The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE

Image result for EVERYTHING IS LOVE coverGlobal superstar and woman of many talents Beyonce goes the route of surprise drop with no promotion once again, linking up with her famous husband Jay-Z to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the narrative of their familial drama outlined on respective projects Lemonade and 4:44. While EVERYTHING IS LOVE doesn’t quite measure up to either of their recent grand artistic statements, it comes close just coasting on how much fun the interplay between the two is. The couple celebrates emerging on the other side of a hardship having been made stronger for it with a series of boastful tracks that lean a lot closer to Jay-Z’s realm of hip-hop, with a modern trap-influenced edge. Is it any surprise that Beyonce can more than keep up with him as a rapper? Her decade-spanning career continues to impress.

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Opening track “SUMMER” feels like a continuation of Lemonade, sounding tonally similar to its closer “All Night” where Beyonce finally forgives Jay-Z. Produced by legendary hip-hop producers Cool & Dre, it’s one of the only times when Beyonce really gets to remind us just how timeless her vocal abilities are, making her runs and embellishments sound effortless while singing about summer romance over a funk bassline and reggae-influenced instrumental meant for blasting on a beach. This immediately transitions into the harder sound of the remainder of the album with the Migos-assisted “APESH*T”, wisely selected as a single. Jay-Z steps in with his speediest flow in years to deliver some clever zoological references and (accurately) assert that he’s bigger than the Grammys and the Super Bowl – “tell the NFL we playing stadiums too”, but it’s Beyonce who dominates the track’s hyperactive tempo and rapid percussion. She steps easily into the triplet flows and delivers a knockout third verse in a menacing lower tone. She gives everything she has into her delivery here.

The album’s opening run is pretty incredible, continuing with “BOSS”, translating the marching-band vibes Beyonce has been exhibiting in her live shows to horn section-assisted braggadocio over a looped choral harmony … “My great-great-grandchildren already rich” is the flex of the year. Jay-Z takes more of a starring role on the Pharrell-produced “NICE”, offering a catchy and repetitive hook over distorted piano chords while Beyonce hilariously brings back daughter Blue Ivy’s immediately iconic “ceiling” freestyle line from 4:44. Jay-Z’s full-voiced New York accent translates well to this celebration of the Carters’ excellence, belting out swaggering hooks and turning tracks like “BLACK EFFECT” into classic entries in his canon. The song is immediately arena-ready, Jay instructing hands up and inserting satisfied “hm”s when the knocking trap beat cuts out. He’s been a master at navigating around vocal samples since Kanye West was producing them for him, and the soulful background vocal complements his thunderous raps well here. The Carters additionally pay respect to their hip-hop backgrounds on the more rap-heavy album, interpolating the hooks to Notorious B.I.G. and Dr. Dre classics on “HEARD ABOUT US” and “713” respectively.

The album sags a bit in the middle section, showing that these artists are still at their best when creating fully fleshed-out conceptual stories, less time clearly going into the creation of this project. “713” strangely places a very pronounced Auto-Tune effect on Beyonce’s vocals, the looped piano beat not containing enough nuance for Jay-Z to work his characteristically complex flows over and ending a little abruptly – that beat-switch where Beyonce starts singing backup is great though. “FRIENDS” has a great message outlining that the Carters didn’t reach this position without a lot of help from others, but their take on modern alt-R&B with a slower-paced moody instrumental and basic trap beat doesn’t have the same energy over its nearly 6-minute runtime.

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The love for each other and admiration for each others’ talents is evident across the whole project – you can hear it when Jay-Z introduces his wife with a stunned “oh my God” on “HEARD ABOUT US” – but closing track “LOVEHAPPY” is a perfect way to wrap up the whole trilogy, the two artists on the same level as they trade bars and put everything that’s transpired in the past – but not before Beyonce sends one last infuriated shot at the famous Becky that prompts a “Yo, chill” from Jay. Beyonce’s R&B vocals return on the harmonized hook where she sweetly sings “We’re flawed but we’re still perfect for each other” and shows appreciation for Jay’s efforts to change.

EVERYTHING IS LOVE continues to offer us glimpses into the ups and downs in the relationship of the original power couple. Musically, they’ve been playing off of each other for 15 years now and know just what buttons to press. Beyonce is idolized to such a degree for a reason, and Jay-Z’s flows returned in a huge way ever since 4:44. It’s certainly no Lemonade, but it’s a very satisfying conclusion.

Favourite Tracks: SUMMER, APESH*T, BLACK EFFECT, BOSS, LOVEHAPPY

Least Favourite Track: FRIENDS

Score: 8/10

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Jorja Smith – Lost & Found

Image result for jorja smith lost and found21-year old rising UK R&B singer Jorja Smith, more widely known after collaborations with mega-rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar, releases her debut album Lost & Found, a subdued and minimal experience that shows off her unique tone. I’ve seen comparisons to everyone from Lauryn Hill to Erykah Badu to Amy Winehouse, but Smith honestly reminds me most of early career Rihanna in terms of the sound of her voice. Leaving the popular garage and grime trends of her home nation that coloured her earlier music behind, Smith sounds a lot more assured of her artistic direction, even if the music isn’t as immediately exciting as it could be.

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The title track which opens the album is framed by sparse piano, lazy, chilled-out background guitar embellishments and steadily knocking R&B percussion, Smith not even descending onto the track in full for a minute and a half while she unleashes some muted falsetto vocal runs. This kind of improvisational quality is applied over the course of most of the project, Smith placing her voice front and center and showing us all of the things that it can do. It’s a smart choice – her tone is entrancing at times, she has a huge, capable range that frequently surprises and the right amount of sweetness in her delivery to balance out the sharper edges she naturally possesses with a voice lower than most popular female singers. “Teenage Fantasy” is one of the best vocal showcases here, apparently written when Smith was only 16 – it’s a smartly written chorus that lets her hit a sweet spot at an essential time, her voice at its most passionate and abrasive before dropping back to her smooth, breathy quieter delivery in a great contrast. She shows off her falsetto in the catchy chorus of “February 3rd”, explaining the concept behind the album’s title over some jazzy piano chords.

Smith’s meandering approach to the project – you always know when one of the tracks of an album is dubbed “(Freestyle)” – turns it into an intimate and engaging experience to get lost in, but it also means that none of the tracks end up sticking to the listener – I have a hard time remembering which of these tracks are which since they aren’t especially distinctive, mostly containing Smith’s vocal acrobatics over a jazzy instrumental that doesn’t want to intrude on what she’s doing in the front. A few of the choruses aren’t as structured as they should be and could have benefited from more experienced producers – something like “On Your Own” falls off the melody line before it turns into a satisfying musical phrase. Despite her vocal experimentation, she often sticks to formula here and follows about the same structure on quite a few songs here with the way she executes her delivery. For an artist with a voice so dynamic, I wish she had included some more upbeat tracks, or at least some varied instrumentation here to break up the monotony a bit.

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“The One”, for example, is a track that really benefits by standing out from the pack instrumentally, with an orchestral intro that explodes into Smith’s layered harmonies over a more tropical vibe like the ones she was introduced to us over on Drake’s “More Life”. It’s one of the fullest instrumentals here, slowly adding more and more elements as it progresses to a beautiful outro as the percussion gets more complex over the same orchestral strings. “Blue Lights” is another very unique track, the percussion more up front than most of the other tracks over a watery synth-piano line that reminds me of old Nintendo video game music, like a boom-bap “Dire Dire Docks” – it samples a song from grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal, explaining its more hip-hop sound.

Smith is a classically trained vocalist and clearly very experienced, I just wish there was more variation across this project to make me give the whole album repeated listens. The high points on this project are some of the best lo-fi R&B tracks we’re likely to receive this year, and for an artist so young there’s only up to go from here.

Favourite Tracks: Blue Lights, The One, Teenage Fantasy, February 3rd, Lifeboats (Freestyle)

Least Favourite Track: On Your Own

Score: 7/10

Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts

Now that I’ve finally caught back up to the present with these reviews, I’ll be returning to the original, longer format and hopefully returning to a consistent release schedule starting next week. Jorja Smith review coming shortly, then back to Tuesday/Thursday or something similar. I’m also going to be back on Instagram, follow me at bensbeatmusic! Here are my thoughts on one of my favourite albums of the year:

Image result for kids see ghostsKanye West and fellow G.O.O.D. Music artist Kid Cudi bring the best out of eachother to maximum potential on the third of West’s 5 Wyoming releases, Kids See Ghosts. Saving his innovative production and completely new sounds for this project, West combines his style with Cudi’s alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds we haven’t heard executed this well anywhere else before. Where ye felt hurried and open-ended, these 7 tracks all feel connected, deliberately sequenced and encapsulate a perfect microcosm of West’s incredible ability as a producer, with some old-school Cudi vibes and impressive political wordplay from West on top as well. It’s easily the best Wyoming release, and that’s saying a lot with the strength of DAYTONA and ye.

Image result for kanye west kid cudiInfluential artist Takashi Murakami designed the cover art.

The project opens with “Feel The Love”, a song that goes to three completely different places in under three minutes. Pusha T’s menacing intro verse gives way to West’s completely unexpected emulation of gunshot noises, completely upsetting the natural flow before the beat finally clicks and perfectly lines up for the most exhilarating musical moment I’ve heard in a while, feeding off primal energy. More contemplative synths reintroduce Cudi’s hook, as the rhythm of West’s vocalizations come back in on the percussion to complement it more quietly. The experimentation and energy only continues after the smooth transition to “Fire”, the track carried by a steadily driving deathmarch tempo backed by Cudi’s trademark hums and a distorted acoustic guitar. Cudi’s singing on this track and across the board is a lot more on key than usual, competently delivering hooks and tapping back into his older style to carry a longer track like “Reborn” almost all by himself. The song itself is a bit of a breather from the aggressive stranglehold of the first 4 songs here, Cudi singing about defeating his demons over a contemplative synth piano. As the hook – “keep moving forward” – continues repeating into the end of the track, Cudi continues to layer his vocals on top, emphasizing that it still isn’t that easy – “which way should I go?” he asks.

