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

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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

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Rapid Fire Reviews (Logic, Lil Yachty, XXXTENTACION)

BobbyTarantino2.jpgLogic – Bobby Tarantino II

The newly minted king of woke rap enters another instalment into his less formal series of mixtapes after breaking through to the public in a major way with his latest album Everybody. While Logic does show both a hilarious level of self-awareness at how annoying his preachiness can be and a large sample of the technical skill we know he possesses, Bobby Tarantino II falls short of its predecessor by turning up the blatant copying of other successful rappers he has always been accused of to the most obvious degree yet. As well, it’s strange to hear Logic back on this material he acknowledges himself is fun and meaningless in that earnest, awkward, high-pitched voice we heard singing about suicide prevention. His creation of an album that was trying so obnoxiously hard to spread a message has created a no-win situation for him. As Pitchfork wrote, “Once you’ve gone full Macklemore, you can’t walk all that sanctimony back”.

The project opens with a Rick & Morty skit in which the straightforward Rick prefers “Mixtape Logic” – criticizing “oooooh, equality” – to the idealistic Morty’s “Album Logic”, and it’s honestly great to hear how self-aware Logic is about his own music, and there really are some tracks here that call back to the quality of his music before the fame. Opening track “Overnight” brings to mind the standout track on the first Bobby Tarantino mixtape, “Super Mario World”, as Logic addresses his detractors over a fuzzy video game-esque synthline and trap beat. “Contra” feels like classic Logic as well, his delivery energetic and his speedy flow relentless. “Indica Badu” is a great microcosm for Logic’s career recently, the verses displaying the greatest extent of his enormous talent and technical skill – even bringing out what might be featured artist Wiz Khalifa’s career-best verse – before ruining it with a basic hook inexplicably delivered in the most annoying possible falsetto voice.

Sometimes I feel like I criticize Logic much more than he deserves, since it is clear that his potential is limitless. Even on projects that are as solid as this one, his brief deviations into his worst tendencies are frustrating. Logic has always been accused of lifting ideas from his contemporaries such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and it seems like his latest fascination on this project is none other than Travis Scott, as half of the project is filled with the eerie, laidback trap instrumentals and melodic Auto-Tuned yelps he is known for, particularly on “BoomTrap Protocol” and “Wizard of Oz”. He shows an affinity for jumping on trends in a different way with the awkward Marshmello collaboration “Everyday”, the watered-down Chainsmokers-lite EDM instrumental not complementing Logic’s awkwardly sung hook. Even when Logic is on a mixtape where he acknowledges that he’s going to flex and little else, he still feels the need to insert a few lines about self-love, being a good person and the like that weren’t present on his earlier projects. Although these are just side deviations on this project, his surface level approach to these topics is still annoying.

The majority of the tracks on this album are actually pretty impressive in comparison to Everybody, and even though I try to separate the art from the artist as much as possible, hearing the tiny inklings of his pandering, public persona on a project like this brings me out of the experience.

Favourite Tracks: Overnight, Contra, 44 More, Wassup

Least Favourite Track: Everyday

Score: 6/10

LilBoat2.jpgLil Yachty – Lil Boat 2

SoundCloud rap pioneer Lil Yachty, still only 20 years old, releases the followup to his major label, genre-shifting debut Teenage Emotions with a sequel to his successful Lil Boat Since Yachty was truly one of the first people to popularize what has become commonly known as mumble rap with his endearingly haphazard approach, the genre has shifted a bit more towards the “sadboi” stylings of people like Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTENTACION, who I’ll cover later in this review, passing Yachty by. Lil Boat 2 goes a bit darker than his previous work in response, foregoing his melodic exploits for eerier instrumentals and straight rap bars. While he makes a significant improvement in this area, one that suffered on his previous projects, the loss of Yachty’s distinct personality on this project brings it down.

