Karmin – Leo Rising

Image result for Karmin Leo RisingKarmin’s third studio album is independently released after being dropped from their record label in the wake of disappointing studio effort Pulses. While this new album does unfortunately stick with the same pop-leaning and derivative sound, falling out of alignment with the creatively produced rap covers and great harmonies which characterized their rapid start on YouTube, there are a few diamonds in the rough that elevate it above their previous effort.

One thing that is immediately noticeable on this project is the lack of two of the things which initially made Karmin so great: vocalist Amy Heidemann’s prolific talent for rapping, and harmonies and solos from her husband Nick Noonan who provides the instrumentation. Nick’s voice is just as good, although he lacks the image of the charismatic Amy. It isn’t that Amy’s voice isn’t enjoyable to listen to – when she uses it effectively at least, her upper register can tend to get grating when it is overused, the chorus of single “Didn’t Know You” comes to mind — but what made Karmin special is missing.

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The song “Sugar”, which has been released for over a year already, even adds a subpar melody in place of lyrics that were rapped in the original version, though the rest of the song is as good as it ever was. “Save Me Now” is the only other song where Amy raps, and it is one of the album’s best. When the dark and grimy beat dropped for the first time, I silently prayed that Amy would start rapping and my prayers were answered. Additionally, one of my favourite Karmin songs, 2012’s “Coming Up Strong”, features Nick while Amy only provides harmonies in the chorus. Hearing more of his softer tone to balance out Amy’s theatricality is always nice.

What I do know, however, is that Karmin are two extremely talented individuals, and some of this still shines through on a handful of Leo Rising‘s songs. Nick’s musicianship and ability to create unique and engaging instrumentals on the piano and guitar is displayed prominently on the album’s best songs. When it all comes together with Amy’s vocal to create something outside of the remainder of the album’s paint-by-numbers approach, I am reminded of the old Karmin who sat playing their keyboard in front of a video camera.

A song like “Blame It On My Heart”, for example, incorporates a catchy bassline and pounding and echoed drums before dropping into the album’s best chorus featuring Amy’s jazzy harmonies with herself. The faster tempo and funk-influenced sound alone differentiate the song from the rest of the album and makes it stand out as a highlight. Other impressive moments usually feature Nick’s outstanding instrumentation, such as the beautiful guitar ballad “Along The Road” and the ragtime piano rendition of the chorus of “Easy Money” which closes out the track and highlights how great the melody we just heard really was. I likely would have appreciated the song much less without it.

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The problem with the majority of these songs is that they are simply too boring. Amy’s voice alone is not interesting enough to carry pop songs that are this generic. It seems to be a problem discovering the identity of the band after being signed and dropped, as there are still flashes of the creativity and musicality that they displayed in their YouTube videos and earlier work.

The middle section of the album sags considerably: some songs start promisingly such as “No Suitcase”, which contains a beautiful minor-scale melody in its verses before an obnoxious four-on-the-floor beat kicks in and Amy’s voice borders on shouting during a simple chorus. Seeing as the songs are almost exclusively written and produced by the duo, having an underwhelming song that goes nowhere such as “Everything” in the same collection as other excellent tracks here just shows lazy writing.

While the transition to releasing music independently may have restored the creative freedom that Karmin thrived upon before, they are not taking full advantage of it. They display that the talent and the creativity are both still there, but need to escape the pop mindset that was surely hammered home when they were signed to the label and rediscover their identity. This hopefully will include the return of Amy’s raps and the husband and wife harmonies. Their biggest hit, “Brokenhearted”, blew up before they were signed. Independent creative and commercial success has proven to be and still is very possible for the duo and their career moving forward after this transition period will be interesting to watch.

Favourite Tracks: Along The Road, Easy Money, Blame It On My Heart, Save Me Now

Least Favourite Track: I Got You

Score: 5/10

Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION: Side B

Image result for emotion side bComing off one of the strongest pop albums of the decade, Carly Rae Jepsen and her contingent of masterful writers and producers celebrate the 1 year anniversary of breakthrough album E-MO-TION with a collection of B-Sides. These do their part to continue the all-out sugar rush that the parent album started. Each one of these songs could be switched with another on the finalized tracklist and the album would remain just as good as it already is. In a similar scenario to what we saw with Kendrick Lamar’s release of Untitled Unmastered earlier this year, even Jepsen’s throwaway songs are better than her competitors’ greatest work.