“4th Dimension” is one of the craziest ideas West’s ever had, and he pulls it off flawlessly. Taking a Louis Prima Christmas song from the 1930s, he orchestrates a sample flip, picking out the group vocals on the melody line from the original. He speeds up the tempo with a steady, knocking beat and uses reversed vocals to completely repurpose it. West sounds absolutely triumphant on his verse, like he’s fully aware of the incredible musical feat he’s pulled off with the track. He truly could turn anything into a hip-hop song. He brings Ty Dolla $ign on board once again for “Freeee”, a continuation of his own track “Ghost Town” that takes the emotion of the original and translates it into a grandiose, godlike rock anthem. The heavy guitar loop gives way to Ty’s vocals, layered multiple times for a deafening sound as he simply repeats “Free”. West and Cudi are on top of the world here, repeating the title as well in an echoed, booming deeper voice. It’s incredibly empowering stuff. I also love that quickly descending synth that comes in near the end of the track. The title track “Kids See Ghosts” is yet another track carried by West’s innovative beat, a more minimal, driving jungle rhythm with ominous synth bass and high-pitched clicks, Mos Def’s “civilization” verse at the end framing the artists’ words as some kind of ancient knowledge.

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Closing track “Cudi Montage” tastefully takes a very raw acoustic sample from Kurt Cobain, a man who suffered through clinical depression and bipolar disorder as Cudi and West respectively have. It’s a great wink to the audience after an album where the two artists repeatedly embrace their flaws and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over it all, moving forward where Cobain couldn’t. The track itself actually sees West turn poignantly political in his verse, speaking on the culture of gang mentality and its contribution to the crime rate in Chicago. West and Cudi’s repeated mantras to close out the album – “Lord shine your light on me”, “Stay strong” – see the two as having found a place of freedom, peace and empowerment outside the elements that hold them back, both in the form of West’s political talk and their own disabilities.

West and Cudi stand together as kindred spirits building each other up and helping each other through their respective personal hardships. It’s truly amazing to hear them speaking about these topics with such a level head, having moved past them. West’s production is at it’s most innovative here, creating a new movement of sound instead of reverting to old tricks like on his solo Wyoming project. Every track here feels like it belongs, and Kids See Ghosts stands as one of West’s all-time greatest works in a discography that has plenty of contenders.

Favourite Tracks: 4th Dimension, Feel The Love, Reborn, Fire, Cudi Montage

Least Favourite Track: Impossible. Each track serves a very specific, essential purpose.

Score: 10/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Shawn Mendes, Father John Misty, Kanye West)

Image result for shawn mendes self titled albumShawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes releases his third self-titled studio album at the age of only 19, expanding his musical influences to explore genres past his trends of safe, acoustic pop balladry. Working with a high-profile set of collaborators, Mendes delivers a solid set of pop tracks that splits about half and half with working what he knows and trying his hand at more upbeat pop tracks or venturing into more of an R&B The experimentation works out for him more often than not, the tracklisting weighed down by just a bit too much of what we’ve already heard from him – or someone like him (looking at you once again, Ryan Tedder).

Single “In My Blood” opens the album, and it’s probably the strongest single Mendes has ever released, transcending the cheesy and derivative pop tracks for a more rock-leaning song featuring live instrumentation and a nice build-up to a passionately sung chorus, his trademark crackles creeping into his delivery – those huge drums in the background are a nice break from the trap hi-hats we hear everywhere. The opening run of the album contains it’s best tracks, two of them co-written by the frequently outstanding Julia Michaels: “Nervous” is an R&B-funk adventure with a quickly delivered falsetto chorus and persistent bassline, and it’s the first time I could ever imagine a Mendes song on a dancefloor. Michaels actually sings on quiet acoustic duet “Like To Be You”, and they blend together shockingly well for two artists with very distinct voices. Mendes is surprisingly believable as an R&B vocalist, stating that he drew inspiration from artists like Justin Timberlake. “Where Were You in The Morning?” is his most obvious draw from the Man of the Woods, some lazy guitar chords and the slightest hint of a trap beat framing Mendes’ smoothest vocal yet, sounding much older than his age. Ed Sheeran lends his reliable hand to “Fallin’ All In You”, which sounds like a huge hit, blending his old and new styles impressively with the hint of a doo-wop bassline and Sheeran’s tendency to pack in as many syllables as possible.

The main problems with this project come when, standing at 14 tracks, Mendes and his collaborators can’t help but exercise a few tried and true ideas that edge closer to the slower, minimalist ballads that don’t capture my attention quite as easily. Other than “Perfectly Wrong”, a track where Mendes’ songwriting shines above the less showy instrumental with some heartbreaking commentary on forcing himself out of a toxic relationship he desperately wanted to save, tracks like “Youth”, a duet with similarly minded artist Khalid, and “Because I Had You”, itself a complete rip-off of Justin Bieber’s hit “Love Yourself” never really pick themselves off the ground. The notoriously unoriginal Ryan Tedder also contributes to “Particular Taste”, which lifts a few too many elements from Prince’s catalogue – someone else has already delivered the word “particular” like that in an iconic fashion. Most of the back half of the project feels too similar to its counterparts and I feel like the tracklist easily could have been shortened. “Why” shows potential with an extravagant, dreamlike instrumental, but as Mendes reaches up into his falsetto the breaks in the instrumental reveal a few awkward transitionary places in his range.

Mendes’ steps towards risk-taking on this project easily make it his best collection of songs – still very young, he’s showing a definite upward trajectory and is beginning to understand where his greatest strengths lie. For now, Shawn Mendes exists as a pleasant surprise that shows his potential despite a few of his old ways still sticking around.

Favourite Tracks: Fallin All In You, Where Were You In The Morning?, Perfectly Wrong, Nervous

Least Favourite Track: Love Yourself, uh, I mean Because I Had You

Score: 6/10

Image result for god's favorite customerFather John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Master songwriter Father John Misty’s fourth narrows his focus on his fourth studio album, dialing back the wide range of topics he addressed on his sprawling breakthrough Pure Comedy, a satirical takedown of politics, religion and everything under the sun. While he does return to some similar musical themes across this project, his trademark blunt and darkly humorous songwriting makes his tales of his mental health and familial relations just as compelling.

“Hangout at the Gallows” introduces listeners to the kind of material that will be featured on the album well, Tillman in complete command of a piano rock instrumental that previews the darker thoughts of suicide and paranoia he brings up over the course of the project. Tillman makes this kind of thing work perfectly for him, like a modern-day, extremely cynical Elton John. “Mr. Tillman” is a hilarious track spoken from the perspective of a worker at the front desk of a hotel, observing Tillman’s clear signs of a mental breakdown while he sings in a cheerful melodic loop intended to be just a little obnoxious. It’s not the only moment where Tillman picks up another character on the album, the incredible “Please Don’t Die” being sung from the position of his wife. It’s just as bluntly, beautifully Tillman as the track suggests, as it turns into something of a country ballad, a slide guitar twanging in the background as he softens his voice and expresses concern that Tillman might kill himself with some somber, falsetto harmonies.

Tillman has one of the most poignantly expressive vocal deliveries I’ve ever heard, capable of delivering raw emotion believably even when he doesn’t have much of an instrumental to support him. “God’s Favorite Customer”, the title track, continues his troubled relationship with religion, turning back to a faith he stopped believing in long ago in his time of mental instability. His knowingly futile calls to an angel on the stark chorus is just another example of his brilliant songwriting ability.

The instrumentals on this project are largely similar to what we’ve heard from Tillman in the past, potentially even sparser and more minimal on this one than something like Pure Comedy as he shows a clear focus on the clear delivery of his lyrical content. Without issues so enormous and pressing to offer his philosophical thoughts on, a few of these tracks with little more than a slow piano accompaniment aren’t carried by Tillman’s thoughts alone. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is a pretty straightforward love song that rides on a very familiar acoustic strumming chord progression without much of the hilarious turns of phrase we’re used to, while the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is one of the first times I’ve ever felt like Tillman tried to make a huge statement and didn’t actually manage to say anything, offering baseline analysis while I wait for the twisted joke to land.

It’s clear that Tillman decided to play it safe a bit coming down from such an ambitious project released only last year, but he has the skills that even that elevates him over most singer-songwriters of his kind. He’s certainly the only person that can deliver the lyric “Last night I wrote a poem, man, I must have been in the poem zone” with as much genuine emotional weight as he does.

