Boogie – Everything’s For Sale

Image result for everything's for saleWest coast rapper Boogie has been generating a lot of anticipation for his debut studio album since signing to Eminem’s Shady Records label – which is a pretty exclusive deal to get! Everything’s For Sale has arrived, and despite drawing some pretty obvious inspiration from his rap contemporaries on a few tracks, the project manages to put Boogie’s storytelling ability, which has the potential to be on par with some of the current greats, on full display. Boogie’s nasal, Chance The Rapper-esque delivery and his frequently underwhelming singing voice bring down the musicality of the project more often than not here, but it’s easy to see what Eminem saw in him – Boogie’s lyricism is vivid and compelling, and with a better team surrounding him as he grows, this project could mark the very beginnings of something exciting.

Opener “Tired/Reflections” is bookended by recordings of people criticizing Boogie’s “conscious” content, saying they’re tired of hearing it and want to escape into something more meaningless and fun. Boogie drops into a spoken word verse over an introspective guitar instrumental and some orchestral chords. He details his need to get the content that he does out, with some poignant observations on how his realistic descriptions of his own lived experience of racism and violence can just as easily be twisted and interpreted stereotypically. It’s the kind of track that quiets down the other aspects so you can really focus on what he has to say, and these are the ones that excel on this project.

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“Lolsmh” is another pretty original concept that Boogie takes a deep dive into and honestly reminds me of some Kendrick Lamarian storytelling techniques. Placing the omnipresence of social media, its effect on his own mental health and its propensity for others to leave their morals at the door in pursuit of fame under the spotlight, Boogie goes in for 4 minutes of straight verse with a dejected and confessional tone of voice and dropping lyrical gems and astute observations left and right. The theme continues on the track “Live 95”, as Boogie plays a character finding self-worth in what he obtains from his social media presence before dropping into a verse as himself searching for the same thing. Despite a recent influx of money, he still associates his worth with his poorer upbringings that constituted most of his life.

Quite a few of the more upbeat, more traditionally radio-oriented tracks on this project actually had the potential to be just as good as the more lyrical ones here if he had gotten someone else to sing the hooks – Boogie’s singing voice is seriously not good, and he uses it a lot. He tries to do these Weeknd-like quick trills on almost every track where he sings and the awkward breaks in his voice where he can’t complete them throw the rhythm off. A track like “Silent Ride” is structured to be the catchiest track here with a trap instrumental and some well-written internal rhymes in the hook, but I can’t get through that raspy, nasal delivery on the hook to fully enjoy it.

It only gets worse when he tries to apply it to more alt-R&B oriented tracks like “Skydive” and “Swap Meet”, where he dips in and out of an off-key falsetto and lacks the ability to keep a slower, completely sung track engaging. “Skydive” actually does have a pretty fantastic instrumental that sounds like it was influenced by Latin guitar patterns. It’s backed up by some rumbling bass ratcheting up the intensity, but Boogie sounds completely detached on the sung hook. It goes to show just how much he doesn’t fit with the style when the derivative 6lack outshines him at the end of “Skydive II”.

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In terms of Boogie’s less conscious tracks here, “Soho”, a collaboration with up-and-comer JID, is easily the best despite its shorter length. Featuring a quotable chorus and beat that combines some modern and old-school production styles, the two speed up their flow and dismiss fake friends.

Eminem himself appears on the track “Rainy Days”, Boogie’s voice at peak Chance the Rapper on a pretty catchy, soulful hook and spastic, paranoid verse before Eminem comes in with what might be one of his worst feature verses in a long time, and there’s been quite a few that haven’t been up to par recently. His speedy, robotic flow doesn’t match the slowly creeping beat at all and loses all semblance of musicality, not to mention that his dad-jokes and puns are as groan-eliciting as ever. At least now Boogie can say that he easily outrapped one of the greats on a track.

The final 4 tracks constitute Boogie addressing a couple more distinct topics over the course of some shorter song lengths, closing out the project on a high note as we’re reminded about his best asset. Trumpeter Christian Scott enhances Boogie’s stories surrounding relationship drama on “Whose Fault”, while “Self Destruction” is another standout as he interpolates Mac Miller on the hook and injects some energy back into his voice.

All in all, Everything’s For Sale can be a frustrating listen at times due to its inconsistency. There’s one aspect of his work that Boogie does exceptionally well, but everything else is lagging slightly behind average. There are a couple times where it does click together here, but I’ll be anticipating the improvement that I know he has the potential for in the future.

Favourite Tracks: Lolsmh, Tired/Reflections, Soho, Self Destruction, Live 95

Least Favourite Track: Swap Meet

Score: 6/10

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Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

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“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

James Blake – Assume Form

Image result for assume formEclectic UK experimental pop/R&B singer and producer James Blake’s 4th studio album Assume Form has been anticipated for a while, as he continues to expand his discography by appearing on the projects of just about everyone who matters, whether it’s Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean or Travis Scott. I was surprised to see people in hip-hop communities so ready to post their thoughts on this album – Blake’s vocals are slow-paced, chilling and emotional – but he has made a name for himself as both a counterpoint to and a legitimizer of hip-hop music as an art form to be taken seriously, even if his sound is pretty far removed from it. He brings Metro Boomin and Travis Scott aboard here, but he also brings people like acclaimed flamenco breakout star Rosalía and the powerful, cathartic vocals of Moses Sumney. It’s an album with its twists and turns, and it doesn’t all click quite perfectly, but Blake delivers an ambitious, complete project here.

The title track that kicks off the album is a disjointed, glitchy mix of some absolutely beautiful musical segments, mostly orchestral and hip-hop percussion – it sets the tone for the rest of the project pretty well. There are always these exciting motifs, but Blake might snatch them away just as fast and whisk you down some other incongruous musical corridor suggesting you should just enjoy them while they last. It’s tough to say that I’d come back to a lot of these tracks, but it’s certainly a new kind of sonic experience. Those classic James Blake withering falsetto harmonies are present across the board and stronger than ever as well.

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Up next are the back-to-back Metro Boomin tracks, and it’s pretty fascinating to hear these two pioneers from different worlds blend their styles together. “Mile High” features Travis Scott, and minus Metro’s trademark skittering hi-hats, it removes the typical dark atmosphere of a trap cut and replaces it with these vivid, glacial synths and Blake’s yearning, emotional tone. The fact he somehow made Scott sound like he fit right in is a testament to how much Scott’s sound dominates the current musical conversation – but Blake knows exactly how to warp it just enough to put his own personal spin on it. The next, “Tell Them”, is a lot more traditional trap, but it puts the incredibly natural soul and rasp of Sumney on top, inverting the genre in the complete opposite way. In a world where we’re clearly getting tired of the Migos formula, this is just what we needed to kick off 2019.

