Lorde – Melodrama

Lorde Melodrama album cover 2017 03 02.jpgAlternative pop artist and former teen sensation Lorde drops her sophomore studio album, nearly 4 years removed from winning a Grammy at the age of 16 for “Royals”. The extensive time Lorde has put into perfecting this album has been well-documented, and the resulting concept album of sorts, chronicling the story of a single house party, can certainly reside in the same area as her stellar debut, Pure Heroine.

Lorde’s transition to adulthood is reflected in her lyrical themes, and the accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world are brought out here by one of the strongest songwriters in the game. While the project does take a few experimental risks that don’t pan out exactly as planned, this is another very strong, ambitious and beautifully written effort from the rising star.

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The project opens with single “Green Light”, a song which Max Martin, who knows a thing or two about songwriting, deemed “incorrect songwriting”. He was likely referring to the abrupt shift as the song transitions into its chorus. This should only tell you about the fearless decisions Lorde and her songwriting and production partner Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers) have in store for the rest of the project. Melodrama is pop music, to be sure, but it’s a dark, twisted and constantly surprising take on it.

Many of these tracks are anchored by nearly whispered and rapid-fire vocals from Lorde over a variety of instrumentals – the muffled and pulsating synths on tracks like “Homemade Dynamite”, horns on “Sober”, “Writer in the Dark” sounding like a Kate Bush song, or bare piano on “Liability”. Still, Lorde’s personality is so distinct that the project remains incredibly cohesive. Some pretty great artists appear for additional production credits too, including Frank Ocean collaborators Frank Dukes and Malay, and future-bass DJ Flume.

Lorde’s greatest asset is her songwriting, and despite her many other strengths, it’s not even close. She has now perfectly captured exactly what it is like to be both 16 and 20 years old. There’s something special about hearing a young pop artist, venturing even closer to a radio sound than before, delivering complex and meaningful lyrics that end up being this powerful. Lorde introduced herself to us by criticizing the recycled themes of popular music, and she continues her quest to find meaning in the tumultuous experience of youth here. This culminates in excellent closer “Perfect Places”, where she smacks the romanticized images of teenage partying to the ground.

Lorde extends this strength in songwriting to the melodies that she and Antonoff create. These are two musicians who both really know their way around a chorus. Just try to get that “Homemade Dynamite” hook out of your head – that’s some pop magic. The most enticing thing about Lorde, and what makes her a truly special artist, is her capability to simultaneously embrace the finer sciences of crafting a pop song that fills a dancefloor, all the while analyzing the societal implications of doing just that.

Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. “Writer in the Dark” sees her master her instrument in a way we haven’t seen before, contrasting the anger and cynicism of her matter-of-fact lower register with the passion and vulnerability of her upper register.

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“Liability”, as well, is still not only the album’s best, but an early contender for my favourite song of the year for many of the above reasons. Little more than a brief piano loop, Lorde hits her emotional peak with her most beautifully written melody yet as she takes a look at herself in the wake of a breakup, cursing herself for the burdens her fame and her personality places on her partners.

Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here, making a house party sound like a magical, transcendent experience on who you are as a person. She succeeds for the most part, but this has always proven to be a very difficult task for quite a few artists. Luckily, most of the lesser-faring experimental ideas all congregate on a single track, “The Louvre”. Featuring sparse instrumentation and a spoken hook, there just isn’t really enough here.

Her reprises of two songs – an Antonoff favourite tactic – is a little excessive as well, but in the context of the story, they are absolutely necessary. And after all, Lorde is a storyteller above all else.

Lorde takes the refreshing perspective on the world she offered in Pure Heroine, and imbues it with an elevated sense of ambitious artistic vision. Even if it isn’t as concise as her debut, it’s a lot more impressive that she pulled this one off to a level of quality this high. This just might be a legendary career.

Favourite Tracks: Liability, Homemade Dynamite, Perfect Places, Writer in the Dark, Green Light

Least Favourite Track: The Louvre

Score: 9/10

Katy Perry – Witness

Witness artworkIn a world where the idea of the “pop girl” is holding less and less weight, the mainstream sound shifting to a more urban area, trend-setter and record-breaker Katy Perry drops her fifth studio album, Witness. It is her first in nearly four years, surprising fans with her new appearance, politically geared messages and new ventures in sound on singles like “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”. Perry certainly takes a lot of risks on Witness, and seeing her venture out of her comfort zone is very welcome, even if a few of them are more successful in concept than in execution.

Unfortunately, the other half of the album is weighed down by bland, filler pop tracks that sound like they were recorded years ago. We couldn’t expect Perry to be completely experimental now, could we? Still, this album ends up being better than I anticipated, and there are some standout tracks which rise far above the rest.

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Perry ventures down more of an EDM path over the course of this album than she has in the past, often letting synth piano hooks or pounding basslines dictate the flow of the track in the chorus rather than her vocal melodies. She does recruit some interesting collaborators to bring these aspects out – Trip-hop duo Purity Ring appears on more than one occasion, standout track “Swish Swish” was masterminded by deep house DJ Duke Dumont, and the closing track is credited to indietronica band “Hot Chip”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Perry album without Swedish pop wizard Max Martin, who is in charge of about half of the tracks here.

