Francis & The Lights – Farewell, Starlite!

Francis Starlite might just be becoming one of the most high-profile indie artists in the world. After having a major role on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and having praised heaped upon him by not only Chance, but his mentor Kanye West, expectations for this debut studio album were understandably high. Francis and the Lights is essentially just one person, although he states that “The Lights” are anyone who may be collaborating with him at that moment. It is fantastic that The Lights turn out to be some of the most talented writers and producers in the music industry, with many high-profile appearances strewn across the album’s tracklist.

Francis’ distorted, harmonic and ambient vocal style has drawn heavy comparisons between him and Bon Iver, who appears on standout track “Friends” and has writing credits on two more. While this may be true, the instrumentals and lyrics are much happier and upbeat, fitting in nicely with the overall sound blaring from all corners of Chicago at the moment. The album is brief, but it is as dynamic, uplifting and create as anything we’ve heard this year. It is easy to see why these visionary artists appreciate and support him — the combination of these energetic and abrasive techno and electronic synths, hip hop and trap beats, and harmonic, happy and positive vocals in the vein of a modern day Phil Collins all collide to create a sound which is truly something entirely new. While the album is not entirely perfect, I’m not sure I’ve seen a new genre created in this way since Kanye’s 2013 project “Yeezus”.

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The album also ties together conceptually, telling the general story of the ups and downs of a relationship. This seems to be a common characteristic of truly great albums lately. The tracks slowly progress from Francis somewhat begrudgingly attending a party, to meeting a girl there and quickly falling in love, to the deterioration of the relationship, to accepting this and moving on, and of course ending with the jubilant refrain – “We could be friends”. While a general theme of the album seems to be staying positive at all costs, the wide range of emotions this album displays over the course of this story is still impressive. Even as Francis’ voice is obscured by distortion and synth-samplers, his emotional state is still communicated clearly to the listeners.

The only song on the project which is entirely sad is “My City’s Gone” — and when Francis finally wants to express his sadness, he goes all out. It speaks to the strength of a musician as a songwriter and artist when a song so minimal with such simple lyrics can still be so breathtakingly affecting, haunting and sad. Kanye West is the true master of this, capable of evoking so much emotion in his voice without saying a word. He continues to do this in his brief feature on the track, humming and echoing Francis’ words. With beautifully plain language, Francis compares his failing relationship to the deteriorating landscape of his city – Oakland, CA. Set to the tune of little more than a piano pitifully plunking out a few notes, the descent to this place after brightly exclaiming “Can I say something crazy? I love you” in previous track “May I Have This Dance” is incredibly depressing – and effective.

Image result for francis and the lightsFrancis, Kanye, Bon Iver, and director Jake Schreier on set of the “Friends” video

“Friends” is another shining moment on the album. Before I was fully aware of what Francis & The Lights was, I was drawn to the track because of the presence of a staggering number of my favorite musicians. The song was the inspiration for Chance The Rapper’s “Summer Friends”, and Francis sampled his own song to produce the track. In addition to featured artists Kanye West and Bon Iver, production credits are given to Cashmere Cat (Kanye, Ariana Grande), Ariel Rechtshaid (HAIM, Sky Ferreira), pop mastermind Benny Blanco and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij (Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean). The song itself is a gospel-tinged expression of pure happiness, driven by an incredible synth lead as Francis, Kanye and Bon Iver’s voices all merge and interchange almost unnoticeably. It is incredibly powerful and structurally complex, and as it builds to its climax,  Francis’ offer: “Just put your hand on my shoulder” stands as a declaration to the world to love one another. We could be friends, after all.

This album is 30 minutes of the expression of raw human emotions in their purest form, set to a genre-defying mix of sounds drawing inspiration from a wide-ranging set of influences. At times, it sounds like the experimental EDM Daft Punk might create, a jazzy, funk disco number, a downtrodden piano ballad, and everything in between. With that list, you certainly wouldn’t expect him to interpolate a line from Drake’s “Worst Behaviour” at a critical moment in his outro. With the growing number of famous friends Francis is accumulating, it won’t be long before he is a household name. He is already a brilliant creative force.