Favourite Tracks: Please Don’t Die, God’s Favorite Customer, Mr. Tillman, Hangout at the Gallows, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

Innovative rapper Kanye West’s eighth studio album is the second of five he plans to produce this summer, a brief 7 tracks like its predecessor DAYTONA. Supposedly completed in a matter of a couple weeks after the originally planned Love Everyone was scrapped due to controversy, ye is a journey through everything we’ve come to love about West’s music over the course of his entire career. Although I have come to expect West to completely reinvent the wheel on every project he releases, ye utilizing old themes of industrial beats and soul samples, the production is still on a level no other artist comes close to touching.

ye sees West at perhaps his most introspective and confessional in his whole career, revealing his inner thoughts on his troubled years post-Saint Pablo Tour with his bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. The album opens with “I Thought About Killing You”, West delivering a spoken-word intro over some beautiful Francis & The Lights Prismizer work where he details his need to speak his mind freely to exorcise demons, even his darkest thoughts concerning suicide, directing threats at himself in second person emphasizing his bipolarity. The first half of the project resembles Yeezus more than anything, as the opener explodes into a chilling scream and knocking industrial beat. “All Mine” is an aggressive and minimalist grinding carnal track, eerie, breathy vocal samples and crashing percussion framing West’s hilariously blunt lyrics, while “Yikes” is the most immediately commercially viable song here. Pi’erre Bourne assists with the production as West delivers his best flow on the project and a great melodic hook – “find help, sometimes I scare myself”.

The back half, on the other hand, reverts back to the soulful “Old Kanye” sound that troll song “Lift Yourself” hinted might return. “Wouldn’t Leave” is a touching track dedicated to his famous wife’s loyalty despite his many mistakes, thanking her for remaining by his side in the wake of a breakdown about her own career repercussions and West himself suggesting she leave if she needed to. Harmonized soulful backing vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, an uncharacteristically passionate PARTYNEXTDOOR hook, and somber synth-piano chords complete the emotional track. The love is affirmed with a triumphant Charlie Wilson hook on “No Mistakes”, West’s flow coming a little unhinged but coasting through on a fun, rhythmic gospel sample from Edwin Hawkins. The best track is the emotional peak of “Ghost Town”, however, featuring a shimmering, soulful organ sample and Kid Cudi getting so into the hook he falls off the pitch in his usual endearing way. West’s verse is the best singing (no Auto-Tune!) he’s done in a long time, but new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake steals the show, turning the second half into a repeated anthemic mantra, the music cutting down to an enormous stomp-clap. I can’t wait to sing it in a huge crowd. It’s great to hear more adept lyricism from West after Yeezus and Pablo as well, acting as an adorably overprotective father towards his daughters on “Violent Crimes” and delivering some of his best wordplay in a while on “Wouldn’t Leave”.

Since the project was so quickly assembled and West’s favourite subject material in his lyrics is, of course, himself, many of the current topical references to his life that happened mere weeks or days before its release makes the project feel less larger-than-life than his past albums, his quotables becoming law, or at least Instagram captions. Referencing things like G.O.O.D. Music’s war with Drake on “No Mistakes” or drawing specific attention to that fateful TMZ interview, regardless of how interesting a light he paints on the intrapersonal repercussions of his actions, on “Wouldn’t Leave” will end up sounding extremely dated in comparison to something like The College Dropout, which still resonates 14 years later.

West hasn’t made a perfect album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he’s getting a lot better at finding beauty in the chaos. Although the album could use a little more polish, his artistry is still unquestioned and a closer look into his psyche and personal life is appreciated for the 9-year old in me who overplayed “Gold Digger” to death.

Favourite Tracks: Ghost Town, Yikes, All Mine, Wouldn’t Leave

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (James Bay, BTS, Pusha T)

Image result for james bay electric lightJames Bay – Electric Light

James Bay completely revamps his image on sophomore album Electric Light, linking up with Adele producer Paul Epworth to take his music in a much poppier direction, while still maintaining the soulful, almost gospel-influenced delivery that lent itself well to his stirring rock ballads. The transition isn’t always seamless, the album coming across as quite a mixed bag at times, the songs containing a lot of raw power that doesn’t always fall perfectly into the structure of a song. But when Bay settles into a groove, his delivery stands out among his contemporaries.

Opening track “Wasted On Each Other” is a pretty good representation of what we’re going to get over the rest of the album, Bay introducing the chorus with some falsetto vocals and a steadily building synth line before his heavier guitars and powerful delivery cascades back in too quickly. Bay doesn’t have the greatest grasp of his strengths on the project, offering some spectacular moments inconsistently. Many of these tracks are perfectly fine, but they could be a lot more as demonstrated by standout tracks like “Pink Lemonade” and the incredible gospel harmonies on “Fade Out” that feel so much more natural than the digitally altered companions “Wild Love” and “In My Head”. The latter especially feels like it’s teetering right on the edge of being something incredible, never reaching it. The sparse, passionate chorus feels immediately anthemic and iconic, but it’s brought down by abrupt shifts in energy and out-of-place pop synths. It feels like three genres collide awkwardly on the majority of the tracks, and when he focuses on a single one, he shines every time. Single “Pink Lemonade” is an energetic retro-pop track, driven by a prominent bass riff and a harmonized chorus. The crunchy guitars and electronic elements make the track chaotic in the best way, most of the musical elements dropping out near the track’s conclusion to showcase that standout voice before the drums roll back in for the dramatic conclusion.

For someone who seems so desperate for a change in his perception across the project, the most characteristically Bay songs frequently stand out, adding enough of a change with the fuller instrumentation while maintaining the things that make him a unique artist. “Us” is a beautifully-written gospel piano ballad, a choir backing him up as he returns to the intimate, confessional songwriting that drew him notice in the first place. Closing track “Slide”, as well, is a much quieter song detailing the rediscovery of love after the end of another relationship – and Bay’s ability to convey emotion absolutely sells it with every tiny warble and trill. But if there’s one thing he’s consistently incredible at, its the ability to write a dynamic and stirring chorus. “Just For Tonight” is another larger-than-life harmonized track that brings back the fuzzy guitars and coasts on its own energy.

Bay essentially performs a reverse Harry Styles here, shifting from cheesy rock to universally appealing pop rather than cheesy pop to universally appealing rock. In a similar way, he undergoes a dramatic shift to shed the image of the guy with the huge hat singing an acoustic rock ballad for something more ambitious and dynamic, citing Prince and Frank Ocean as influences, and overplays his hand. Still, the fact that about half of it works VERY well is incredible in and of itself.

Favourite Tracks: Pink Lemonade, Us, Slide, Fade Out

Least Favourite Track: Stand Up

Score: 6/10

Image result for love yourself tearBTS – Love Yourself: Tear

The staggering popularity of Korean boy-band BTS has become too great to ignore, the group debuting this album at #1 and receiving a Top 10 hit in the USA with their lead single “FAKE LOVE”. I didn’t know much about what to expect with this album, and I must say that BTS certainly exceeded my expectations. Love Yourself: Tear is a little erratic and trend-hopping due to the stronger focus on widespread commercial appeal in the K-pop market, but the interplay between the group’s many members and their inclusion of sounds from the 90s, even diving into some instrumentals that remind me of old-school West Coast hip-hop, make the project a lot of fun.

“FAKE LOVE” is a certified banger and absolutely deserves all of the success it’s getting. It introduces a lot of the 90s vibes of the album well, and it’s one of the rare occasions where the singers of the group steal the thunder from the rappers – those “just for you” backing vocals are delivered so well to support them, and there’s about three different hooks to get stuck in your head permanently here. RM, or Rap Monster, emerges as the true star of the group on most of the track he features on, however. “Anpanman” and especially “134340” clearly draw heavy inspiration from West Coast legends, RM sounding like he’s trying to emulate Snoop Dogg over the woodwind instrumental and G-funk tempo. His deep, laid-back vocals are effortless and distinctive from the group’s other rappers – and he has some seriously impressive technical skill as well, “Outro: Tear” verging on speedrap.

“Paradise” continues the streak, creating the most immediately catchy track here by adding a skittering trap beat to some classic 90s cascading synth chords and another chilled-out verse from another of the group’s rappers, Suga contrasting a pretty flawlessly written chorus melody. The producers here know exactly what they’re doing, and when you combine their dance ability with these catchy pop choruses and rap talent it’s easy to see why the group is such a worldwide phenomenon. There was never a popular boy-band quite this dynamic and versatile – the closest comparison being something of a much larger, male TLC. They try out a lot of styles across this project and succeed at most of them – I even love the enormous EDM breakdown on the cinematic, uptempo “Magic Shop”.

The project is carried by the energy generated by the group’s interplay and rapid-fire delivery, and the album does take a little while to get going in this regard. The intro, “Singularity”, and the Steve Aoki-produced “The Truth Untold” are both structured like a 90s slow jam, the singers of the group delivering passionate vocals over a waltz tempo, but knowing what I know now about the group I’m just waiting for RM to jump back on the mic and electrify the song. I can’t deny how well these tracks are produced, though – maybe this is a case of the language barrier stepping in. You can see the wheels of marketability turning behind the scenes a bit too much as well, a track like “Airplane pt.2” being a pretty watered-down imitation of the Latin pop explosion.

BTS have a lot of things going well for them, and it seems like the team around them know how to cater to those strengths. Love Yourself: Tear makes it impossible to deny the talent behind one of the world’s most popular acts.

Favourite Tracks: Paradise, 134340, FAKE LOVE, Outro: Tear, Magic Shop

Least Favourite Track: So What

Score: 7/10

Image result for daytona album coverPusha T – DAYTONA

I really thought I was going to be reviewing A$AP Rocky’s latest disappointing release TESTING here, but Pusha T’s victory over him in sales is incredibly exciting for everyone at G.O.O.D. Music and it means I have no excuse but to talk about it. DAYTONA is the first of five 7-track albums in superproducer and controversy magnet Kanye West’s ambitious plan to release back-to-back projects produced primarily by himself. With a ruthless and dominating mic presence like Pusha T, it means there is absolutely no room for filler and the shorter length works wonders, Pusha taking no prisoners for just over 20 minutes. West’s beats are as soulful as they’ve ever been, with a new cold and calculating edge that matches Pusha’s menacing sneer and ominous wordplay.

