Schedule Update

The end of the school semester is upon us and with it I have less time to write up reviews. For the upcoming week or two I will post whenever I have the time to, as soon as possible.

Reviews of YG’s Red Friday mixtape and Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love coming soon!

The Weeknd – Starboy

Image result for the weeknd starboyAlt-R&B singer and OVO signee The Weeknd, who rose to popularity with incredible speed after the release of his Grammy-nominated 2015 album Beauty Behind The Madness, wastes no time putting out his next album. Somewhat predictably if you’ve heard a Weeknd song before, it spends a lot of time relishing in his newfound success. As the two artists who most resemble a modern Michael Jackson release projects a week apart from each other, The Weeknd adapts to the sound even more, seeking to dominate in the pop lane that made him famous with tracks like “Can’t Feel My Face”. The album incorporates more electronic elements, and sounds like Jackson’s Off The Wall era at times.

However, the album’s 18-track runtime spanning over an hour does attempt to keep some aspects of the dark, mysterious persona that introduced us to The Weeknd’s music years before becoming an inescapable pop force, and their combination with the Max Martinesque tracks here makes for a rather disjointed album. The tracks are individually strong, but together as a cohesive unit, Starboy stands as a step down from Beauty Behind The Madness.

Image result for the weeknd new hair

The Weeknd wears his collaborations and influences on his sleeve on this project. Quite a few of these tracks, most notably “Rockin'”, sound rather similar to his recent collaboration with Disclosure, “Nocturnal”, blending his falsetto vocals with the rising popularity of house music in the mainstream. He even incorporates Francis and the Lights’ completely novel sound on standout track “Attention”. The pair recently collaborated on Cashmere Cat’s track “Wild Love”. This is the popular sound, and he adapts to it quite well — I just wish we had more of a presence of the material he truly excels at (Think “Wicked Games” from masterful 2011 mixtape House of Balloons).

On the production front, The Weeknd recruits mostly the same team as his previous albums (Ben Billions, Doc McKinney, Mano, etc.), with a large contingent of high-profile collaborators from the better side of pop music to ease him into the world-dominating pop star role he is inheriting. Electronic masterminds Daft Punk and Diplo, Metro Boomin, the man who never runs out of great trap beats, rising star with a signature sound Cashmere Cat, and crown princes of the charts Max Martin and Benny Blanco all make appearances here, all adapting surprisingly well to the Weeknd’s style. He truly has one of those voices that can sound good over anything, lack of variation between performances aside.

A lot of these tracks sound the same, but some aspects of the formula still really work – his songs that resemble smash hit “The Hills” are his best, featuring a speedier hip-hop-style flow and a dynamic and danceable hi-hat beat like on “Reminder”. The Weeknd picks his collaborators well – The Daft Punk tracks here, “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming”, are some of the best pop tracks in recent memory, and it’s great to hear the robots’ harmonizing and cheerful instrumental closing out the album. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Sidewalks” is — no surprise — an absolute showstopper and technical showcase which raises the track’s stock considerably.

Cashmere Cat’s primary production credit on “True Colors” highlights the better aspects of The Weeknd’s voice while sounding like one of Cashmere Cat’s better songs, the staccato synths undeniably sounding like his style. Abel also links up with Lana Del Rey once again, and they really are the perfect match for each other in their cynical and nihilist perspective on the world, which brings me to this – at least The Weeknd still writes his own songs! Many of these could still only be his work, although some punchlines can get as cheesy as his label boss Drake: take “Got that Hannibal, silence of the Lambo” from “Reminder”.

Image result for the weeknd new hair

On an 18-track album, however, there is significant burnout from including similar tracks. It is the same problem many DJs have when making full-length albums – the similar style of pounding beats and overwhelming synths does not translate well outside of a party. Tracks are also frequently brought down by some uninspired hooks that likely could have been cut from the album, and inexplicable use of Auto-Tune. He doesn’t do anything creative with it and he has proven himself to be great in live performances, so the usage here doesn’t make any sense.