Speaking of guests, Rosalía is such an unexpected yet logical addition to Blake’s world on “Barefoot in the Park”, the two voices intertwine perfectly, similarly understated but Rosalía’s breathiness nicely supporting Blake’s more forward, nasal approach. The addition of some more traditionally flamenco production when Rosalía sings the verses in Spanish is a great touch as well.

While it’s not as mindblowingly experimental as a couple of other tracks here, there’s something to be said about the strength of Blake’s ear for a simple great pop melody as well, which he applies on more straightforward tracks like “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” but perfects on the gorgeous “I’ll Come Too” later on in the tracklisting, a romantic track built on a looped sung “ooh” melody and the shimmering violins coming in quietly on top of the mix when he sings his most emotionally charged lines. “I’ve got nothing to lose with you”, he sings, throwing his voice around a little bit but sounding so blissfully happy in the process.

The second half of the project kicks off with the rhythmically off-kilter “Are You in Love?” that combines these soothing, 90s-esque synth-piano chords with this rubbery tone in the forefront that just skitters up and down the scales recklessly, the twinge of uncertainty reflecting Blake’s lyrical questioning of a partner’s authenticity.

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The experimentation goes off the rails a little bit at times here, the ambition of a couple tracks going in a different direction than I was expecting them to. He generates something completely new, but it somehow turns out different than a “something new” that I see as a logical evolution of where things are at the moment. “Into the Red” is one of these songs. It begins with some layered harmonies and orchestral production, but this abrupt cut introduces a twangy guitar melody which seems completely out of step with the rest of the track, especially as it builds back up with some absolutely stunning moments at the end as Blake just extends these high notes as these warm orchestral chords build – I just can’t get fully into it when this repeated riff that sounds like it’s from some kind of country music parody is playing on top.

“Where’s The Catch?”, a track with the inimitable Andre 3000, doesn’t really come together either, Andre delivering yet another technically spectacular verse as some upbeat production comes in behind him, but Blake’s surrounding contributions don’t match him in intensity, the repeated hook falling off the pitch and slowing down the tempo as soon as Andre finishes.

It’s easy to see why so many high-profile artists call on this guy who still hasn’t cracked the top 10 on the Billboard album charts – there’s not many who can execute a fully realized vision as well as he can. Despite a couple of off-kilter diversions, this album goes many different places but is still unapologetically James Blake.

Favourite Tracks: I’ll Come Too, Tell Them, Barefoot In The Park, Mile High, Are You In Love?

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

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You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

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Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

gnash – we

Officially back for the new year – this should hopefully be the first of three new posts this week.

Image result for gnash weGenreless artist gnash finally puts together a debut studio album after dropping a flurry of singles over the past couple of years – some of which made it onto this project, alongside the now-ancient smash hit “I hate u, I love u”. Difficult to pin down, gnash both sings and raps over the duration of the project with a sort of distinctive, almost pop-punk inflection to his voice. While his introspective lyrics surrounding struggles with self-worth and dealing with loneliness often border on eye-rollingly melodramatic, there are certainly a few instances here where he strikes a genuinely moving emotional nerve. The instrumentals are similarly inconsistent, some more exciting upbeat, electronic material breaking up the safer acoustic patterns, but we shows sparks of potential in gnash that I wasn’t sure were there.

After the shorter intro track “happy never after” that awkwardly combines some near-spoken word rapping, minimal acoustic chords, and some badly mixed harmonies on one of the poppiest choruses here, the project drops into its clear best song “imagine if”. Featuring some soulful piano chords supporting a chorus where gnash’s singing is at its best, they mute in favor of a more electronic segment in the verse that better fits his speedier delivery. Good luck getting that ay-oh-ay segment that shows up with the slightest of trap beats out of your head – along with gnash’s more subdued vocal performance, not leaning into his more obnoxious nasal tone, the various segments of the track from decidedly disparate musical worlds are added and subtracted at perfect times.

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There are a couple tracks across the rest of the project that sound just as good as “imagine if” in theory, but gnash’s execution brings me out of it. “nobody’s home” is another smartly composed pop track featuring a tried-and-true chord progression that’s augmented in the chorus in a satisfying way, but the 25-year-old gnash’s lyrics make him sound like an overly dramatic teenager going through his first breakup and the nonchalant delivery of his raps doesn’t sound like he’s taking it seriously, just using the form due to its popularity.

There are quite a few times where gnash’s lyrics really bring me out of the whole experience, like he’s going way too far to describe his pain in melodramatic and sensational terms rather than hitting something more poignant through a less-is-more approach – especially on a track like “insane”, which concludes with a spoken-word segment explaining that he no longer agrees with its sentiment, the joy with which he gets oddly morbid seems out-of-place. “the broken hearts club” is another one that seems almost like it’s trying to manipulative the listener into feeling something, inviting the listener to join him in a community wallowing in sadness – “it’s easier than love”, he sings at the conclusion.

“dear insecurity”, on the other hand, sees gnash’s songwriting at its best. His approach is really not all that different, but there’s something a lot more believable in his words, listing his various anxieties but then flipping his verses at the end to be more embracing of himself for a more complex analysis of the issue. The deep-voiced and soulful Ben Abraham makes you really feel the hook, and The Broken Hearts Clubgnash singing it himself at the end over some more minimal chords is a genuinely affecting moment. gnash embraces the more guitar-driven style his vocals seem more suited for on the track “t-shirt”, featuring some live drums and a genuinely pop-punk chord progression as he reaches up into his upper register, his emotional delivery actually matching up to some of his more dramatic claims. Again, despite some pretty laughable songwriting (“karma tends to be a b-word”…??), the track functions pretty well as an homage to a sound of the past that gnash should explore more rather than his hip-hop acoustics.

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“pajamas” and “feel better” are fun enough pop tracks that has me wondering if gnash would be more effective as a producer on other people’s material – the latter especially is a welcome change from the dark clouds that colour the rest of the tracklisting as he sings about that one person’s ability to bring him out of the dumps with a more hopeful, upbeat vocal performance.

Despite some of the better aspects of the tracklisting here, we is weighed down by some more confusing choices that are too prominent to fully ignore – mostly on the lyrical side of things. While his combination of genres and ear for catchy pop hooks have the potential to be exciting, gnash’s debut is inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: imagine if, dear insecurity, t-shirt

Least Favourite Track: insane

Score: 4/10

 

Bad Bunny – X 100PRE

X100pre.jpgOne of the biggest musical trends over the previous year was pop music beginning to draw from many different aspects of various Latin-American genres, perhaps none more so than Latin trap. Already a global superstar, it was Bad Bunny’s feature verse on Cardi B’s “I Like It” that turned him into a household name in North America, and he shows off a diverse range of sounds from his native Puerto Rico across his first official full-length project, bridging the gap between them with his distinctively lower register and charismatic Auto-Crooned sound. The title a Spanish shorthand meaning “Por siempre”, or “Forever”, X 100PRE isn’t at all structured like your typical pop album, more like a shifting, changing playlist – many of these tracks have abrupt beat switches, and the flow of sounds from one track to the next is somewhat disjointed. While that does bring me out of the experience a bit, this is certainly a solid and wide-reaching debut.