There are a lot of misguided decisions on this project, to be sure, but when Perry hits, she hits hard. I never thought a Katy Perry song would give me chills, but here is “Roulette”. A dancefloor synth bassline slowly creeps in behind a breakbeat building up to a perfectly structured chorus. Perry’s range is in its sweet spot here, and the little alterations made along the way, like cutting out the music for a bit on the second chorus, only make it better. This actually kicks off a fantastic three-track run: “Roulette” is followed up by “Swish Swish”, which might be the best single of Perry’s career, and eerie ballad “Deja Vu”.

Really though, how much fun is “Swish Swish”? That SNL performance, with the dancing backpack kid, really brings out the insane energy of this track visually. Dumont’s deep house instrumental, Perry ruthlessly dishing out shots and Nicki Minaj delivering a hilarious, characteristically incredibly feature verse complete the dance floor banger. When Perry’s voice hits its emotional peak, her songs come across better, which is why it is unfortunate how disingenuous her current era seems. Some of the later tracks stand out as well for this reason: “Save As Draft”, in particular. It is one of the slowest tracks on the album, EDM influence being removed while Perry convincingly emotes about her inability to communicate in her relationship.

“Hey Hey Hey” is the biggest manifestation of the problems which affect the album as a whole. Perry has always attempted to have some sort of quirky edge to her lyrics, making outdated references or strange similes and metaphors to fit her fun-loving persona. It’s rarely worked, and I’m not sure why it continues here. All it does is make her look like an out-of-touch aging act trying to fit in with today’s culture. “You think that I am fragile like a Fabergé”? God…

The instrumentals of quite a few of these tracks don’t help rid her of that image much either. Some of the EDM aspects are simply completely outdated – the enormous breakbeat and wobble bass that backs “Power” hearkens back to the days when dubstep was inescapable, and the distortion on Perry’s vocals detracts from the song even further. “Mind Maze” is another inexplicable decision, as she is coated with excessive Auto-Tune for seemingly no artistic or meaningful reason.

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“Bon Appetit” as a whole is pretty inexcusable. Much like rival Taylor Swift’s track “Bad Blood”, it sounds almost as if the melody of its chorus was made up on the spot. The completely blatant and pervasive food metaphors and puns running throughout and repetitive instrumental only make things worse. There are so many times over the course of this album where Perry still opted to play it safe, which is confusing given how successful her artistic reaches on tracks like “Roulette” and “Swish Swish” were on the same album. Much of the second half- tracks like “Tsunami” and “Pendulum” – just devolve into the same tired pop tropes she’s been trying to push for her whole career.

And just as a final, weird nitpick – Perry tends to write lyrics so that she needs to emphasize the wrong syllable of a word in order to fit with the song’s rhythm. This persists here, infuriatingly.

Witness is ultimately an uneven and oftentimes contradictory compilation of tracks that shows promise to be so much more. Perry has a lot of people on her side, and it’s not like she isn’t a talented singer. Something better really should have come together here.

Favourite Tracks: Swish Swish, Roulette, Deja Vu, Save As Draft

Least Favourite Track: Mind Maze

Score: 5/10

SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlTop Dawg Entertainment signee SZA, their solitary female artist, finally unleashes her long-delayed debut album on the world. We last heard from her in 2014, on the EP Z, which reached for lofty heights with its neo-soul style and atmospheric soundscapes but was ultimately too underproduced to be exciting. Now with a few more years to hone her craft, SZA’s debut is certainly a surprising breath of fresh air. While her previous work didn’t offer a lot of insight into her life or personality, here she adopts a very confessional tone that could only be compared to what Frank Ocean was doing on his recent masterpiece Blonde. As the album progresses, she takes us on a sexually charged and brutally honest ride through her relationship struggles. This is exactly what a burgeoning talent finally coming into her own should sound like.

SZA, like most of her labelmates, keeps as many of her collaborators as possible within the TDE family. Some of TDE’s lesser-known in-house producers show up here, as well as label rappers Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar. Surprisingly, it is Travis Scott who delivers the best feature verse on “Love Galore”, elevating himself over Rashad’s sleepy verse and Lamar’s turn on “Doves in the Wind”, in which he references a certain female body part 20 times. Lamar is there more to add to the dry humour of the song than to add a technically amazing guest verse. Pharrell Williams is the only big producer here, and he sets the tone perfectly with the opener “Supermodel”.

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On this opener, SZA recites some rapid-fire lyrics over a sparse guitar instrumental, addressing the problems she faces with her own self-image in the wake of being cheated on. Her melody is all over the place, her lyrics rarely rhyme and her phrasing doesn’t follow a typical structure. But the thing is — it’s more human than anything else I’ve heard this year. These are real issues and emotions, and when she reveals, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” in a sudden burst of rage, you’re on her side.

The confessional and straightforward nature of her lyrics, many of them addressing female sexuality in a very open and refreshing way, carry the project far above any of the lingering issues from projects like Z. SZA lets the listeners eavesdrop at her bedroom window, and hearing things we aren’t supposed to hear is intriguing. It’s even better that her ex-boyfriend, as well, apparently didn’t know about the aforementioned line until the album dropped.