As Drake may have famously learned, Pusha T is not to be underestimated as a lyricist, or anything else – even if the subject material is mainly the same, he has some of the cleverest wordplay and cultural references in the game. The real appeal for me has always been the way he delivers the lines, however. Pusha T’s voice is very distinct, very expressive with its inflections yet remaining at the deeper tone we know him for that complements darker instrumentals so well. His ability to sound so happy, or surprised, or angry by raising his voice just a tiny bit allows him to issue threats to his enemies with a kind of demonic glee. The project opens with a great 1-2 punch in “If You Know You Know” and “The Games We Play”, which are a welcome return to classic Kanye production. The former chops up a piercing guitar wail into a syncopated hip-hop beat, but “The Games We Play” sounds like it’s directly off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, looping a catchy guitar riff with some cinematic horn stabs punctuating Pusha’s every gritty description of his drug-dealer past and yeugh ad-lib. It makes you feel like he puts everything he has into every single word he states, drawing out syllables and overpronouncing words to make sure we understand. We get the greatest display of commanding vocal presence on closing track “Infrared”, an incredibly thinly veiled shot at Drake and other members of what was once the Young Money label, accusing him of ghostwriting and losing his identity pandering to white audiences.

West’s production always succeeds both in bringing the absolute best out of Push and offering a bit of a counteraction to the non-stop verbal assault when necessary. “Come Back Baby” is the centerpiece of the album, Pusha T delivering a more basic flow that makes every word count over one of the most minimal beats here, not much more than two notes of creeping synth-bass, before the chorus transitions into a generous sample of soul singer George Jackson, a jarring shift to a completely different and catchy alternative that shouldn’t work as well as it does. West’s sample work is what he’s known for, and they show up on every single track here. “Hard Piano” has another great sampled chorus and looped, muted jazz piano that draws just enough attention as Pusha takes the spotlight – average Rick Ross feature aside. The beat switch in “Santeria”, the off-kilter soul organ picking the track back up from 070 Shake’s chilling, echoey vocals, is the best moment on the whole thing.

I almost want to say that the true star of the project is West, but that isn’t true at all – all the studio sessions in Wyoming resulted in a perfect fusion of their respective strengths. The beats are still characteristically West, but we’ve never really heard anything like this from him. Not incredibly different artists, Pusha accomplishes his aims through a no-nonsense approach where West might fall back on a joke, and the adaptation of his production style to a dark and straightforward approach gives Pusha T all the ammunition he needs to exert his dominance.

Favourite Tracks: If You Know You Know, Santeria, The Games We Play, Come Back Baby

Least Favourite Track: Hard Piano

Score: 9/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rae Sremmurd, Charlie Puth, Playboi Carti)

Image result for sr3mmRae Sremmurd – SR3MM/Swaecation/Jxmtro

Brotherly hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd embrace their inner OutKast on the third in their Sremmlife album series, branching out and turning into a sprawling triple disc edition that allows a full album for each member to shine individually. Rae Sremmurd’s youthful, jubilant cloud-rap sound is often a joy to listen to, with great beat selection and the two rappers balancing each other out – but individually I begin to miss some of that interplay that makes them so unique. The lesser known of the two, Slim Jxmmi, definitely gains the upper hand with his grittier Jxmtro, but for most of the project I just want the heights that they reach together on SR3MM.

The main appeal of Rae Sremmurd is contrast of the boyish, carefree yelp of Swae Lee brought down to earth with a more technical verse delivered in Jxmmi’s growl, and they demonstrate this over some pretty impressive production handled mostly by proven hitmaker and frequent collaborator Mike Will Made It here. He delivers his trademark high-tempo and erratic material that fits perfectly with someone as eccentric as Lee. Single “Powerglide” is one of the best tracks across the whole project – it’s 5 and a half minutes of absolute madness, a speedy violin instrumental, Swae Lee’s melodic rap delivery giving way to Slim Jxmmi’s goofy, old-school flow. It’s a constant rush of energy. The Weeknd lays down a great, melodic feature over the clicks and clacks of the contemplative 90s piano instrumental of “Bedtime Stories”, but for the most part SR3MM works so well because you can hear how much fun the duo are having bouncing ideas off of each other, and the instrumentals are creative enough, yet still maintaining the basic tenets of modern hip-hop, to just be an engaging and fun time.

Some of the worst times on this initial section are segments where the energy is lost through an extended Swae Lee singing section, and that’s basically what we receive for a full project on Swaecation. Lee definitely has a good grasp of what makes a good melody, delivering some pretty catchy choruses on tracks like “Touchscreen Navigation”, but most of these songs are one-note and go on for too long, needing an appearance from Jxmmi to return the track’s sense of direction and forward momentum. After the constant knocking hi-hats of SR3MM, Lee’s meandering, indulgent falsetto singing tracks feel a lot more boring. Not even Young Thug, a master of this element, can save “Offshore”, a track that goes on forever returning to a melody that ends abruptly before it gets good. Lee’s flow is too sparse to keep the spacey cloud-rap style interesting most of the time, repeating the same melody line with too much empty space on tracks like “Heartbreak in Encino Hills”. I do like those panflutes on “Heat of the Moment” though.

Jxmtro, by contrast, is a more straightforward album where Jxmmi draws on the more aggressive side of his flow to deliver some hard-hitting, short tracks. Often utilized less than Lee in their collaborative work, it’s great to hear Jxmmi hold his own by himself. “Brxnks Truck” and “Players Club” are an insane one-two punch to open up the album, Jxmmi delivering a rapid-fire triplet flow over a beat that keeps on cutting out at just the right moments on the former while the menacing piano instrumental of “Players Club” makes it sound like OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” if it were actually … a real song. Even this starts to lose steam as we get into the later segments though. It almost sounds like he’s trying to emulate Lee’s style on some of the later tracks, especially “Growed Up”, and while he’s great on these short tracks he’s ultimately not charismatic enough to carry a full album.

Swae Lee’s appearance on Jmxtro, on the ecstatic “Chanel” that also features a show-stealing verse from Pharrell Williams, proves that even when the two brothers are in the midst of discovering what works for them on their own, they work best together. SR3MM is overall an interesting experiment, an inconsistent mixed bag with some incredible highs.

Favourite tracks: Buckets, Powerglide, Brxnks Truck, Chanel, Bedtime Stories

Least Favourite Track: Offshore

Scores:

SR3MM: 8/10 – Swaecation 3/10 – Jxmtro 7/10

Overall: 6/10

Image result for voicenotesCharlie Puth – Voicenotes

Nostalgic pop singer Charlie Puth makes one of the most incredible improvements I’ve ever seen on his sophomore album Voicenotes, losing the Motown-emulating cheesiness of his obnoxious debut project and venturing into a soundscape of 90s R&B and pop which is much more comfortable for him. It’s clear that he drew heavily from Boyz II Men, who actually appear on the project on the song “If You Leave Me Now”. Overall, Voicenotes is full of the same kind of retro-pop bliss that artists like Bruno Mars and Carly Rae Jepsen have perfected, and it makes for an enjoyable journey through those classic 90s chord progressions.

Opening track “The Way I Am” introduces listeners to the kind of syncopated hooks and dramatic synth swells we can expect over the course of the album, one of the most unapologetically 90s songs here that could easily fit on an album like Justin Timberlake’s Justified. Puth’s speedy delivery mirroring the main guitar riff that ultimately creeps back in underneath the explosive chorus is a great use of layering. I knew we might be getting something enjoyable when I heard the surprising singles “Attention” and “How Long”, carried by a fun bassline groove and some jazzier chords than I expected from Puth. It’s all the more impressive that Puth produced the album nearly singlehandedly – coordinating all the vocal layering and interlocking musical elements here takes some serious skill and musicianship that I had no idea he possessed. Apparently a classically trained musician with perfect pitch, Puth knows how to structure chords to their greatest potential. Puth dives directly into the world of 90s R&B balladry with tracks like “Patient”, an earnest, somber track pleading for foregiveness directly from the Boyz II Men bag of tricks. This stuff was so popular back then because it really works – we don’t hear much of those classic pinging percussive noises or harmonies quite like this anymore.

He keeps it up through most of the back half, breaking out the vocoder for “Slow It Down” and closing with the beautiful piano ballad “Through It All”, reaching down into his lower register over a jazzy backing choir comprised of himself. The crown jewel might be penultimate track “Empty Cups”, a bouncy ode to house parties that’s endlessly replayable. The way the music cuts out before Puth drops into the chorus with that trademark wispy falsetto is perfect. Puth stated that he tried to write his chorus like a verse here, and the quicker delivery works well over the sparse bursts of inviting synth-bass chords.

This is still the guy who put out a single like “Marvin Gaye” we’re talking about, and he definitely doesn’t lose all the cheese, he just learns how to deliver it in a way that’s less annoying. Still, tracks like “Change”, featuring the legendary James Taylor, and “BOY” come across as awkward in their lyrical content – the first a fake-woke anthem as Puth attempts to capitalize on the troubled political climate without actually saying anything of consequence and the second dealing with rejection by an older woman and containing some pretty ridiculous lines: “You won’t wake up beside me cuz I was born in the 90s”.

This is guilty pleasure material through and through, and Puth’s defiance of pop trends to explore a dearly departed area of music to this particular reviewer is much appreciated. His capable vocals and musicality make Voicenotes a surprisingly great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Empty Cups, Slow It Down, The Way I Am, Attention, Patient

Least Favourite Track: Change

Score: 8/10

Image result for playboi carti die litPlayboi Carti – Die Lit

Well, here we are. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. Then the rave reviews started coming in so I started wondering if I’d missed something about Playboi Carti, the trap rapper who is essentially nothing but one giant ad-lib, distilling the most obnoxious trends about trap music into one pointless exercise in minimalism. I was right the first time. Die Lit is the first major label studio album for Carti, teaming up with enigmatic trap savant Pi’erre Bourne across an hour of repetitive phrases, uninspired delivery and Carti making a bunch of really, really strange noises.