Favourite Tracks: Friends, I Want You To Shake, May I Have This Dance, My City’s Gone, It’s Alright To Cry

Least Favourite Track: Running Man/Gospel OP1

Score: 9/10

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Skylar Grey – Natural Causes

Image result for skylar grey natural causesSkylar Grey’s sophomore effort comes 3 years after 2013’s Don’t Look Down, and while it certainly raises the bar in terms of creativity, ultimately suffers from the same issues of inconsistency which persisted on her debut. It is a confounding and eclectic mix of sounds in the same way, and while some of these sounds utilize her ethereal voice in a perfect way, other times it falls flat. All in all however, this is certainly a step up. It feels less geared at the pop audience, as the last project was filled with unnecessary features and bland songwriting.

Grey seems to have embraced her status as a more prominent force in the indie scene, as many of these songs are slower and aimed more towards a singer/songwriter vibe. The main element which ties together these diverse songs seems to be an emphasis on layered vocals and harmony, and interesting and inspired choice for Grey’s singing style which works very well for the most part.

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It isn’t that Grey excels in one style over the others: hard-hitting and dramatic track “Kill For You” and stripped-down and vulnerable ballad “Moving Mountains” are equally brilliant, and having confusingly lacklustre cousins with similar sounds — perhaps “Straight Shooter’ and “In My Garden”, respectively. It seems like the process of cutting down the album might be difficult. Unlike Don’t Look Down, however, this album truly does have many more incredible moments than it does misfires.

Production is a major strength on this album, and working with a more focused and cohesive group of individuals for the entire duration of the creative process helped in a major way. All producers and writers on this project have been heavily involved with Eminem in some way in the past, which is moderately surprising considering Grey’s genre — even if she has served as a perfect complement to many of the rapper’s songs over the years.

Even with all these distinguished producers, the album’s production MVP might just be Slim Shady himself. He has writing and production credits on the back to back standout songs “Kill For You” and “Come Up For Air”, and while both songs reside comfortably in Grey’s regime of slower-tempo tracks, each is heavily anchored by a massive live drumbeat, intersecting with Grey’s backing vocals and the minimalist production perfectly. While Eminem’s verse on “Kill For You” is still great, although less spectacular than we know he is capable of, “Come Up For Air” is a true masterpiece. Grey’s voice soars, and backed by a choir comprised by her own voice, the song is one of the most strikingly beautiful of the year.

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The theme of minimalism is quite prominent throughout Natural Causes, and it works because Grey’s voice is enough to carry a track on its own. The acoustic and beautifully written ballad “Moving Mountains” is a perfect example. Grey’s voice is full of emotion as she implores us to put aside the ambitious part of ourselves that always wants to change the world and enjoy the moment we are living in. Compared to some of the sleepier ballads like “Closer”, the message of this one shines through. The diversity is another strong suit, often surprising the listener. Middling track “Picture Perfect” is elevated when halfway through the track, the beat picks up and Grey starts rapping. Don’t look now, but she might have done the impossible and turned in a better verse than Eminem on this project.

The high points make the occasional blunders all the more confusing. A few of the slower songs simply suffer from being a less interesting counterpart to a similar song on the album.  A song like “Straight Shooter” is simply unnecessary and dates back to the pandering on the last album, being really the only time her pop past comes back to haunt her. “In My Garden” is fraught with overproduction, distorted synths overpowering the track and drowning out the vocals for a quite uncharacteristically unpleasant listening experience.

Skylar Grey’s overall artistic vision on this project makes for a much more fully fleshed-out work than her debut, and despite the brief inconsistencies, provides us with some stunning slower tracks for the colder months. Hopefully her friend and mentor Eminem’s album should be following suit in the near future and we will continue to hear more of this indie-influenced side of Grey in her contributions to the project.

Favourite Tracks: Come Up For Air, Moving Mountains, Kill For You, Picture Perfect, Off Road

Least Favourite Track: In My Garden

Score: 7/10

Usher – Hard II Love

Image result for usher hard ii loveIn the wake of the endless delays and ultimate cancellation of would-be album URHard II Love is surprise released without any of the fanfare. It is his first since 2012’s Looking 4 Myself and the latest in a career spanning over 20 years. While the last few of Usher’s projects have largely abandoned his R&B/Soul beginnings, working with well-known pop producers and aiming for monster hits like the tepid “OMG”, here he uses the diminished amount of attention on his music to return to his roots. While it is nice to hear Usher using his voice the way it was meant to be used again, hitting all of the strengths of a tried and true sound, the project is ultimately a bit too derivative to be truly enjoyable.