It’s easy to get lost in this album – SZA’s delivery really manages to hook you and draw you in to what she is saying like no other. She’s talking to us like a trusted best friend, and we want to hear the next part of the story. “Normal Girl” is another very compelling track, as SZA speaks on her desire to be more conventionally ladylike in order to have a better chance at maintaining a relationship. Punctuating all of these truth bombs are some pretty beautiful high harmonies, synth basslines and trap hi-hats that help accentuate SZA’s quicker delivery on tracks like “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”.

The biggest critique of SZA’s earlier work was a simple one – that she was boring. While she’s improved her lyrical aspects tenfold, a few of these instrumentals still call back to those earlier days. Many of them are minimalist, clearly inspired by tracks like Frank Ocean’s recent “Ivy”, but they are not as dynamic as Frank’s end up being, often looping endlessly. This might be fine if SZA had more to offer vocally, to give the track a few more “wow” moments – but she often opts for a scathing burn or a rhythmic, rambling stream of consciousness to make up for the lack of a big note or vocal acrobatics. Her delivery is a lot more like a rapper’s.

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“Drew Barrymore” is a great example of one of these slow guitar instrumentals  which is saved when she kicks the chorus off with a beautiful high note – “Warm enough for ya?” – as the drums explode and guitar builds slowly. The instrumentals are frequently very similar, nearly an afterthought on this album. This makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between some of the lesser tracks here, as one song flows into the next and you wait for something to snap your attention back. Usually, it is one of those lyrics that makes you do a double take. The fact that this specific aspect of the project is the thing consistently doing this makes it a very unique listening experience, and is one of the main reasons why this album is so innovative.

For a few years, it was looking like SZA might be one of the members of TDE with the least to offer. She has now made it clear why the decision to sign her was made, and since this is technically considered her debut studio album, the quality and artistic vision she presents here is very impressive for a debut. There are still some lingering issues, but like she says on the album’s closer – she’s still just “Ms. Twenty Something”.

Favourite Tracks: Drew Barrymore, Garden (Say It Like Dat), Normal Girl, Broken Clocks, Supermodel

Least Favourite Track: Pretty Little Birds

Score: 7/10

Bleachers – Gone Now

Bleachers-gone-now-cover.jpgEx-fun. guitarist and superstar pop producer Jack Antonoff returns with his side project turned full project’s sophomore album, Gone Now. In contrast to debut Strange Desire (2014), Bleachers delve a little deeper into a musical niche here, specifically the arena rock of the 1980s that slowly began to become nearly synonymous with pop. For the most part, this works out for the better. Antonoff has proven time and time again that he has an innate knowledge of how to craft melodies which become instantly anthemic, and his scarce but excellent and diverse choices of collaborators here help the album reach higher heights than their somewhat uneven debut.

The musical landscape surrounding Antonoff is still a little muddled and over-the-top, and his insistence on revisiting the same musical motifs on many tracks over the course of the album is awkward at best. But when that huge chorus on a song like “Everybody Lost Somebody” drops, you forget about all of that and want to be a part of that crowd yelling along with him.

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Antonoff’s musical influences are clearly out in the open over the course of this project. His arena-sized choruses, elements of piano rock and gruff yet tender voice bring to mind artists like U2, and, perhaps most evidently, fellow New Jersey singer Bruce Springsteen. An incredibly successful producer and songwriter himself since the disbanding of fun., Antonoff links up with some of the industry’s best for an impressive and talented team behind the soundboard, still retaining primary credit on every aspect.

3 of the world’s best songwriters in Julia Michaels, Lorde, and Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars) appear to co-write, while a diverse and accomplished team of producers show up in some unexpected places. Fellow Grammy winner Greg Kurstin, who recently contributed greatly to Adele’s 25, appears on two tracks, while a pair of hip-hop producers, OVO’s Nineteen85 and TDE’s Sounwave, both known for working almost exclusively with a single artist in Drake and Kendrick Lamar respectively, somehow fit right in with the 80s pop-rock sound.

As soon as opener “Dream of Mickey Mantle” unleashes a huge breakbeat and gang vocals explode “Rolling! Thunder!” you know you’re in for a few moments of well-written pop bliss. Antonoff is a Grammy-winning producer for a reason – these are the most energetic choruses in the game, daring you to join in and scream them as loud as possible. Antonoff is making music closer to the magic of fun. at their best than ex-bandmate Nate Ruess is.

Many of these tracks are backed by bluesy piano melodies and fuzzy synths – and while there is not a lot of variation (“Lets Get Married” immediately brought to mind Strange Desire track “You’re Still A Mystery”), this is more complex music than you hear in the pop genre most of the time. It’s all very sugary and cheerful in the best way. Bleachers’ lyrics are often empowering when positive and crushingly relatable when negative, but always with a tinge of hope that things will get better.

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“Hate That You Know Me” is the beautiful result of four of the leading figures in quality pop music – Antonoff, Kurstin, Michaels and Carly Rae Jepsen – all entering a studio together. Jepsen’s backing vocals elevate the sugar rush to another level…it’s just a brilliantly written pop chorus. Julia Michaels always knows how to flip a lyric and juxtapose the positive and negative aspects of a situation in a poetic way. But this is Antonoff’s album more than anyone else’s, and the sense of musicality he brought to fun. is felt throughout. “I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise” opens with his breathtaking layered multipart harmonies, a beautifully simple fireside folk melody at its centre, before running through all of the album’s many motifs once again in its second half.

