Kesha – Rainbow

Kesha - Rainbow (Official Album Cover).pngFormer dance commander and proponent of sleazy electropop Kesha is now minus a dollar sign in her name and a contract with an abusive producer. Rainbow is her first album since 2012’s Warrior and thankfully, we finally get to see the kind of music Kesha wanted to make all along. There were very brief glimpses of just how talented Kesha really is on her earlier work, but the character she portrayed was fun enough to transform her into a massive pop star anyway.

This latest project was her opportunity to let loose, and as she runs through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock, Rainbow is all over the place in the absolute best way. A few of her experiments are noticeably weaker in execution than others, but the combination of actual talent with the goofy eccentricities of her past and a powerful message of strength is more than enough to carry Rainbow.

It would appear that Kesha’s found some new producers! Quite a bit is attributed to go-to pop producer Ricky Reed, but some of the more interesting choices here include Ryan Lewis (of Macklemore fame) and alt-rocker Ben Folds. Her uniqueness is demonstrated even further with her feature list: She recruits both a horn section, and hard rock band Eagles of Death Metal for TWO tracks. Most interestingly, however, country legend Dolly Parton joins Kesha for a cover of her hit “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)”, which was actually written by Kesha’s mother.

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Hearing Kesha actually sing for the entire duration of an album is a great experience. It’s like watching a whole new artist being born. Kesha without any restrictions is a truly dangerous thing to unleash upon the world. We open with “Bastards”, where she bluntly sets the tone over some acoustic strumming: “Don’t let the bastards get you down, down let the assholes wear you out”. This message of personal strength persists throughout.

One of the best parts of Rainbow is how you can tell that some of her old persona was actually real, as her personality comes through in full force. Studio banter is often left on the final cut, and she even breaks down laughing halfway through a verse in “Woman”, missing some of her lyrics in the process.

Tracks like “Godzilla” and “Boogie Feet” are the greatest exhibition of this. Honestly, I was waiting for at least one more party-girl rap verse from Kesha and I got it and then some on “Boogie Feet”. The track turns into a B-52s style back and forth with Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes before they both drawl “Are you scared of these boogie feet?” You have to hear the song to understand the magic. “Godzilla”, on the other hand, is just an adorable song with whimsical lyrics on falling in love with a man who might scare others with his nonconformity – hence, Godzilla.

On almost every track, Kesha finds a way to throw in subtle references to how much more control she has over her life and music in the absence of her contract. “I write this s**t”, she asserts in “Woman”, a track about female independence. Celebratory pop track “Learn To Let Go” offers “The past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it”.

Lead single “Praying” is a heartbreaking ballad where she addresses Dr. Luke directly and displays her most emotional vulnerability on the project. It takes a special kind of strength to write a song to your abuser thanking him for “How strong I have become” and hoping that one day he “find[s] his peace” and learns the error of his ways. Not that the song isn’t tinged with a bit of anger either – a bit more fire creeps into her voice in the second verse, where she relishes in proving Luke wrong with her success without him. “When I’m finished they won’t even know your name”, she concludes. To top it all off, she hits a whistle note that spawned reaction videos. It might be the most powerful piece of songwriting this year.

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Kesha’s diversity is great to hear for someone who used to be so one-dimensional. Something like “Hunt You Down” is a fun country track – in a feminist twist on outlaw country, Kesha threatens to kill if she’s cheated on over a twangy bassline – but her true strength as a pop songwriter is the biggest revelation of Rainbow. The title track, “Hymn” and “Learn To Let Go” are all incredible pieces of pop music. “Rainbow” especially is another incredibly affecting track, apparently written on a toy keyboard while in rehab. The strings and backing harmonies swell as Kesha implores every girl to find the magic inside themselves and fall in love with being alive.

I truly believe that Kesha laid down every crazy idea that got in her head just because she could on this project, and that means there had to be a few questionable moments. “Let ‘Em Talk” is a mess. I like that she wanted to channel this crazy energy with the assistance of a hard rock band, but this is a bit too much chaos for me. The track speeds along with a frenetic guitar riff as Kesha taps into her inner rock and roll frontwoman. I can’t tell if it’s a slight distortion effect on her voice, but the higher pitch of the song eventually makes it pretty frating. The whole song is just too loud.

“Spaceship”, as well, closes the album on a low as Kesha ventures a little too close to self-indulgence over a bluegrass instrumental. It is easily the longest track, and ends on a speech that could be mistaken for a series of Jaden Smith tweets.

Someone as free-spirited as Kesha was never going to make a perfect album, but this is an absolutely spectacular return to the music industry that blew my expectations away. I’m not sure how the mainstream will receive this, but this new, dynamic and unleashed version of Kesha is a force to be reckoned with.