There’s always something to be said for the sheer sense of joy to be making music Yachty communicates through his excitable and childlike delivery. I used to say that it made up for Yachty’s lack of musicality, but that has certainly improved across the board on this project, as he is capable of pulling off speedy triplet flows without falling off the rhythm as he had in the past. Tracks like “BOOM!”, “DAS CAP” and “POP OUT” are incredibly fun for this reason, Yachty repeating the title as a high-pitched adlib in the background while rapping better than we’ve heard him before. Yachty’s lyrics are absolute nonsense, but it honestly fits this persona at this point. “she ready” is easily the best track here, and possibly the closest track to his older style, a falsetto melody in the chorus set over another great addition to the flute trap instrumental trend. “MICKEY” shows his newfound harnessing of his rapping ability, holding his own with Offset and creating a flow I haven’t heard before in the chorus by drawing out his final syllables.

Yachty’s attempts to get grittier on this project often leave his tracks a bit empty. The most appealing thing about him in the past was his ability to create joyful, catchy melodies with a positive and idealistic outlook on life. In comparison, a track like “OOPS” sees him drop his voice lower to match the featured 2 Chainz over a very minimalistic trap beat set to nothing more than some low, rolling bass notes. There’s not enough to hold his slightly off-kilter flow in place. Yachty was never meant to follow trends, so seeing him veer closer to the patented and popularized Migos sound is disappointing. Both Quavo and Offset appear here, and “GET MONEY BROS.” sounds more like a Migos leftover than anything else.

There aren’t many new concepts to be found here, and even though that is what drew me to Yachty in the first place, his relentless attack to these tracks and clear improvement of an area of his work contribute to another respectable project from him. Now that he’s proven himself here, can we get back to those tropical, fun tracks?

Favourite Tracks: she ready, MICKEY, DAS CAP, BOOM!

Least Favourite Track: GET MONEY BROS.

Score: 6/10

XXXTENTACION-Sad-Changes-Single-Cover.jpgXXXTENTACION – ?

Diverse and controversial emo rap enigma XXXTENTACION’s sophomore album expands him into the mainstream even further, improving his songwriting ability and singing voice from the disjointed and disappointing debut 17 despite his insistence on keeping many of his tracks infuriatingly short, ending before any concrete ideas take off. Emerging onto the scene with shockingly distorted and aggressive tracks like “Look at Me!” X has since reverted to folk and emo-rock emulating guitar-based tracks with depressing lyrical content regarding his personal life and his own issues, of which he has many highly publicized examples. While X certainly shows the ability to pick out a great melody is there, proving he’s much more than we initially thought, there are far too many terrible and confusing musical decisions across this project for it to be truly enjoyable. X’s music is too much of a disturbing cry for help at this point.

Previously we only heard X’s singing voice on some lo-fi, depressed, uncomfortable moaning melodies but he certainly finds a few places to hit his stride as a songwriter and vocalist here. The track “Moonlight” is incredibly catchy, set over a unique glitchy synth instrumental – I really wish it was longer. This transitions into his first top 10 hit, “SAD!”, the plaintive melody of which has clearly resonated with people despite the uncomfortable message disguised within that hits a little too close to the abuse we’ve heard he’s capable of in the news. The chemistry he shows with Joey Bada$$ on “infinity (888)” is pretty undeniable as well, X dropping some rapid-fire triplet flows over a boom-bap instrumental featuring a melancholy, distant saxophone.

Despite the successes he finds on this album that weren’t present on the dismal 17, there are still quite a few moments where he takes the vibe of that album and escalates it to an even more obnoxious place by fleshing it out into what is … well, ALMOST a full song. Opener “ALONE, PART 3” is more of the same whining over sad guitar patterns, whereas X goes full screamo on tracks like “Floor 555”, reminiscent of his early work – the level of anger he displays here is genuinely terrifying and worrying as he blows his voice out on the chorus – as well as the Travis Barker-featuring “Pain = BESTFRIEND”. These just leave me hoping X gets some serious help. The right way to do this is “the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love)”, which sees the trademark folksy guitar patterns juxtaposed with a faster flow from X and a few sparse trap hi-hats that represents the first time he convinced me that this genre-mixing is possible. The back half of this album is a complete mess of genres that just alerts me to X’s instability more than anything else. He brings on 13-year old Matt Ox on “$$$” for an intolerably Auto-Tuned hook and disappears for most of the track on “I don’t even speak spanish lol”, an extremely basic reggaetón track that shows … that X heard “Despacito”.