People have transitioned to a pure pop album from a different sound much smoother than this in the past. The sound of the album is fine, it just isn’t what he’s best at. The project never really commits to a solidified sound either, even on the clearly divided two sides of the album (pop tracks, and material reminiscent of his older work) the style jumps around a lot – and then there are complete outliers like polarizing punk track “False Alarm”. It all makes for an extremely disjointed and confusing album.

“I Feel It Coming” shows that The Weeknd has some serious potential to create excellent music as a pop artist with the right people in the room. The problem here might come from using most of the team from his past in his attempt to transition to becoming a pop star. The disjointedness really makes the album a frustrating listen, and I enjoyed an album with quite a few very strong tracks less than I should. Still, aspects of Abel’s artistry are still on full display here and I have full confidence he can figure it out in the future.

Favourite Tracks: I Feel It Coming, Sidewalks, True Colors, Nothing Without You, Starboy

Least Favourite Track: All I Know

Score: 7/10

Little Mix – Glory Days

Image result for little mix glory daysBritish girl group Little Mix continue the rapid release of albums usually associated with X Factor contestants, as Glory Days becomes their 4th album in just 5 years. Despite showing quite a few brief flashes of both their individual talent and their cohesiveness as a group, Glory Days ultimately does not do much to rise above their previous works and falls into tired girl group cliches quickly. In a similar vein to fellow reality show girl group Fifth Harmony’s 7/27 earlier this year, the talent level which is clearly on display here does not match up to the final product that is delivered – although on an even more disappointing level. If the whole project sounded like its best moments, we’d be looking at a very strong R&B release instead of a sub-par pop one.

The best moments I speak of come early on in the tracklisting, being the one-two punch of “F. U.” and “Oops”. Both tracks have somewhat of a retro, doo-wop influenced flair, and showcase the singing voices of the group better in a more R&B-leaning environment. “F.U.” is another in the long line of great 3/4 time doo-wop tracks this year that began with Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain”, as the group begins to layer their voices on top of each other in a slow build in intensity culminating in a brief and stunning beat drop-out as they lament the cheating yet charismatic man they can’t seem to leave, while Charlie Puth brings his old soul by producing and lending his vocals to the whistle-backed “Oops”, which sounds like a regretful sequel to his own “Marvin Gaye”.

Image result for little mix

Another strength is that like in “F.U.”, Little Mix really know how to convey a huge musical moment effectively, usually through the use of larger, minimalistic beats and added harmonies. The few dance-oriented songs on the project, “Power” and “Down & Dirty”, do this well — the chorus of “Power” is just that, a powerhouse, and when harmonies are added and the beat is reduced to a stadium-sized stomp-clap pattern, the shakiness of other elements of the song is forgotten. And I can always appreciate a good Game of Thrones reference – “I’m bringing the fire, so call me Daenerys”. Individually, the group members are very strong, but the instrumentals can tend to let them down, often by not matching their power. Other than Puth, the album has few recognizable names in its production credits.

Judging by the strength of their voices, a slower track like “Nobody Like You” should theoretically knock it out of the park, but instead it overstays its welcome and becomes more boring and melodramatic than it needs to be. On the other side of the spectrum, some tracks like “Private Show”, with its chorus backed by obnoxious honking horns and a very loud synth line, are way too overproduced for a group with 4 powerhouse voices. But even the vocal side suffers in places. When we’re in the realm of the bubblegum pop music that dominates most of the album, an earworm of a hook is expected but these tracks don’t stand out like they’re supposed to. A lot of the melodies actually have some strange note choices in them and have strange jumps, it’s almost as if they are straining to hit a big note that doesn’t really have any business being there. All of this combines to make the last 5 tracks of the album some of the worst pop music I’ve had to sit through all year.