Favourite Tracks: Praying, Rainbow, Learn To Let Go, Boogie Feet, Hunt You Down

Least Favourite Track: Let ‘Em Talk

Score: 8/10

Avicii – AVĪCI (01) EP

AVĪCI (01).jpgSwedish superstar DJ Avicii returns with a brief 6-track EP in the wake of commercially underperforming 2015 album Stories and a retirement fake-out. There isn’t a lot of diversion here from the sound that helped him ascend to worldwide status, which is becoming somewhat outdated in the current musical landscape. However, it is nice to have the original pioneer back, even if the folk roots that he draws from have since fallen out of favour on mainstream radio.

Avicii’s formula is a smart one, and with assistance from features like Rita Ora and AlunaGeorge, his brand of folktronica and catchy drops that sound like they belong on a video game soundtrack could easily insert him back into the public eye. There could be a much greater degree of creativity here, but I can’t deny that these energetic and uplifting tracks do their job effectively.

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The album opens with some acoustic chords and a bouncy bassline, as a pleasant tenor voice starts singing about friendship. We could be watching a guy strumming a guitar at a campfire here. Avicii still definitely knows how to tap into this sentimentality, and there isn’t really anyone else in this exact lane.

I really do have to commend him for how he was able to keep some of the aspects of tracks like “Wake Me Up”, but do just enough to modernize his sound as well, especially on “Friend of Mine”. THe voices aren’t overly folksy, the acoustic strumming cuts out at the most climactic portions of the song. It’s a very intelligent approach.

“So Much Better”, a remix of Swedish singer-songwriter Sandro Cavazza’s track, sees him abandon his style the most and tap into some more current EDM trends – there are some definite tropical house influences here as he attacks listeners in a quieter manner like a Kygo or Cashmere Cat. We get a single main synth and some rhythmic bass stabs, and sometimes that’s all we need. He fits quite well into the newer laid-back style. Cashmere Cat actually appears alongside Benny Blanco for “Lonely Together”, but it doesn’t stand out as much due to Rita Ora’s overly poppy vocals.

“You Be Love”, even though I fully recognize how many of the boxes it ticks on the “overly sugary party track” checklist, gets me to submit all the same. It is the most rhythmic track of all, as Clean Bandit-esque synth-piano chords begin pounding away and a quickly oscillating and high-pitched main synth line activates the confetti cannons and the beginning of the party. Billy Raffoul’s slightly gravelly vocals syncopate well with the rhythm and give it a bit of an added dimension of soul. I was very surprised to learn that the track was written by massive country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, who doesn’t seem like she belongs anywhere near this world but has given us some great stuff in the past.

Despite all this, Avicii seems to have forgotten that the first track that got him any recognition was “Levels”, a completely instrumental track. The instrumental bits really still are the best parts of his songs, and for the most part, they end far too abruptly here.

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The release of energy that the track builds up never lasts long enough and ends up making me resent the gimmicky nature of the remainder of the track. Avicii knows that he can rely on a basic formula of wholesome lyrics and a brief infusion of electronic aspects and coast on it. The AlunaGeorge track is basically entirely this without even getting to the drop – it sounds like a more electronic version of a track like Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me”. That’s how overly saccharine some of this stuff gets, as Avicii uses their childlike voices to maximum effect.

Even on a very short 6-track EP, it feels like Avicii’s old tricks grow tiresome quickly. Buy the time “Without You” comes on and we get the 4th track in a row of a voice with some indie inflections singing a very basic melody over an acoustic guitar, eventually being taken over by a massive synth breakdown that sounds like a same instruments were being used every time, you begin to tire of all of it and that’s a problem for a project so short.

This is really the underlying problem with doing in-depth reviews on EDM music, because so often the album format is not really how these tracks were meant to be consumed. I’m confident in saying I would lose my mind if any of these came on in a social situation.

Ultimately, these tracks are far from my favourite EDM material I’ve heard this year but they meet my expectations for an Avicii project and I respect what he’s doing. This is supposedly the first EP of 3 that will combine into the album, so I’m excited to see if he takes a few more risks later this year.

Favourite Tracks: You Be Love, Friend Of Mine

Least Favourite Track: Without You

Score: 6/10

Ugly God – The Booty Tape

TheBootyTape.jpgYes, it looks like the end of summer, where little albums of consequence are ever released, is finally upon us. With that dearth, Ugly God’s The Booty Tape is one of the most popular projects this week. It has been difficult to tell just how seriously the rapper takes his career and status as a musician and artist in the wake of viral singles “Water” and “F*** Ugly God”, which is a diss track aimed at himself. This first mixtape does little to assist with this confusion. Ugly God continues to be a polarizing figure, offering 10 brief tracks in which be both integrates with the current trend of mumble rap and seemingly attempts to parody it. His lyrics are often self-deprecating or so profane and ridiculous that they become comedy gold.