The album’s second track serves as a microcosm and a signpost of the type of album that lies ahead. It has many strengths, but one overwhelmingly nagging thing that takes away from the song as a whole. “Missin U” had to potential to be not only the album’s best, but possibly a return to Usher’s hitmaking abilities without the obnoxious pop sound. The instrumental, provided by notable R&B hitmaker Pop Wansel, is energetic, fun and bouncy, combining trap-style beats with repeated samples of Usher’s pitched-down speaking voice for a very uptempo and rhythmic sound.

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If the song had kept to this hip-hop tinged R&B style, it would have been excellent. But as it transitions to a chorus which sounds incredibly out of place, the song falls apart. The transition from trap 808s to live drum instrumentation and horns does not work as well as it might sound in theory, and Usher’s turn from dark and gritty vocals you might find on a Weeknd project to the happy and triumphant chorus is very strange.

One of the biggest strengths of the album is Usher’s voice itself. Its expressive and seemingly endlessly adaptable nature overrides some of the weaker displays of songwriting on the project. Tracks like “Bump” and “Need U” display instantly catchy melodies mixed in with impressive vocal performances despite rather inane lyricism. The joy Usher has for singing and performing is quite evident, as he runs up and down the scales with ease. You can hear the smile on his face as he delivers the main melody lines — an ascendant “Girl I need you now” or the falsetto “Bump bump bump” which drives the appropriately named track. His list of collaborators is pretty impressive too — production of “Bump” was handled by two R&B producers approaching legendary status, The-Dream and Tricky Stewart. Other superstars like Paul Epworth, Metro Boomin and PARTYNEXTDOOR show up as well.

What detracts from Hard II Love is its lack of originality. While returning to R&B was certainly a step in the right direction, there is nothing on this project rivaling classics like “You Make Me Wanna…”, a song which incredibly turned 19 years old last month, or even the height of his popularity on Confessions. Usher’s return to R&B shows him being satisfied with riding the trends begun by current superstars of the genre like Ty Dolla $ign and Bryson Tiller. The fact that “No Limit” was promoted as this album’s lead single and biggest hit over this past summer is telling – the Young Thug-featuring track has none of Usher’s personality of artistry and sounds like it was created by an urban hitmaking robot.

Image result for usher young thugUsher performs “No Limit” with Young Thug

Despite Usher’s engaging vocal presence on the album, as it extends closer to hitting the hour mark the similar-sounding tracks begin to get boring. These songs are not particularly bad, but neither are they memorable. At least, unlike many of his contemporaries, there is no need to rely on Auto-Tune. The bright light in the album’s second half is “Tell Me”, an eight and a half-minute experimental track driven by steadily building synths as Usher’s voice takes on an atmospheric quality. The song features falsetto strains echoing and bouncing off each other as the song slowly morphs and changes through its many parts. At its emotional height, it is an extremely powerful track. Unfortunately, it is the only effort to do anything interesting on the project.

Hard II Love marks a surprising return to form for the aging former child star and world-dominating R&B force. It is hard to believe this is the same artist who once sold 1.1 million copies in his first week 12 years ago. Now in this third stage of his career, less spotlights are focused on him, leaving more room to focus on the music. The first step is complete, a return to the genre he thrives in. Will a return to his own personality and artistry soon follow?

Favourite Tracks: Bump, Missin U, Tell Me, Need U

Least Favourite Track: No Limit

Score: 6/10

Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine

Image result for mac miller the divine feminineMac Miller takes a complete sonic left turn on this project. He abandons the goofy frat-rap which cluttered many of his past releases for a take on smooth and romantic hip-hop music, taking more of an influence from alternative R&B and jazz. Miller actually showcases his singing voice for the first time on many songs on this album, and the results are surprisingly great. New partner Ariana Grande’s influence is all over The Divine Feminine, from the string section-backed introduction (which is begun by Grande stating the album’s title over of a flurry of her giggles) to the catchy hooks scattered throughout. Although Miller still can’t avoid throwing in some cringeworthy lines here and there, this is a stunning improvement over all of his previous work. Here’s to hoping that this is an evolution of his sound, rather than an experimental side project.