Die Lit is a long 19 tracks, most of which consist of repeating the same couple lines for the entire duration. While others claim that Carti’s unorthodox approach “recalibrates the brain’s pleasure centers”, as Pitchfork claimed, Carti isn’t present or likable enough on these tracks for me to submit to his jubilant disregard for song structure. His vocals often feel muffled behind the production, a strained, nasal bark that’s frequently buried behind the 5 adlibs he sticks onto the end of every line. His guests often make things a small bit better, but even someone who is pretty much the antithesis to Carti in Skepta – an aggressive, technically skilled grime rapper – gets lost in the watered-down sludge of “Lean 4 Real”. Nicki Minaj’s feature on single “Poke It Out” is the most enjoyable moment on the whole album, and it’s a pretty average verse by her standards – it’s pretty fun to hear her try to emulate Carti’s style for a bit though.

The whole thing is just exhausting to listen to in a world where trap is the most popular style, since Carti is just a reflection of these trends without anything that makes him unique, like trap that was created in a lab by robots without any semblance of anything human infused into the music. It’d be great if Carti could ever string a phrase or a complete idea together – there are so many other artists who are uniquely funny, more skilled, vary their flows, and still have fun with the trap format that gets them attention. It’s a testament to just how much Carti can bring down a track with his lack of musicality when all of these beats are hitmaker Bourne’s – there are genuinely some decent instrumentals on here that just have the energy completely sucked out of them by Carti’s disinterested drawl – “Shoota” is quickly becoming a hit with its shimmering, orchestral synth lines.

Die Lit is certainly unlike anything we’ve heard before, but at the same time, it’s only this way because I previously thought it impossible to replicate trends to such a degree that the artist loses a distinct sense of self. I criticize people for using the Migos flow or riding dancehall or tropical waves, but at least you can still usually identify something unique and worthwhile that each person brought to the table. Carti is trap minimalism for the sake of minimalism, and simply ad-libs and mumbled triplets do not a decent trap song make.

Favourite Tracks: Poke It Out, R.I.P. Fredo

Least Favourite Track: Home (KOD)

Score: 2/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Post Malone, Janelle Monae, Leon Bridges)

Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

Breakout artist of the year Post Malone plays it safe on his first album since exploding into the mainstream, offering over an hour of the same admittedly very addictive and fun formula that made “Rockstar” one of the year’s biggest hits. Malone is a master at making the kind of bland, inoffensive music that can be played in the background at almost any kind of function due to it’s ability to transcend genres. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to hate. However, listening to a full project, the formulae begin to make themselves far too clear, and while Malone does offer some surprises in terms of the strength of his singing voice and hooks that are too much fun to ignore, Beerbongs and Bentleys is a bit of a chore to get all the way through.

Despite being frequently grouped amongst the hip-hop community, I see Post Malone as more of a singer with pop and even country elements that uses the popularized structure – and vernacular – of trap music in order to attracted a widespread audience, situating himself perfectly in the middle of multiple diverse worlds. It’s a pretty respectable business plan, and the hooks across the board here show that Malone has more of a grasp on how to write a catchy, marketable chorus than anyone. Someone who has risen to popularity this quickly and completely has to be doing something right. With producers like Frank Dukes and even Scott Storch on board, Malone’s team help him as much as they can, allowing his melodic instincts to shine. Dukes’ “Rich & Sad” is built over a bed of plaintive, falsetto human vocal samples and synth-bass that make his repetitive hook work. Repetition works when the grasp of melodic ability is so strong – “Psycho” is somehow a great track despite it containing little more than two alternating musical phrases.

Quite a few of these songs go a bit too far into the territory of being catchy, inoffensive background music and never really pick themselves off the ground, the instrumentals too empty. A track like “Spoil My Night”, laughable lyrical content aside, has lost all of its energy in the middle of the Swae Lee feature, the trap hi-hats dropping out in favour of the moody, watery creeping synth instrumentals that dominate most of Malone’s sad trap cowboy routine. The lyrical content ultimately wears thin on an 18-track album, Malone delivering the same generic lines about partying with some ridiculous metaphors and references. It also reveals that Malone doesn’t have much artistic ambition of his own, existing as the most readily available amalgamation of all the current trends across the music industry. None of this music forces itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness. Listening to song after song of hooks built to be the soundtrack designed to keep a party going and nothing more gets exhausting. The album could easily have been cut at the surprisingly decent ballad “Stay”, the 12th track – there are 6 more afterwards consisting of the same ideas that we’ve heard expressed elsewhere with so much more musicianship, polish and charisma.

It’s tough to talk about individual tracks across this album, because there is almost nothing that distinguishes each instrumental from the next, Malone singing a different, intoxicating and repetitive hook over each one. And while this works incredibly, impressively well in the right situation, an album length just reveals Malone’s lack of ambition.

Favourite Tracks: Better Now, Psycho, Rich & Sad, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Over Now

Score: 5/10

Image result for dirty computerJanelle Monae – Dirty Computer

R&B artist Janelle Monae takes a detour away from her android character Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis Suite album series in order to drop a poppy and poignant look at the plight of minorities through the lens of technology that she is so fond of using. With a slew of great collaborators and Monae’s exuberant declarations of self-assertion in her lyrical content, juxtaposed with instrumentals that would make mentor Prince proud, Dirty Computer is sure to be one of the year’s – or the decade’s – greatest albums.

The album is introduced to us with the opening title track, featuring Monae’s calm and smooth alto tone introducing the concept of the album with backing harmonies and instrumentation from the master of harmonies himself, Brian Wilson. The accompanying “emotion picture” depicts a society in which minority groups’ identities are seen as a computer virus, their memories removed and “cleaned” up. The majority of the album consists of tracks depicting experiences that needed to be removed from Monae’s memory, a full-out celebration of all the things that make her unique in an embrace of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality through an exuberant funk-pop shimmer. Monae has said she was very influenced by Prince, who she knew well, across this project and it definitely shows – especially on lead single “Make Me Feel” that lifts the same funk guitar chords from his hit “Kiss”. Many of these tracks are carried by rattling hi-hats and a funk bassline, Monae applying her very capable vocal abilities in a completely unapologetic shout, usually dropping at least one rap verse onto each song.

Dirty Computer is an extremely sexual album in a world that suppresses it, especially for someone like Monae, and her matter-of-fact statements on its unavoidable presence and importance on tracks like “Pynk” are just as confidence-inducing as her braggadocious rap track “Django Jane” where she runs through her many achievements and declares herself the greatest of all time. “Screwed” is an absolute show-stopper of a song, fuelled by handclaps and shiny guitar riffs that sound like a double-time HAIM track. It’s the most immediately catchy melody and the most overtly political song here, using the title as a double entendre calling for a final party before the bomb drops – “everything is sex, except sex, which is power”. The album itself feels like this party at times, not letting the listener take a breath once as it continues to deliver high-octane pop tracks with an overarching message of universal love.

Many of the instrumentals’ funk elements here remind me of Pharrell Williams’ early work, and Williams shows up on the rap track “I Got The Juice”, Monae’s delivery at an all-out energetic scream as the hi-hats crash into each other perfectly, her chopped vocals in the background. My favourite track of all might be “I Like That” however, one of the calmer ones here that lets us hear the prettier side of Monae’s singing voice, carried by an incredibly catchy musical phrase looped by backing vocals as she speaks on her intentional diversion from the norm. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs, and I like that” has to be one of my all-time favourite lyrics. The whole thing culminates in “Americans”, a gospel-influenced track that sees Monae slip into the character of various individuals blindly dedicated to outdated ideals of the what the American flag signifies before the bouncy, singalong chorus simply declares “Love me for who I am” with some beautiful harmonies. As the refrain echoes, a reverend’s voice starts a speech calling for the rights of various marginalized groups, some that Monae belongs to and some she does not.

Dirty Computer and its accompanying visual are incredibly powerful, brilliantly conceptual stuff, and it might be the most important sociopolitical message delivered through music next to “This Is America” this year. I’ll be surprised if anything comes out this year that knocks this from my top spot.

Favourite Tracks: I Like That, Screwed, Make Me Feel, Americans, I Got The Juice

Least Favourite Track: Take A Byte…? I guess?

Score: 10/10

Image result for leon bridges good thingLeon Bridges – Good Thing

Texas retro-soul and blues singer Leon Bridges takes a bit of a step back from his triumphant debut Coming Home, falling prey to the sophomore jinx and turning to pop producer Ricky Reed for the majority of the album. As a result, the poppier tracks here are actually the album’s best, Reed losing his way at producing the classic sounds that Bridges’ smooth vocals fit so cleanly over. Still, even if many of these tracks don’t stick as well as many of his past endeavours, it’s always a delight to hear a voice like Bridges’ – there aren’t many people making albums this popular that sound like him, and his simple love songs call back to an earlier era of songwriting.

