Desiigner – New English

DesiignerNewEnglish.jpg19-year old Brooklyn area rapper Desiigner, the newest signee to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music label who took over the world with the release of infectious single “Panda”, has finally released his first mixtape. Although if Desiigner is looking to become anything more than a one hit wonder, there is not a lot here which keeps this hope alive. If you have seen any interviews, live performances, or just about any video with the rapper in it, you know that he is a very strange and off-kilter person, and while the translation of this aspect into his music results in his unbridled energy and joy shining through on “Panda”, it also translates to a very confusing album layout.

Less than half of these songs are even 3 minutes long. Two of them are very brief, instrumental interludes which sound like they would not be out of place in a ballet number (One wonders why, if he displays an interest in other forms of music like this, he remains so mind-numbingly one-dimensional). The biggest hit, “Panda”, is placed at the end. And to break from formula, one song, “Da Day”, is a whopping 6 minutes and 45 seconds in length – and interestingly, is the only other great song on the project.

The main problem with this project is its lack of creativity, an aspect which I would expect to be there in spades after working so closely with Kanye. The rampant jokes about his similarity to Future are bound to continue, because little effort is made to differentiate himself, seemingly content to ride the success of one single with all else an afterthought. Many of the songs are as repetitive as songs can get, with a selection of generic trap beats to accompany them. While I have heard complaints of a similar nature about “Panda”, at least “Panda” contains a rather lengthy verse where Desiigner actually showcases his technical skill as a rapper, dropping a verse which is actually quite hard to keep up with, something which is not replicated on any other song here.

His heavily autotuned cadence makes it quite difficult at times to make out what he is saying, and at full album length this effect can become quite grating. One of the main reasons why “Da Day” stands out is the fact that the effect is toned down and the words are clearer. The song also possesses a fantastic beat switch and vocals which at times sound like Desiigner is going so hard his voice is giving out, and is possibly the only track rivalling “Panda” in earworm potential.

At the same time, even though this project can be quite confusing and hard to get through all at once, you really do have to commend Desiigner for his enthusiasm. A rumoured opener for Kanye’s Saint Pablo Tour, I would probably still be entertained if he came out and performed “Panda” 7 times. The reckless abandon with which he approaches his music impresses and endears us to him for a strange and inexplicable reason. In one of the rare instances where Desiigner forces you to listen to his lyrics, he explains his mixed feelings towards his rapid rise to fame and it is actually somewhat compelling for a man whose choruses often consist of repeating the song’s title ad nauseam. Desiigner is a new and interesting character in the world of music, and with another full length album set to premiere later this year, his journey should be an interesting one. Here’s to hoping he might have another hit one day.

Favourite Tracks: Panda, Da Day, Overnight

Least Favourite Track: Roll Wit Me

Score: 4/10

Broods – Conscious

Indie-pop duo Broods, hailing from New Zealand and consisting of siblings Georgia and Caleb Nott, obliterate the sophomore curse with what is easily one of the best albums of the year. Working with the same personnel for the most part, multi-instrumentalist Caleb and Grammy Award-winning producer Joel Little, who also collaborates extensively with fellow New Zealand native Lorde (co-writer of standout track “Heartlines”), establish synth-based instrumentals which can be both intricate and dreamy, and absolutely huge and hard-hitting, often switching seamlessly between the two mid-song. Such a soundscape provides the perfect environment for Georgia’s vocals to shine, and shine they should.

Now with a wider audience, it would surprise me if Broods did not ultimately cross over to North American pop radio rapidly for nothing other than the strength of her voice alone. A breathy soprano with the potential to transform into an almost overpowering and emotionally laden belt at any given moment mirrors the dynamic quality of the music which accompanies it. This is a bold, confident sound to present, and it expands on the similar sound presented in their previous works mainly by raising the complexity of the instrumentals for a more creative and interesting overall product.