The title ? is quite appropriate, since it is never quite sure of what it is. The real thing that will keep me from returning to the project, however, is just how real X’s pain sounds on this project, and it is impossible to empathize with him. His unhingedness creates something worthwhile on a few brief occasions, but mostly just creates messy exhibitions of his sadness and anger that leave me concerned.

Favourite Tracks: Moonlight, the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love), infinity (888)

Least Favourite Track: Pain = BESTFRIEND

Score: 3/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Vance Joy, Tory Lanez, Tech N9ne)

Image result for nation of two vance joyVance Joy – Nation of Two

Indie-pop singer-songwriter Vance Joy returns with his second studio album, almost 4 years after the runaway success that was “Riptide”, a song which was run into the ground to a rather annoying degree for this reviewer personally. Joy’s sentimental songwriting and catchy falsetto melodies are back on this project, and while a few of these breezy and instrumentally sparse tracks can seem overly simple or derivative at times, Nation of Two does stand out as a solid project due to its thematic cohesion and Joy’s undeniable ability to write uplifting tunes that we all want to sing along to. The album details the story of what Joy calls a “perfectly self-contained couple”, and the highs and lows of their blocking out most of the outside world.

The album opens with “Call If You Need Me”, potentially the closest thing on the whole album to exactly what we expect of him, the instrumental little more than a repetitive, plucked guitar pattern backed up by some ghostly indie-folk falsetto vocals that we’ve heard on his earlier work, and many others’. Joy knows what works for him and plays it safe to a degree that doesn’t really engage me quite a bit. There are more interesting musical choices than I would have expected after that intro, however, as the album starts to pick up immediately. “Lay It On Me” is a great track that sees Joy get more upbeat than usual, building into an explosive brass-backed chorus with some nice harmonies and a huge drum build-up. The fuller instrumentals work to his benefit, giving more power and support to his singalong choruses. Even if he uses some of the same tricks repeatedly, Joy’s earnest and confessional approach to songwriting fits as the instrumental raises and lowers volume in accord with the more emotional moments in his delivery. Joy’s voice is the perfect instrument to deliver the heartfelt declarations of love he is so fond of, accompanied by tiny wavers when he holds out a note and appropriately soaring for the bigger, celebratory choruses. There’s something indescribably unique that connects him to a listener.

Still, by the 5th or 6th time a song opens with the same basic picking patterns you’ve heard your friend play on the ukulele more than once the album starts to get tiresome. There’s a reason Joy was rewarded with a prime spot opening for the perfect exercise in pop marketing – Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour. Joy’s approach to songwriting can be intentionally formulaic and accessible to a lowest common denominator audience, not deviating from the song structures or content that is expected.

Joy went bigger on this project without altering too much of what got him here in the first place, and despite the lingering feeling that we’re simply being presented with a cookie-cutter “wholesome” façade, there’s enough underlying talent that it doesn’t matter much.

Favourite Tracks: Lay It On Me, We’re Going Home, Alone With Me, I’m With You, One of These Days

Least Favourite Track: Call If You Need Me

Score: 7/10

Tory-lanez-memories-don't-die.jpgTory Lanez – MEMORIES DON’T DIE

Toronto singer and rapper Tory Lanez’ second studio album, MEMORIES DON’T DIE, is just as overlong and derivative as his debut project I Told You. For someone who has had numerous conflicts with fellow Torontonian Drake in the past, his emulation of his processes and formulas on this project is surprising. While the production on this album can certainly save a few of its tracks, too often we return to uninspired piggybacking on OVO trends such as the fake dancehall tracks, Lanez possessing a small fraction of the charisma that allows Drake to pull it off.

Most of the album is backed up by the same spacey, moody R&B instrumentals and trap beats that can be found on every artist riding this new wave’s projects. Lanez is a much more engaging rapper than he is a singer, although even this comes with its clear influences from others – “Benevolent” is just a better than average Drake track with its soul flip and entrancing dark trap instrumental. Worse, Lanez has the audacity to suggest that others are copying HIM on “Old Friends x New Foes”. His singing can be overly indulgent, slowing songs down and contributing to the extensive runtime of the project. He does mix the two together, like another larger artist we might all know, but he can’t pull off the disinterested, barely trying attitude that makes these kind of mixed vocalizations sound listenable. He sounds downright obnoxious on a track like “Shooters”, falling off the tone at the end of his sentences and confusing his Auto-Tune machine. Lanez’ delivery doesn’t feel genuine or natural at times either, often adopting a higher, strained baby voice to accompany the fake accent he uses on dancehall tracks like “Skrt Skrt” and “4 Me”.