The issue I have with The Booty Tape is that if I really am meant to take it as a joke, he doesn’t commit to it nearly enough. The song concepts are mostly unfinished, and he does not explore the unique aspects he does bring to the table nearly enough. He very quickly devolves into a mediocre version of the artists he is meant to be parodying. It’s difficult to give this project a score due to Ugly God’s sheer idiosyncrasy, but just looking at things from a musical standpoint, it is painfully average, which is the last thing someone like Ugly God should be.

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The mixtape opens with a recording of a YouTube video where a white mother reacts to some of Ugly God’s hit singles with some choice words. “Good luck to him” is her initial reaction, before dubbing him “not that attractive” and calls his lyrical content “dumb stuff”. When asked her final opinion, she just says “no” 14 times. This is a perfect introduction to the strange world Ugly God is about to lead us into. The man embraces these words and turns them around into a position of confidence.

“F*** Ugly God” is an absolutely hilarious idea. I wish the track was a lot longer, but for him to do this to even some degree of success is incredible, and ideas like this are why people know who he is at all. Over the course of the track, Ugly God undermines some of his own boasts, saying he is not as rich or sexually experienced as he claims to be, while criticizing himself for riding “Water” too long and saying “your whole career a joke”. The worst part? “Back in 10th grade, your coach kicked you off the team”. Ouch.

Ugly God is completely stuck in the middle and I have no idea which way he wants to go. If he wants to be seen as a comedic rapper, then the presence of tracks like “No Lies”, where he attempts a standard-length rap track with standard material and a standard feature, is inexplicable. The Wiz Khalifa feature is such a strange misplacement as well – it sounds like he accidentally wandered into the studio and dropped a verse. The instrumental is boring and repetitive and Ugly God says absolutely nothing that would alert me to the fact it is him and not one of the other thousands of SoundCloud rappers trying to make it.

On the other hand, if he is trying to make a name for himself past his meme status, then he needs to put more effort into the development of songs without diverting from his creative topics as quickly as he brought them up or ending them abruptly. Things barely get going on almost all of these tracks, many of them not even reaching 3 minutes and ending after 1 verse before he really says much of anything. “I’m A Nasty Hoe” is perhaps the most fully fleshed out track here, and it is really one of his funniest because he manages to fully explore a topic for once. Ugly God is ugly, but he has the confidence to get girls anyway. When he starts singing in a high-pitched voice like Lil Yachty on helium halfway through, it only adds to the comedic effect.

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Ultimately, the musical composition and Ugly God’s delivery of these tracks don’t do enough to separate him from the pack, and separation from the pack is the whole point of Ugly God’s existence. Possibly the biggest reason for this are the basic trap instrumentals. I feel like I say this in most of my hip-hop reviews now, but we’ve reached the apex of trap production and you have to do something insanely creative to still be interesting here.

It’s cool that Ugly God produced a lot of these tracks himself, and it suggests he might take music a bit more seriously than he lets on, but the only instrumental that really jumps out to me is “I’m Tryna F***”. It is a trap beat, but it’s more energetic than most and the traditional rolling drums continue to echo throughout the whole track and guide us into huge beat drops. Again, why isn’t this longer?

Basically, The Booty Tape is somewhat satisfying as as one-off novelty project to get a few quick laughs from. As music, I’m confident in saying I’m never going to listen to it again.

Favourite Tracks: F*** Ugly God, I’m A Nasty Hoe

Least Favourite Track: L.D.C.

Score: 4/10

Vic Mensa – The Autobiography

Chicago rapper Vic Mensa’s debut album has been in the works for a very long time. With the incredible 2013 mixtape INNANETAPE and EP There’s Alot Going On under his belt, The Autobiography is finally being delivered to us in the wake of many problems in Mensa’s life. The introspective lyricist was seemingly lost for a while, releasing subpar throwaway singles. He revealed on There’s Alot Going On that this was due to suicidal thoughts, drug abuse and a toxic relationship, and he continues to address these issues on his very personal lyrics on this project.

Now that a full project from Mensa is finally here, it’s a lot more inconsistent than I would have expected. Despite Mensa’s frequent lyrical flashes, he is certainly not without his occasional misguided concept or questionable singing voice and delivery. There are a lot of great musical moments on here, but for a project with a title as ambitious as The Autobiography, Mensa leaves a lot to be desired.

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Mensa recruits a few high-profile producers, including The-Dream, Pharrell Williams, who features on “Wings”, and the legendary No I.D., who plays supplementary roles to lesser-known Chicago area producers on almost every track here. I give props to the producers and Mensa for the project not being very trap-influenced and riding trends, the unique rock-influenced instrumentals fitting Mensa’s aesthetic better.