The music itself consists of a variety of clean-cut and punchy rhythms and anthemic choruses, lending the majority of the songs a kind of pulsing energy which one would be hard-pressed not to move to. These instrumentals are quite carefully crafted and the degree of work put into every facet of the many sounds we are hearing certainly comes across to the listener. One of the greatest examples is the layering on Georgia’s vocals on nearly every track, creating harmonies with herself and adding to the overall atmospheric, dreampop-style sound permeating the project. These pounding and frenetic instrumentals occasionally cease for a few interludes of calmer tracks, toning down most of the percussion to showcase Georgia’s marvellous instrument further. Though while it’s usually all about Georgia, the instrumentalists do get to flex their muscles a bit on closing title track “Conscious”, in which the flowing synth orchestra takes over and Georgia’s voice is chopped up over the wave of sound for a powerful and effective outro.

Many of these songs do tend to sound quite similar to each other, falling into somewhat of a formula, the formula they have going is so overwhelmingly good that I find it hard to care. However, this similarity does cause some of the slower tracks, often more experimental and unique (“All of Your Glory”), to stand out. The true appeal of Broods is the strength of the chemistry between this trifecta of musicians: Caleb, Georgia and Joel Little. Such a boundless voice combined with a very creative pop producer and talented multi-instrumentalist, plus the added brother-sister connection, is a force to be reckoned with. This is a very cohesive project, and care was clearly taken with the transitions.

Joel Little with his Song of the Year Grammy for “Royals”

“Freak of Nature”, featuring Tove Lo, is a masterpiece and perhaps the best song I’ve heard all year. Slow building songs are difficult to pull off effectively and, when done right, are my favourite kinds. The track begins at a near whisper, backed only by a minimalistic piano loop, and continues to add elements until Tove Lo and Georgia’s emotive and wailing vocals are bouncing off of each other over a massive instrumental. The kicker is that the song also contains the album’s heaviest and most meaningful lyrics depicting struggles with mental illness. And, like all great songs of this variety do, concludes at the whisper that began it once again.

Broods comes across to me like a more mature and established version of CHVRCHES, what the band could be exercising at their full potential at all times, which is a bold statement for me to make as quite a large fan of CHVRCHES especially because the bands are at essentially the same stage of their careers. The main reason this album crossed over into perfect score territory, something I intend to give out very sparingly, is because I agonized over choosing my favourite and least favourite tracks because they are all so perfect. It is an absolute wonder that an opening song as fantastic as “Free”, a somewhat sinister-sounding song which establishes the sound and serves as great preparation for what is about to come, is immediately followed by 5 straight tracks that are even better. Conscious is flawlessly melodic synthpop bliss.

Favourite Tracks: Freak of Nature, Are You Home, We Had Everything, Full Blown Love, Bedroom Door

Least Favourite Track: Worth The Fight

Score: 10/10

DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall

Longtime veteran of the EDM music scene DJ Shadow releases his first body of work in 5 years, combining his familiar instrumental hip hop beats with experimentation into the world of more off-kilter rhythms and cinematic and ambient soundscapes. The Run The Jewels-featuring single “Nobody Speak” is what piqued my interest in this project, and while the remainder is almost nothing like it, it was a very interesting listen. Nearly all the tracks are entirely instrumental, although the mood being conveyed through the music fluctuates wildly. A handful are the most similar to Shadow’s past work in that he creates what is simply one of the hardest hitting and most complex possible beats with a variety of drum sounds, leaving the listener to wonder what magic could be created if a rapper with the skill level to match were to utilize the beat.

While many of these are fantastic and will be used whenever a shot of energy is needed, the project truly gets interesting when Shadow attempts to create something with a little more emotional weight behind it. The project diverges once again here, with Shadow either trying to create a collection of sounds which are rather beautiful, or downright terrify the listener. The feeling of adrenaline can be an underappreciated one in the lengthy list of what music has the power to give us. Now two decades into his career, this kind of experimentation was likely necessary and the fact that the creative skill to do it is there is highly encouraging.

Since the beats are so off-kilter, often sounding almost like three or four different tracks were made and then thrown haphazardly on top of each other with no attention paid to rhythm, at times it can take a while for a handful of these songs to click with the listener, but when it finally does, it is quite a unique experience that cannot be found in many other areas of the EDM genre. DJ Shadow has put in the much-referenced “10,000 hours of training” and then some and knows what he is doing here, even if at times the places the music goes seem to come from far out of left field.