Opener “NI BIEN NI MAL” is a pretty perfect example of the important presence Bad Bunny serves in the music industry right now, built primarily on some traditional acoustic Latin-sounding chords with the odd interspersed heavy trap beat that always complements these sounds so well, Bad Bunny sing-rapping a catchy, repetitive tune on top. The track eventually morphs into a more minimal, industrial hip-hop track and then a calming string section in its instrumental without the vocal track changing much, showing just how malleable Bad Bunny’s voice is – it’s strangely soothing even when in a more aggressive, hip-hop influenced register, and can fit over almost anything. He shows off his laid-back register at its peak on the track “Otra Noche en Miami”, the chorus a more electronic synth-based explosion as he repeats the title, sounding like he’s relaxing by the beach and taking the city in – the track reminds me of something from The Weeknd’s STARBOY.  Drake is honestly a pretty perfect guest to join him on the single “MIA” which closes the project – even as both sing in Spanish, their voices and the charismatic energy they are clearly bringing to the track match each other in a surprisingly great way.

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In the next few tracks after the opener, we get “200 MPH”, which comes with a Diplo feature, “Caro”, with surprise vocals from none other than Ricky Martin, and one of the experiments that doesn’t really work, “Tenemos Que Hablar”, which ventures into what almost sounds like a 2000s-era alternative rock territory with a watered-down guitar riff and out-of-place trap beat.

While the project does run throughout various areas of reggaeton, bachata and dembow music – that same reggaeton beat you hear on every pop track isn’t quite dead yet when Bad Bunny augments it with some of his most emotional vocals on “Si Estuviésemos Juntos” – he is at his best dropping the high-energy trap bangers we know him for. The track “¿Quien Tu Eres?” is a shorter one that packs a serious punch, the beat dropping just as he raises his voice up into this higher-pitched yelp as he celebrates his success.

There are quite a few moments on the project where it loses direction a bit with a beat switch or the track listing’s order putting some sounds that aren’t incredibly complementary beside each other in the track listing, making it tougher to rank favourite tracks since so many of the greatest musical moments here come as part of a longer track that also features a strange diversion from what the track was trying to accomplish. Ricky Martin’s appearance on “Caro” is one of these moments, the track abruptly dropping in tempo to deliver the slower ballad pace Martin is more known for before Bad Bunny closes the track with a very brief return to the original high-energy section. “Solo de Mi” is split into two very good sections with completely opposite tones, vaulting into a chaotic hip-hop beat for less than a minute after a more emotional ballad – I’m all for a good beat switch, but there has to at least be a tiny bit of a through-line.

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“La Romana” is another track that begins excellently with one of the most fun Latin trap beats over this maddeningly catchy picked mariachi guitar pattern complete with airhorns as the beat drops, but glitches out Bad Bunny’s verse early and diverts into this more straightforward, percussive ragga/riddim section delivered by El Alfa that goes on for too long. The track listing probably could have been shortened as well – as much fun as Bad Bunny always sounds like he’s having, when he’s attacking a few of these Latin trap instrumentals with more of a melodic angle to complement a beat that isn’t quite so active, on tracks like “Ser Bichote”, the language barrier loses me a bit when I don’t have lyrics to spice up a less immediately exciting instrumental.

Alongside J Balvin, Bad Bunny has emerged as one of the Latin stars poised for continued dominance in a post-Despacito world, and the range of his talents on this project is a clear indicator of why. You could throw him on any vaguely Latin track and he’d turn it into a hit. Despite some structural qualms, this is the sound of an artist just getting started.

Favourite Tracks: NI BIEN NI MAL, ¿Quien Tu Eres?, Otra Noche en Miami, La Romana, MIA

Least Favourite Track: Tenemos Que Hablar

Score: 7/10

21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

Image result for 21 savage 2018 live

It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10

BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2018

Here are the absolute best of the best full bodies of work in the chaotic year that was 2018. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – I Am > I Was
  • The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
  • Camila Cabello – Camila
  • The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
  • Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
  • The Internet – Hive Mind
  • Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
  • Mitski – Be The Cowboy
  • Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
  • Vince Staples – FM!

25. Jeremih/Ty Dolla $ign – MihTy

MihTy.pngTy Dolla $ign might be my 2018 MVP – his vocals appeared on quite a few high-profile albums across a number of genres and he certainly proved his versatility. This collab project with Jeremih sees him back in his element, bouncing his characteristically raspy vocals off of Jeremih’s cleaner, higher-pitched approach to deliver a non-stop run of slow jams and upbeat melodic trap cuts. Teaming up with producer Hitmaka, the two carve out a place in 2018 for the somewhat-dated R&B womanizer figure.

24. Nao – Saturn

Image result for nao saturnNao’s sophomore project is named after the astrological phenomenon of the Saturn’s Return, a period of time around age 29 when Saturn returns to its position at one’s birth that provokes events causing drastic shifts in one’s life and signals complete maturity. Her artistic growth is evident from her debut, adding some excellent and personal songwriting to her already unique and ethereal voice. Nao feels that her personal drastic shift was the end of a long-term relationship, and she addresses her heartbreak across the album’s best tracks. Saturn is a jazzy R&B project about coping with the pains and pressures of finding your way in the world.

23. Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

PATD PFTW.jpgStratospheric and theatrical vocalist Brendon Urie’s second album carrying the Panic! at the Disco name all by himself, he delivers some of his best work yet drawing from some aspects of Broadway after making his debut in musical theatre. While it might be their poppiest, the lighter melodies are grounded by roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s flair for a darker, baroque atmosphere. Of course, the centrepiece is still Urie’s powerhouse vocal delivery, a connecting thread making every unique and melodramatic world of sound the band travels to work perfectly – the man can sell anything. These are some spectacular, arena-sized choruses across the board.

22. BROCKHAMPTON – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgThe experimental hip-hop collective’s major label debut after the well-received Saturation trilogy, as well as their first without founding member Ameer Vann after allegations against him were released, BROCKHAMPTON continues on just fine with some eclectic and electrifying new sounds here. The instrumentals often complex and abrasive, the vocalists on top all with their own off-the-wall styles, everything about this project is signals an exciting and dynamic force in the industry who aren’t afraid to throw whatever at the wall even if it doesn’t all stick – most of it does, and the seamless transitions through various genres and musical worlds, each member getting a chance to shine, is an exhilarating rush. The openly gay Kevin Abstract’s discussion of his struggles continues to be a breath of fresh air in hip-hop, as well.

21. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson Paak Oxnard.jpegThe burgeoning funk superstar recruits Dr. Dre to executive produce his album and takes more of a turn towards hip-hop and 90s-inspired G-funk than ever before. It might not be his strongest suit, but everything .Paak does is a strong suit, still elevating the project with his boundless charisma and undeniable musicality. Getting some assistance from some great features including Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Q-Tip, the spirit of the funk and .Paak’s soulful singing voice can still be found across the board here, but the best part of Oxnard is that you can tell .Paak is having fun and living his dream of making an album with one of his childhood idols. The project takes a turn for the overtly political on “6 Summers”, but for the most part this is just .Paak continuing to flash that giant smile of his in audio form.

20. J. Cole – KOD

JColeKOD.jpgOne of the most densely conceptual albums of the year, the disturbing album cover alone should tell you how deeply Cole is about to dive into some dark and emotional topics here. Embodying several characters across the project’s runtime, Cole describes his observations of his friends and others in his community’s reliance on various addictions – drugs and alcohol, technology, inconsistent sources of money, power and love – to help them cope with depression and anxiety, suppressing their feelings rather than letting them out for fear of judgment. Keeping listeners interested with his technical skills and ability to paint a vivid story, it’s when Cole breaks character and delves into his own life experiences beating these addictions that the album becomes most harrowing.

19. Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgThe alt-rock (and everything in between) duo team up to deliver one of my biggest surprises this year, finally bringing the diverse musical worlds they pull from together in a seamless fashion in a huge improvement from their past works. United by a central narrative that apparently plays into a much larger thread running across their entire careers, the songs follow the experiences of a character in the fictional city of Dema, a name that draws from religious aspects of Zoroastrianism. The questioning of faith is just one of the deeper topics the duo address here, but the most compelling are frontman Tyler Joseph’s musings on mental health and celebrity culture, and the frequent romanticization of poor mental health. Trench is enhanced by impeccable production work, every tiny element of each track in the right place.

18. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngThe unapologetic rapper who shot to fame at the end of last year drops her debut project that represents one of the most fun and confidence-inducing albums of the year. Everyone has been so drawn to Cardi because she hides nothing about herself, being completely honest and having no filter at all, and that comes across here, dropping bars that can be explicit or carefree in a completely over-the-top way. Cardi is not only absolutely hilarious, but often surprisingly technically skilled, adding to the punch she puts behind every syllable with some quicker flows. The sonic diversity here that ranges from pure hip-hop bangers to calmer, emotional R&B, to Latin pop, shows that Cardi is much more than the one-hit wonder many expected her to be and is here to stay. She has the X Factor.

17. Ella Mai – Ella Mai

Image result for ella mai album coverOne of the breakout stars of the year, Ella Mai sets out bringing back some more traditional R&B to the mainstream in the wake of the more spacey, chill alt-R&B trend dominating the charts. Clearly inspired by early-2000s artists, Mai’s alto range is soothing and effortless as she runs through some vocal acrobatics and clever lyrical flips. Another album with a grounding aspect of connectedness, each small section of the album is introduced by a theme, the first letters of each theme ultimately spelling Mai’s name. The production from DJ Mustard perfectly blends some recognizable old-school sounds with a more modern angle, but by the time you get to the final, stripped-back track, it’s clear that the real excitement associated with Mai is just how great of a singer she is.

16. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldOne of the most culturally significant albums of the year, it’s safe to say we can add Travis Scott to the pantheon of today’s larger-than-life rap superstars with an album that is equal parts straightforward and fun, creative and risky. The perfect summer rap album, Scott recruits guests from Pharrell to Tame Impala to Stevie Wonder to Drake and dives into a psychedelic and frequently disorienting world enhanced by his Auto-Tuned flow. The listening experience is intended to feel like you’re on an amusement park ride, as the project is dedicated to a childhood favourite park of Scott’s since closed down. Scott approaches these tracks with almost an audible sense of wonderment in his voice, and while you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, you know it’ll be a good time.

15. Charlie Puth – Voicenotes

Image result for voicenotesAnother huge surprise for me this year, Charlie Puth drops the cheesiness of his past work and moves towards a more mature, yet still distinctly nostalgic sound. His classical training is evident on the brilliantly mixed project, which he produced himself. Anchored firmly in 90s R&B, Puth reminds me a lot of early Justin Timberlake here, and even fits right in with Boyz II Men when he brings them on board for a track. Puth’s wispy falsetto is consistently enjoyable, but it’s the layering and harmonies that really sell Puth as a worthy purveyor of this throwback material, delivering on an understanding of the musicality required to pull off some more complex and interlocking aspects. The guilty pleasure success of the year?

14. Kanye West – ye

Ye album cover.jpgIt’s a wonder that one of Kanye’s least polished albums of his career is still as good as it is. While it’s certainly not without its problems, ye exists as a kind of blend of Yeezus and “Old Kanye” that sees him take some pretty interesting dives into his mental health and its effects on his personal and familial life in the wake of his hospitalization, bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. West is at his most lyrical he’s been in a while, and his singing voice has clearly improved as he runs through a number of introspective and confessional tracks backed up by the usual combination of soul samples and minimal, industrial beats. West’s advice to speak your mind freely in times of crisis, stating your thoughts out loud no matter how dark they are and thus exorcising the demons, has resonated with me all year.

13. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

Sophie - Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides.pngThe endlessly experimental electronic music producer from the PC Music camp finally delivers her debut studio album, and it’s certainly just as much of a mindbending experience as I could have expected. A distorted and beautiful 9-track journey, this is the kind of stuff that could legitimately offer a window to gaze into what the future of pop music can sound like. SOPHIE ranges from punishing, bass-heavy tracks to lengthy, ethereal dreamscapes of cascading synths and calming vocals across this project, everything coming together for a 9-minute closing track where all the sounds are addressed that ultimately just falls apart into a stretched-out hellscape where everything cascades into each other. It’s all something you’ll have to hear to believe – this is something indescribable.

12. Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgEasily one of the most powerful projects of the year comes from one of my favourite producers, Dev Hynes – known as Blood Orange in his solo material. Inspired by various tales of discrimination in his younger years and a dedication to showing love despite an inability to escape being viewed as an outsider regardless of his actions, the spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock tie the project together as she speaks on perseverance and an embrace of one’s identity – “doing the most”. The sound of the project itself seems to have taken Mock’s advice, a jazzy R&B/funk album with some complex harmonies and wailing freeform solos. A producer at heart, Hynes lets a featured vocalist take over the track most of the time, and he knows just how to use artists’  greatest strengths in the right way. Hynes never beats you over the head with his more political statements here, but smartly disguises them for maximum impact, catching you off guard in the middle of his lush musical world.

11. Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverWho knew we’d ever get an Ariana Grande album mostly produced by Pharrell Williams? Sweetener is easily Grande’s riskiest album, and after taking some time to grow on me, it just might be her best as well. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop production style is strangely accommodating to Grande’s powerhouse vocal capabilities, adapting her sound to the more hip-hop influenced world of modern R&B. Full of genuine, believable declarations of an intense, whirlwind love and coloured with the slightest hints of lingering pain from the Manchester tragedy, ending the album with a moment of silence, Grande sounds like she’s making the music she wanted to be making all along. With the sometimes chaotic production style, it’s the first time we’re not focused solely on her impressive vocals, but it’s her most personal work all the same.

10. Robyn – Honey

Cover of Honey by RobynThe endlessly influential Swedish pop mastermind returns with her first album in 8 years, and everything we initially loved about her is still there. So much of the modern space of electropop still owes itself to her early work, and she delivers some more upbeat, synth-driven tracks here injected with her usual degree of catharsis and escape from pain through pop music. A warm and inviting sound, every one of these tracks feels like something bigger than music, a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that Robyn invites you to join. This is an all-out pop celebration, but the only reason we’re having it is to forget about all those other not-so-fun things that happened to us. Join Robyn, and keep dancing to stop yourself from crying.

9. Jack White – Boarding House Reach

Image result for boarding house reachRock and roll music is in dire need of someone to come in and shake up the formula right now, any music driven by guitars often nowhere to be found on the top charts. With the polarizing Boarding House Reach, Jack White might be that guy. On a garage and blues rock adventure, White throws song structure out the window and hits listeners with a series of mostly instrumental, distorted tracks that represent some of the most ambitious work I’ve heard on a mainstream release in a long time. White has always had a flair for the melodramatic, and his vocals are theatrical and overly emotional here as he attacks modern capitalism and other topics. White thrives in the chaos, and the various sonic misdirections combined with White’s social commentary turns this into something like performance art.

8. Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngThe best purely pop album of the year? Sivan evokes the 80s with some refreshing and personal lyricism concerning his approaches to relationships as a gay man. Sivan’s vocals are never the flashiest, honest and raw and often kept to little more than a breathy, lower-pitched whisper, but what he doesn’t have in vocal acrobatics he more than makes up for by pouring so much emotion into every note. Most of these instrumentals are dreamy and magical, a perfect soundscape to frame the discoveries and the ventures into adulthood that Sivan speaks of across the project. Sivan’s understated melodies sneak up on you and stick in your head forever, and he ends up pulling off a perfect homage to the pop music he loved growing up without even sounding like he’s trying that hard half the time.

7. Kali Uchis – Isolation

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis recruits a seriously impressive list of collaborators and blends her classy approach to contemporary R&B with some musical aspects of her own Colombian culture, incorporating some sounds of samba and bossa nova. Isolation is an album where most of the strength comes from the dynamic instrumentals from individuals like Thundercat, Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi and the Gorillaz. Uchis’ breathier vocal style is a complement to any of the wide array of genres arranged around her voice here, but when she takes more control and shows off her impressive range, or starts singing in Spanish, it’s easy to become enamoured with the rising star. The album tells a story with a deliberate sequencing of tracks as Uchis arrives in the USA and overcomes people’s perceptions of her in order to make it in the industry.

6. Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgThe Australian indie-pop singer-songwriter delivers one of the most relatable, affecting projects about relationships and loneliness I’ve ever heard, even as most of the situations she describes are vividly detailed and specific to her own personal life. Shark’s music is often a charming combination of smartly written pop melodies, acoustic strumming and trap beats, her tone and confessional songwriting reminding me of Taylor Swift at her best in a lot of ways. Shark’s voice is heartbreakingly emotive as she sings about her loneliness and her fondest memories of a great relationship down to the smallest details of locations they went to or remnants left in her house, and her desperate yearning for something real is a believable representation of something we all strive for.

5. Pusha T – Daytona

Image result for daytona album coverYeugh. The veteran rapper kicked off Kanye West’s five-album Wyoming series with a non-stop verbal assault. Long-time collaborators, the rapper and producer come together in perfect harmony and understanding of each other here, West reaching into the darker sides of his production abilities to provide a grim and menacing platform for Pusha T to exert his ruthless and dominating presence. Pusha’s wordplay and punchlines are some of the best in the game right now, and his expressive voice delivers his emotions effortlessly as he sits back on his perch and issues threats with a smile. Standing at 7 tracks, there’s no room for filler here and Push makes sure that every single word counts for something, drawing out his syllables and overpronouncing words to make absolutely certain we understand where he’s coming from. Sorry Drake.

4. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13oo“Welcome to the darkest side of Taboo”, Curry sings to kick off a section titled “Light”. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist takes us on a journey through his mind, dividing the album into sections of Light, Grey and Dark to signify the degree to which he becomes subsumed in the violence and hatred he observes in his community. The sections inevitably become hopelessly blurred, Curry backing up his paranoid and chaotic lyrics and flows with a full-voiced scream that emphasizes his mental chaos. The project ranges from grimy, distorted hardcore tracks to even some more breezy, funk-influenced instrumentals where Curry shows off his dexterous flow without the anger behind it. The final “Dark” section, however, is straight out of a nightmare. Curry addresses a wide range of taboo topics, as the title suggests, from a disturbingly realistic angle, creating a shocking and overwhelming project that completely overrides your senses. Curry is a man possessed, and has the full toolkit of a great rapper to back it up.

3. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegIn stark contrast, Golden Hour is one of the most adorably happy albums I’ve ever heard. In the wake of her marriage, the previously cynical Musgraves starts to see the world from a new angle, taking some ambitious cross-genre leaps in the process. Musgraves shifts from witty criticism to a genuine admiration of the beauty the world has to offer, singing about it with her pop-country melodies and softly delivered honesty in her voice. Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting, and she convinces me completely of this shift in her outlook by injecting some asides that reminds us it’s still her, like on the track “Happy & Sad”. Her voice gives me chills every time on the slower tracks that highlight it. You’re not going to find a more affecting display of pure, essential human emotion this year.

2. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

Image result for kids see ghostsComing to expect Kanye West to reinvent the wheel with every project he delivers, I was wondering where the construction of a completely new sound was on his first two Wyoming releases. It’s all right here. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi, West incorporates his alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does here. The two embattled artists lay all their flaws on the line, then turn to each other for support and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over all that holds them back in an extremely powerful way, finding their own personal peace. Another 7-track release where every tiny aspect feels like it belongs, the sheer innovation and creativity behind the sample flips and applications of more rock-oriented work into these hip-hop tracks is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and the duo both bring the energy to match these driving and high-octane tracks. A grandiose and triumphant statement.