The opening track “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” is the kind of music that bridges should be making all the time, the opening flurry of sound almost like a montage transporting us back in time like a cinematic flashback. The song places his vocals front and center, strings echoing in the background as he hits the best part of his upper register in the chorus, the slight rasp that makes his vocals distinctive complemented by some great high harmonies. The majority of the tracklist makes it all too clear that this was an album produced by a guy who has worked with people like DNCE and Maroon 5 recently. Quite a few of these tracks are loose, upbeat tracks where Reed attempts to replicate the vibe of a blues or jazz song, instrumental solos often taking up the empty space, but eliminates the complexity often found in the instrumentals for a straightforward rhythmic pattern that makes the music more accessible for the many people who made this the top-selling album of the week. It becomes less about Bridges in complete command of his element, and it makes his more subdued style of delivery less likely to stand out on tracks like “Bad Bad News” and “Beyond”. Bridges excels when the instrumental molds to his direction, rather than the other way around.

“Shy” is another great track that sees the return of the vocal harmonies and jazzier chords that aren’t as present elsewhere, Bridges slowing the track down and commanding attention with his dynamic vocal presence and charisma. Of course, Reed is still one of the better mainstream pop producers, and this shows on the danceable, all-out pop tracks “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “You Don’t Know”. Bridges’ voice is versatile enough to be believable as a John Legend-esque pop vocalist, sounding like the GOOD Music artist on the former especially, vocoder harmonies backing him up on the kind of early guitar-funk pop bounce that’s quickly becoming popularized. The problem lies when these poppier elements aren’t mixed as well with elements from Bridges’ musical territory, awkwardly shoehorning in modern sounds where they shouldn’t be, like the percussion on a track like “Forgive You” that clashes with the acoustic guitars.

Bridges is a great vocalist that’s always a breath of fresh air in the landscape of what’s popular right now, but the team up with Reed here doesn’t make much sense and holds it back from being a truly great project – I trust he’ll be back with a vengeance on his next.

Favourite Tracks: Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand, Shy, You Don’t Know, If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Mrs.

Least Favourite Track: Bad Bad News

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tinashe, J. Cole, Bishop Briggs)

Tinashe - Joyride (Official Album Cover).pngTinashe – Joyride

Joyride is a project that frequently underrated R&B artist Tinashe has been promoting since 2015, delayed multiple times as it was apparently held back by label deman 2016’s Nightride album was a catchy, ethereal teaser, but it may have ended up being better than the final product. The label intervention is evident across this project, Tinashe’s quieter style frequently offset by obvious attempts to land her another radio hit with awkward rap features (one fittingly being Offset himself) and production from pop hitmakers like Stargate. The album is a directionless mixed bag, but she still manages to shine in the few occasions where she’s allowed to do what she wants here.

Tinashe has always been at her best on more throwback production styles, rather than the more marketable and upbeat party tracks that take up most of the space on this album. Sometimes the two styles are mixed together and the juxtaposition is too much, like on title track “Joyride”, which places a loud “la-la-la” melody and huge beat overtop of the orchestral and spacey synths and strings that she is more known for, which fail to accommodate the constant high energy of the rest of the track. The pure pop tracks fare a little bit better – I’m not going to lie and say “No Drama” doesn’t get stuck in my head for days at a time – but it’s far from the artist I know she can be, she’s a better singer than this basic melody over a trap beat. “Me So Bad” is the most blatant attempt at a trend-riding track that never would have made it onto a Tinashe project with creative freedom, the lyrics doing little more than pointing to her looks with a pretty inexcusable French Montana feature and a beat that manages to take the worst elements of both the tropical and dancehall trends at the same time. The last few tracks on the album never quite come together, the scores of writers in the credits becoming evident as the commercial aspect overrides artistry, the hint of a trap hi-hat echoing on even the slowest tracks. What in the world is that disjointed Future verse??

It would be a much different story if the whole album was filled with tracks like “He Don’t Want It”, the closest thing we get to the highlights of Nightride like “C’est La Vie” and “Ghetto Boy”. Tinashe uses both ends of her vocal register, the breathy falsetto verse introducing the more powerful chorus. I love when most of the elements of the track are made of Tinashe’s dynamic vocal abilities, and the ethereal backing harmonies complete the picture here. It’s great to hear elements of a trap beat without the same rhythms we’re all familiar with from all-star hip-hop producer T-Minus as well. Follow-up “Ooh La La” is an homage to the early-2000s R&B that Tinashe would have thrived in, with a pretty fun flip of a sample from Nelly’s “Dilemma” and calmly picked guitar melody reminiscent of “Suga Suga”, while an unexpected collaboration with Little Dragon on “Stuck With Me” is a fantastic surprise, Tinashe and Yukimi Nagano’s voices occupying that perfect space of having a similar tone that’s just distinct enough to distinguish the individuals.

The way Tinashe’s career has been handled is one of the most consistently depressing things about the music in Here’s hoping she goes independent and drops some old-school R&B gems on us.

Favourite Tracks: He Don’t Want It, Stuck With Me, Ooh La La, No Drama

Least Favourite Track: Joyride

Score: 5/10

JColeKOD.jpgJ. Cole – KOD

North Carolina rapper J. Cole bounces back in a huge way after 2016’s disappointing 4 Your Eyez Only with his 5th studio album KOD, a concept album of sorts that sees him discouraging forms of substance abuse that have affected him and those he observed in the past by through some Kendrick Lamar-esque play with the embodiment of opposing characters and points of view. While Cole doesn’t really do anything groundbreaking here musically, he escapes criticism by tying it perfectly into the theme of the album, stating that the addictive, repetitive hooks and trap beats resemble the drugs he speaks of. Plus, what I was really missing from Cole was the fire in his delivery, and that’s fully returned with this more modern, upbeat style.

“There are many ways to deal with pain … Choose wisely”, echoes a voice throughout the album. The tracklist is divided about half and half, sometimes on the same song, as Cole portrays either himself making the wise choices in the present or a character addicted to or dependent on one of the many “drugs” he describes, both literal and more abstract, like money, power or love. Opening track “KOD” lets listeners know early that Cole has snapped out of the trance that dominated his previous album, offering a rapid-fire triplet flow and booming bassline. The popularized Migos flow shows up quite a bit across this project, but it’s still great to hear Cole’s take on it since his voice and delivery can be one of the most engaging in the industry when he wants it to, always with a sarcastic wink and a jovial bounce. Cole produced nearly all of the beats on this project without any assistance, raising the impressiveness again. My favourite beat of all though is attributed to T-Minus, on standout track “Kevin’s Heart”. Cole makes his dexterous flow sound easy mainly due to the chilled out, 8-bit video game-style instrumental that makes everything sound more impressive on an intoxicating half-time tempo.

Perhaps the fact that I’m so drawn to Cole’s repetitive tracks like “Motiv8” and “ATM”, where he portrays a character dependent on an unstable source of income, proves his point. These cheap thrills really are easy to turn to, rather than paying attention to what he’s saying on the more lyrical tracks. While they do veer a bit into the same sluggish tempos he employed earlier, tracks like “Brackets” and “Once an Addict” revive Cole’s elite storytelling ability to tell some tales of how his community and his own life are affected by what he describes. Cole’s advice across the board is never preachy because he is quick to acknowledge that he himself had fallen prey to it as well – he tells a heartbreaking tale of both he and his mother turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with the abusive stepfather that has turned up in many tracks across his career, offering genuine advice to personal friends and younger rappers on “Friends” and “1985” about falling prey to all the various drugs of life, admitting his message isn’t “the coolest” in an endearing way.

One of the main themes that frequently seem to hold a Cole album back is his singing, which he almost always relies on more than he should. It makes a few hooks here more awkward than they should be, such as on “Photograph” where he never quite clicks into the beat perfectly. His Kill Edward character’s pitch shifted delivery also muddles his words and throws the pitch off on tracks like “The Cut Off”, but it still adds to the message of the song, the addicted Edward sounding lost and troubled, out of step with the rest of reality.

KOD delivers an important message in a very smart way, Cole bringing back his relatable character and storytelling ability to spread awaren Luckily, by exploring characters Cole can do this and deliver some upbeat, fun tracks at the same time. He boasts about his versatility contributing to his longevity over trend-hoppers on closer “1985”, and KOD backs up his point.

Favourite Tracks: Kevin’s Heart, ATM, FRIENDS, KOD, BRACKETS

Least Favourite Track: The Cut Off

Score: 8/10

Image result for church of scars bishopBishop Briggs – Church of Scars

British alt-pop musician Bishop Briggs’ debut studio album Church of Scars comes in the wake of the success of her 2016 single “River” on alternative and rock radio due to her trademark growl and heavier approach to poppier melodies. Her songs have been used in commercials, also contributing to her steady rise, and this album makes it easy to see why. Her formula across these brief 10 tracks becomes incredibly evident and safe, reminding me of Imagine Dragons’ latest project Evolve in terms of the build-up to an explosive chorus over some soul chords that she employs in every song. While her vocal power is undeniable, Church of Scars loses its element of surprise immediately.

Briggs blends elements of the past and present across the whole album to varying degrees of success, mixing rock and blues instrumentation with modern trends of pop music such as electronic synthlines and hip-hop influenced percussion, a computerized water-droplet beat quickly snapping the old-soul sound of Briggs’ vocal delivery into the more modern era in opening track “Tempt My Trouble”. While this track serves as one of the most immediately catchy offerings, even it falls into the repetitive techniques that plague most of the tracklisting. Briggs’ voice really does have a lot of potential, and I could see her imbuing it with the genuine emotion that the power behind it deserves to make some powerful content, but she settles for Chainsmokers-style thematic lyricism around a seemingly randomly generated noun and melodies that stay in a safe position in order to build up to the reveal of the only trick she has – the overriding of a vaguely electronic blues-rock template with her growling, explosive vocal wails.