While many pop stars are currently attempting to recreate this 80s-influenced sound, it often falls flat because the writing is not as strong as it needs to be. Jepsen’s music makes it seem like the construction of a bubblegum pop song is some kind of a complex rocket science which takes a special kind of individual to perfect. When inundated with today’s biggest pop hits, you begin to forget that there is absolutely a right way to create a perfect pop song – and it is this. These lyrics may be simple, but they are deceptively smart, encompassing something like the ecstatic feelings of love in a single sentence. This is then wrapped up in a catchier earworm than you’ll hear on any radio station. Jepsen’s playful voice, toned town to a seductive near-whisper or extremely powerful when the scenario calls for it, fits the aesthetic perfectly.

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Jepsen really is the greatest pure pop star of our generation, and her cult following grows deservedly stronger each day. Jepsen reportedly narrowed down a shortlist of 40 songs to what became the final version of E-MO-TION, and if the songs that were cut were all this strong, it must have been an agonizing process.

While some new faces do appear on this project, such as lesser-known producers Kyle Shearer, TMS and Nick Ruth, the names of critical darling musicians still appear beside the project’s best songs. Max Martin associate Rami Yacoub provided both the bouncy beat and the lyrics of opener “First Time”, which tactically hides gut-wrenchingly sad lines about breakups hidden in what might be the most fun song of 2016.

I have played these songs countless times since this album came out – how could you not, when the music is this refreshing and exhilarating – and never realized the implications of what is the main line in the song’s chorus, “Every time my heart breaks/It feels like the first time” until it came time to write an in-depth review because it sounds like such sugary sweet pop bliss. Greg Kurstin, who recreated the 80s almost as well on Tegan and Sara’s recent “Love You To Death” did similar double duty on “Higher”, while Dev Hynes, who produced E-MO-TION’s best song “All That”, appears as a writer on “Body Language”.

Image result for carly rae jepsen dev hynesJepsen with all-star producers Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid on SNL

Sonically, the majority of the album follows its source material, as breezy synths inject the songs with energy, and an abundance of funk bassline which captures the period of 80s dance music at its height. “Store” in particular proves to be a great example of two of the things Jepsen excels at, although the transition between the two on the song one of the only things that isn’t flawless about these 8 songs. The pre-chorus acts like an upbeat power-pop ballad, complete with spectacular harmonies, before plunging into an all-out singalong chorus punctuated by short synth stabs resembling a horn section. The song transitions here to a different aspect of what made the greatest 80s pop music so great. It also helps that the song’s concept is hilarious, as Jepsen makes up for her inability to execute a breakup smoothly by misdirecting her lover with the age-old line: “I’m just going to the store”.

Much of what makes Jepsen’s music since shedding her “Call Me Maybe” image and emerging as a powerhouse in the indie scene so fantastic has both already been written, and yet can tend to be somewhat indescribable. It boils down to a very simple concept: Jepsen’s music, on both parts of the E-MO-TION project, makes me feel good, possibly better than any artist can. And that is a very special quality to possess.

Favourite Tracks: Higher, Roses, Body Language, The One

Least Favourite Track: Fever

Score: 9/10

Lindsey Stirling – Brave Enough

Image result for lindsey stirling brave enoughEDM violinist and YouTube superstar Lindsey Stirling steps up the dance factor on her third studio album, bringing in more well-known producers and features to further propel her into the public consciousness. The combination of pounding, dubstep-influenced beats with her signature rapid-fire violin sound that we’ve come to love from her since her first viral video (2012’s “Crystallize”) persists here and is taken to new heights.

I can truly say that one of the coolest moments of my life is when I attended Stirling’s concert at VidCon 2013, turned around to observe the crowd and saw hundreds of people dancing to violin music. Stirling takes a classical instrument not typically utilized in today’s world of pop music and makes it incredibly modern.