For someone who is known for their lyricism, a lot of the greatest moments on this album are actually due to the instrumentals. Mensa’s inspirations are quite obvious on this album and some of the greatest tracks here resemble some of Kanye’s early work – both in terms of his complexity and soul sampling, and the stadium rap of Graduation. Even though it’s an overused sample, the flip of Darondo’s “Didn’t I” on the opening track of the same name complements Mensa’s erratic flow well. The innate rhythms of the soul track in its walking bassline and syncopated guitar stabs highlight his technical abilities.

The Graduation-style tracks make things a lot more anthemic on tracks like “Rollin’ Like A Stoner”. The track brings to mind Kid Cudi’s more pop-driven early tracks as he shouts the chorus and the synths blare. Mensa knows exactly what he is doing when he speaks about the dangers of drug abuse on a catchy party track, knowing it will go right over some people’s heads.

Mensa’s lyricism is very compelling when at its best, such as on tracks like “Wings”. Mensa describes himself spreading his wings and leaving his problems in his past. The lyrical and emotional peak of the album comes when he lets the voices in his head take over the second verse, yelling at him to end his life and that he’s an embarrassment before he breaks free at the track’s conclusion.

Mensa seems to really struggle with originality here. His flow on Innanetape was refreshing and different, but here he adapts so much to J. Cole’s style of storytelling that he picks up his flow on almost every track. He has elements of Kanye in his cadence, and doesn’t even try to hide how much of a blatant rip-off of Eminem’s hit “Stan” “Heaven On Earth” is.

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It additionally makes it hard for me to get invested in Mensa’s lyrics when some of the song concepts here either don’t make much sense or are downright offensive. The back-to-back tracks “Homewrecker” and “Gorgeous” address Mensa’s past disastrous relationship, getting very specific and personal about scenarios where the two got into violent physical altercations.

Mensa criticizes his partner’s behaviour for destroying his property and calls her “crazy”, acting as if he did nothing to provoke her. Mensa’s reveals she acted in this way after he was caught cheating, but he quickly skims over this detail and even tries to justify it. Instead of showing a shred of remorse, Mensa tries to convince us that he absolutely had to do it – they’re both “Gorgeous”. A cringeworthy punchline in reference to the band Smashing Pumpkins only adds to the nonsense.

On “Heaven On Earth”, Mensa’s deceased friend calls him from Heaven to inform him – good news – Kurt Cobain loves his music, and he said Vic is “on the right path”. It’s maddeningly self-righteous for someone who just put out their debut album.

Mensa’s delivery is pretty terrible at times – “Memories on 47th St.” is a middling track that could have been injected with a bit more energy during the raps, but it is brought way down when he reaches into his upper register on the chorus and can’t actually hold a note. “Coffee & Cigarettes” shows this at it’s absolute worst. The instrumental is quite empty, and Mensa sings throughout the whole track with some romantic lyrics directed at the same girl from the earlier tracks. He sounds very immature in his approach to everything, and it’s not even believable due to his antagonism towards her earlier. By the time he’s wishing she loved him “even half as much as weed” halfway through the track, I’m completely over what he has to say.

It’s clear that despite what Mensa states on “Wings”, he’s still a pretty troubled individual and we can never be sure what we’re going to receive from him. It’s a shame because Mensa is so naturally talented and he’s demonstrated this on many occasions. I can only hope he continues to work on himself and hits us with another INNANETAPE in the future.

Favourite Tracks: Down For Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby), Rollin’ Like A Stoner, Didn’t I (Say I Didn’t), Wings

Least Favourite Track: Coffee & Cigarettes

Score: 5/10

Julia Michaels – Nervous System EP

Image result for nervous system epMassively successful pop songwriter turned solo artist Julia Michaels has finally released her first collection of songs in the wake of hit single “Issues”. Ever since I heard that track and follow-up single “Uh Huh”, I’ve been waiting rather impatiently for more of that magic we get when combining her dark and incredibly personal lyrics with that dynamic flutter of a voice. However, while Michaels does deliver 7 very solid pop songs here, I can’t help but feel like she already gave up many of her greatest songs to other artists.

The new songs here are more radio-friendly, without as much of a dimension of uniqueness and creativity that tinged the others. Still, despite being frontloaded with singles, Michaels demonstrates why she is one of the most exciting new artists to come out of 2017 on her Nervous System EP.

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Producers Mattman & Robin, who have been rather hit-or-miss this year and are known for grandiose and in-your-face pop tracks like DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself”, handle the majority of the tracks here. It’s a somewhat surprising choice even with the success of “Uh Huh” – “Issues” is handled by more proven hitmakers Benny Blanco and Stargate, and what might be the best new track here in “Don’t Wanna Think” was actually done by Michaels herself. The track is a stripped-down piano ballad where Michaels lays her emotions bare, struggling with moving on in the wake of a break-up even though she knows it would be violently destructive to both of them if she went back.