Some of these songs, like “Three Ralphs” and “Mambo”, still haven’t clicked with me and still sound like jumbled nonsense – this is likely why the score for this album will be lower than it could be – but I fully expect some of these songs to become favourites in the future. “Depth Charge” is a perfect example of when it all comes together and works against all odds. A nearly 5-minute song playing with a selection of different beats based around a looping selection of 3 note jarring synth stabs would not be a successful song under normal circumstances, but Shadow is not a normal DJ.

Shadow’s musical influences and inspirations seem to come from a wide variety of perhaps unexpected places. While his background in hip hop is still the backbone of the project, providing the excellent rap tracks “Nobody Speak” and “The Sideshow”, the remainder is incredibly diverse. Standout track “Pitter Patter” is based around a vocal sample of what sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme, and “Ashes to Oceans” is a 6-minute track which might contain more sound effects than actual music, such as blowing wind and crashing ocean waves, venturing into the world of ambient sound which could easily serve as the soundtrack to a movie.

Key collaborators Run The Jewels

The more time I spend with this project, I expect to unravel more and more layers of it. As it stands at the moment, while quite a bit is still extremely jarring and confusing – I was compelled to immediately download only about half of it, unusual for an album I enjoyed as much as I did – this is some of the most interesting and innovative music I have heard in quite a while and I look forward to attempting to decode it some more.

Favorite Tracks: Nobody Speak, The Sideshow, Ghost Town, Depth Charge, Pitter Patter

Least Favorite Track: Three Ralphs

Score: 7/10

Snow tha Product – Half Way There… Pt. 1 EP

Snow tha Product, bilingual female rapper affiliated with rap veteran Tech N9ne’s independent label Strange Music, capitalizes on her steadily rising popularity with the release of a short and to the point 8-track EP. Previously identifiable by her rapid-fire flow, she dials back the energy on this project to fall more in line with the surging wave of Weeknd-esque alt-R&B music coursing through the frameworks of popular music at the moment. Unfortunately, for an artist who possesses so many interesting points of individuality, this imitation does not do her a great justice – though it may open up a new lane of success for her in the future. A very rare occurrence in the past, Snow sings on about half of these tracks, many of which end up being better than her lacklustre and toned down raps.

This project ultimately falters because it showcases to the listener the great potential that Snow has, shown in her previous work on feature verses such as Tech N9ne’s “So Dope (They Wanna)”, and yet ultimately delivers a project which underwhelms, settling for mediocrity instead of going the extra mile which is displayed for a few fleeting moments. 2 of the 8 tracks on this EP are brief, introspective interludes mainly regarding Snow’s place in the chaos of the music industry, each standing at under a minute. If these were made into full songs, they would easily overshoot every other song here. They stand as a microcosm for the full project in this way, moments of excitement that are over just as they were getting started.

The EP opens with “No Cut”, in which Snow’s flow, sounding much lazier than it has in the past, is layered over a bland and recycled trap beat, and interlaced with multiple interviews of label heads and other powers in the industry lamenting that they overlooked Snow’s talents for too long. The fact that she included these on the opening track would be much more interesting if the music were better – I can identify a few of these interviews as being from a few years ago due to the events referenced, a time when their words made a lot more sense due to the better product she was creating. The fact that Snow included a song – “Nuestra Cancion” – which is entirely in Spanish comes across the same way. I wanted to enjoy the song because its existence is interesting, but it pales in comparison to her other work as well as the standout tracks here.

Opening single “Nights”, on the other hand, is the kind of song that vaults someone to superstardom. Forgoing her menacing rhymes for a surprisingly pleasant singing voice complemented by featured artist W. Darling’s soaring chorus, the R&B tinged pop jam sounds like what might happen if a significantly more talented Nicki Minaj and a significantly more talented DJ Mustard got together. “Not Tonight”, the closing track, brings the energetic bars that I have come to know from Snow in the past, although assisted heavily by an EDM-influenced synth line taking up most of the space in the chorus. These two standout tracks rise clearly above the rest and demonstrate the potential that Snow truly has.

 Snow with”So Dope” collaborators Tech N9ne, Wrekonize and Twisted Insane

The biggest problem here, as with many rising artists, may be the personnel. The production here is generally quite weak and formulaic, and the featured artists, with the exception of W. Darling, detract more than anything else. As she gains followers in the coming years – as she is quite sure to – I hope she is surrounded by an improved collective of creative people who will assist her in achieving the balance many artists seek: display of the talent that many know she has on a commercially viable backdrop. This latter aspect was ultimately focused on too much here.