1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer

Image result for dirty computerWhy can’t all political statements sound quite this incredible? Janelle Monae combines pop and R&B to look at the judgments in our society through her familiar lens of technology, the accompanying and moving “emotion picture” associated with the album depicting aspects of minority identities as a computer virus which needs to be erased, the person carrying that virus a “dirty computer”. Each of these tracks represents a jubilant memory of self-expression that Monae’s character has “erased” by the disturbing society of the film, cleaning her up. Monae mentioned Prince as a major inspiration for the project, and his presence is clear in the funk basslines and the confidence in Monae’s rap verses. Dirty Computer is a highly sexual album, Monae putting the very essence of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality on display and inviting listeners to the party where this celebration and appreciation for these facets of her identity will take place. The project closes with a speech calling for the rights of various minority groups as gospel-tinged harmonies state plainly: “Love me baby, love me for who I am”.

That’s it for Bensbeat in 2018, and with some exciting projects already on the radar for 2019, let’s hope some more great music is on the way. I’ll be back in the new year with some projects that dropped right at the end of the year, and then the new releases will start pouring in once again. Thanks for reading this year.

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BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2018

Music in 2018 can be mostly defined by the continued rise in prominence of hip-hop, taking over from rock as the most listened to genre for the first time. As both a rather limitless, rule-free form creatively and a way to express protest, almost every genre drew elements from hip-hop this year. We also got a huge number of high-profile releases as the album form slowly evaporates and artists become more prolific. A Spotify playlist of this list is linked at the bottom of the article!

Here are my favourite songs from the huge tide of great music we got this year.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – a lot (Ft. J. Cole)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Party For One
  • The Carters – SUMMER
  • The Decemberists – Sucker’s Prayer
  • Denzel Curry – SWITCH IT UP | ZWITCH 1T UP
  • Johnny Balik – Honey
  • Lil Wayne – Dedicate
  • Migos – Narcos
  • ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Saudi & Kendrick Lamar – X
  • Vince Staples – FUN!

50. Mac Miller – 2009

Image result for mac miller swimmingThe last song Mac Miller ever performed live, his look back on his career and personal growth over some uplifting piano chords took on an added level of meaning after his passing.

49. Hozier – Nina Cried Power (Ft. Mavis Staples)

Hozier recruits one of the greatest to pay tribute to artists who recorded impactful protest songs throughout history, backed up by some soulful choral vocals.

48. Twenty One Pilots – Morph

Image result for twenty one pilots trenchThe band finally perfects their manic genre-mixing, creating a rollercoaster of a track that flawlessly shifts through eerie rap verses, an 80s pop chorus and even some tropical house elements.

47. The Internet – Hold On

Image result for the internet hive mindA 6-minute slow burn, Steve Lacy’s instantly recognizable guitar work is entrancing throughout as Syd’s soothing vocals complete the picture.

46. Maggie Rogers – Light On

HIIAPL Maggie Rogers.jpgSuperproducer Greg Kurstin strikes again with an exciting rising star, as Rogers blends her near-gospel sensibilities with a more traditionally structured pop track.

45. Hayley Kiyoko – Curious

Image result for hayley kiyoko expectationsFeaturing a pretty perfectly structured pop chorus, Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals stuck with me throughout the whole year.

44. Amy Shark – The Slow Song

Image result for amy shark love monsterAmy Shark’s incredibly specific yet overwhelmingly relatable lyrics, in combination with her blend of hip-hop influenced beats with her softer singer/songwriter tone, reach their peak on this emotional ode to looking out at that one person across the dance floor.

43. Anderson .Paak – Cheers (Ft. Q-Tip)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardOn the closing track of  .Paak’s Oxnard, he teams up with the capable Q-Tip to reminisce on good times with their recently departed friends – Mac Miller and Phife Dawg – over some hard-hitting synth-funk chords.

42. Pusha T – The Games We Play

Image result for daytona pusha tI could never get tired of the griminess in Pusha T’s vocal delivery. His energy is in top form here, dropping non-stop bars of  vivid imagery and clever wordplay.

41. Joji – SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK

Image result for joji ballads 1A complete evolution from the former absurdist comedian, Joji’s take on the current trend of moody alt-R&B features some absolutely beautiful and explosive digitized synth tones that support his emotionally charged delivery.

40. BROCKHAMPTON – NEW ORLEANS

Image result for iridescenceThe rap collective opens their first major label studio album with a bang. The off-the-wall group trade some equally bombastic verses over a supercharged instrumental.

39. Nao – Another Lifetime

Image result for nao saturnRecorded after a breakup, hearing this much genuine emotion in Nao’s usually calm and collected vocal tone is incredibly moving as she sings about the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime connection.

38. Bas – Purge

Image result for bas milky wayOne of my biggest growers this year, the Dreamville rapper’s speedy flow and switch-ups are top-notch as he easily navigates through an entertaining and soulful sample flip.

37. Ariana Grande – God is a woman

Image result for sweetener coverWhen I saw the video for the first time I became convinced that this would slowly grow into one of Grande’s most memorable career songs years down the road. The choral ending of this track is truly transcendent.

36. Kero Kero Bonito – Make Believe

Image result for kero kero bonito time n placeOne of the most similar tracks to their earlier work on the experimental pop collective’s latest, heavier project, Sarah Bonito’s adorable voice is at its best over some colourful and animated synth tones.

35. James Bay – Pink Lemonade

Image result for james bay album coverAn energetic retro-pop track featuring Bay’s new, more upbeat style over some crunchy guitars and a conclusion with some seriously catchy harmonized chants.

34. BTS – Paradise

Image result for bts love yourself tearWestern pop music watch out – the K-pop invasion is coming over quickly. The wildly popular boy band applies some aspects of 90s West Coast hip-hop to this track.

33. Jack White – Corporation

Image result for jack white boarding house reachA lengthy, mostly instrumental monster of a track – I was so happy to observe White doing something so  innovative and different with the rock and roll format. This is White at his most theatrical, embodying some sort of deranged preacher.

32. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – Reborn

Image result for kids see ghosts“Keep moving forward”. The centrepiece of the spectacular Kids See Ghosts album, Kanye West and Kid Cudi lean on each other for support as they discuss their respective mental health issues.

31. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel

Image result for dirty computerFeaturing a guitar riff produced by Prince himself, Janelle Monae proves she’s the closest living artist with this slick and sensual synth-funk track.

30. J. Cole – Kevin’s Heart

Image result for kod j coleOn an album where J. Cole talks about the dangers of giving yourself over to various addictions, love proves the strongest drug of all as Cole embodies a character struggling with fidelity – with a fun videogame-esque beat and some serious technical skill to back it up.

29. Lauren Jauregui – Expectations

Image result for lauren jauregui expectationsThe ex-Fifth Harmony member sounds like a young Alicia Keys over a minimal beat that places the spotlight on her impressive and emotional vocal showcase. How great would her boyfriend Ty Dolla $ign sound on this soulful track??

28. Blood Orange – Saint

Image result for negro swanThe producer extraordinaire goes in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, offering a complex and jazzy musical world amplified by some great gospel-tinged harmonies – “doing the most”, as the album’s powerful theme puts it.

