popularity continues to skyrocket. Hearing him team up with Zaytoven once again is a pleasure, even if his delivery has become more uninspired since the last time. Future has the potential to drop a knockout track on us when we least expect it – I’m just not sure it’s on this particular project.

Favourite Tracks: HATE THE REAL ME, DOH DOH, RACKS BLUE, WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT

Least Favourite Track: SOME MORE

Score: 5/10