Her blends of styles often come across as trying too hard. I feel like I write the word “trap” in every review I write nowadays, but the plaintive acoustic background of a song like “Lyin’” sounds ridiculous with those persistent hi-hats at a time when we hear them everywhere, and whoever did the backing vocals doesn’t help the track much either, sounding too anthemic and angry for the instrumental since an explosive rendition of the chorus is apparently a necessity for each and every track regardless. “White Flag” shows that the vitriol she spits into every syllable doesn’t work as well with rapidly delivered vocals, the rhythm of the chorus lagging behind. As the album goes on, we lose any hope of being moved by Briggs’ power, since we expect her to be yelling at us by the end of every song, knowing not to trust the quieter acoustic introduction.

There really are quite a few promising elements here, such as the industrial and menacing horn section on “Wild Horses”, but an attempt at an EDM-style chorus breakdown changes the tempo in such a miniscule way that it becomes irritating, throwing off my rhythm. It all comes together best on “Hallowed Ground”, which incorporates a gospel organ and horn section breakdown that switches things up instrumentally for a break in the monotony.

Briggs has a lot of raw talent, but she relies much too heavily on a formula attempting to place her in the modern musical context that she doesn’t really need. With a better team around her, I hope she can convert the energy she possesses into more creative, well-structured song material.

Favourite Tracks: Hallowed Ground, River, Tempt My Trouble

Least Favourite Track: The Fire

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Cardi B, Kali Uchis, Pentatonix)

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngCardi B – Invasion of Privacy

2017’s breakout star Cardi B finally releases her debut studio album, and while it certainly isn’t anything groundbreaking, she delivers 13 very solid tracks loaded with the hilarious personality we’ve come to love, a bevy of great guest spots and some surprisingly impressive technical skill. Invasion of Privacy is just about the best debut album I could have expected Cardi to make – she continuously defies her status as a meme or a one hit wonder.

Cardi’s biggest strength – likely the reason she blew up as quickly as she did – is her unapologetic, honest personality and she is just what you expect on this project, being open about her rags-to-riches upbringing on opening track “Get Up 10” and being brutally honest about her feelings towards a certain member of the Migos. There’s something strangely empowering about hearing Cardi deliver lyrics that can be incredibly explicit, confident or carefree that most others wouldn’t dare. She builds herself up in the most hilarious ways, channelling the self-aggrandizing energy she injected into that iconic “Bodak Yellow” hook with tracks like “I Do”, featuring a celebratory SZA speaking on the pair’s many successes, and “Money Bag”. Even though the latter is all but a carbon copy of Cardi’s biggest hit, her lyrics still make it incredibly fun – her abrasive New York accent puts an extra, percussive, vitriolic punch onto every one of her boasts. The album does actually contain some sonic diversity as well.

“I Like It”, a Latin trap banger, is the most fun song here and features the two biggest artists in the genre in J Balvin and Bad Bunny. The interpolation of the Pete Rodriguez classic track on the sample with such an aggressive trap beat was creative enough to make it an instant hit. “Ring” and “Thru Your Phone” see the instrumental take calmer, more R&B direction, but the fire doesn’t leave Cardi’s voice as she speaks about her partner’s infidelity. Kehlani’s hook on “Ring” is absolutely beautiful, and Cardi’s delivery makes her sound believably deeply hurt. We are getting Cardi with no filter across this project. For all the people writing Cardi off as a joke act due to her ridiculous persona, her technical skill always impresses me. To hit every word of these faster tracks while pregnant in her Coachella performance solidified Cardi as someone who deserves all of the successes she has. She keeps up with Takeoff’s incredible verse on “Drip”, while the chorus of “Bartier Cardi” is an absolute tongue-twister of lyrics.

To pull off the album as well as she did is something of a surprise since, well, one of the main reasons we love Cardi is her embrace of her flaws – polish isn’t her strong suit. There are a few tracks on here that could have been improved with a bit more work, but the idea is there. “Be Careful” is a track that certainly grew on me from my first listen, with a catchy Lauryn Hill interpolation, but Cardi’s flow leaves a bit to be desired. As well, Chance the Rapper’s characteristically adorably happy feature on “Best Life” doesn’t really fit at all – it’s the song with the least punch on the project, with more of a melodic and meandering instrumental that doesn’t really accommodate the assault on the mic from Cardi.

There’s something inexplicably magical about the injection of confidence that Cardi’s music provides, even when I don’t come from anywhere close to the same walk of life as her. The success couldn’t be happening to someone more genuine, and Invasion of Privacy proves that.

Favourite Tracks: Bodak Yellow, I Like It, I Do, Ring, Money Bag

Least Favourite Track: Best Life

Score: 8/10

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis – Isolation

Rapidly rising Colombian star Kali Uchis recruits one of the most impressive lists of collaborators I’ve ever seen for her debut album Isolation, blending her voice suited for contemporary R&B with her own cultural elements of reggaetón and bossa nova. Although Uchis’ vocals are not always the strongest or most distinctive, Isolation is an album that is built through complex and dynamic instrumentals featuring numerous instruments and a full orchestral sound, Uchis’ pleasing and airy tone just a universal complement that allows her many star producers to easily build a great track of any genre around. Appearing across the album are Thundercat, DJ Dahi, Brockhampton’s Romil, Steve Lacy, Sounwave, Gorillaz, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Greg Kurstin, BadBadNotGood and more.

The albums’ opening two tracks introduce the listener into Uchis’ unique musical niche perfectly, the intro “Body Language” a calmer track with a samba bassline transitioning into “Miami”, the site where this traditional sound becomes modernized with some trap hi-hats complementing the reggaetón guitar chords. Uchis obliterates people’s misconceptions of her in the track, stating that despite her appearance she can be a powerful, dangerous figure capable of achieving her aims. Uchis’ team not only provide her with lush instrumentals, but some seriously catchy melodies as well. Steve Lacy’s hot streak continues with “Just A Stranger”, Uchis and Lacy himself layering their vocals to create an anthemic and rhythmically sound chorus over a fun funk instrumental. Uchis is at her best when she taps into her Colombian roots, singing in Spanish on “Nuestro Planeta” and breezes through upbeat, danceable Latin instrumentals on “Your Teeth In My Neck” and “Tyrant”. It’s great to hear such a modern take on a style that isn’t incredibly prominent in popular music, despite the recent explosion of Spanish music into the mainstream. The melodies here are strangely familiar, keeping in line with their reggaetón roots, yet at the same time they’re nowhere else to be found in 2018.

Uchis’ greatest vocal showcase comes on the track “Flight 22”, a downtempo track that veers closer to bedroom pop with dreamy, twinkling keys and a string section backing up her impressive range. Her sensual vocal inflections remind me of Amy Winehouse, named as a large inspiration behind the track. More often, however, Uchis’ vocal tone is best utilized as the smooth, malleable aspect to fit over any style of instrumental. “Dead To Me” is the most chaotic track here, featuring cascading electronic blips and a high-speed breakbeat over the omnipresent funk bassline, Uchis’ calm tone making it seem as if she handles the complex musical world with ease – and she’s confident and assertive enough in her delivery that she doesn’t need to go all out to make her point. I always love albums that make the most out of their sequencing to tell a story, and the albums’ later interludes “Gotta Get Up” and “Coming Home” serve as transitional pieces, completing the gaps between the surrounding tracks and completing a full narrative. Gorillaz’ manic track “In My Dreams”, where Uchis runs through a whimsical dreamscape before waking up to negative realities, and the Tyler, The Creator-featuring single “After The Storm” shine in the latter half.

The main takeaway from this album is Uchis’ incredible consistency. It’s not always this difficult to pick out a least favourite track. Her command of some seriously complex instrumentals seems effortless at all times, and we could be witnessing the start of something very exciting.

Favourite Tracks: Flight 22, Dead To Me, Tomorrow, After The Storm, Just A Stranger

Least Favourite Track: Killer

Score: 9/10

Pentatonix - Top Pop Vol 1.jpgPentatonix – PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol. I

A cappella success story Pentatonix returns to their roots of covering some of the most popular songs of the year after a switch in members saw them acquire a new bass vocalist. While it can get rather easy to grow tired of the group with their quantity over quality approach, many of their arrangements utilizing the same tricks despite their torrid release pace, it’s pretty impressive that they can breathe new life into something like a “Despacito” / “Shape of You” mashup. This kind of material is what made them famous in the first place, and there are still a few flashes of greatness here to remind us why.

We open with Charlie Puth’s “Attention”, a track that was basically meant for a cappella from the beginning that showcases new bass Matt Sallee prominently early on. The extra syncopated melody that doesn’t exist in the original added to the 2nd verse is a great touch, and the half-time section and jazz chords that close the arrangement make for their most ambitious exploits across the whole project. The two mashups on this project are both highlights, showing that the group is at their best when at their most creative. It’s tough to make an album of covers of extremely played out songs and continue to hold interest. Their combination of “New Rules” with Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” works shockingly well, and the first three notes, each vocal part building on the next, that hit in the breakdown get me every time. Kirstie Maldonado sounds fantastic singing in her more comfortable language on “Despacito x Shape Of You”, even switching a few lyrics in Sheeran’s hit to Spanish. Maldonado is the strong suit across the board, carrying a lead vocal of Julia Michaels’ “Issues” pretty flawlessly. Songs like “Issues” and Kesha’s “Praying” are pretty impossible to do badly regardless, and the group rise to the occasion covering these great tracks.