We all know “Issues” by now, and it still stands out as one of the greatest songs of the year. I love a good slow build in a song, and as we ascend from that simple melody of the pre-chorus into the dramatic conclusion, all the motifs brought up over the course of the song colliding into each other perfectly, it reminds me why I fell in love with the track in the first place.

Follow-up track “Uh Huh” is almost as good just due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like a typical pop song in the same way. The track goes to a lot of unexpected places, beginning with a neatly picked acoustic riff and then hitting us with that distorted chorus as Michaels’ voice turns into a high-pitched squeak and crams in more syllables than should ever fit into a line. The two tracks seem like the least likely of these seven to be serviced to pop radio, and yet, here we are. The refreshing nature of these tracks is quickly removed for some more standard fare.

Despite how novel an artist Michaels is, many of the new songs here fall flat on the actual structure of the song. After how dynamic her first two singles were, tracks like “Worst In Me” just sound like a boring pop song. Something about the melody in the chorus never sticks. It might be due to how upbeat the track is juxtaposed with such bleak lyrics from Michaels – it feels like with how much her voice is capable of emoting, the track should be a lot sadder. A clicking beat and some bright piano chords speed the track along, and it feels like the production drowns out her voice at times.

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“Make It Up To You” is another very upbeat and electronic track that feels strangely underwritten for a Michaels song. The instrumentals need to be giving Michaels a lot more room for her voice to breathe. It comes with enough surprises and quirks to steal the show every time. “Pink” seems like it’s trying to achieve the same effervescent and flirty quality of her first two singles, but the idea isn’t executed nearly as well. Numerous times in the track, all music cuts out to allow Michaels to deliver two lines of the chorus in a full whisper. This might have worked if they only did it once, but as it stands it kills the energy of the track.

Michaels is a songwriter at heart, and this is where she shines. Many lyrics on this project are very personal, with blunt and specific musings on relationships gone disastrous. As she told us, both of them have issues. She comes across as so much more real than most, especially when she drops lines that are simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and depressing. She asks if he remembers when he “could go out with [his] female friends and I’d be totally fine”, or dreads the “seven texts and three calls” she knows she’s going to send.

Many of these tracks tackle some pretty dark topics in this way, all mostly coming down to Michaels’ criticisms of her own behaviour. She realizes that most of her problems actually stem from her own attitude. Newer tracks “Don’t Wanna Think” and “Just Do It” stand out because there is the least distraction from Michaels’ delivery of these emotions in the way only a brilliant songwriter can.

Can you imagine if Michaels had kept a track she wrote like Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” or Ed Sheeran’s “Dive” to herself? She’d be spectacular, and her full portfolio of work shows so much more promise than this EP has to offer. I’ll just get back to playing “Issues”.

Favourite Tracks: Issues, Uh Huh, Don’t Wanna Think

Least Favourite Track: Make It Up To You

Score: 6/10

Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Image result for lust for lifePop enigma Lana Del Rey’s fourth studio album Lust For Life is her most consistent and focused project to date. Allowing some of the hip-hop influences that peppered debut album Born To Die back into the mix, but maintaining the defining aspects of her old soul personality and unique musical niche, she is finally able to keep me engaged for the entire duration of one of her lengthy albums.

Over these 72 minutes, Del Rey touches on some familiar topics for her but enriches them with repeating motifs, pop culture references and a political edge that we haven’t really seen from her before. As we can see from the excellent recruitment of features among other things, Del Rey knows herself very well and is steadily perfecting her craft.

Del Rey’s voice is instantly recognizable and still a breath of fresh air after all these years in the spotlight. She is capable of infusing so much emotion in to an understated delivery and simple melody. Opening track “Love” reminds me of what made her first big hit “Video Games” so great – it’s very bare-bones musically, but her breathy vocals and the melody at the center carries the track. Her song concepts are often intriguing, and as she disregards the mundanity of life because “it’s enough to be young and in love”, you believe her.

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The kindred spirits that Del Rey finds here really enrich the album and the messages she’s trying to convey as well. The Weeknd appears for their 4th collaboration, and the two are always stellar together. Their track, “Lust For Life”, alludes to the suicide of Peg Entwistle, who jumped off the “H” in the Hollywood sign after a failed career in acting. In the music video, the two nihilistic stars sit perched on the “H”, convincing themselves that life is worthwhile over doo-wop harmonies and twinkling keys. It feels like the biggest song Del Rey has ever written.

Stevie Nicks appears on “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems”, and it is clear how much Del Rey has been inspired by her. You can barely tell the difference between the two on the somber piano duet. But the real star here is Sean Lennon, who produced standout “Tomorrow Never Came” with some of his dad’s vintage instruments and sounds just like him. The two tell a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love with the beautiful simplicity in music and lyrics that The Beatles were known for. The track sounds absolutely timeless, and could easily have been released many decades ago.

There is a lot more percussion here than on most of her albums, and while she may venture a little too far into trendy trap territory at times, I do appreciate it keeping her hazy reflections from becoming too sleepy.