Image result for little mix live

While perhaps toned down from their early work, Little Mix can still tend to be far too cheesy for their own good, like an attempt to revive some of the spirit of the Spice Girls. Some of these songs sound like they could be from an alternate universe where Disney movies are bad. The lyricism might be the album’s weakest aspect, especially on “You Gotta Not” – a song concept that they essentially lifted from “Suga Mama”, an older Fifth Harmony song. The title is shouted after every line criticizing a man’s childish behaviour. If he changes his ways? “We can boom boom boom baby fall in love”.

Like most artists under the watchful eye of Simon Cowell, Little Mix’s musical direction is misguided, and they likely don’t have much of a say in the matter. I’d offer hope for the future based on the positive aspects of some of the work here, but on their 4th studio album there likely won’t be much change until they’re out of their contract with Syco Records. Still, the individual members of the group have proven themselves to be great singers – the music they release just doesn’t fully reflect this.

Favourite Tracks: F. U., Oops, Power, Down & Dirty

Least Favourite Track: Private Show

Score: 5/10

Bruno Mars – 24k Magic

Image result for 24k magicEarlier this year, Bruno Mars gave an interview in which he essentially stated that he was unable to stop listening to his own music because of how good it was. With the release of 24k Magic, I now understand exactly what he was talking about. I almost didn’t need to give this one a re-listen before writing: I’ve already listened to these songs enough times to know their every nuance. Mars’ extended lapse between the release of his last album, 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, was alleviated in part by his casually jumping onto one of the most successful songs of all-time, Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!”, where he established the new, boisterous and extravagant persona which would carry over to his own work.

24k Magic is the perfect exercise in “less is more”: it stands at a very brief 9 tracks, but each of them is packed to the brim with the sound of an artist relishing in the fact that he is at the top of his game — and he fully knows it. While it certainly piggybacks off of formulas associated with the popular sounds of 80s and 90s funk and R&B, not making altogether much of an artistic statement, Mars is so many miles ahead of his contemporaries in his field at consistently creating quality, fun music that the project easily stands out as his best work, and one of the year’s best listening experiences. As soon as he issued a triumphant “Pop pop, it’s showtime!” we all knew that Mars was ready to unleash a full blown assault on the music industry.

Image result for bruno mars 24k magic

Production of the entire album is handled by Shampoo Press & Curl (Philip Lawrence and Mars himself), the remaining members of superstar production team The Smeezingtons after Ari Levine’s departure. Scattered across the tracklist are secondary appearances from other established producers like The Stereotypes, Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie, but the stunningly uniform and cohesive sound of the album can likely be mainly attributed to Mars, demonstrating another end of his immense spectrum of talent. Mars summed it up perfectly in a way that only he could, describing the album as “Slow-dancing at the Valentine’s Day banquet with the girl you have a crush on, and the DJ spins ‘Before I Let You Go,’ by Blackstreet. And the s**t is magical, and you think about it for the next eight months.”

Anyone who has heard one of Mars’ songs before knows that his vocals are obviously at the top of the game, but what we have known since “Uptown Funk!” dropped is that Mars has so much charisma that he doesn’t even need to use them. Single “24k Magic” and “Perm” follow in these footsteps, Mars proving he’s the coolest guy on the planet over some James Brown-esque instrumentals while barely singing a note. Even though the sound of the album is so uniform, he gives us so many different aspects of what we love him for – anyone concerned his passionate ballads were a thing of the past in the wake of the singles were reassured with the presence of songs like “Versace On The Floor” and “Too Good To Say Goodbye”, Mars displaying his impressive vocal range over the soundtrack of a 90s slow dance. Despite his range of talents, Mars’ voice at its full potential remains the most impressive part of his work, and these songs truly stand out for this reason. The passion in his voice as he hits the highest notes of closing track “Goodbye” make the breakup ode especially heartbreaking.

Image result for bruno mars 24k magic

The other side of the project is just Mars enjoying the luxuries of his life and having fun – and the sound of these jubilant tracks immediately put a smile on your face. You can tell how much Mars loves what he does, especially now that he has reached a level of success to stop catering to pop radio and make the music he truly wants to make. He’s clearly meant for this style rather than the pure pop tracks which established his stardom like “Just The Way You Are”.