Favorite Tracks: Nights, Not Tonight

Least Favorite Track: No Cut

Score: 4/10

Nick Jonas – Last Year Was Complicated

Nick Jonas’ sophomore solo effort takes a slight step towards abandoning the R&B angle he surged back onto the music scene with in single “Jealous”, and while the album lies cluttered with filler at times, the highs are quite high indeed. Since “Jealous” was such a quality song mainly due to the instrumentation, distancing himself from full-on R&B numbers might be a smart decision for Jonas. His lilting falsetto is a little weak to be a force in the genre. Lead single “Close” – a slow burning duet with up and coming singer Tove Lo – may be the closest thing to his previous work, and it is one of the weaker tracks here because his voice does not carry the notes as well as an established R&B singer could. On Last Year Was Complicated, he uses his voice to his advantage, creating a body of work which is nothing like his breakout hit, but quite good for a different reason. Except, of course, for anomaly “Chainsaw”, which is the exact same song to a ridiculous degree. It certainly isn’t a bad song, but the similarity is impossible to overlook.

While the album does lean ever so slightly closer towards pop territory, it rarely threatens to be generic. The music is complemented by a trifecta of rising pop producers who each handle about a third of the work –  duo Mattman & Robin, Sir Nolan and most notably Jason Evigan, who contributes what are easily the best songs to the project, including “The Difference”, “Voodoo” and “Champagne Problems”. The instrumental work on the latter two borders almost on EDM, and it draws my attention more to the background than Jonas’ vocals. This is very energetic music, and I can see why it was targeted for a summer release. The funky, punchy staccato rhythms which populate the majority of the tracks, peaking on a song like “Touch”, will likely be prevalent on dance floors throughout the coming months. “The Difference”, however, is the true standout track, and reminds me of Evigan’s work on Fifth Harmony’s Better Together EP, a small project which was released prior to their major label debut album.

 Producer Jason Evigan

Going full pop isn’t the answer either though, as a song like “Bacon”, serviced to pop radio and sure to make an impact soon, is very lacklustre. The token rap features on both “Bacon” and “Good Girls” almost detract from the enjoyment of the songs, as they feel too brief and out of place. Ty Dolla $ign and Big Sean can usually inject an additional shot of energy into a song with ease but they are wasted here. Jonas needs a bit more maturing in his career and progress towards establishing his sound. A direct comparison could be drawn to the time period when Justin Bieber had come out of his teen pop phase – which of course Jonas had his fair share of – and was experimenting with an R&B tinged sound on mediocre albums Believe and Journals, before transitioning to the fully realized musician he is today. Interestingly enough, some of these producers worked on those aforementioned Bieber albums.

As it stands, a number of these tracks lack personality. An emotional ballad like “Unhinged” could have used some, as it doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it could. As the album closes on “Comfortable”, one of the album’s weakest and also the only one with a Jonas production credit, saved from inclusion in the annals of my Least Favorite Track by the presence of an interesting interview with basketball star Allen Iverson, I look forward to a potential Bieberesque renaissance in the future when Jonas discovers exactly the type of music he wants to make. Riding the line can only take one so far.

Favorite Tracks: The Difference, Touch, Champagne Problems, Voodoo

Least Favorite Track: Bacon

Score: 5/10

Little Big Town – Wanderlust

Veteran country quartet Little Big Town, finally having broken out of their exclusively country audience with the Grammy nominated single “Girl Crush”, veer off their usual path with a shortened collection of 80s-inspired pop music, helmed by superstar producer Pharrell Williams. While I would usually expect anything with Pharrell’s name on it to be a positive listening experience, as he has been known to bring out the best in artists in the past with his adaptable and fluid production style, Wanderlust unfortunately exists more as an experimental side project that very rarely comes together. The band themselves have given interviews where they explain that they “don’t know what the album is”, and it is clear that they may not have known what they were getting into with such a drastic shift in sound. It is commendable that they have the courage to experiment in this way, and interesting that Pharrell decided to take on the challenge of producing a country album – if you can really call the finished product that – but most of it is quite unlistenable.