27. Charlie Puth – Empty Cups

Image result for charlie puth voicenotesThe song that never left my head all year, this is just a smartly structured, bouncy 90s R&B chorus from the classically trained pop singer who really surprised me this year.

26. Mitski – Nobody

Image result for mitski be the cowboyIndie-pop singer-songwriter Mitski’s voice already sounds like it belongs to another era, and the near-disco, overly energetic flavour of the instrumental here, in stark contrast with Mitski’s lyrics nearly losing her mind due to loneliness, completes the retro-pop image.

25. Cardi B – I Like It (Ft. Bad Bunny & J Balvin)

Image result for cardi b invasion of privacyLatin trap exploded into the mainstream this year, and none harnessed it better than Cardi B, recruiting two of the genre’s biggest stars. Cardi’s aggressive flow never fails to enliven me, and that sample flip is a great added touch.

24. Kim Petras – Heart To Break

Image result for kim petras heart to breakAn all-out bubblegum pop extravaganza. Petras hits some seriously impressive notes on the chorus, but the whole song moves along with this irresistible driving energy that’s hard to ignore.

23. RL Grime – Take It Away (Ft. Ty Dolla $ign & TK Kravitz)

Image result for rl grime novaI was sent to another dimension the first time I heard the drop on this track. Those deafening, steadily growing synths and well-placed silences makes it feel like someone is repeatedly firing up some kind of generator. Ty Dolla $ign is always more than capable on the mic as well.

22. Kacey Musgraves – High Horse

Image result for golden hour kacey musgravesThe country artist’s poppiest song yet, we all know someone like this song’s subject. Musgraves blends the slightest of country aspects in the instrumental with an 80s dance beat and some sharp harmonies.

21. Robyn – Because It’s In The Music

Image result for robyn honeyThe Swedish pop savant has always found the perfect way to encapsulate the feeling of crying on the dance floor, partying the pain away, and this track is no exception. The track feels like an escape, easy to get lost in the inviting musical world.

20. Ella Mai – Trip

Image result for ella mai album coverThe piano-heavy R&B track brings a classic sound back in a big way, Mai’s effortless and silky-smooth vocals commanding your attention. Something about that staccato phrasing in the hook makes the track irresistably catchy.

19. Anderson .Paak – Tints (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for oxnard album coverTwo of the most charismatic artists in the industry link up for this paranoid and humorous funk track where .Paak just wants some privacy. I absolutely love songwriter Tayla Parx’s contribution to the harmonized outro – her discography this year alone is incredible.

18. Janelle Monae – Screwed (Ft. Zoe Kravitz)

Image result for dirty computerA call for a final party before the bomb drops, this might be the most overtly political track on an already defiant and revolutionary album. The track’s title serves as a poignant double entendre, Monae sounding like she’s having the time of her life in the studio over some shiny guitar riffs.

17. Nas – Cops Shot The Kid (Ft. Kanye West)

Image result for nasirThe cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot-

16. DRAM – Best Hugs

Image result for dram that's a girls nameThe most lovable guy in the music industry is back to steal your girl – the one with the incredible hugs – and criticize you for letting her get away. My most listened-to song of the year, it’s the combination of ridiculousness and legitimately great musicality that only DRAM can pull off.

15. Camila Cabello – Consequences

Image result for camila album coverOof. This song hit me right in the feels from the first time I heard it, a sparse piano ballad where Cabello offers some deeply personal lyrics about the end of a relationship where her trust was broken beyond repair. The orchestral version released as a single just brought the tears back in full force.

14. Denzel Curry – SUMO | ZUMO

Image result for denzel ta13ooThe sheer force with which Denzel screams that second introductory “OKAY?!” signals just what kind of a punishing track lies ahead. Heavy bass rattles as the horrorcore rapper goes to work with his dexterous flow. Charlie Heat is one of the best rap producers in the game.

13. SOPHIE – Faceshopping

Image result for oil of every pearl's un-insidesI’m just now realizing that I shouldn’t have put these two tracks beside each other. Another track out to unleash a full frontal assault on the listener, the experimental producer’s work is constantly disorienting, yet connected by a recognizable, pop-influenced thread, represented here by a rhythmically spoken – and likely sarcastic – ode to materialism.

12. Troye Sivan – Dance To This (Ft. Ariana Grande)

Image result for troye sivan bloomAnother track with an unreasonable amount of plays on my personal Spotify this year, Ariana Grande tones down her usually powerhouse vocals to match the subtle yet powerful approach of Australian pop artist Troye Sivan. A perfect slow dance song straight out of the 80s, that synth hook that introduces the song makes it a grower.

11. Childish Gambino – This Is America

Image result for this is america artworkEven without the brilliant and viral music video associated with the track, Childish Gambino’s views on the state of the world presented through the intentionally inane and distracting lens of trap music is still one of the most important statements of the year – even if I wish the standalone song still had those gunshots in it.

10. Kali Uchis – Flight 22

Image result for kali uchis isolationKali Uchis has often stated that she draws heavy inspiration from Amy Winehouse, and it’s never more evident than on this track. A downtempo track that verges on dreampop, the twinkling keys and string section highlight her smooth and sensual vocal inflections.

9. Pusha T – If You Know You Know

Image result for pusha t daytonaI knew I was in for something mindblowing with the Daytona album when this was the opening track. Featuring some of the most quotable lines of the year and a crisp, chopped-up guitar sample from Kanye West, Pusha T is absolutely out for blood on this one and he doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

8. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

Image result for thank u nextAriana Grande has been having a horrible year – and this was the most brilliant way possible to address it in song form. Recorded only a few months after her Sweetener album, Grande speaks out about how she’s learned from the pain and come out better for it, thanking each one of her ex-lovers for the person she’s become. But of course, we still need that dismissive and cathartic “next”.

7. Travis Scott – SICKO MODE (Ft. Drake)

Image result for astroworldThe fact that this disjointed, endlessly creative track became a #1 hit single is nothing short of amazing. Most of Travis Scott’s latest work is as chaotic and disorienting as the amusement park it’s inspired by, and this endlessly fun rap track shifts through 3 completely different segments as Scott keeps things lively with an energetic flow. For all the average work he’s put out this year, Drake absolutely steals the show with his verse.

6. Kanye West – Ghost Town (Ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kid Cudi & 070 Shake)

Image result for ye album coverIt’s impossible not to feel something when new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake arrives on the outro of the track with her repeated and earnest mantra about freedom, breaking free from the pack. I can only imagine the experience singing it live with a crowd. The classic soul sample flip provides an excellent backbone to the track as well, West delivering some of the best singing he’s done in his career on his verse.