Certain tracks do possess some more interesting musical deviations in the instrumental. “48 Floors” is one of the catchiest tracks here, mostly thanks to a melodic panflute instrumental from lesser-known producer Mansa that blends well with Lanez’ repetitive earworm of a hook, while Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat’s trademark atmospheric pop style fits surprisingly well on “Hypnotized”. Still, tracks like “Real Thing”, with a pretty energetic trap beat, can still be pulled down by Lanez’ substandard delivery. The string of features near the albums’ tail end didn’t seem to put in much effort, with the exception of 50 Cent, who can still drop an engaging verse. NAV, Fabolous and Wiz Khalifa are just as inept as usual, however.

Tory Lanez doesn’t do anything on this project that isn’t done more effectively somewhere else. His team does everything they can to mask the fact that his personality is rather indistinct, but MEMORIES DON’T DIE falls flat.

Favourite Tracks: 48 Floors, Hypnotized, B.I.D.

Least Favourite Track: Shooters

Score: 3/10

Image result for planet tech n9neTech N9ne – Planet

Prolific independent rapper Tech N9ne releases yet another in a long string of albums over the past few years. Although he is heralded by his lightning-fast “chopper” style that raises him high above most rappers in terms of technical skill, his lyrics and attempts to mix his work with other genres have often left something to be desired. Tech N9ne always has the capacity to surprise the listener with his ability even after so many years, but his albums are often a mixed bag of quality and Planet is no different.

Planet opens strong with “Habanero”, featuring a catchy chorus from one of the Strange Music label’s most promising young artists in Mackenzie N Tech doesn’t go all out on his verses here, but his boasts are a good intro the album displaying a small portion of his technical ability and deferring most of the song’s staying power to Nicole. The album wakes up in full on the track “Don’t Nobody Want None”, where Tech pays homage to his roots as a breakdancer with an old-school 80s breakbeat that fits his slightly goofy persona perfectly. Hearing Tech’s chopper flow over a beat that was never supposed to accommodate it is absolutely impressive. “Bad JuJu” might be Tech’s strongest vocal performance on the album, and King Iso’s feature is just as mindblowingly speedy. Closing track “We Won’t Go Quietly” might be Tech at his career best, an incredibly powerful track where Tech addresses racism and the extreme political divide preventing artists from stating their true feelings over uplifting piano chords. What might have gotten my attention the most, however, is how strong the transitions are between tracks on this album, flowing into each other seamlessly in a surprising way due to the many genres the album attempts to span. It’s impossible to notice the tracks skipping over here.

One thing Tech has done more in recent years is show an affinity for metal music, even collaborating with members of Slipknot and System of a Down. While these have been an interesting contrast to his music, Tech’s attempts on his own to scream like a metal frontman over some harder, guitar-driven beats have often proven awkward at best. Tech doesn’t have the lyrical skill to go as cinematic and grandiose as he does on tracks like “Brightfall” either, complemented by full-blown operatic choirs as he speaks about his complicated relationship with religion. Tech’s lyricism is often affected by his desire to spit so quickly, due to having to find so many words to rhyme as the lyrics fly by and simply finding a word that fits the rhyme scheme much better than the narrative. Tech also inexplicably adopts something of a country accent on the obnoxious hook of “Kick It With Myself”, previewing the later “Not a Damn Thing”, where it returns in a messy genre clash between the harder verses and harmonized chorus. 20 albums in, it’s tough not to repeat as well, and “Comfortable” is basically a retread of one of Tech’s biggest hits in “Fragile”, criticizing broadcast media rather than print this time.

It’s undeniable that Tech N9ne is and has been one of the most technically gifted rappers in the industry, but so many other aspects surrounding his music could use better execution. When it comes together perfectly, it creates something very powerful, but that’s becoming more of a rare occurrence later in his career.