More recognizable names show up on the project than in her previous works, contributing to the quality of both the more pop-leaning hooks provided by the guest vocalists and the electronic aspects. Songwriting and production duo Rock Mafia appear on instrumental standout “The Phoenix” as well as craft Shiny Toy Guns vocalist Carah Faye’s powerful chorus on “Where Do We Go”. EDM force Robert DeLong adds his flair to “Prism”, and superstar electronic musician-turned-pop producer Zedd makes his presence felt on “Love’s Just A Feeling”. which could easily pass for one of his own songs.

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The album is split between Stirling’s solo tracks carried by her creative violin melodies, and songs with contributions by a guest vocalist, more of a rarity in her earlier days. The violin replaces where the dance breakdown would typically be in an EDM song, therefore still allowing her to have a prominent presence on these songs. Neither half rises over the other, as the main draw to the album is without question Stirling’s dexterity with her instrument which is featured heavily regardless. The guest vocalists never outshine her, instead complementing nicely, many of the soft-spoken indie variety. Christina Perri’s turn on “Brave Enough” and country duo Dan + Shays’s “Those Days” deserve special recognition, although the fact that a song now exists which features an EDM violinist, a Christian rapper (Lecrae) and the frontman of Weezer is quite remarkable (Don’t Let This Feeling Fade).

Genres are entirely thrown out the window on this project as they have for the majority of Stirling’s career: another track boasts Indian songstress Raja Kumari, blending Stirling’s work with classical elements of Indian music. It really goes to show how confident in her artistry Stirling is to apply her trademark style to so many facets of the music world.

Her musicianship is displayed most prominently when it exists all on its own, however. When all the bombastic production is stripped away, Stirling really is incredibly proficient with her instrument. “The Arena”, already released as a single, stands out among the pack, as the bass rumbles behind Stirling’s violin spinning rapidly through 32nd and 64th notes. It is a truly dizzying and impressive piece of art. “Prism”, on the other hand, her her applying pizzicato techniques in order to sound like a typical chopped-up vocal sample. EDM musician Robert DeLong’s added electronic quirks add to the overall Skrillex-sounding vibe.

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“Gavi’s Song”, which closes out the album, displays another dimension altogether: essentially a pure, emotional classical violin song without any semblance of an accompanying beat. The song was written for Stirling’s touring keyboardist and close friend Jason Gaviati, who passed away last year. To evoke this much emotion without a single word shows immense talent.

All in all, even as a listener of a great variety of musical genres, it surprises me that a full-length album centred on a violin could be this captivating. Stirling’s insistence on pushing the envelope of classical music creates something that is consistently new and interesting, as does her blending of every genre under the sun into her already hybrid world, ranging from country to Bollywood. This much unbridled creativity on a third release only shows exceptional promise.

Favourite Tracks: Those Days, The Arena, Prism, Don’t Let This Feeling Fade, Lost Girls

Least Favourite Track: Something Wild

Score: 9/10

Frank Ocean – Blonde

After an agonizing 4 year wait, visionary artist Frank Ocean has released Blonde, as well as an accompanying visual album Endless, and reveals that the wait was certainly worth it.

It is difficult to approach such a sprawling work in the context of a review, because there are so many different interlocking aspects and allusions that the overall meaning of the album will continue to unravel more and more upon multiple listens. I see this album almost as a modern-day version of T. S. Eliot’s long poem “The Waste Land”, with its descriptions of the trials and tribulations of romance in the modern world (“Facebook Story”, about a man whose three-year relationship was consumed by jealousy as a result of his refusal to accept his partner on Facebook due to the fact that she was directly in front of him, is gut-wrenching) and numerous allusions to music of the past — at times Frank interpolates lyrics by The Beatles, The Carpenters and Elliott Smith, whose name he hilariously spells wrong on his album credits in true Frank Ocean fashion.

As Frank is notoriously private and mysterious, so is the list of production credits. He only provides a lengthy list of accomplished and equally genius artists who contributed to the project . This is the same man who credited his dog Everest as executive producer of his previous work, Channel Orange, after all. The list includes Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, James Blake, and Rick Rubin, among many others. The resulting music is what occurs when this many incredible artists join forces.