The album certainly lulls a bit in the middle – these songs are all brief little tidbits of happiness, but putting them all next to each other makes you realize the similar tactics Antonoff uses to pull on your emotional heartstrings. “All My Heroes” never really builds up to anything in the same way many of these tracks do, while the too-prevalent 808 drum machine that introduces the overly earnest “Let’s Get Married” seems rather out of place here. While Antonoff is such a lovable, goofy guy that there isn’t much he could to to seem too upbeat and happy, “Let’s Get Married” might be it.

Antonoff’s revisiting of musical motifs, a theme on Strange Desire, re-appears here, and while the actual melody of them are often quite good, it begins to become a bit of a cop-out when he sings that “Goodmorning/goodbye to my upstairs neighbour” bit on 4 separate songs. The sheer fact that he can do this at all speaks even further to the interchangeability of many of the instrumentals here.

Still, great pop music is harder to find than you would think, and Antonoff is one of the few who really knows what he is doing. He has this down to a science, and his timely and intelligent choices of collaborators shows just how much he is tapped into the ever-changing pulse of the music industry. Sometimes you just need to let the weird-looking guy with the round glasses sing a happy song and cheer you up.

Favourite Tracks: Hate That You Know Me, Everybody Lost Somebody, I Miss Those Days, Foreign Girls, I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise

Least Favourite Track: Let’s Get Married

Score: 8/10

Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom

Halsey - Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.pngIndie pop artist turned stadium-status superstar Halsey returns to deliver her sophomore studio album, following up 2015’s lacklustre Badlands. Since being featured on one of the biggest songs of all time, The Chainsmokers’ “Closer”, Halsey’s place in the public eye has grown exponentially and this album drops at a very opportune time for her.

Halsey has perhaps deservedly drawn some negative ire for her recent comments on her placement in the musical world, seeing herself as alternative and countercultural. She criticized the public naming her a pop artist and stated her belief that urban artists who do pop features don’t get the same treatment. However, we have to separate the music from these comments a bit. hopeless fountain kingdom is a spectacular and surprising pop album and a major improvement from Badlands, and I can always appreciate a bit of a story tied in. Halsey has certainly learned from her mistakes here and dropped one of the best pop albums of the year.

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Halsey has really assembled the best possible team she could here — the writing and production are both very strong. The album is unified by the darker sound and aspects of her indie past that Halsey kept, but there is enough variation in the pop elements that have begun to creep in that it stays interesting. When those horns came in on “Alone” after the first two tracks gave me some nice harmonies and then a big trap beat, I was sold.

The project is essentially divided into quarters between 4 big pop producers – Lido, a big contributor to Badlands, dance-pop auteur Ricky Reed, emotional balladeer Greg Kurstin and Benny Blanco, who brought his frequent collaborator Cashmere Cat along to explore his more experimental side. Some fellow pop artists on the darker side of things show up in the writing column as well – The Weeknd, Sia, and Phantogram’s Josh Carter.

Halsey knows how to use her haunting, somewhat creepy vocals to her advantage here, mainly through her lyrical content. One of the main problems with Badlands was a feeling of disconnect from the lyrics, proclaiming in its biggest hit that she was “raised on Biggie and Nirvana”. The winding, loose story of star-crossed lovers here is very believable and makes a lot more sense. Halsey even opens the album with a monologue from Romeo and Juliet. This is how to do dark pop effectively.

Linking up with people like The Weeknd was a great decision, coming across on the incredible “Eyes Closed”. Halsey delivers a heartbreaking and instantly catchy chorus over a huge hip-hop inspired beat from the dynamic duo of Blanco and Cashmere Cat. Halsey’s music is very large-scale and cinematic, which is why inclusion of a story strengthens things. Her understated voice is a good contrast to the gargantuan production that frequently surrounds her.

“Bad At Love” is another standout track, as many great aspects link together perfectly: That deceptively cheerful piano instrumental. Halsey’s rapid-fire vocals. The refreshing lyrical themes, which address her failed relationship with a man in the first verse and a woman in the second – all of this builds up to her biggest chorus yet. This of course leads into “Strangers”, the highly publicized collaboration with Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony, also bisexual. Their voices fit together better than I could have ever imagined, and as they harmonize about a lesbian relationship losing connection over a pounding synthpop beat, it paints the most vivid picture yet of the album’s storyline.

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Although Halsey has certainly learned to play to her strengths here, I can certainly see where some of the criticism is coming from – there is some pretty heavy borrowing of some other popular aspects here. I believe that Halsey has injected enough of her own personality for this to be hers and hers alone for the most part, but when we get a radio single like “Now Or Never”, you begin to get a bit skeptical. The track sounds a little too similar to Rihanna’s “Needed Me”, and even shares a writer in Starrah.

“Sorry” is the only time when Halsey slows things down here – it is also the only time she doesn’t get primary writing credit, going instead to producer Greg Kurstin. It’s painfully obvious that it’s a throwaway from Adele’s 25, the album that he masterminded. In addition, the album is 13 tracks long and doesn’t even run for 40 minutes, as some tracks like “Lie” and “Walls Could Talk” are much too short and never really elaborate on some great ideas.