The real centerpiece of the album, however, is Del Rey’s lyrics. Ever so often she drops a darkly accurate gem like “Real love – it’s like smiling when the firing squad’s against you”. The album is deliberately ordered like many of the best – the same track, “Cherry”, references the “peaches”, or small joys, she brought up on preceding track “13 Beaches” being ruined as she gives herself a reality check. Many of these repeating motifs can be tracked throughout the album’s duration.

Where Del Rey’s frequent returns to the same lyrical themes got old quickly before, here she gets a bit more specific and personal to make them interesting again. “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind” is a full account of Lana taking in a Father John Misty set at the festival with the singer’s wife. She worries about all the surrounding youths using the festival as an escape from real world problems in her typical Del Rey way. She states that she wrote the track in response to tensions with North Korea mounting, and her newfound political angle crops up elsewhere too.

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“When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” asks “Is this the end of America?” No, she states – the last time the nation faced problems this size during the Cold War, the Hippie movement ushered in a new era – “We just kept dancing, and we’ll do it again”. Meanwhile, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It” is the most sarcastic dedication to the country ever written, as the seemingly triumphant chorus is peppered with gunshots.

While Del Rey does explore some very interesting lyrical themes on the project – many of which contain complex allusions that you might have to look up to understand – the album is still incredibly long. A few of these tracks serve the same narrative purpose, and could easily have been cut out. The stretch from “White Mustang” to “Groupie Love” feels a little weaker than the rest, especially as we receive back-to-back A$ap Rocky verses.

Lana goes full trap on these two tracks, and the influences are a little weird, not really fitting with the rest of what she conveys here. On an album where Lana realizes what she does incredibly well in many areas, the presence of these two tracks that aren’t really her put a bit of a damper on things early. “White Mustang”, meanwhile, is written more lazily as she checks the boxes of what to include in a Del Rey song.

For the first time, Del Rey’s album cover pictures her with a smile on her face. While there’s still certainly some dark subject material on here, a lot of it comes with an element of hope. Lana would have jumped off the Hollywood sign on previous albums, and this added dimension has made her music a lot more compelling. Lust For Life is a massive improvement on her past work.

Favourite Tracks: Tomorrow Never Came, Lust For Life, Cherry, God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It, Change

Least Favourite Track: White Mustang

Score: 8/10

Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Image result for flower boyFormer Odd Future member and horrorcore shock rapper Tyler, the Creator’s fourth studio album Flower Boy certainly made a splash upon arrival. In the wake of the lukewarm reception to his previous project, 2015’s Cherry BombFlower Boy sees Tyler’s first attempt to show a different side of himself, contrasting the boisterous and offensive persona he has presented in the past. Tyler’s music has always had multiple layers and is frequently self-referential, and the story of Flower Boy illustrates somewhat of a duel between these two sides of Tyler.

The album’s alternate title includes the words “Scum F*ck” before “Flower Boy”, and this dichotomy is explored through more meaningful and introspective lyrics than Tyler has ever delivered before. The revelation on the “Flower Boy” side of things is Tyler’s apparent confession that he is gay, providing context to his usage of offensive and disparaging words towards the community in his past. Trading in abrasive rap beats for more melodic and R&B-influenced instrumentals, Flower Boy is a captivating journey into Tyler’s inner struggles.

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Tyler is the only producer on this album, as usual, continuing to display his impressive musical vision. I could see from the beginning that Tyler was an experimental producer with endless potential, but I didn’t know that he would be capable of creating an entire album that sounds this … nice. It’s the antithesis of everything he used to stand for.

We get some vibrant strings, piano and jazzy soundscapes across this whole project, and Tyler’s new subject matter talking about his feelings for a man and struggling with the concept fits well. The beat of “See You Again” sounds just like falling in love for the first time, and then it’s immediately juxtaposed with the horror-movie score behind “Who Dat Boy” as his old persona creeps back in. The album ends with a completely instrumental track called “Enjoy Right Now, Today” that communicates Tyler’s new outlook on life perfectly without a single word.

The beat switches across the album show off Tyler’s full range as a producer and play more into the themes of dichotomy. The transitions, as well, are absolutely flawless across the board and I would love to listen to an instrumental version of this album. If you weren’t actually watching the tracks switch over, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they did.

Tyler’s lyrics really stand out on this project, whether he is finally learning how to make some catchy hooks on tracks like “Where This Flower Blooms” or showing how mature he has recently become. “Garden Shed” has been described as Tyler’s clearest signposting of coming to terms with his sexuality, and the story he tells on the track is compelling. Tyler mentions that he was expecting his “phase” to eventually end since he was a child, and how he dated multiple women to have something to brag about to his friends and keep up with his rap image despite feeling “barely interested”.