The soulful sound of the album gives Mars every opportunity to flex his musicality – he takes every opportunity he can to add a nice harmony, for example. The bridge in particular of almost every song provides a great musical moment when he breaks formula from the rest of the song and lets his vocals take over – one of the best moments on the whole album has to be the bridge of “That’s What I Like”, when the beat is simplified and he hits some beautiful sharped notes before it comes back in full force with some trap hi-hats for the grand finale. “Calling All My Lovelies”, which sees Mars go full lothario, has a great one as well – “I told myself I wasn’t gon cryyy…..”

I could sing the praises of 24k Magic long past the length of a standard review, the music is layered and complex enough to continue finding great things about it on every repeated listen. The bottom line is this — it’s as if Mars has finally realized just how great he is, and our ears are all truly thankful for this.

Favourite Tracks: Too Good To Say Goodbye, Chunky, Calling All My Lovelies, Straight Up And Down, Versace On The Floor

Least Favourite Track: Perm

Score: 10/10

Dragonette – Royal Blues

Image result for dragonette royal bluesCanadian electropop trio Dragonette releases their fourth studio album and first in 4 years, in the wake of numerous singles leading up to its release. Despite the band’s internal struggles, remaining intact through frontwoman Martina Sorbara’s separation from the band’s bassist, they lost none of the spark that has provided us with energetic and bubbly singalong choruses for nearly a decade on this album. While the deeper cuts never really match the highest heights of the tracks we’ve already heard, which open the album, and at 13 somewhat similar electropop tracks it can feel a bit overlong, Dragonette is as infectious as ever.

The trio do not stray too far from their tried and true formula that made songs like “Hello” massive hits in their native Canada. The tracks are structured like an EDM song without the dance breakdown, concentrating the pulsating energy of the song throughout rather than in one explosive moment. They are dominated by complex and interlocking melodic synth lines, providing a backdrop for Sorbara’s airy and childlike vocals. At times, the band edges closer to a uniform mainstream pop sound than ever before, but their unique flair remains intact. “Lonely Heart” could easily be an old-school teen pop song from a Disney star, but the engaging island flair of the synths and the reckless abandon with which Sorbara attacks her catchy melody make it something special.

Image result for dragonette

For a band that is so much about the instrumentals, it might surprise that a true highlight of the album is Sorbara’s vocals. She displays a quite impressive range despite the similarity of the instrumentals. Her tone is very unique, and combined with technical skill level makes for an essential asset to every song here. The moment that truly surprised me was the transition from the aforementioned “Lonely Heart”, a Charli XCX-style song full of sass, to beautifully hitting a high A out of nowhere at the start of “Royal Blues”. I also enjoyed the way that essentially 2 main melody lines are employed on a few tracks — the synths keep up a catchy hook of their own throughout the song, and sometimes adapt the main vocal line and bring it back in other places to keep the hook running. “Lost Teenagers” is a great example of this, Sorbara drawing out a “Loooost…” while the synths punch out the melody associated with “teenagers” earlier in the song.

Some individual tracks really shine here. Working with DJs they have been featured on before was a smart idea — their track with Mike Mago, “Outlines” was one of the best of 2014 and their collaboration “Secret Stash” here brings out many of the same elements that made that song so great. The singles “Body 2 Body” and “Let The Night Fall” are still the real highlights, however. Reaching the apex of synthpop bliss, “Night” is more of an all-out attack on the senses whereas “Body” takes the more calming and immersive route, building a world in its ascending synth patterns. These are the kinds of songs which are tailor-made for arenas and festivals, whipping crowds into a frenzy with a two-pronged attack of an in-your-face electronic instrumental and an overwhelmingly catchy chorus to sing at the top of your lungs — I’ve seen it happen effectively on two separate occasions.