While Grande is certainly quite present on the album — she is the subject matter of most of its songs, after all — it would appear that Miller’s biggest influence for going ahead with this idea was Kendrick Lamar’s sprawling opus To Pimp A Butterfly. He doesn’t exactly make much of an attempt to disguise this, either. Many of Lamar’s main collaborators appear on the album, including Bilal, Cee Lo Green and producer Tae Beast, while Lamar himself appears on the hook of closing track “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty”.

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Tracks like “Stay” and “Skin” are dominated by a freeform saxophone player, and Miller actually drops a few references to the album sporadically in his bars. Being heavily influenced by Grande and Lamar, two of the most talented artists in the music industry at the moment, is shown to have had an overwhelmingly positive effect.

As someone who could never get into his music before, seeing Miller flex his creative muscles is fantastic to see. Some of its more experimental qualities make it stand out among the pack. Two of its songs, for example, exceed 8 minutes in length and never get boring. “Cinderella” and the aforementioned “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty” are musically interesting enough, more so because of the instrumental than Miller, to carry a song for this length. “God Is Fair” closes the album out with an extended solo done by none other than Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Robert Glasper — the fact that he now fits on a Mac Miller album is quite hilarious — before the story arc of the album is wrapped up nicely by Miller’s grandmother telling the story of her relationship with her husband in a similar vein to Grande’s briefer implementation of the same thing on her 2013 track “Daydreamin”.

“Cinderella”, on the other hand, is so excellent it deserves a paragraph all to itself. Certified club banger craftsman DJ Dahi tones it down a bit here, but not so much as to lose his recognizable sound. The instrumental itself is rather basic, but good enough to be enjoyable for the entire 8 minutes all the same. He places a speedy, drum-n-bass influenced beat over a smooth, looping piano line, creating a perfect environment for not only Miller, but surprise show-stealing feature Ty Dolla $ign as well. Ty’s raspy voice on the extended hook really is the song, displaying impressive vocal runs while singing convincingly  about how he’s been “waiting all year for this moment” – the chance to be with a certain girl.

Image result for mac miller ariana grandeMiller and girlfriend Ariana Grande

The album is not entirely perfect. Some ideas go a bit off the rails, but do not detract too much from the album as a whole because it all ties together conceptually. Intro “Congratulations” could have been shorter, rather than extending to a full 4 minute track. Mac’s extremely laid back delivery works well with the string arrangement for a while, but ultimately the delivery he provides with his lovestruck act gets boring in the context of a full song. “Soulmate”, as well, shows too many ideas colliding. The song is too cluttered to be effective, both musically and idea-wise – the beat switch leading into the track’s second half is uncharacteristically poorly executed.

The highs, however, are extremely high. Previously released single “Dang!” recruits R&B/funk singer Anderson .Paak for a breezy and infectious dance number, complete with a bright horn section (which hilariously blares in time with Miller’s rhythm on the line “I just think that’s some bulls**t”) and chanted breakdown. It serves as a much better hip-hop counterpart to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” than Macklemore’s “Downtown” ever could. “My Favourite Part”, featuring the omnipresent Grande, sees Miller going into full soul singer mode to accompany Grande’s effortless vocals on a smooth downtempo song produced by Miller himself.

Standing at 10 tracks but never feeling too short, The Divine Feminine is a giant leap forward for Mac Miller. The fact that the project originated as an even shorter EP before being extended to album length slightly worries me, as it shows that Miller likely viewed this only as a side project. However, since the results were this excellent, I can only hope that it will be met with enough widespread acclaim that Miller might consider continuing down this path. At least sing on the next album, Mac!