Halsey will always be a somewhat polarizing artist, but great pop music is great pop music. To improve so much on a sophomore album is quite impressive, and I’m sure she’ll only continue to discover her own sense of artistry as her career continues to progress.

Favourite Tracks: Eyes Closed, Bad At Love, Strangers, Alone, 100 Letters

Least Favourite Track: Lie

Score: 8/10

Bryson Tiller – True To Self

TRS Bryson.jpgRapidly rising R&B vocalist Bryson Tiller surprise drops the follow-up to the wildly successful debut T R A P S O U L a few weeks earlier than anticipated, following more or less the same formula as he did before. Much like T R A P S O U LTrue To Self is full of 90s R&B and hip-hop samples, no features, and woozy, laid-back delivery over some lower-key trap instrumentals. Extending to 19 tracks, True To Self ultimately comes across as T R A P S O U L‘s much less innovative cousin, full of filler tracks and using the same tried-and-true formula that isn’t as groundbreaking as it once was. There are still moments when Tiller exhibits flashes of the genuine star power that catapulted him to widespread recognition so quickly, but for the most part True To Self is bland and uninspired.

There is not a wealth of recognizable names contributing to this project, which is surprising considering the strength of the instrumentals. The lack of songwriting help certainly shows, however. Established producers like Boi-1da and T-Minus appear here in limited roles, while the 20-year old Wondagurl continues her strong work on “Blowing Smoke”. The tone of the album is made clear with a quick glance at the sample credits. While I’m usually a fan of samples, they are not incredibly prevalent or flipped in a new way here. Having such a heavy reliance on popular sounds of 90s R&B for a second straight time fails to show much creativity on Tiller’s part.

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On a 19-track album of songs that begin to sound largely indistinguishable from one another, any deviation from the norm stands out more. Tiller’s decision to rap on a select few tracks here actually brings out some of the better moments of the album, as we finally get something to break up the endless string of Great Value Drake passive-aggressive moody R&B tracks. The instrumentals are definitely the greatest aspect of the album, and many of these trap beats are better geared to energetic rap bars anyhow.

Tiller stated that he restarted his entire album in order to build around the work of relatively unknown producer NES, and he does contribute some of the greatest beats here. It’s getting increasingly difficult to sound innovative making trap beats, but he manages to do it here. “Self-Made” is easily the album’s best, featuring a cascading chime instrumental complementing a trap beat that would make Future double-take. Tiller only had to drop a single quotable on the chorus and I was completely sold just on the strength of the beat. And although the Caribbean-infused “Run Me Dry” is even more of a blatant Drake rip-off than Tiller’s moody musings, it’s at least something different.

Tiller does almost nothing here to distinguish himself from the many artists who are making very similar music to him at the moment, and his passive delivery just asks for the album to be relegated to background music at some social function. A good trap beat and a serviceable voice can only take you so far on an album of this scale. There are very few tracks on this album I could honestly describe or name something distinctive about, and I’ve listened to it a few times now. This is a pretty rare occurrence, and this is very forgettable music.

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Tiller’s insistence on a lack of features hurts the album as well — some people can pull it off, but collaborations were needed to break up the monotony a bit here. Tiller’s moody and detached lyrics about relationships begin to stretch thin as well, drawing comparisons to his peers and repeating the same tropes a few times over the course of the album. He takes primary writing credit on every song here, and for the most part you can tell. Tiller uses my least favourite current trend in popular music a few times here as well, desiring pity from his listeners as he lists the struggles of being famous. When he begins to complain about the spectacular women he meets distracting him from being able to finish his album on time on “In Check”, the image Tiller presents of the relatable, normal guy who made it big begins to crumble apart.

Ultimately, in a world quickly becoming oversaturated with moody R&B vocalists begging to be signed to Drake’s XO label, there is no reason to revisit this project a few years, or even a few months down the road. T R A P S O U L worked because it was a breath of fresh air. Now that some more talented people have hopped on the same trend, Tiller needs to start a new one.

Favourite Tracks: Self-Made, Run Me Dry, Money Problems/Benz Truck

Least Favourite Track: Somethin Tells Me

Score: 4/10

Lil Yachty – Teenage Emotions

Teenage Emotions artworkPolarizing 19-year old rapper Lil Yachty’s debut album, Teenage Emotions, is an absolute mess. But don’t get me wrong – in Yachty’s case, that’s a good thing more often than not. Yachty refuses to play by the rules over the course of this 21-track monster, throwing everything we know about hip-hop music out the window and leading the way for the new generation of rappers which have been slowly starting to dominate the Billboard charts.

Simply put, Yachty is too busy having fun making music to care about trivial things like having a flow or knowing the difference between a clarinet and a cello, and this unbridled joy comes across to the listener. Of course, on a 21-track album by someone who is often quite unmusical, there are more than a fair share of dude. However, the way Yachty approaches his craft is completely novel and is sure to influence hip-hop music for decades to come. He just needs a bit of polish before then.