As the album extends into its later stages, enduring 13 straight tracks of huge four-on-the-floor beats can get very tiring – this type of music is often ill-suited for album format, and pulling it off well takes a tremendous amount of skill. However, the album certainly could have benefited from some trimming of songs, or even a reordering of the tracklist. The best songs are all at the start, decreasing in quality as the album goes on. The lyricism, while obviously not a huge point of interest in this musical realm, still noticeably falters in places, especially on the ridiculous “High Five”, which lists some tasks both impressive and menial (“You put your pants on”, “You got a job”, “You made a friend”), and countering each with “You deserve a high five”.

Image result for martina sorbaraFrontwoman Martina Sorbara is an electric presence on the album

As well, after hearing so many similar songs it can feel like some are trying to do a bit too much. A track like “Darth Vader”, which features massive, grinding and industrial dubstep-style noises in its breakdown does not need 2 interlocking lines of Sorbara in her upper range and a falsetto ooh-ooh-ooh melody from the background vocals meant to be passed off as a hook. It all just gets to be much too loud.

All in all, this much analysis of Royal Blues begins to feel a bit silly — this is just feelgood music in its purest form that suffers a bit due to its placement in an album format. In the midst of their struggles, this is a very impressive final product to put out and the veteran group just continues to flex their muscles.

Favourite Tracks: Body 2 Body, Let The Night Fall, Lonely Heart, Save My Neck, Detonate

Least Favourite Track: High Five

Score: 7/10

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service

Image result for a tribe called quest we got it from hereVisionary rap group A Tribe Called Quest reconvene to release their first album in 18 years, and the timing could not have been any better. The messages that their brand of politically charged rap is laced with ring especially true in the wake of the US Presidential Election and the toxic divisiveness of opinion that has been running rampant throughout 2016. Despite founding member Phife Dawg’s death earlier this year, recordings of his voice are still included on the album, interspersed with tributes to his legacy. As the man behind the vast majority of production for the group, Q-Tip remains the clear leader and his presence is felt the most on this project, his flow and cadence still as youthful as ever as he ages into his late 40s.

As the group is certainly from a different time, as the parameters of what hip-hop music can be have evolved drastically since the release of their previous project in 1998, the album can come across somewhat dated at times. However, the technical skill of the group members (and the impressive list of guests they bring along with them!) and the poignant and topical messages rise above to deliver what will surely stand as a very important project.

Image result for a tribe called quest 2016

Q-Tip picks up right where he left off with regards to the production on the project. It is very quintessentially 90s, but certainly possesses some aspects of more modern techniques sporadically interspersed — you’d never find something like a Jack White guitar solo on a previous Tribe project, for example, and there are some pretty nice vocal samples on tracks like “Enough!!” and “Lost Somebody”. Most of the tracks, however, are still  very focused on something like a hi-hat laced drumbeat more than anything else, predominantly showcasing the technical abilities of the rappers. These classic-sounding beats are nice to hear, just like the old-school West Coast sound on Dr. Dre’s Compton album, but in a world where visionary artists are perpetually pushing the boundaries of hip-hop, sometimes an impressive flow alone is underwhelming.

The roster of guests on the project is nothing short of spectacular. The rap features go bar to bar with the deft lyricism of Tribe members, bridging the historical gap with old associates like Busta Rhymes and Andre 3000, and new stars inspired by their work like Kendrick Lamar (despite his placement on one of the album’s most repetitive and underwhelming tracks) and Anderson .Paak. In addition, Jack White’s impressive guitar work and vocals are featured on numerous occasions, and somehow, Elton John shows up to close out standout track “Solid Wall of Sound”, which heavily samples his “Bennie and the Jets”.

A Tribe Called Quest, despite the many years spent apart from each other fraught by tension among its members, come back together flawlessly here in terms of not losing the dynamic between the vastly different styles of its members. The execution is perfect here, as Jarobi’s low and menacing tone bounces off of Q-Tip’s childlike demeanor and Phife Dawg’s Trinidadian flair. The tracks where they go back and forth trading lines, sometimes with a guest like Busta Rhymes included, are among the album’s best. Their technical abilities really are something to behold, especially on a track like “Solid Wall of Sound” where Q-Tip’s speedy flow dominates as his group members respond to him in kind.