The aspects that drew me to Little Big Town – a group which exists in the realm of my least familiar genre of music – in the first place were the willingness to divert from the repetitive sounds of most country music and include elements of other genres, like the doo-wop influenced “Girl Crush”, and the emotional weight which came with their lyrics. It certainly didn’t hurt either that all of the band members are capable singers in their own right, producing incredible three and four part harmonies. These harmonies fortunately remained on Wanderlust, but the band is not writing songs about anything anymore. Most of the songs are even more repetitive than the typical pop song you might hear on the radio. “Skinny Dippin” in particular begins with such harmonized promise, and then devolves into lyrical inanity so quickly. The melodies of the song swiftly join the lyrics in repetition as well, becoming grating.

I am unsure who had the agency to create this project but it would not prove surprising if Little Big Town first decided they wanted to experiment in this direction and took the idea to a proven producer in Pharrell, rather than the other way around. A lot of very common pop music tropes appear across all tracks – nearly every YouTube comment I saw underneath the music, and even professional review articles compared the tracks to a different 80s song (Hungry Like The Wolf, Like A Virgin, State of Independence…). Pharrell may be making the best out of the small box provided to him of a country group’s vision of pop music. At times, his production does shine through. The instrumental of “One Dance” is particularly jazzy and interesting, but the vocals detract from the overall strength of the song.

Ultimately, there is not a lot to comment on with this project. It embodies lowest common denominator pop music, and comes from a group who should not be making it. To take a giant leap that has a decent chance of ending negatively is certainly commendable, but Little Big Town’s overall body of work would be much better off if this did not exist and it will be remembered as a strange and poorly thought out failure of a side project.

Favorite Tracks: One Dance, Willpower

Least Favorite Track: Work

Score: 2/10

Vic Mensa – Theres Alot Going On

SAVEMONEY affiliate and recent Roc Nation signee Vic Mensa surprise drops a 7-track EP which quells the thirst for his highly anticipated major label debut, Traffic. The album comes in the wake of a number of throwaway trap-influenced singles after signing with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation which were mostly disappointing and in stark contrast with the conscious lyrics and inventive sound present on 2013’s free digital download INNANETAPE. Now, Vic Mensa is back with a vengeance, and even opts to explain why a focus on quality music has not been at the forefront of his life on the very personal title track “There’s Alot Going On” which closes the project. The song feels like an exorcism of Mensa’s personal demons, which includes a struggle with drugs and alcohol, suicidal thoughts, and pressure to live up to idol Kanye West’s artistic vision in his contributions to The Life of Pablo. An extensive tour helped him clean up, get rid of these demons and focus back on the music, and fortunately for the listeners the music has returned to the quality of his previous work in a big way. In addition to this introspective nature, the project turns very political at times, devoting entire songs to events such as the shooting of Laquan McDonald (“16 Shots”) and the Flint water crisis (“Shades of Blue”).

The project is incredibly diverse for a length of only 7 tracks, and as a result it was quite difficult to select a Least Favorite Track for the first time since the creation of this blog – they are all impressive for different reasons, some calling back to the styles he has presented in the past, and some falling more in line with his more recent ventures into trap music – but improving the formula. The influence of contemporaries such as Young Thug is still present on this project (“New Bae” sounds like it could easily be one of his songs, down to the high-pitched autotuned cadence), but unlike his previous work between the release of projects, such as the Kanye-featuring “U Mad”, for the most part this time he has the intelligent lyrical content to back it up. This manifests both in the form of insightful commentary on the world’s issues, and clever double and triple entendres and punchlines found in other lyrically-driven conscious rap artists today such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Even when the project doesn’t have this aspect at times, it’s simply a lot harder than it has been and speaks to Mensa’s improved beat selection now that music is once again his major focus. The project also harkens back to the slam poetry-like flow and delivery which dominated INNANETAPE, imitating childhood friend Chance The Rapper’s sound on Acid Rap. Tracks like “Shades of Blue” contain an off-kilter flow and great lines like “They got Damn Daniel distracting you on Instagram/Back again with the all-white media coverage” and “Everybody tryna be American Idols/My X Factor is I’m the only one with The Voice”.