Favourite Tracks: Dang!, Cinderella, My Favourite Part, Skin, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Soulmate

Score: 8/10

M.I.A. – AIM

Image result for mia aimSinger, rapper and activist M.I.A’s fifth studio album is a compilation of good intentions which fail to come together in any discernible way. Most aspects of the album come from an interesting and innovative place, and are clearly trying to create an alternative to the current musical narrative, but an overwhelming lack of effort is put into attempting to mesh these aspects together to create an effective whole.

It is refreshing to hear these Eastern-inspired sounds of percussion and melody in the backing tracks, but they are too repetitive or clash with the vocals. The lyrical content, instead of conveying M.I.A’s messages pertaining to issues like the refugee crisis and civil rights, is comprised of nothing but political buzzwords assembled nonsensically, creating some of the most meaningless and lazy lyrics I have ever heard. Perhaps her music is being affected by the backlash from her recent controversies surrounding her condemnation of Black Lives Matter’s message. Regardless, this album comes across like little more than a disjointed Tumblr post.

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Possibly the largest glaring error on an album loaded with them is its awful writing. And while I wish I could blame others, M.I.A herself has the primary writing credit on each and every track. Any semblance of a message M.I.A. is trying to send here is completely diminished by the presence of these vapid lines. “Bird Song”, for one, is a song comprised entirely of every terrible bird-related pun she could come up with. Getting through the song is a struggle, especially when she becomes the umpteenth person to rhyme “vulture” with “culture” and immediately declares “I’m robin this joint”.

“Borders” is structured like it’s supposed to be a profound statement on the current world, but half of the song is M.I.A. stating a current issue, and offering nothing in response but “What’s up with that?”. The presence of random, context-free statements like “Freedun”s “Dinosaurs died out and I’m still strong” only adds to the overall absurdity.

The instrumentals leave much to be desired as well, many of them just becoming incredibly grating. There are certainly some interesting sounds here, but they are so repetitive that they become annoying beyond belief and verging on headache-inducing. The blaring siren sounds provided by none other than the sporadically brilliant Skrillex on “A.M.P. (All My People). The looping kazoo melody on “Bird Song” which, I suppose, is meant to resemble bird calls. And the fact that on more than one occasion it sounds like an overly eager sound engineer took a sampling machine and began mashing it with reckless abandon, without a care for the rhythm of the track. The worst cases are the irritating “hey” punctuating the beat of “Ali R U OK?”, and the fact that basically the entire premise of “Fly Pirate” is doing exactly that with M.I.A. yelling “Fly Pirate” in our ears repeatedly.

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Choices in M.I.A.’s delivery across the board are also decidedly strange. “Finally” is an absolute mess that sees the basic structure of rhythm thrown out the window (I suppose it’s appropriate with the song’s watered down message of freedom) and M.I.A. delivering some absolutely terrible, pitchy vocals. I’m not sure how anyone allowed this on a major label release.

Not that she is any better of a rapper – on the more hip-hop skewing songs on the project she sounds at times like she is trying to do her best impression of a posh British accent. The beats of songs like “A.M.P. (All My People)” and “Visa” are much harder than the rest of the album, clearly meant for a grittier vocal performance that never comes. She sounds like she doesn’t care about her own message. As soon as she drops into “Ali R U OK?” with a disengaged “Money money money/Work work work” the listener has already tuned out.

Pitchfork actually summed this album up perfectly with the closing sentences in their far-too-generous review, which are so accurate I felt the need to quote them here: “M.I.A. demonstrates her legacy as an artist eager to tackle issues that are volatile and antagonistic. But at this point her music is more potent in theory than execution.” This is one of the most disjointed and confusing albums in recent memory, and the message only gets lost in the noise.

Favourite Tracks: Foreign Friend, Survivor

Least Favourite Track: Fly Pirate

Score: 2/10

Bastille – Wild World

Image result for bastille wild worldBritish power-pop hitmakers Bastille return with the official follow-up to 2013’s wildly successful Bad Blood in the wake of various collaborative mixtapes and remix compilations. On Wild World, the band finds a way to create a balance between staying true to the pulsating synthpop sound which made the band a household name, and expanding their influences to provide some new and interesting sonic experiences for their fans. Exceeding an hour in length, the album’s sporadic sounds and lack of overall vision begin to feel tiresome — something which detracted from Bad Blood as well — but Bastille and frontman Dan Smith provide enough catchy hooks and novel ideas to maintain the band’s reputation as a leading presence in today’s world of synthpop.