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Many of these beats are youthful, jubilant and triumphant, often featuring high-pitched synth melodies that could easily be used as the background of children’s music. Like Yachty himself, the project is frenetic and disjointed, as no producer shows up more than twice. The biggest dichotomy in the project’s sound is introduced in the album’s opening speech, establishing a difference between the two characters we will hear speaking on the album – Lil Yachty, who sings and is happy-go-lucky, and “Lil Boat”, his ignorant rap persona who is typically associated with harder, traditional trap beats.

There are not many recognizable names in the credits, but the ones that do show up contribute to some of the best tracks. Veteran rap producers like Lex Luger and The Stereotypes appear, as well as EDM superstar and bonafide hitmaker Diplo, while Migos, YG and Australian singer Grace share the mic.

Yachty’s ear for melodies is unparalleled, taking what Fetty Wap did in 2015 to another level entirely. Poppier tracks like “All Around Me” and “Forever Young”, the Diplo collaboration, make the strange thought of Yachty on the radio sound like a very real possibility. You can hear the smile on his face as he calls for a toast on the former. Why? “I see nothing but the money in my face”. Yachty’s greatest strength is the believable communication of real human emotions, hence the album’s title, made all the more genuine by his disregard for being all that musical. Yachty is simply expressing himself to the fullest possible degree here, and whether he is expressing his childlike enjoyment of life, or lamenting relationship troubles, we feel it along with him. The happier tracks, however, are absolutely euphoric.

On “Say My Name”, Yachty rhymes “Hyundai now” with “fun day, wow”, and then gets “slapped in the face with a blessing slap like pow”, and if you can’t see the fun in that, Yachty isn’t for you. “Better” is the album’s best track, featuring a sunny reggae-infused instrumental and Yachty’s greatest melody as he expresses his love to his girlfriend, commending her ability to make his life better with surprisingly heartfelt lyrics. My favourite on the whole album? “Let’s lay on the hood and look at the stars, and name them whatever / You always call that one Trevor”. His tribute to his mother on the album’s outro, “Momma”, continues Yachty’s believably heartfelt streak, and is another standout.

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Yachty’s lyrics are often very unintelligent and have little variance in subject matter, but his delivery is what has the potential to change things. The way he says some of his most ignorant and nonsensical lines with such confidence has the capability to make the most idiotic things brilliant, and incredibly catchy. Still, this doesn’t happen every time. The most evident detraction from the enjoyment of the project is Yachty’s lack of rhythm. “DN Freestyle” is the most traditional rap track here, and his laughably bad lyrics are more noticeably terrible when they frequently lag a little bit behind the beat. “Dirty Mouth” might be even worse in this sense. While Yachty does a lot of novel things for the genre here, I don’t think I’m ready yet for rap that has a complete disregard for rhythm – that is something that should stay central.

The tracks where Yachty sings greatly outweigh the rap tracks here, with the exception of maybe “Priorities”, which features an ecstatic delivery of a great hook. It doesn’t help his case that Yachty tries to act a lot tougher than he really is on these tracks, in line with his Lil Boat persona which should really be abandoned. Yachty has a lot of time to figure out the things he’s good at, and trying to be something he’s not is not one of them.

Rating Teenage Emotions was very difficult, as I only really enjoyed about half of the tracks here, but it is easy to see how influential Yachty has already been, and will continue to be, for many years. Yachty has turned the genre upside down, and when it works, it really works. Soon, he’ll learn how to make things click more often than not.

Favourite Tracks: Better, Priorities, Bring It Back, Forever Young, All Around Me

Least Favourite Track: No More

Score: 7/10

Linkin Park – One More Light

Image result for linkin park one more lightLegendary nu-metal trailblazers and one of the best-selling acts of all time, Linkin Park, release their seventh studio album and somehow manage to throw aside all the aspects that drew people to their music in one fell swoop. One More Light is a pop album through and through, as the band trades in their guitars for EDM drops and bubbly choruses. The only aspect retained from their older work is lead vocalist Chester Bennington’s whiny vocals and emo inflections that harder tracks give credence to.

I should really tread lightly here, as Bennington asserted in an interview that he would punch anyone who said the band was doing this primarily for monetary gain in the face, but this is a completely unrecognizable shell of a band grasping for relevance, attempting to ride trends that are already dying off instead of creatively reinventing themselves for a new era of music. There are almost no redeeming qualities about this album, and it leaves me wondering who it was even intended for.

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If there’s anything particularly good to say about this album, it is that you can see that the actual musical composition of these songs isn’t completely terrible when the guests appear. “Good Goodbye” is a track catered to rappers who actually know what they’re doing, and Pusha T and Stormzy both ride the beat much better than Mike Shinoda’s uncomfortable stuttered flow and El-P impression. Kiiara’s contribution to “Heavy” fits in because, well, it’s an instrumental that a young female pop singer would typically be heard on.

There are actually some pretty great musicians here for a project so abundantly terrible. Production and songwriting is mostly handled by band mastermind Mike Shinoda, but assisting are some of the best — current princess of pop songwriting Julia Michaels, a legend in JR Rotem and even incredibly creative rising producer Blackbear. “Nobody Can Save Me” is actually quite a bit better than the rest of these songs, as the drop at least gives somewhat of an illusion of anything other than synthetic and overproduced sounds being present, and features Bennington’s least annoying enunciations.