For an album that was clearly ordered extremely deliberately (The most drug and alcohol-referencing tracks begin immediately after a voicemail from Frank’s mother instructing him not to partake in such things, for example), the music is quite beautifully disjointed. The vast majority of the album is set over minimalistic production involving acoustic guitars and synth piano, Frank’s dynamic voice in full control. Frank may be one of the most naturally talented R&B singers in the game right now — See the chorus of standout track “Solo”, or the way he manages to still sound beautiful on what sounds like an IPhone voice memo on “Good Guy” — but is charismatic enough to carry a track without using his voice to its full potential. He frequently offers instead a feigned lack of effort that leads to what is essentially half-rapping.

But while this minimalism occurs, the songs shift and change, both within themselves and in transitions to the next, sometimes comically jarringly and sometimes so smoothly you forget the song has changed. A song rarely ends the way it started. As the album drifts into its second half, we have these rapid-fire brief tracks one after another: An isolated, technically incredible Andre 3000 verse, perhaps the album’s most experimental song overwhelmed by industrial white noise in “Pretty Sweet”, the aforementioned “Facebook Story”, and a very unique interpretation of The Carpenters’ “(They Long To Be) Close To You”. But as these generational artists who rise above creatively tend to do, on repeated listens it begins to all make sense.

One of the things Ocean is truly talented at is creating music that is particularly unconventional, and yet sticks with you perpetually. None of these songs will ever be on the radio, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t a treasure trove of great hooks and catchy beats here. “Pretty Sweet”, although still taking some time to get used to for this listener, seems to be the best example. Underneath all of the chaos that Frank seems to thrive in, lies a beautiful melody – Frank’s high-pitched voice emotes “To the fathers on whom we rely/Fathers on Earth be kind” before a gargantuan beat drops briefly to end the track.

This is the most complete, thought out and well-executed release since Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” in early 2015, and as it stands is unquestionably the album of the year. As frequent collaborator Malay mentioned in a recent Reddit AMA to quell the disappointment that another release date had come and gone, “Art cannot be rushed. It’s about making sure the perfect aesthetic for the situation has been reached, to do that, takes constant tweaking, trial and error”. This tweaking is quite evident upon multiple listens to this complex and multilayered work, and looking back on it now, I am very glad that Frank took all the time he needed on this project. The aesthetic he created is perfect indeed, and if there is any justice should stand the test of time for many years to come.

Something refreshing is that unlike most modern geniuses, Frank is quite humble – he insists on “Futura Free” that he is the one who should be paying us for our continued support … before veering into “Don’t let them find 2Pac, he evade the press, he escape the stress”. This is why we love the enigma that is Frank Ocean.

Favourite Tracks: Solo, Self Control, Pink & White, Godspeed, Nikes

Least Favourite Track: Pretty Sweet

Score: 10/10

Young the Giant – Home Of The Strange

Young the Giant’s third studio album attempts to forge a new sound for the band, veering towards a political path and implementing more complex instrumentation and distorted vocals, but still ends up falling under the same umbrella as other contemporaries at times. Still, this is a high quality alternative record and the musicianship displayed is quite impressive.

The sound of the album is more influenced by electronic aspects than the band has been before, but they maintain their previous guitar-driven sound that is somehow both delightfully crunchy and melodic. The new sound works well on them, providing interesting, albeit slightly derivative musical moments. Ever since single “Cough Syrup”, with its calm exposition and bombastic chorus, drove the band to international success, they have followed what is more or less the same, successful formula.

On this album, the two levels of energy are more divided onto their own tracks, abrasive sounds like “Jungle Youth” contrasting with subtle lullabies like “Art Exhibit”. All the same, at times I can’t help feeling like Patrick Stump adopted Matt Bellamy’s outlook on the world and took to the recording studio.

The band’s lyrics are as intelligent as they’ve ever been, and the poignant observations regarding the state of the world come at a great time. We haven’t heard material like this from a rock band since Muse’s “Drones”. Since the band is still relatively pop-driven, about half of the album is still tailored to this area lyric-wise. But then, the occasional poetic gem drops on the unsuspecting listener. The description of a picture of his previous lover on “Art Exhibit”, the questioning of his personal beliefs on single “Something to Believe In”.