The album speeds along at a frantic pace, almost every track being driven by an underlying speedy breakbeat and gargantuan singalong choruses. Bastille is clearly staking their claim here to become the next monster arena band. Every member of the band lends their vocals, and it really does make the choruses all the more powerful when all of these voices are joined, especially when the melodies they sing are this excellent. As soon as we were introduced to the band with the “eh-eh-oh, eh-oh” we now know too well, it set the precedent for what was to come. A kind of innate energy runs through the album as a whole.

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“The Currents” is a truly standout song for this reason — it begins with a crunchy synth hook and only builds from there, dropping into a politically charged chorus where Smith stretches his voice to its limits. Lyrically, he dives into the fear he has which stems from the prominence of hateful opinions in the world. Part of the beauty of Bastille is the fact that a casual listener might not even notice this, content to nod their head along to the beat. Single “Good Grief” is another example: at the band’s live show I attended this summer, Smith described the song “The happiest-sounding song about death you’ll ever hear” with a smile.

For all the accusations that Bastille largely paints by the numbers, their musicality is very good as well. When the minor chord crunchy harmonies in the chorus of “Power” dropped for the first time, goosebumps rose — and same goes for the truly angelic backing vocals anchoring closing track “Winter of Our Youth”. The most prominent instrument in Bastille’s music is the intricate keyboard work which brings out the main synth lines, done spectacularly throughout by Kyle Simmons, through three of the four bandmates contribute in this area. Chris Wood’s innovative stadium-sized percussion is quite impressive as well, sounding almost tribal at times. Smith’s voice is nothing to be ignored either, as it flits through tremolos and trills with ease. It is difficult to imagine the band with any other frontman — he continues to fit perfectly.

As demonstrated on debut Bad Blood, Bastille’s lyricism and underlying concepts of songs are quite interesting, going beyond the current trends of pop songwriting. They are mainly influenced by somewhat obscure pop culture references, as we saw previously on tracks like “Laura Palmer”, but on Wild World the band trades out their interest in mythology with political commentary. Various soundbites from retro movies and TV shows play on quite a few tracks here to reinforce and drive home their overall message, which serves as a very nice touch.

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Perhaps the most fully fleshed out idea of this variety appears on “Four Walls (The Ballad of Perry Smith)”. The song is based on Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood, which revolves around the true story of murderer Perry Smith’s crimes and subsequent execution. Dan Smith’s musings on the “two wrongs” and conflicted feelings on the subject of capital punishment are profound and affecting to listen to.

While at times it can certainly feel dizzying to have this much upbeat music thrown at you (there are even a whopping 5 extra tracks on the deluxe edition), with sounds ranging across the board, Wild World is fun enough to stand out as a very impressive body of work which encompasses Bad Blood in quality. Recognizing their rapid ascent to popularity, Bastille does tend to check off some bullet points on the “How to Make an Infectious Pop Song” instruction manual. However, they infuse so much of their own personality and insight into the music that it still feels like nobody else could have made this album. This kind of intelligence and creativity coming from a band which is poised to headline music festivals and arena tours for the foreseeable future is a step in the right direction.

Favourite Tracks: Send Them Off!, The Currents, Winter of Our Youth, Power, Good Grief

Least Favourite Track: Blame

Score: 8/10

Travis Scott – Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight

Image result for birds in the trap sing mcknight coverTravis Scott’s third project in three years comes 363 days after the release of his debut studio album Rodeo, and the time taken in between indicates that the vast majority of the tracks included on this album are little more than Rodeo B-Sides — in fact, “Wonderful”, a track released last December and marketed exactly in this way, inexplicably serves as the album’s closer. Many of the tracks here seem to come from the same musical state of mind, although with ideas and song structure that are even less developed than his previous project.