Too often, the group doesn’t do much to alter the structure of the original song, thinking that the tricks that we’ve heard before will suffice. “Finesse” is basically a carbon copy of a song that was already pretty sparse instrumentally due to its new jack swing influence – more interesting vocal percussion acrobatics might have been interesting here, while their approach to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” adds in Kevin Olusola’s cello yet again, losing the spirit of a cappella as they structure in a huge, empowering build-up in the same way they’ve done in the past. The other thing that annoys me about Pentatonix studio albums recently is that they’ve stopped trying to hide how much of these finalized studio arrangements aren’t performed live, adding in layering and other computer-generated processes in post-production. “Stay”, a predominantly electronic song, features the same loop of Alessia Cara’s pitch-shifted vocal run that would be impossible for a human voice to replicate. It’s harder to tell for sure judging by Mitch Grassi’s shockingly high vocal, but I think I was able to distinguish Maldonado singing underneath her lead vocal as well.

Pentatonix are obviously ridiculously talented, but I still think that their album of original music was their best work yet. The novelty of these A-list covers has worn off over time, and I want to hear what they are able to do without the constraints – the mashups here prove their creative ability.

Favourite Tracks: Attention, Issues, New Rules x Are You That Somebody?, Despacito x Shape Of You

Least Favourite Track: Feel It Still

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Weeknd, Kacey Musgraves, Hayley Kiyoko)

MyDearMelancholy - album by The Weeknd.jpgThe Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy,

Canadian pop/R&B superstar The Weeknd releases a 6-song EP a year and a half after the successes of Starboy that sees him return to a sound that many fans have been missing. My Dear Melancholy, is much darker than we’ve heard him get in a while. While it’s difficult for Abel to completely shed his pop sensibilities at this point, this EP is as close to Trilogy as we’re going to get, the production more open and allowing his vocals and lyrics to shine. This is the version of The Weeknd that kickstarted the entire genre of alt-R&B, and he recruits a list of great collaborators to make it happen.

Opening track “Call Out My Name” became the biggest track to come from this project, and it’s easy to see why. It rides a similar vibe as “Earned It”, a song that served as somewhat of a transitionary period from one style to the next, but the passion with which he delivers that soaring chorus, his haunting pitch-shifted and distorted vocals repeating the refrain behind him, is what sells the track. We can tell that Abel is back in that tortured emotional place that allowed him to deliver his best music. Lyrically, we’re back to the nihilistic and debaucherous artist that knowingly lives a lifestyle that is mentally and physically damaging – there’s some pretty dark content on here inspired by real life events, and the creeping, grim soundscapes of Trilogy infused with parts of the synth beats and Daft Punk-esque production on tracks like “Try Me” and “Hurt You” is an interesting place to put them. The Weeknd’s persona has always been incredibly fascinating to me, and this is him at a complete juncture of an artist, almost like a career retrospective over 6 tracks.

Abel has an impressive list of producers here – Frank Dukes and Skrillex hold things down on the pop side, while Yeezus auteur Gessafelstein and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo himself appear as well. Dukes and Skrillex’s “Wasted Times” is the poppiest instrumental here, a skittering, glitchy breakbeat that drops into an EDM-style breakdown with pitch shifted vocals – but Abel’s rhythms and state of mind are pure Trilogy, repeating “I ain’t got no business catching feelings”. The calming falsetto outro shows just how much we forget how great his vocals can be, something he displays in full on heartbreaking closer “Privilege” – the track, combined with “I Was Never There”, contains some truly compelling and deeply disturbing references to Abel’s substance abuse in dealing with pain. “Hurt You” might be my favourite track of all, a great combination of his old and new styles as Abel delivers a catchy falsetto melody over the same kind of old-school dance breakbeat as we hear on hits “Starboy” and “Pray For Me”.

There have been rumours that there will be forthcoming EPs, possibly playing off of the comma in the title of this one. If this is the case, The Weeknd knows exactly what he is doing and I’m very excited for a more commercially viable 2018 update of Trilogy.

Favourite Tracks: Hurt You, Call Out My Name, Wasted Times

Least Favourite Track: Try Me

Score: 8/10

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegKacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Critically acclaimed country-pop artist Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album sees her trade in her cynical and witty lyrics for an incredibly adorable celebration of her new marriage that sees the world in a much more positive light. Musgraves’ warm and inviting vocal delivery has always been one of my favourite singing voices in the entire music industry, and hearing it on some more personal material here is very affecting. Musgraves’ music has never truly been pure country, and she takes some of her most ambitious cross-genre leaps yet on this project that showcase her crossover potential. With Golden Hour, Musgraves has delivered a stunning opening trilogy of albums.

The entire album is infused with a sense of wonderment that creeps its way into Musgraves poignant lyrics, previously used for biting satire but now settling into “I’m alright with a slow burn, taking my time let the world turn” as she sings sweetly on the opening track. Backed by little more than a pop-country acoustic guitar pattern, the track eventually swells into a string section bridge and uplifting backing vocals. Musgraves accepts that she can’t maintain her previous position as a holier-than-thou sass machine and steps back to marvel at the beauty she can find in the world, and it’s amazing to witness. Musgraves’ instincts to write a great pop melody are still top notch, as emphasized by single “Butterflies” and especially standout track “Lonely Weekend” – the charming country background of most of these songs simply provides an interesting instrumental twist to these sensibilities. “Butterflies” is characterized by a mixture of twinkling, poppy piano chords and the acoustic, slide guitar patterns that appear across Same Trailer, Different Park. The softly delivered honesty in her vocal performance easily welcomes harmonies, and they strengthen her heartfelt declarations. When the music drops back and she reaches into her falsetto to deliver “You give me butterflies”, it’s too cute to handle.

Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting – it should have been tough to convince us of her belief in this completely new view of the world, but the way she pours genuine emotion into every note and word makes us feel every aspect of her love for her husband. Even when tracks like “Oh, What A World” are relatively samey, Musgraves’ awestruck persona is captivating. Her classic wordplay is still present on “Space Cowboy” – which still gives me chills, and “Happy & Sad” brings back the creeping cynicism as she anticipates the inevitable end of “the time of [her] life” through the greatest harmonies on the project– it’s still the same Kacey. The most interesting track, however, is “High Horse”, a disco-influenced track that marks a completely new direction – it’s pretty incredible that she manages to keep some country aspects in the background and pull it off so well, judging by the huge 80s dance beat, synth bassline and adorably kitschy harmonies in the forefront. Closing track “Rainbow” is such a beautiful, earnest love letter that it still almost makes me cry a month later, but this review is getting too long.

I wish I had space to talk about every single track on this album, they are all perfect in their own, tiny, personal way. Musgraves’ subject matter finally matches the extremely pleasant tone of her voice, and the result is an album that successfully blocks out all the bad in the world for 45 minutes.

Favourite Tracks: High Horse, Lonely Weekend, Rainbow, Space Cowboy, Happy & Sad

Least Favourite Track: Wonder Woman

Score: 10/10!

Hayley Kiyoko - Expectations.pngHayley Kiyoko – Expectations

Dreampop artist and outspoken LGBT activist Hayley Kiyoko finally releases her debut studio album after a string of EPs, and for the most part connects with a series of upbeat, danceable pop tracks. While her songwriting could likely benefit from the hitmaking spark of someone like a Max Martin, a few melodies and chord progressions often going a different way you expect them to, in general Expectations lives up to them, especially once single “Curious” signals a seismic shift into the much more fun second half of the project.

Quite a few of these tracks ride over energetic synth basslines and ethereal, dreampop harmonies. Despite the lack of recognizable contributors to the project, the production across the board carries the project where Kiyoko’s vocal performance lacks a distinct sense of personality and artistry. After a world-establishing overture featuring the sounds of the beach, we drop into “Feelings”, a pristine pop track that takes a central melody and plays with it in as many ways as it can, dropping into a half-time trap section and a Prismizer-esque vocoder section near its back half. It’s a very well-written and catchy track that shows just how much Kiyoko still has room to grow as she gains a more mainstream audience. This is the kind of stuff a lot of people could quickly and easily latch onto. Single “Curious” is the centrepiece and is sure to be one of the greatest pop tracks released all year despite its January release date. The synth swells leading up to the tiny pause before the infectious chorus drops electrifies the track with energy, and Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals are something to behold – that bassline reminds of a Fifth Harmony track on steroids.

The last 5 tracks of the album are pure pop magic as well, especially “Palm Dreams”, a bit of a 2000s-pop throwback perfect for summer which features pitch-shifted vocals and an almost new jack swing percussive feel, inviting listeners to an electrofunk party. “Wanna Be Missed” uses a trap hi-hat to its utmost rhythmic potential, complementing a baseline swung synth melody and earth-shattering bass as the intense chorus kicks in, while “Let It Be” is a great closer – a calm-down of sorts with a quieter instrumental that can still support a huge singalong chorus. It’s one of the best written pop melodies here, minor notes in just the right places.

Expectations can feel slightly generic at times, especially as so many of Kiyoko’s contemporaries are rapidly expanding the boundaries of just what pop music can entail – most of these tracks possess the same kind of basic structure, the same chords building up to a more explosive, percussive chorus. A track like “Sleepover” never really gets going, featuring the same synth-bass stabs as the preceding tracks without as strong or energetic of a melody. The back to back mashup tracks “Mercy/Gatekeeper” and “Under the Blue/Take Me In” continue to lose the energy and direction of the project before “Curious” snaps us back in – there are a few weird melodic decisions and abrupt shifts between ideas across the whole saga, as we wait for the pop sugar rush that we know she can deliver to kick back in.

Expectations is a very solid debut pop project that doesn’t shy away from bringing something like a bisexual duet with Kehlani to the attention of the mainstream audience. When it connects, it’s high-octane fun – there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

Favourite Tracks: Curious, Let It Be, Palm Dreams, Feelings, Wanna Be Missed

Least Favourite Track: Under the Blue/Take Me In

Score: 7/10