“Believe In” is the best song here, and is an earworm of the best kind — as proven by the fact that I am certain I have heard this song somewhere before, and yet I cannot remember where. One of those catchy songs implemented in a commercial that never leaves your subconscious. Pounding and anthemic, guitars ascending and descending the scales with ease, frontman Sameer Gadhia details a dialogue with a voice in his head which symbolises God.

The album does have its occasional misfire, some songs feeling like filler despite the album’s sub-40 minute runtime. Young the Giant’s early work was heavily criticised for latching onto the rising tide of indie music in the wake of Arcade Fire’s album of the year win for “The Suburbs” in the early 2010s, refusing to carve out their own sound. While the factor of creativity certainly has increased on Home of the Strange, a few songs revert to the checklist of what makes a popular indie-rock song.

“Nothing’s Over” in particular, geared more towards the realm of pop with its reliance on a hook and repetitive lyrics, does not fit beside the captivating ballads and high-energy protest found elsewhere. Additionally, Gadhia’s raspy voice tends to get somewhat irritating when it is not deployed in the most effective ways, such as on “Titus Was Born”, which begins as a promising slower track before the louder hook descends upon the calm instrumental, sending the song to a different place it likely should not have gone.

Ultimately, there are many good ideas implemented on Home of the Strange, and the coveted sound which was lacking on their earlier efforts is beginning to emerge. The blending of the synths and melodic guitar work is surprisingly effective, and Gadhia’s booming voice ties things together nicely. The slight decline in the band’s popularity gives them fewer expectations to meet, and with this lack of outside influences some interesting sounds are starting to bloom. This is a quite satisfying alternative album, and although works in this genre tend to feed off of each other, the richness in sound, combined with the musicality and lyricism demonstrated by the band, cause Home of the Strange to stand out amongst the rest.

Favourite Tracks: Something to Believe In, Silvertongue, Elsewhere, Jungle Youth, Amerika

Least Favourite Track: Nothing’s Over

Score: 7/10


Songwriter, producer, Drake protégé and R&B artist PARTYNEXTDOOR’s third studio effort latches on to the rising tide of the popularized OVO sound which is currently infiltrating its way into every facet of the music industry. The minimalistic alt-R&B presented here makes for a project which is incredibly sonically unified, even as the runtime extends past an hour. But rather than aiming for hits on this project like some of his contemporaries, PND slows things down for a more stripped back and intimate listening experience. While it would be fantastic if this had translated to PND offering a higher degree of artistry than his labelmates, it mostly sounds like emulation, albeit quite masterful.

Production is handled mostly by OVO beat mastermind 40, as well as PND himself, among some other lesser-known OVO associates. While these people have proven time and time again that they are amazing and very effective at what they set out to do, there is one again no new personnel coming in to provide a new perspective, and that is why the sound of this album hits every point of the framework of what is popular amongst the OVO camp at the moment. PND rides Drake’s current wave of dancehall-inspired instrumentals, which turns out to be a major strength of P3 as I believe he does it better than the boss himself. During a woozy section in the album’s middle, PND offers up the Weeknd’s brand of slowed-down, darkly beautiful alt-R&B numbers as well.

“Not Nice” is possibly the best song to come out of the OVO dancehall craze, speeding joyfully along and sounding like a caffeine-injected version of “One Dance”. PND’s instantly catchy melody adapts to the steel drum instrumental, the joy of recording coming across evidently to the listener. “Only U” follows and is equally as good. PND hails from Mississauga, Ontario of all places, but he could convince me he was born and raised in Jamaica with these songs. His voice adapts very well to the patois for some reason, unlike how awkward it can be when Drake says something like “ting”.

“Joy”, on the other hand, is the best Weeknd-style track. It really is quite ridiculous how thinly veiled PND’s imitation of his peers is on this project, as he adopts Abel’s grim worldview and desensitization to emotions in his lyrical content. This sounds like a track that was rejected from “Beauty Behind the Madness” for being too happy, actually entertaining the concept that finding joy in a relationship is possible. The Weeknd would never do such a thing! The song is the best showcase for PND’s voice over languid acoustic strumming and minimalistic backing piano. The Weekndisms and guitar-based R&B continue on standout track “Spiteful”.