The album does boast an impressive guest list, but Scott’s inability to construct an engaging song in terms of structure holds them back. Even Kendrick Lamar, who possesses the ability to obliterate any artist whose music he is featured on at will, sounds like he doesn’t want to be there on “Goosebumps”. Scott and his collaborators turn the typical structure of a song upside down, and while this might work with a musician who had an ounce of their own artistry to pull this off with, Scott’s disinterested, autotuned warbling which fills these gaps does not do these songs any favours. Many of these songs lack a distinguishable hook, switching up the beat for annoying instrumental interludes or a meaningless brief shift in subject matter from Scott. This upsets the natural flow of the song.

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Scott also tends to let his collaborators open the track, and as many upstage him (despite weak offerings for their standards), Scott’s emergence in the latter half of the track usually bores the listener. In addition to Lamar, artists like Andre 3000 and The Weeknd are criminally misused here. Sometimes, a guest almost takes over the track with Scott serving as the worst hype man in the business. “First Take” is an absolute mess of a song, Bryson Tiller unnecessarily embellishing his notes and sounding out of sync with the beat at times while Scott adds strange colour notes and “it’s lit”s. You would think something would accidentally mesh together, but it doesn’t.

Surprisingly, for a brief period in the album’s middle section, positive things begin to take shape. While still nowhere close to being mindblowing, the back to back songs “Outside” and “Goosebumps” begin to resemble a normal song structure again. These are the only songs which could actually function for me as the energetic party songs I’m sure Scott intended this entire project to be. The beat on a track like “Outside” simply hits a bit harder for some reason, and the melodies on each track are more focused and original than others. The songs additionally focus on one topic for the entire duration, for the most part.

Image result for travis scott kanyeScott with fellow G.O.O.D. music artists

Single “Pick Up The Phone”, which has already been out for months, somehow still holds up as the project’s best song, though not because of Scott. The steel drum instrumental actually serves as a new sound for a hip-hop track, and Young Thug and Quavo’s guest verses are incredibly quotable and fun. This lends to the amazing replay value of the song which is not present anywhere else here. One wonders what might happen if Scott had anything close to the mic presence which allows Quavo to seamlessly turn “discriminize” into a word for the purposes of fitting his rhyme scheme.

The album also suffers from a lack of originality, as Scott blatantly acknowledges his influences and incorporates elements of other people’s work in his music, whether knowingly or not. Even the title of the record was changed last minute to a standout line from Quavo’s verse in “Pick Up The Phone”. Scott has done a number of interviews proclaiming his excitement for “idol” Kid Cudi to be on his album, and while he does appear on two tracks to provide his usual brand of incoherent yelps, moans and mumbles, Scott displays his admiration by spending a quarter of his verse singing Cudi’s breakout hit “Day N Nite” on “Through The Late Night”. “Sweet Sweet” contains the same catchy melody line that made “Hotline Bling” a massive hit, although delivered without an ounce of the same goofy charisma here. “Way Back” contains obnoxiously placed samples of Kanye’s “We in the hoooussee…!” from Jay-Z’s decade-old “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)”. “Coordinate” is basically “Panda”. The list goes on and on and on.

Birds is a huge step down from Rodeo. Scott’s desire to release projects at this speed has pur a serious damper on the quality of his music in a world where Frank Ocean just took over 4 years to make his album as good as it possibly could be. An artist who is lazy enough to compile throwaways off his last album, creating some new songs in exactly the same vein to mix together, and call it a new project a year later does not deserve the high level of recognition Scott’s name currently brings. That doesn’t mean I won’t be playing “Pick Up The Phone” every time I need an energy boost, though.

Favourite Tracks: Pick Up The Phone, Outside, Goosebumps

Least Favourite Track: First Take

Score: 3/10

Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade

Image result for isaiah rashad the sun's tiradeIsaiah Rashad certainly understands just how anticipated this album was, as he opens his album with a voicemail from labelmate ScHoolboy Q demanding its whereabouts. The final product he delivers is quite different from his debut Cilvia Demo, choosing to focus more on the laid-back delivery he showcased at times on his earlier work and building the sound of the album around this.

Rashad still has the technical ability he demonstrated on Cilvia Demo, hitting listeners with the quick one-two punch of “4r Da Squaw” and “Free Lunch” before the album begins to enter more experimental territory. These are the songs that resemble Cilvia the most, featuring bombastic yet undeniably Southern beats from Top Dawg Entertainment’s resident Tennessean among Californians.