These tracks are all filled with Chainsmokers-esque shallow emotional musings meant to sound incredibly profound and moving. Something as egregiously catered to be uplifting as “Battle Symphony”, complete with triumphant synths kicking in on the second chorus and Bennington sounding like he’s trying to sound distraught so much it’s almost cracking him up, is the band’s response to tracks like “Roar” and “Fight Song”. And this really is the underlying problem with the album – all of this is mindless following of trends with no real artistry or identity of their own. Since the album took a few years to make, many of these trends are already outdated. This might have had a chance at a play for the radio airwaves 2 or 3 years ago when we were hearing track after track of EDM sensibilities being blended into other genres for the first time. Something like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up!” comes to mind, one of many of these tracks that had the same fake-deep lyrics.

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These lyrics are delivered by Bennington and Shinoda with the most obnoxious emo tone possible, which sounds laughably out of place on these pop instrumentals. Shinoda’s turn on “Invisible” sees him repeating the title in the chorus with the cadence of someone making fun of an emo piano ballad (this chorus, might I add, awkwardly picks up in tempo for no reason).

The reason people were drawn to Linkin Park initially was Bennington’s ability to perfectly encapsulate real emotions and issues that were affecting youth in his vocal delivery, delivery that was backed up by the urgent and chaotic wall of noise behind him. The most urgent thing on this album is Mike Shinoda’s pop chorus on “Sorry For Now”, as he repeats the same tried-and-true lyrics about not being there for his children while on the road, backed up by a misplaced attempt at … putting a kinda-trap beat on a kinda-dubstep drop?? Whoever did it had absolutely no knowledge of the genres they were trying to emulate, the rhythms coming it at the wrong time and creating the most blatantly unmusical song I’ve heard all year. By the time we reach the title track and Bennington emotes “Who cares if one more light goes out? Well awwwwyyy dyeeewwwww” I want to take up his offer to “stab [myself] in the face” – another thread aimed at people claiming they sold out.

I really haven’t come anywhere close to mentioning everything, but it was hard to pick and choose what the absolute worst things about this album were. Ultimately, the fact that a band that amassed a huge following by doing something new and different devolved into … whatever this is, is very sad.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody Can Save Me, Heavy

Least Favourite Track: Sorry For Now

Score: 1/10 (Yup. That’s a BensBeat first.)

T-Pain/Lil Wayne – T-Wayne

Talk about a blast from the past. This long-rumoured project finally dropped out of the blue after T-Pain reported feeling “spontaneous” on Twitter, bringing to us 8 semi-completed ideas recorded in 2009 that had been sitting on his hard drive this whole time. It feels strange even giving this project a review, seeing as it isn’t put together like a typical polished project would be, and it sounds so incredibly dated that it fits nowhere into the musical landscape of today. But as a hip-hop nerd, I have to give this project its due diligence, and hearing Lil Wayne rap like he did on his classic album Tha Carter III again fills me with delight.

There are certainly many aspects to this that might have been better off never seeing the light of day – this came from an era where dumb wordplay and gimmicks dominated hip-hop (looking at you, T-Pain’s top hat and Segway), and there are some cheesy and underdeveloped concepts and bars that would never fly today on here. Still, the fact that it exists is pretty incredible.

Image result for t-pain and lil wayneThis is what they used to wear. This is what we’re dealing with here.

These tracks come straight from 2009 – these are some hard-hitting and repetitive rap beats that allow the two to go as hard as possible. Full of synth melodies, drum machines and sirens, this is some classic production from producers of the era like Tha Bizness and Bangladesh. Hearing their producer tags again brings back so many memories. The project is split between both artists’ brand of punchline rap and Auto-Tuned R&B jams. Although the tracklist opens with “He Rap He Sang”, it’s never that concrete – hearing a track like “Breathe” where Wayne breaks out more of a sing-songy flow before T-Pain comes in with a rap third verse makes me glad these weren’t lost to time.

The camaraderie between the two was always undeniable, it’s the reason why “Got Money” and “Can’t Believe It” were such big hits and it keeps up here. One thing we never heard on their hits were the two trading rap bars – once T-Pain reached the height of his popularity he didn’t rap often. The two are kindred spirits in the antiquated practice of the rap punchline, some of which are hilarious and most of which make you roll your eyes at the sheer audacity they had to say them on a track. The real appeal of this project is hearing some things that would never happen today: “Listen To Me” features a beat which interpolates the Oompa Loompa song and a flawless prime Wayne verse overtop. I dare you not to smile.

This is a time when hip-hop didn’t take itself so seriously, and these are two of the guys who always had the most fun with it. Neither artist outshines the other, they both go all-out on the harder rap instrumentals and drift into the same woozy area sonically on the slower R&B tracks.

The thing is, these songs aren’t finished. There are places here with too much empty space, and a few of these songs are very short. Some of the ideas still need a bit of tinkering as well – “DAMN DAMN DAMN” sounds like the two goofing around in the studio after recording “Can’t Believe It”. It extends past 5 minutes and basically features both artists warbling a few “damn”s and “whoa”s with heavy Auto-Tune. They go overboard with the layering at the end and it’s pretty unlistenable.