A few of these songs overstay their welcome and become almost over-indulgent. There is no reason for a song which does not divert once from a singular idea – PND and his lady need 1942 tequila – to be nearly 6 minutes in length. Quite often after the main structure of a song has run its course, PND remains on a more minimal version of the beat for an extra minute crooning out variations of some of the lyrics we just heard. If PND was an absolute knockout of a singer, this would probably be beneficial, but at the moment it is just too much. The intro “High Hopes” could have been one of the best songs if it didn’t bore me to death with its 7:22 runtime.

PARTYNEXTDOOR was signed in tandem with The Weeknd by label boss Drake. Now only one of the two has become a burgeoning superstar, and I believe it may have to do with the fact that The Weeknd is one of the only people in the entire OVO camp who broke from the formula and started doing something new and interesting. It caused him to stand out from the crowd, whereas PND does not regardless of how good the songs actually are. PND at times sounds like the sonic baby of the OVO melting pot on this project, and carving out his own sound will ultimately be necessary for further success. When I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between PND and Drake on collaboration “Come and See Me”, I knew there was a persisting problem here. But then again, PND is a pretty fantastic imitator.

Favourite Tracks: Not Nice, Joy, Only U, Spiteful

Least Favourite Track: 1942

Score: 6/10

Schedule Shift

Reviews will be up Tuesday and Thursday instead of the usual Monday and Wednesday this week, it’s a busy time at the moment. My review of PARTYNEXTDOOR’s new album will be up tomorrow. Apologies!

2 Chainz – Daniel Son; Necklace Don

On a day when we were expecting new music from Frank Ocean, Travis Scott and 2 Chainz, only one of the three promises was fulfilled, and it was the one I was quite decidedly the least excited to listen to. Nonetheless, Chainz came through indeed with a 9-track mixtape announced only 4 days before its release, and continued to do exactly what 2 Chainz does on it.

2 Chainz is an absolutely hilarious enigma of a person, and this is why people, including myself, continue to listen to his music. The musical merit itself sometimes matters very little with his work, because at times he has enough charisma and weird and wonderful ways to phrase things to carry a song solely on these aspects. He tends to ramble on about nothing in particular during some of these tracks, and it is inexplicably amazing. His pre-song explanation of the ridiculous concept of “Chirp”  — that he needs an alarm to go off every time someone attempts to take his style — is a joy to behold, and the fact that one of the best songs on the project containst a chorus constructed of Chainz poorly imitating the sound of a phone alarm speaks volumes to his goofy charm.

2 Chainz might rely on the placement of memorable quotables more than any other rapper. That being said, when listening to a full project, the lack of musicality or technical ability from Chainz becomes incredibly apparent and impossible to ignore. Chainz’ features have all been quite enjoyable recently, most notably his contribution to Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem”, and this project makes me realize that it truly is because 2 Chainz exists as more of a complementary joke to enhance a song briefly than an actual standalone artist.

This isn’t necessarily as bad of a knock on Chainz as it may sound — sometimes a song can benefit greatly from someone like Chainz bounding all over a song like a court jester for 45 seconds. But when a wildly inconsistent rapper like Drake appears on “Big Amount” and delivers a mediocre verse in comparison to the rest of his arsenal, he still manages to sound leaps and bounds more technically sound, professional and experienced than Chainz (who has been in the game longer). Something is a problem with the formula.

Chainz and Drake came together on album highlight “Big Amount”

The aforementioned problem with the level of musicality present on Chainz’ music is actually much less apparent on this project; many of the beats are surprisingly strong. The piano-influenced woozy trap beat of “Ounces Back” would be incredible if it were utilized by a rapper who had the capability to do more than stumble headlong overtop of it, offering up the odd “Imma get married at Benihana’s!” Drake’s verse on “Big Amount”, a song that features a very interesting beat which almost verges on the rising tide of tropical EDM music, shows what happens when some of these above-average rap instrumentals are given to someone who knows what to do with them.

All in all, Chainz’ music suffers from one major overriding flaw no mater how much his ridiculous bars bring a smile to my face. This flaw is that the music is incredibly forgettable, which it really should not be for such an enigmatic personality. Chainz’ inability or lack of care to vary his flows and over-the-top repetition (We get it Mr. Chainz, many things in your life are a blessing) blends together songs that are actually quite different. The listener is bored to death even on a tape offering classic Chainz-isms like “I just told myself…’Self, I need a new bracelet'”. One wonders what an alternate universe version of Chainz who put in the slightest iota of effort to make his music actually sound good would produce. In the universe we live in, however, this 2 Chainz should just stick to features.