Image result for a tribe called quest 2016The surviving three members pay tribute to Phife Dawg on the project

In other areas of strength, the sound of the album is quite unified and it makes for some entertaining transitions between tracks, and the political messages they spin ring absolutely true. “We The People….” effectively serves as a modern-day protest track against all forms of hatred, as Q-Tip sweetly and sarcastically sings a deceptively catchy chorus from the perspective of a Trump supporter: “All you black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go…Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways”. Other messages of odds being stacked against success of African American people dominate most of the tracks here. The closing track, “The Donald”, reclaims the nickname and attributes it to the deceased Phife Dawg instead, who was nicknamed Don Juice.

The album suffers when it gets stuck in its ways in terms of being dated. There is even some old-school style beatboxing on “Melatonin”. Jarobi addresses trap music and artists like Fetty Wap as “Moving Backwards” on the track of the same name, contrasting with his “legendary style of rap”. This is not the most positive mentality to have in today’s musical landscape. The album doesn’t really have much musical direction at times, featuring repetitive and clashing samples. A Tribe Called Quest are more trying to really emphasize and pound home their political messages and respect of Phife Dawg than creating a completely cohesive song.

Overall, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service serves as an exhilarating time capsule to the past, all the while delivering topical and harrowing messages relating to the scary state of the world today. This has been explicitly stated to be A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, and they’ve certainly returned after so many years to decidedly go out on top.

Favourite Tracks: Black Spasmodic, Solid Wall of Sound, Whateva Will Be, We The People…., Enough!!

Least Favourite Track: Conrad Tokyo

Score: 7/10

Tinashe – Nightride

Image result for tinashe night rideTinashe’s second full-length studio album comes in the wake of numerous mixtapes and EPs, all of which helped to maintain her profile in the competitive world of contemporary R&B but none of which connecting with radio in the same way that “2 On” did. Nightride continues to showcase Tinashe as a middle of the road artist who is capable of producing some mildly interesting moments, but falls into mediocrity on an extended project such as this. An accomplished team of writers and producers attempt to build more of a complex musical world around her relatively uninteresting voice, succeeding at times but collectively failing to escape the trap of being painfully average which afflicts many artists on their sophomore effort.

The fact that she hasn’t produced another hit is somewhat of a mystery, as Tinashe does adapt well to the current market of very ambient-sounding R&B and hip-hop. However, the project really picks up when she turns to producers who are more known for trap music and club bangers than floating over woozy instrumentals that sound like Drake is in one of his moods again. There is actually a lot of trap influence all over the project, but half the time it puts the syncopated hi-hats that define the genre over these slower and moody synths to varying degrees of success. Well-known producers like Metro Boomin, The-Dream and Dev Hynes all do a great job.

Image result for tinashe 2016

Tinashe’s work, as demonstrated by her metamorphosis into a Cassie Ventura for the new decade on “2 On”, is much better serving as a complement to tracks which run at a higher speed and are focused on large, dynamic trap-influenced beats. Her voice is simply not interesting or powerful enough to carry a slower and vocal-focused R&B ballad, which take up about half of the project. However, some producers certainly try to break up the monotony and provide some things we haven’t really heard before. The-Dream’s glitchy and distorted beat on single “Company” continues to diversify his profile as an R&B producer by successfully backing a Tinashe song with what sounds like early Skrillex. Dev Hynes, as well, has proven his masterful ability to alter his style to match a voice time and time again, and on closing track “Ghetto Boy” does it as well as he does on Carly Rae Jepsen’s underrated E-MO-TION album.

In contrast, the slower tracks like “Sunburn” are quite boring. The underlying problem with Nightride is the overwhelming similarities among the tracks – Tinashe is almost trying to adapt to a sound too much without adding enough individuality of her own in the process. There is not much of an understanding of her own strengths here. The sweet spot in Tinashe’s voice is the sugary and sensual upper range that she displays on tracks like “C’est La Vie” and the 2nd half of “Sacrifices” — acting more in the role that the vocalist on a popular EDM song does. She works as an airy complement to the prominent instrumental, but carrying a whole song at her full voice doesn’t work as well. For this reason, tracks like “Soul Glitch” and “Spacetime” go on far too long for what they are.