Even Vic Mensa’s past as a member of now-defunct indie rock band Kids These Days is brought out on the song “Liquor Locker”, which is set to an acoustic guitar beat and entirely sung rather than rapped. The beats in general throughout the project are very interesting and many do not fit the mold of a typical rap instrumental. More than once an interesting element of Middle Eastern-sounding vocals complements the beat. The singing is quite fantastic throughout as well, especially on closing track “There’s Alot Going On”. These beautiful harmonies are not something we hear from an everyday rapper, especially with this high degree of emotion and passion for what is being said behind them. Mensa throws in a subtle reference to Kanye West’s recent track “FML” on this closing song, and rather appropriately: as Kanye says on his own track “Pour out my feelings/Revealing the layers to my soul”. This is exactly what There’s Alot Going On is for, and it renews my faith in Mensa’s artistry and anticipation for the upcoming Traffic.

Favorite Tracks: Danger, Dynasty, There’s Alot Going On

Least Favorite Track: Shades of Blue (If I had to choose one)

Score: 9/10

Tegan & Sara – Love You To Death

Canadian twin sister duo Tegan & Sara release their first album after breaking out into a wider, more mainstream audience with their previous release Heartthrob, which shifted their indie-folk sound to more commercially accessible 80s-style synthpop. The stylistic avenue opened up by this previous release is continued and expanded upon on Love You to Death, as we are once again provided with a short but sweet album of amazing pop hooks set to an upbeat, sugary and joyful backdrop of sound. This joyful sound, as it has in the past, often masks more sombre lyrics about failed experiences in relationships. The topic of relationships is especially significant for this act, as they display openness about their sexuality which is scarcely found on a release expected to perform well commercially and send songs to radio. This is even perhaps the most evident on the lead single “Boyfriend”, a song which utilizes ambiguous gender terms to bring to light a real story of one of the Quin sisters’ relationship with a bisexual woman, competing with a man for her affections. The slight air of ambiguity is taken away later on, and throwing a line as simple as “All the girls I loved before/Told me they signed up for more” into the chorus on “BWU” is refreshing in today’s world of pop music.

As for the musical aspects, Love You to Death is almost entirely comprised of catchy, 80s-inspired synth melodies and basslines, layered with the sharp and fast-paced lyrics we have come to know from the band recently. As with most singing duos connected by blood, a kind of magical connection exists which is used to create perfectly executed harmonies. These harmonies are on display perhaps more than in any other project so far, and are often quite complex and impressive, adding another interesting dimension to what is essentially designed to be a massive earworm of an album. As with Heartthrob, the entire album is produced by Greg Kurstin, also known for his extensive work with artists such as Sia and Kelly Clarkson, and constantly nominated for the Grammys’ producer of the year award. His work on Adele’s 25 (Including “Hello”) is sure to land him there again.  The aforementioned “Boyfriend” might be one of the best lead singles of the year, a perfect introduction to the album. The frenetic synthpop instrumental infuses a spark of energy into the track. The best aspect of this album is the anthemic quality possessed by many of the choruses similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent E-MO-TION, causing me to imagine how fantastic of an experience screaming them at the top of my lungs in a crowd would be. The hook on “Stop Desire” specifically prompted this thought – and since most of it is “oh-oh-oh”s, this speaks for the quality of the music itself.

The main criticism with this album is that there is nothing with a huge amount of artistry or innovation here, whether regaining their older sound before their rise to popularity or extracting everything they can out of the current style like on Heartthrob’s brilliant “Now I’m All Messed Up”. At 10 tracks, the album is too short to contain a lazy variant of this tried-and-true format in opener “That Girl”. In addition, I was less of a fan of the slower songs closer to the end of the project. “100x” in particular sounds like the faster-paced vocal line belongs on one of the bigger beats presented, but instead has a slow piano line behind it. “Hold On To the Night” is an effective enough calm-down outro, but doesn’t pack as much of a memorable punch contributing to replay value. They’ve proven that they can make songs of this nature efficiently in the past, such as on piano ballad hit “I Was A Fool” – though perhaps the only reason I feel this way is because track after track of the in-your-face pop hooks and instrumentation is done so well on this project that it leaves me wanting more.

Favorite Tracks: Boyfriend, Faint Of Heart, Stop Desire, White Knuckles, Dying To Know

Least Favorite Track: That Girl

Score: 7/10