Favourite Tracks: We Won’t Go Quietly, Don’t Nobody Want None, Bad JuJu, Never Stray

Least Favourite Track: Kick It With Myself

Score: 5/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (6ix9ine, MGMT, Nipsey Hussle)

Bensbeat is back for the summer and I’ll be catching back up to the present with a lot of these quicker posts.

6ix9ine – Day69

Controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine delivers a debut project infused with the unique scream-rap energy he brought to the singles that made him famous, but it lacks the lyrical content and adaptability to back him up over the course of a full-length project, even one that stands at only 29 minutes. Despite this, his production from some pretty unknown names (save for rising star Pi’erre Bourne on hit single “Gummo”) is frequently top-notch, riding a surprisingly melodic wave and adapting to a style that is distinctly 6ix9ine’s. The sheer blunt force and energy of some of these songs is hard to deny, but more often than not, there just isn’t enough here.

The album opens strong with the quick intro “Billy”, which is one of the most intense and cinematic beats on the whole project. The trap hi-hats and orchestral, almost operatic instrumental is such an interesting sonic playground to drop the unstoppable force of 6ix9ine’s vocal cords into, and it’s over before it even began. For some reason here, it works – he’s established himself as a quick jolt of energy and you can’t expect him to give much more as he pours everything into his delivery. I always preferred single “Kooda” to “Gummo” – the latter is a preview of where the remainder of the album can fall flat. Pi’erre’s beat is chilling, yet perhaps a little too reserved for 6ix9ine’s yelps. The repetitive songwriting found here persists throughout the project, some tracks like “Chocolaté” content to repeat the same lines for most of the track, and not in a fun, “Gucci Gang” way. The subject material never deviates from threats to others, references to his weaponry, and the like. When he switches up his flow on that delightfully melodic beat on Kooda – “You can talk hot on the Internet, boy!” – even that is enough of a distinct artistic choice to push the track over the edge. The track is a pure adrenaline rush. “93”, as well, features a great grinding, industrial instrumental that pummels the senses.

The tracks with features, “Rondo” and “Keke”, each try to fit three quite distinct artists into songs that barely exceed two minutes and make such a unique presence in 6ix9ine feel incredibly out of place. There’s nobody else in the realm of old-school hardcore rap he is trying to revive and artists like Young Thug and A Boogie wit da Hoodie are gone before you were even able to appreciate that they were there. The largely unrelated track names don’t help much with identifying the differences between the tracks in the back half of the project either – most of it blends together, 6ix9ine’s voice abrasive and threatening over instrumentals that never quite accommodate it.

Day69 is certainly a breath of fresh air – if 6ix9ine can incorporate more tracks like more recent single “Gotti”, where he introduces a more melodic vocal delivery, he might have a shot at outlasting his peers.

Favourite Tracks: KOODA, BILLY, 93, DOOWEE

Least Favourite Track: MOOKY

Score: 5/10

Image result for little dark ageMGMT – Little Dark Age

The indie-pop duo returns with their fourth studio album, a pretty fun, occasionally humorous and surprisingly dark set of breezy, psychedelic synthpop tracks. The band offers some critiques of modern society disguised behind some maddeningly catchy pop hooks, pointing the finger not only at others but themselves as well. Working with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, many of these tracks assert their slightly off-kilter position and somber lyrical content with the slightest uneasy twinges in the instrumental, revealing the lurking foreboding warnings underneath the shimmering pop veneer. Frontman Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice is as calm and soothing as ever.

We open with the hilarious “She Works Out Too Much”, which intersperses the happy yet disengaged voice of a workout tutorial instructor behind lyrics of a relationship not “working out”. The relationship in the song is described on the surface as legitimately failing because of the man’s disdain for exercise, but the catchy female voice delivering that hook contrasting with VanWyngarden’s existential crises in the verses reveals something else. “He didn’t work out” – his issues – “enough”. It’s a great build up to the chaotic conclusion, a frantic saxophone roaring in. These tracks are frequently driven by pulsating synth patterns, pushing themselves to the forefront ahead of the vocals. The title track delves into an area of synth-funk, snapping into a decisive minor chord at the end of the chorus as VanWyngarden delivers some confessional lyrics about depression.

