The alt-R&B songstress many have dubbed the female version of The Weeknd returns with a sophomore album which evades the sophomore curse in a major way, keeping up 2016’s apparent trend of improvements on previous work. The songwriting and production game is stepped up to allow The Altar to soar over her somewhat inconsistent previous album, Goddess. This album is full of snappy, razor-sharp trap-influenced rhythmic R&B bangers, turning up the energy from her past album. The only time she returns to the slow, piano-driven balladry that was a little too prominent on Goddess is on closing track “To The Hilt”, which turns out to be an appropriate way to round out the album.
Banks’ voice, simultaneously lilting and breathy and slightly menacing, is applied in many ways, and is always enjoyable. It is strange and different enough that hearing Banks sing anything at all is engaging enough, and especially so when it is one of the countless catchy choruses scattered across this project. Banks’ world has always been a little dark, and getting lost in it once again proves to be a thoroughly entertaining experience.
Production on this album is largely handled by many of the same lesser-known team of producers who worked on Goddess, with a few notable exceptions. It is interesting that two albums so different in quality were produced by largely the same personnel. Some could certainly accuse this of being more of the same, and the minimalist, string arrangements that dominate the album do provide a lot of the same sonic palette as Goddess, but turning up the tempo and bringing some new blood into the studio to join the original team was a fantastic idea.
The new man on board is hip hop producer DJ Dahi, who has contributed to some of the most iconic rap instrumentals in recent memory — “Worst Behaviour” (Drake), “Money Trees” (Kendrick Lamar), “I Don’t F*** With You” (Big Sean), “Hell Of A Night” (ScHoolboy Q), the list goes on. The fast paced hi-hats commonly found in trap music now become more understandable, and complement Banks extraordinarily well. Another interesting addition is on Judas, where Banks brings in Danny Boy Styles, Ben Billions, and the team who worked on some of The Weeknd’s lower-key tracks on his 2015 album Beauty Behind The Madness (“Acquainted”, “As You Are”). There are certainly some similarities on these songs in terms of sound and lyrical themes, but this niche Banks has found for herself is a great one.
Speaking of Abel (his new tracks are fantastic, by the way) — while perhaps not as referential of the materialism that comes with an extravagant lifestyle, the strongest parallel between the two artists are their lyrical themes. A major part of Banks’ appeal is simply how blunt she is with her lyrics, many of which depict the pain and elation that come with relationships — all the while asserting that she is a “bad motherf**ker” who doesn’t really need one. The sadder songs tend to go to a quite dark and affecting place, whereas the self-aggrandizing ones are over the top, bombastic and confidence-boosting.
Some of the stronger songs on the project include “Trainwreck”, a song which sees Banks delivering rapid-fire and often hilariously to-the-point lyrics about her displeasure with her man over a skittering beat which serves as her best chance to break through to a mainstream audience, “Weaker Girl”, featuring a slow build to an enormous final chorus where Banks observes “I think you need a weaker girl” while looking for new love, and Mother Earth, in which Banks beckons us to her bedroom with some absolutely beautifully structured harmonies and offers the best showcase of her weird and wonderful instrument.
The Altar is a cohesive and fun experience throughout, and allows audiences to delve even deeper into this fascinating persona Banks has crafted for herself as a recording artist. While the sound can tend to get repetitive, keep in mind that it is incredibly difficult to pin down what genre this actually is, alt-R&B being a term that is seemingly slapped on anything similar enough to The Weeknd. In reality, Banks’ vocals are a bit more pop, and her instrumentals more hip-hop. In any case, Banks is asserting herself — both in the lyrical context of this album and in the shifting world of the music industry. She can stand on the same level as contemporaries like FKA Twigs and Abel creatively, and should continue to surprise us down the road.
Favourite Tracks: Trainwreck, Weaker Girl, Mother Earth, Gemini Feed, Lovesick
Least Favourite Track: Mind Games