5. Kacey Musgraves – Rainbow

Image result for kacey musgraves golden hourI’ve always loved the complete purity in Kacey Musgraves’ vocals – she definitely has one of my favourite voices in the industry right now. The closer to her excellent Golden Hour is a lower-key track that highlights just how much emotion she can put into it as well, and it never fails to make me tear up just a little. A bittersweet track, Musgraves sings to someone who is incapable of seeing all the love they have around them.

4. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

Image result for rina sawayama cherryThe best pure pop song of the year, the always eccentric Rina Sawayama once again recruits experimental producer Clarence Clarity for an upbeat and endlessly layered track where Sawayama can’t contain her desire. Her dedication to taking the sound of early 2000s pop and modernizing it in a huge way is so engaging, those chords so familiar but twisted in such a new way as well. Every instrumental aspect of this track is a maddeningly catchy hook in and of itself.

3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – 4th Dimension

Image result for kids see ghostsWhere does Kanye find these samples? One of the most creative sample flips I’ve ever heard, this was easily the standout on one of the year’s best albums as West completely refigures a Christmas song from the 1930s for his own purposes, isolating the part of the track that has the most untapped energy and applying a driving, tribal rhythm overtop. Kid Cudi doesn’t often spit a purely rap verse, but he more than keeps up with West here.

2. Amy Shark – Don’t Turn Around

Image result for amy shark love monsterIt’s shocking how singer-songwriter Amy Shark can describe such a detailed, specific scenario in her songs that still comes across as so relatable, to the tune of some smartly written pop melodies. Shark keeps getting into situations where she’s forced to see her ex, simultaneously imagining a future whirlwind reconnection and frantically telling herself to just let it go. Some of my favourite lyrical content of the year, Shark’s unassuming vocal delivery fits the picture while her strummed acoustic chords are warm and easy to return to.

1. Janelle Monae – I Like That

Image result for dirty computerMy favourite track off of Dirty Computer, it represents the culmination of all the powerful statements of self-assertion Monae delivers across the project. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs” might be my favourite song lyric of all time. Monae might not be for everybody, but she couldn’t care less – deviation from the norm is exactly where she belongs, and if she’s the only one on board with what she’s putting forward, then that’s perfectly fine. Monae sounds effortlessly cool on the track, delivering some impressive vocal runs and even a rap verse addressing a school bully, and the repeated backup vocal line is just the perfect set of soulful chords that keeps me returning. Keep doing what you do best, Janelle.

That’s the music that got me through this year, stay tuned for my Top 25 albums of the year on Friday, when we’ll say “thank u, next” to the music of 2018.

Check out this list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/6abpgfxueTZr6FspGVIHyE

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy album.pngEDM duo The Chainsmokers took a unique approach to the release of this album, releasing all of its 10 songs one at a time in each month of 2018 (with a couple exceptions). Not professing to be the biggest Chainsmokers fan in the world, all of these songs are new to me now that the full project has an official release. On their sophomore project Sick Boy, the duo takes a seemingly transitional approach, devoting about half the album to even more clones of their biggest hit in “Closer” and half to trying to find new sounds. One of the most disheartening things to me about the group is that they clearly have the capacity to be talented and creative, but spend most of their time watering down their sound and catering to what they think we want to hear – and as their latest sales reflect, that’s not always retreads of the same thing forever. There are a couple moments on this project where they hit a new and exciting groove, but most of it is diluted by their adherence to the same melodramatic lyrics and repetitive, sanitized and contemplative “dance” breaks.

The duo recruit their only big-name feature in country star Kelsea Ballerini on the opening track “This Feeling”, which just feels like a logical continuation of trying to recreate as many different versions of the same hit as they can, using what sounds like exactly the same swelling synth chords building up to the dance breakdown, replacing a few instrumental elements with strummed acoustic guitars instead as Drew Taggart debuts with his female counterpart over a repetitive chorus melody consisting of little more than a few adjacent notes. It’s a perfectly passable pop song, you just wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from literally anything else if it were playing in the background. If there’s anything I really do have to hand to The Chainsmokers, it’s their ability to create a distinctive and influential signature sound – I just need to hear some variety here and there.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018

The next track “Beach House” – which is literally named after the laid-back indie dreampop duo that the sound of the track was influenced by – doesn’t fare much better, dropping into a copy-pasted half-time and explosive yet brief dance segment interspersed between Taggart’s underwritten calls out to a girl. The track “You Owe Me” as well, despite being one of the catchiest here, was clearly inspired directly from the Twenty One Pilots repertoire, continuing to display the duo’s dearth of original ideas. The lyrics only get more awkwardly histrionic later on. Taggart adopts this kind of overwrought emo cadence for the whole duration of the album, really leaning into the ever-present idea that his words addressing the basics of life are much more poignant than they really are, but it all comes to a breaking point on the title track “Sick Boy” where he takes it so far it almost sounds like he’s faking a British accent. “How many likes is my life worth?”, Taggart emotes, trying to make some kind of a political statement with disjointed buzzwords and criticizing narcissism on an album full of it.

The duo collaborate with fellow DJs Aazar and NGHTMRE as the album winds down on the tracks “Siren” and “Save Yourself”, two tracks that inexplicably recall the peak of Skrillex-fronted brostep and come across as incredibly dated. “Siren” in particular sounds identical to the form and synth textures of how Skrillex used to structure his drops – the duo clearly think they’re evolving, switching it up, but they’ve gone so far backward into a sound I never thought I’d hear again.

I call this a transitionary project due to the legitimate presence of some new ideas here, most of which are actually pretty good. The last track to be released on this project, “Hope”, featuring the subtly beautiful vocals of Winona Oak, finally switches up the rhythmic structure of a Chainsmokers track with some Prismizer-esque layering of her vocals and a marimba-esque synth tone that enhances the flow with some syncopated cascading melodies. The way the pre-chorus returns at the end of the song, interspersing with the more upbeat section of the track which is allowed to continue instead of cutting short, is another obvious exercise in song structure that the duo should have tried long ago that really completes the track.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018 live

Frequent collaborator Emily Warren lends her vocals to the track “Side Effects”, a much darker track than we’re used to from the duo featuring some fuzzy synth-bass and a much more driving style – those piano chords in the background are an unexpected detail that completes the mix. Warren actually drops a pretty great rap verse as well, and the high-octane nature of the track when she hits her energetic peak is something completely new for the duo. “Everybody Hates Me”, if you can ignore Taggart’s return to some whiny, suffering-from-success sob stories that rival Drake at his absolute worst, features a pretty fun synth breakdown as well that represents another rhythmic switch and reminds me of the legitimately thrilling drop of their last truly great track, “Roses”.

Sick Boy represents the slightest of steps up from their debut project, and it’s good to see that they’re at least entertaining the idea of varying their sound a bit more. Still, there are way too many of their old, insufferable tricks here to justify repeat listens.

Favourite Tracks: Hope, Side Effects, You Owe Me

Least Favourite Track: Somebody

Score: 4/10