I didn’t realize how dark the album really is until “When You Die”, which plays off this dichotomy perfectly. It’s genuinely shocking when you hear such a pleasant voice declare “Go f*ck yourself” in monotone, kickstarting a chorus where he contemplates suicide and happily declares “It’s permanently night” at the end. The track contains genuinely the most cheerful melody on the whole project. Later on, the band criticizes dedication to electronics and dives into political commentary with the beautiful closer “Hand It Over”, the closest thing we get to dreampop – “The joke’s worn thin, the king stepped in”, VanWyngarden sings, the track culminating in a gospel-tinged singalong repetition of the title. The band can still write a soaring chorus – a sparkly synth pad and backing vocals support the celebratory “Me and Michael”, changed from the original “my girl” for the sheer purpose of ambiguity.

The chillwave sound has died down a bit, and MGMT still proudly carries the torch. It’ll be tough to get any of these tracks out of your head. It’s a great return to form, coming closer to the joys of the late 2000s tracks that catapulted them into the mainstream.

Favourite Tracks: Hand It Over, She Works Out Too Much, Me and Michael, When You Die, Little Dark Age

Least Favourite Track: One Thing Left To Try

Score: 8/10

Image result for victory lap nipseyNipsey Hussle – Victory Lap

The veteran West Coast rapper finally drops his debut studio album, abandoning his dedication to numerous mixtapes. He continues his partial revival of the G-funk sound on this project, bridging the gap to the modern era with some more trap-oriented sounds. Spanning over an hour, Hussle clearly had a lot to say saved for a debut project of this magnitude, but not all of it connects. His delivery and lyricism are his strong suits much more than his flow, and quite a few of these tracks can slip into filler territory by extending themselves past their welcome without much of a catchy, driving rhythm to keep them going. Hussle brings out some impressive guests in fellow Californians YG and Kendrick Lamar, even getting an appearance from Sean Combs himself. It’s a lot of content, but not enough of it sticks.

Production is handled mostly by underground west coast duo Mike & Keys, who broke out with a hit in G-Eazy’s “Him & I” this year and do a great job of emulating the old-school West Coast style despite the temptation to give into trends of today. “Last Time That I Checc’d” makes up for Hussle’s disinterested delivery with a bouncy synth bass instrumental that sounds like it could be a classic E-40 track. The homage to the past continues on “Hussle & Motivate”, one of the album’s best tracks, in which Hussle settles into the flow nicely over a slowed down sample of Jay-Z’s classic “Hard Knock Life” instrumental. The ordering of the album can be confusing, most of the weaker tracks present at its beginning. The back half meets expectations pretty consistently, Hussle sounding more urgent – “Status Symbol 3” is carried by a great melodic hook from Compton rapper Buddy and a harder-than-usual beat pattern that Hussle adapts to with a faster flow. Many of these tracks take the form of a long, winding story, Hussle speaking about his tumultuous upbringing and rise to the top, hence the title “Victory Lap”, and these streams of consciousness can be quite compelling.

Hussle doesn’t develop nearly enough of a distinct personality despite the expansive runtime he had to do so. When guests appear, especially Kendrick Lamar on “Dedication”, Hussle clearly attempts to emulate their styles in order to make the track sound more cohesive, but I really wanted to hear more of his own artistry in a world quickly becoming inundated with rap as its top genre. It’s a perfectly solid project without much obviously wrong with it, there’s just not enough to make me pay attention.

Favourite Tracks: Hussle & Motivate, Status Symbol 3, Keyz 2 The City 2, Dedication

Least Favourite Track: Succa Proof

Score: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Supplies

Score: 3/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: I Am

Score: 8/10

Amen RichBrian.jpgRich Brian – Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Glow Like Dat

Score: 7/10

Above & Beyond – Common Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: Sahara Love, Naked, Cold Feet

Least Favourite Track: Is It Love? (1001)

Score: 4/10

Migos – Culture II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Flooded

Score: 6/10

First Aid Kit – Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: My Wild Sweet Love

Score: 7/10