Favourite Tracks: Big Amount, Chirp, Ghetto

Least Favourite Track: You In Luv Wit Her

Score: 3/10

DJ Snake – Encore

Parisian electronic musician DJ Snake’s debut album Encore serves as his attempt to establish himself as a household name and a mainstream pop powerhouse with an album that both stays true to his origins and aims for wide-ranging crossover, both in the realms of pop and hip-hop. There is a very wide disparity in genres on the project, all executed to different levels of success, but all very solid for a debut effort.

Snake is at his very best staying in the lane he was introduced to us in with “Turn Down For What” – percussion-heavy, extremely innovative hardstyle EDM bangers. While it is typical for many popular EDM artists to construct a song that is essentially a shorter song repeated twice or three times (Snake himself is guilty of this a few times on Encore), Snake tends to vary his material and create an interesting and fun listening experience throughout, surprising the listener with new sounds as he continues to increase the energy of the track as it progresses. “Pigalle”, “Ocho Cinco” and especially “Propaganda” are great examples of the place that every electronic music producer should strive to be right now.

“Propaganda” in particular might be one of my favourite tracks of the year. This is the closest Snake comes to recapturing the “Turn Down For What” magic. The skittering production and massive dubstep synths make this the most danceable and fun track on the whole project. I have probably played this song more times between an album release and a post than any other since this blog’s inception.

If Snake really insisted on crossing over anywhere, it should be the trap scene. He experiments with the sound primarily on two tracks in the album’s middle section, both of which deliver. These sound like they could be some of Metro Boomin or Southside’s biggest hits of the year. Snake shows that he has an ear for melodies, which for some reason he only applies to songs featuring niche artists like Young Thug and Travis Scott, instead of say, Justin Bieber. “The Half” is supplied by a fantastic dance breakdown to accompany Jeremih and Thug’s catchy vocals effortlessly riding the beat, whereas “Oh Me Oh My” is a through-and-through Southern trap banger with Scott and Migos offering up quotables for days. “I JUST SHUT THE CLUB DOWN I AIN’T EVEN TRY!”

For an album with such great highs, sometimes things fall apart. The beginning of the album is quite weak and had me worried for what the rest would bring. I would have expected Snake and Skrillex’s styles to mesh together very well, but “Sahara” does not work at all. The build-up and drop sound like they come from two entirely different songs and do not cohesively mesh together. Opening single “Middle” is not bad as far as mainstream electronic singles go, but it is a far cry from Snake’s more creative works. “Turn Down For What” is one of the greatest EDM songs ever composed because of its frantic and unpredictable nature, and “Middle” — and “Sober”, co-written by uninspiring pop producer of the moment Ricky Reed and inconsistent DJ of the moment Flume — are comparatively extremely bland.

Bieber-featuring “Let Me Love You” falls slightly flat energy-wise as well, especially placed within this dynamic and uptempo album. I think Snake may need better personnel, seeing as his single choices and high-profile feature opportunities (Skrillex, Bieber) pale in comparison to his better works.

The album continues to shift direction closer to its conclusion, and for the better. Snake’s placement of two exceptional tracks like “Future, Pt. 2” (Where is Part 1?!) and “Here Comes The Night” at the album’s tail end shows confidence in the strength of the project as a whole. These tracks contain the same creativity behind Snake’s dance sections, but with less of a punishing beat. While it may be difficult for the general public to ignore the album’s star power, it should ultimately be these tracks that serve as the sweet spot, finding success filling dance floors nationwide. Bipolar Sunshine’s vocals are chopped up to sound like a scat solo on the climax of “Future” to maximum euphoric potential.

Snake has the potential in spades. It seems like he is having difficulty choosing a concrete direction to go with his music at the moment, but hopefully whichever way he ultimately ventures he is able to imbue to innovation and audible joy of creation possessed by “Turn Down For What”, “Propaganda”, “Future, Pt. 2” and others. The world of EDM may verge on stale and repetitive the quickest, and Snake’s breath of fresh air is welcomed with open arms.