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Again, it feels strange reviewing this because it is clear that if more time were put into these tracks, many of them would turn out spectacularly. But as it stands, these are some subpar versions of the kinds of tracks they would put out back in this era, shining brighter today due to the nostalgia factor. Not even that allows it to escape some of its blatant datedness. In a time when hip-hop artists are consistently finding ways to push the boundaries of the genre, expanding it into other musical worlds and many using the intricacies of a well-written rap verse to speak about the state of the world, T-Pain’s puns about boomboxes and Mrs. Butterworth don’t really cut it anymore. Although – hearing them make references to “Lollipop” and 808s and HeartbreakThat’s a lot of fun.

The bottom line is, if you were invested in any way in hip-hop music in the late 2000s, you owe it to yourself to give this a listen. This is a hip-hop museum of sorts, and while it’s certainly nothing I would throw on today, it’s worth it just to hear Lil Wayne’s “Listen To Me” verse. If only he kept that up.

Favourite Tracks: Listen To Me, Heavy Chevy, He Rap He Sang

Least Favourite Track: DAMN DAMN DAMN

Score: 6/10

Harry Styles – Harry Styles

aEx-OneDirection member Harry Styles becomes the second of his group to release a full-length studio album, taking an unexpected musical turn and abandoning his boyband past in a major way. Introduced by the epic, Bowie-channelling single “Sign Of The Times”, this album continues trends of bringing back popular sounds of the past and modernizing them. However, it is perhaps the first to do so with rock and roll music with such a wide audience. Styles would fit in perfectly at one of those high school dances you see in movies set in the 60s and 70s, drawing influence from the acoustic soft rock which dominated the airwaves at the time.

The ambition to pull off a project like this as a debut studio album, for a singer as well-established as Styles, is quite admirable, and the beautiful simplicity of his melodies and surprisingly classic-sounding voice often carry it well. However, there is not much here that comes close to matching “Sign Of The Times”, and Styles’ lyrics leave a lot to be desired.

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Styles’ vocals are frequently layered with a slight echo effect to give them a spacey and ambient quality, which often fits in well with his lower-key acoustic ballads. The project alternates between these ballads, complete with harmonies and layered vocals, and all-out rock and roll numbers which feature abrasive and in-your-face guitar-driven instrumentals – Styles couldn’t sound any further away from his past. Grammy-winning producer Jeff Bhasker, who has worked extensively on great albums like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and fun.’s Some Nights, as well as sporadic contributions to many of our biggest pop stars, worked on every track here and has primary credit on 8 out of 10 of them. If Bhasker knows how to do anything, it is the creation of melodies that are beautiful in their simplicity, as well as the sneaky and subtle interpolation of numerous musical aspects. We see both extensively here.

Styles’ voice is very pleasant when it is used in the right way: that is, I prefer when he isn’t screaming at me the whole track. One of the greatest things Styles does across the board on this project is the slow build-up to a dramatic climax, taking his time in the quieter area beforehand. The greatest example is, of course, “Sign Of The Times”. We’ve all had a while to digest this monster by now, but my goodness is it a pleasant surprise. The song is nearly 6 minutes in length, and its attention to detail stands out far above its counterparts on this album. By the time we’ve reached the point where Styles’ voice is at its breaking point and choral vocals and winding guitar solos are thundering in the background, combined with the lyrical weight of the song – a dying mother giving advice to her newborn son – it is extremely powerful.

Regarding the tracks that remain on one side of this slow build, the quieter ones are a lot more enjoyable. Tracks like opener “Meet Me In The Hallway” and “Sweet Creature” are acoustic and minimalistic, drawing all the attention to producer Jeff Bhasker’s great ear for melody and Styles’ passionate and intense delivery. “Two Ghosts” is another great track, sounding like something Bhasker could have made for fun. (The band!). It’s the best written chorus here in a musical sense.

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It is when the louder guitars and power chords kick in that the project goes off the rails a bit. Styles doesn’t have the charisma that he thinks he does when his lyrics are this clunky and underwritten. When he delivers louder vocals that sound like more of a parody of the style he is aiming for on songs like “Kiwi”, repeating things like “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business”, it works about as well as everyone thought a Harry Styles rock album might. It’s almost as if Styles did a lot more research on one side of the classic rock music he tries to emulate than the other.

While his full belt doesn’t sound particularly bad, it certainly makes me miss the tender vocals he was delivering before. These pure rock-leaning tracks also contain some of Styles’ most questionable and cheesy decisions. “Only Angel” is driven by falsetto “whoo-hoo”s and a cowbell. No, really. Styles’ lyrics might be the weakest aspect of the whole thing, however, frequently describing women in the most awkward possibly way or becoming too cliched or repetitive. “Ever Since New York” could basically be a Chainsmokers song, while the chorus of “Woman” is literally just Styles repeating the word with the same melody and cadence.

This project is far from perfect, but the good things about it work really, really well. Perhaps it’s just because of the surprise factor that this is Harry Styles, and “Sign Of The Times” blew our collective minds when it dropped, but it helps me forgive some of its shortcomings. This is the start of what is sure to be an interesting solo career.

Favourite Tracks: Sign Of The Times, Two Ghosts, Meet Me In The Hallway, Sweet Creature

Least Favourite Track: Kiwi

Score: 7/10