The story of the album is a meandering journey through Tyler’s psyche, as he begins to embrace the feelings he has felt for so long and explores the doubt, boredom and loneliness he felt when he was keeping them to himself. On “911/Mr. Lonely”, Tyler waits for a call that never comes before admitting “I’ve been lonely as f*ck”, ScHoolboy Q advising him to “get some b*tches or something” in the background. Tyler’s wandering mind settling on the fact that he’s so lonely he’s never even had a pet for a few bars is strangely endearing. The running motifs of the album, such as the frequent references to fertility and plants, are another nice lyrical touch.

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On another note, “I Ain’t Got Time!” is an absolute banger with a fun flip of a sample from “Groove Is In The Heart” and brings “Yonkers” Tyler back to life. It doesn’t really fit in with the album’s narrative, but how much fun is it to yell “I AIN’T GOT TIIIIME” in Tyler’s trademark growl?

Speaking of the growl, Tyler’s voice still feels a little out of place on these kinds of instrumentals, particularly the ones without prominent percussion like intro track “Foreword”. His more personal lyrics, while very welcome, sound strange coming from the same voice that’s gone wild on heavy rap tracks as well. It feels like there is still every chance in the world that Tyler could be up to his old tricks, playing a joke on all of us about his admissions here. This is why I feel like some of my favourite tracks on this album are actually the ones that resemble Tyler’s past work the most.

While Tyler’s creativity is coming through in full force here, some of the tracks feel a little too empty. Tyler relies on his guests, mostly spacey R&B singers, a lot. The thematic elements that these calmer sections deliver are interesting, but I want to hear a bit more Tyler as what he has to say is frequently very compelling.

This is the biggest artistic statement that Tyler has ever made, and seeing this side of him is very cool. It makes you see his career in a whole new light, almost as if a whole new, more promising artist has been born in front of our eyes. The future should be fascinating.

Favourite Tracks: I Ain’t Got Time!, 911/Mr. Lonely, See You Again, Who Dat Boy, Where This Flower Blooms

Least Favourite Track: Glitter

Score: 8/10

 

Oh Wonder – Ultralife

Image result for ultralife oh wonderAlt-pop duo Oh Wonder’s second studio album follows their self-titled debut released just under two year ago. Ultralife sees the duo draw perhaps even closer comparisons to their most obvious musical contemporaries, fellow London indie-pop duo The xx. Ultralife is full of spacey and stripped-back pop tracks with a reliance and strong focus upon their lyrics. The duo also frequently sing at the same time, a lower-than-usual male voice quietly supporting the front and centre presence of the female in the same way.

While the songwriting abilities of Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht possibly exceed what was found on The xx’s recent I See You, the other musical aspects fall far short. Ultralife is a perfectly serviceable pop record, but it fails to capture the listener’s full attention and ultimately becomes incredibly forgettable.

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The album’s primary focus is the lyrics, and the two make it clear on quite a few occasions how effective their brand of pop songwriting can be. I was impressed to learn that the duo are the only people involved with the album, taking hold of all aspects of writing and production, and the best tracks of the album really do show great achievement for so little personnel. Oh Wonder’s lyrics are slightly more poetic than the average pop fare, but still possess the exuberant, carefree and simplistic quality that some of the best pop lyrics do.

“Lifetimes” is an example of where everything comes together perfectly for the duo. The track has a smart concept exploring time in a relationship, accompanied with an intoxicating melody and an instrumental that differs from the simplistic beat and power chords that overpower most of the album. Vander Gucht repeatedly hitting that “doin’ it right, doin’ it right” over the slowly pounding piano chords and skittering beat is a great moment. “Heart Strings” is another track where the instrumental does the duo all the favours, breaking up the monotony with a 90’s pop sound and some more bright and vibrant chords when the chorus hits.

Oh Wonder have gone on the record multiple times stating how little they desire to be celebrities, and you can kind of tell. A lot of this album seems to be recorded for the two of them rather than the outside audience. The music is very intimate, as the two voices wrap around each other, but it is too slow and self-indulgent to be interesting for the majority of the album. I was surprised to learn that the two band members are not, in fact, a couple.

To be honest, there are quite a few tracks on this album that I enjoyed a lot upon first listen, but this album is simply forgettable like none other this year. When I am ranking tracks and I have to write a few lyrics beside each title for fear of forgetting what the song was, it is a bad sign. Perhaps it is because there is so much like it that has that one extra degree of creativity recently, but Ultralife gets lost in the shuffle.

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A few of the songs are too unnecessarily cluttered as well. The title track “Ultralife” is clearly meant to be a huge centrepiece of the album, with a well-structured chorus melody and joyous lyrics about a relationship, but something about the way the instruments in the background clash with Vander Gucht’s highest notes in the chorus throws me off. “High On Humans” is another strange one, as the robotic voice that introduces the track is eschewed back into the chorus as an extra element that makes things all the more messy.