Favourite Tracks: Propaganda, Future Pt. 2, Pigalle, Ocho Cinco, Oh Me Oh My

Least Favourite Track: Sahara

Score: 8/10

NAO – For All We Know

Rapidly rising R&B artist NAO, hailing from England, has released her hotly anticipated debut album, For All We Know. While this is one of the most instantly attention-grabbing sounds presented on a major release in quite some time, a large part of NAO’s appeal is actually her extremely unique voice. It is easy to see why DJs want her to do vocal work on her songs, as this voice has the capability to make anything stand out from the crowd. It sounds almost as if she sucked the air out of a helium balloon before taking to the vocal booth, which might not sound like a particularly positive quality to possess, but for some reason it works with this style of music. Perhaps it is just the unique quality which draws me to it.

The R&B route is likely not the direction one might expect someone possessing this voice to take – but then again, this is not the most typical of R&B albums. There is quite a bit of dance music influence here likely due to her companionship and collaborations with musicians like Disclosure and Mura Masa. The sound of the project could best be described as electro-funk. 808 drum machines and pulsating synths collide with jazzy and dynamic basslines, swing tempos and snappy melodies. It is quite a new and interesting sound, and NAO is acting as somewhat of a pioneer in bringing it more into the public eye. I expect many to follow her lead. It serves as an excellent, more electronic and modern update to this variety of the late-80s to early-90s R&B style.

While this sound is certainly quite a breath of fresh air and the album is a very enjoyable listen throughout, upon multiple listens the 18-track album begins to feel a bit overlong and repetitive. I found myself thinking on multiple occasions that a vocal line NAO song sounded reminiscent of Mario’s “Let Me Love You” – before realize that it was simple because many of these songs do sound very similar. This concept would work much better if some expendable tracks were cut. Though, this makes the more different tracks stand out even more. “Trophy” in particular trades in the funky bassline for a creeping synth resembling an electric guitar. A collaboration with fellow singer-producer A. K. Paul (singer Jai Paul’s brother!), NAO’s fluttery vocals are multilayered and spliced over the track. As they eventually mix with Paul’s, it creates a truly immersive and atmospheric listening experience. The fact that it barely misses my list of favourite tracks speaks volumes to the strength of this work.

Ultimately, where the musical composition lacks range, the idea itself is novel enough that it does not detract to a large degree. The album picks up steam towards its end; it seems many of these riskier tracks ended up at the back end of the tracklist. The synth melodies driving these particular tracks become more varied and interesting on tracks like “We Don’t Give A” and “Give Me A Little. Impressively, NAO has production credits on about half of these tracks, even having solo credit on “Intro (Like Velvet)” and “Adore You”. Other production duties are handled mainly by up and coming electronic music producers from NAO’s native England such as Jungle and (quite prominently) GRADES. For NAO to have such a large role in forging this sound she so confidently brings forth on her debut album shows a very promising degree of artistry.

NAO performs with Disclosure

While the barrage of large dancefloor-ready electro-funk beats are often welcomed, I find that some of my favourite moments on the album are when the production is stripped back to become more minimal, even for a brief moment before the beat kicks in again. NAO’s voice is so otherworldly that I want to hear it as unobstructed as possible. “DYWM” is one of the best showcases for her voice in this way on the project, starting slow and simple before a more house-influenced beat I command you not to nod your head to drops and takes over the track’s latter half – but not overpoweringly so. This could be a distant cousin to NAO’s Disclosure collaboration “Superego”. Then again, it’s used to its full potential in a different way on closer “Feels Like (Perfume)”, a song that is absolutely effortlessly sexy – take notes, Jeremih.

The world of female R&B right now is very fascinating. A long list has begun to unravel of different sounds and creative artists forging their own unique and innovative paths in the music industry, a list that NAO can be added to with confidence. This album could easily have been made by say, a FKA twigs from an alternate universe that happened to take more of a liking to funk. The future, for NAO and for the genre itself, looks bright.

Favourite Tracks: We Don’t Give A, DYWM, Give Me A Little, Feels Like (Perfume), Get To Know Ya

Least Favourite Track: Blue Wine

Score: 8/10