Rashad makes the most of these beats, making semi-nonsensical lines like “Meal ticket ticket/Meal ticket ticket, comma, uh” or simply random syllables pop out. You almost don’t notice that a major line in the chorus of “4r Da Squaw” is “Ba-da-bip-ba-ip-bap-boo”. But this is part of what made Cilvia Demo so enjoyable, the contrast between Rashad’s upbeat and joyful side which allows him to deliver lines like this effectively, and the laid-back side which he utilized to is full potential on January promo single “Smile”, which unfortunately didn’t make the final tracklist.

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On The Sun’s Tirade, as the somewhat pretentious album title might suggest, Rashad does venture into a more experimental area than his previous project. Some of the songs almost evoke OutKast’s brand of avant-garde southern hip-hop. As the beats change from your more typical hip-hop instrumental to more closely resemble the chaotic and freeform nature of To Pimp A Butterfly, Rashad’s natural loud and confident rap charisma stops fitting on these tracks, forcing his laid-back flow to the forefront for the majority of the project. Much like we just saw with ScHoolboy Q’s “Blank Face”, while some of this experimentation really works and is commendable, some falls flat. On tracks like these, Rashad’s barely-there voice just makes the listening experience more boring than it should be coming from a man who made something like Cilvia Demo‘s “Modest”.

Once the album begins its experimental phase, there are still many positive aspects to discover. “Silkk Da Shocka” features a melody from ex-Odd Future member Syd which accompanies Rashad’s crackling voice over mellowed production from another of the defunct collective’s associates, Steve Lacy. Rashad’s lines about love are rarer (“Find a topic!”, label boss Dave Free implores at the track’s conclusion), and with Syd’s pleasant voice taking charge here, the song transfixes the listener and is over before you even realize. This goes straight into “Tity and Dolla”, a song which shouts out Southern legends UGK in its title and OutKast in its lyrics. The beat is based around a whistling melody, and as soon as Rashad drops perfectly into the drum pattern with a jubilant “I’m just one dirty motherf**ker!” I was sold. Jay Rock’s show-stealing verse cemented this even more.

Speaking of outstanding features, none other than Kendrick Lamar shows up on “Wat’s Wrong” to deliver what may be his best verse of the year. It is technically outstanding, featuring a dizzying number of internal rhymes and rapid-fire syllables. It also contains a great line referencing his alter ego, the more aggressive voice we often hear on his songs, as a Gemini.

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Sometimes the creative choices on the project are rather questionable. Rashad’s laid-back flow can be inexplicably used at times. “A Lot” features a beat from Mike Will Made-It, one of the genre’s biggest curators of club bangers. Yet, Rashad is barely present vocally, creating a very strange dichotomy of a massive beat and a vocal performance which sounds more disinterested than Drake on “Started From The Bottom”. “Stuck In The Mud”, on the other hand, is 7 minutes long for no reason at all. The chorus is uninteresting, and as we receive 3 boring verses from Rashad before transitioning into an even sleepier second half, it makes me miss the album’s beginnings.

The album does begin to feel overlong, exceeding an hour in runtime, as many of the latter tracks blend together with similar sonic palettes. The frantic beat on “Don’t Matter” woke me up and serves as the only true highlight in the album’s second half. While many of the instrumentals are quite interesting, I wish that Rashad matched the interesting musicality with a more captivating mic presence.

This album will likely be enjoyed more by those who are searching for more of a background vibe than an immersive listening experience. Although The Sun’s Tirade is a step down from Cilvia Demo, Rashad showed enough technical skill and artistry on the project to maintain his position as TDE’s second most promising artist, who is likely just suffering from a sophomore slump. Rashad is an enigma of an artist who has mastered the art of a song taking time to grow on you, and perhaps my feelings on the project will change in the future. For now, Isaiah certainly took a risk on this project, and while not all of it worked, just enough managed to hit it out of the park.

Favourite Tracks: Tity and Dolla, Wat’s Wrong, Don’t Matter, Silkk Da Shocka, 4r Da Squaw

Least Favourite Track: Stuck In The Mud

Score: 7/10