A lot of this album feels like it is a more highly produced update to the trend of folk bands that were taking over the radio waves a few years ago, and that trend died out for a reason. A song like “All About You” dips dangerously close to resembling a band like Of Monsters and Men at their most hackneyed and repetitive.

This is a shorter review than I usually write because I really did struggle to find much to say about this album. The pair are clearly talented songwriters and instrumentalists, but there has simply been too much similar material that was done slightly better recently for me to desire many revisits to this project.

Favourite Tracks: Lifetimes, Heart Strings, Overgrown, Ultralife

Least Favourite Track: Slip Away

Score: 5/10

Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa album21-year-old Guernsey-born DJ Mura Masa’s debut studio album is a multicultural and genreless mashup that takes listeners on an exhilarating ride through the twists and turns of his unique style. He states that his biggest influence is Gorillaz and you can clearly tell. The ability to pull aspects from such diverse musical worlds and unbridled creativity with regards to the instrumental that the band is known for comes across here.

Imbued with the newer aspects of the future bass and house music scene that is taking over the nearby United Kingdom, the project comes across as somewhat of a combination between early Gorillaz work and Disclosure’s deep house masterpiece Settle. Make no mistake though, Mura Masa brands everything with his own personal touches and his self-titled debut marks the rise of an exciting young talent.

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The complexity of many of these songs stands out. Even though they often adopt a rather standard song structure that we come to expect from the electronic genre, building up to a drop and such, they possess enough interlocking and unique aspects that it is a refreshing and enjoyable listen throughout. When “Messy Love” progresses to its second drop, we have the central chime melody interlocking with the bouncy bassline, chopped up vocals and the complicated piano riff. All 4 of these things are catchy enough to be used as a main hook, but when they come together it amplifies the vibrant feeling.

Many of these songs are unique because of Mura Masa taking instruments from other cultures that we don’t hear often and making it his defining feature. His songs range from hip-hop to bubblegum pop to deep house to dancehall, but they are all united by modern hip-hop beats and the clinks of marimba, chimes and steel drums that become the defining feature of his sound. I would say we are bringing these things into the mainstream with modernising aspects, but it sounds like this is coming from the future. “Love$ick” is a standout track that features ASAP Rocky jumping around a calypso rhythm that builds up to a huge drop with futuristic synth swings and pitched-up vocals.

Mura Masa uses his guests very well – a lot of these songs can only be described as euphoric when they finally reach their climax, and Mura Masa has harvested a few artists from very different places who also possess this quality. I’m not sure I could have ever expected NAO’s otherwordly R&B vocals, life of the party Charli XCX and trap court jester Desiigner in the same place, but that’s what they all have in common.

It’s easy to get lost and submit completely to someone like Desiigner’s seemingly reckless love of life on “All Around the World”, and Mura Masa brought out the best in him – I didn’t think he had it in him to flow on a beat this rhythmically complex. But it’s “1 Night” that I’m shocked isn’t on every dance floor worldwide. Charli XCX’s recent music has really succeeded in capturing that incredible feeling – the freedom of just letting loose. As she playfully asks “Do you wanna go?”, the music cuts out for a fleeting second, and comes back in full force with a catchy chorus melody of “oh”s, I feel like I’m the centre of attention in the greatest club in the world just sitting in my chair at home.

Image result for mura masa liveLook at this guy’s setup!

It’s this spirit of fun that carries these tracks, and the creative musical aspects only bring me into that world even more. Tracks like “What If I Go?” and “helpline” are pretty poppy in the best way. The electronic sounds are different for a change, and the vocalists just sound like they’re having the time of their lives and beckoning for you to join them. Bonzai’s voice climbs up the scales as she repeats “go, going, going”. It’s a driving, beautiful, infectious energy.

I also have to give a special shoutout to closing track “Blu”, a quieter affair that focuses on a nice harmonized melody from Mura Masa’s hero, Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn. It’s a great way to ease us out of his crazy world.

Because Mura Masa executes the high-octane party tracks so well, it gets a little disappointing when he starts to slow things down at the tail end of the album. But if anything, this just speaks volumes to the strengths of his greatest tracks. After an album full of driving basslines, blaring synths and ecstating choruses, the quieter nature of tracks like “Second 2 None” and “Who Is It Gonna B”, with less of the frenetic and interlocking aspects of their predecessors, sound like standard electronic fare in comparison despite the quality that is still there.

Mura Masa is one of the year’s greatest albums so far, and the fact that it comes from a 21-year old newcomer from a tiny island is pretty exciting. In a world where many DJ’s are just going through the motions, all of the tracks here feel alive, and make you feel the same way.

Favourite Tracks: Love$ick, 1 Night, What If I Go?, helpline, Firefly

Least Favourite Track: Who Is It Gonna B

Score: 9/10