Image result for tinashe 2016

Ultimately, the fantastic interlude “High Speed Chase”, which runs barely over a minute, serves as a microcosm for the album as a whole. For an album that I was so bored by, on a relisten I was surprised by how many tracks stood out on their own as being very solid. There are many interesting musical moments here, they are just infrequent and inconsistent. Tinashe needs to grasp a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and firmly latch onto the former in the future.

Favourite Tracks: Ghetto Boy, C’est La Vie, Touch Pass, Ride of Your Life

Least Favourite Track: Sunburn

Score: 6/10

Alicia Keys – Here

Image result for alicia keys hereVeteran R&B/Soul singer and fully established musical force Alicia Keys returns with her sixth studio album and first since 2012’s pop-oriented Girl On Fire. Keys has dubbed this album the best music she’s ever made, and the quality here makes it hard to dispute that comment. Aside from Keys herself, production is handled mainly by husband and hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, who spins the album much closer to that musical world than Keys has been before. The intersection of Swizz’ enormous boom-bap New York style hip-hop beats with Keys’ beautiful piano arrangements provide the perfect playground for her limitless voice to soar, infusing every track with her distinct soulfulness.

The album contains many interludes of Keys’ slam poetry about social and political matters, which both allow the album’s tracks to flow seamlessly into each other, as elements of the previous track continue to play under it, but also introduces the subject matter of many tracks in a profound and affecting way. Keys stated that the album was created much faster than she usually does — and even Keys at her most freeform and improvisational manages to outshine her contemporaries.

Image result for alicia keys

The overall sound of the project is actually quite minimal: repetitive, but very catchy. Many instrumentals provide just a piano and a beat, while some deviate to the singer-songwriter angle as Keys just sings over a looping guitar pattern like on “Kill Your Mama”, an ode to environmental awareness co-written by Emeli Sande. This is a revival of the sound that would have been popular when Keys’ career was just beginning, with many flavours of not only old school R&B but also old school hip-hop. Keys does fully embrace the hip-hop sound on a few songs here, many are very rhythmically oriented and she adopts somewhat of a rap flow, dropping the complex melodies for a speedy and impassioned delivery and maneuvering around some of the huge beats provided. Producer extraordinaire Pharrell Williams appears on the clear standout track “Work On It”, and his style continues to complement Keys perfectly.

Here is additionally packed with fantastic socially conscious messages, dominating most of the subject matter here but attacking a wide range of issues. “Holy War”, the album’s closing track, is the song that blossomed from the slam poetry-style speech Keys gave which shut down the MTV VMAs, and the slam poetry interludes are more of the greatness we saw there. The true strength of the project, however, is unsurprisingly Keys’ voice. It is so pitch-perfect that you really get lost in the arrangements while you’re trying to tune in to what she is saying, and her amazing piano work and accompanying jazz ensembles bolster every track. A lot of it is more traditional R&B than is usually popular today, focusing more on her singing abilities. She can be laid back and transcend a minor scale with ease on “Pawn It All” or scream to the heavens in her powerful upper range on “Illusion of Bliss”. She is capable of sounding fantastic at all ends of her impressive 3-octave range, and all are displayed prominently here.

Image result for alicia keys live

Pharrell’s track “Work On It” is so good that it rises clearly above the rest of the still incredibly strong pack. Things drop into a doo-wop time signature punctuated by syncopated human vocals reminding me of Kanye’s early work, while Keys’ voice never sounded so clear going through effortless vocal runs on top. The song has a strange effect on me that I’ve quite honestly never felt before in how much it compels me to move my body to the beat. The song continues and elevates the trend of great soul music we’ve been getting at the end of 2016 and is a lock for one of my favourite tracks of the year – or the decade.

Although Keys’ voice and hooks are frequently great, there is a lot of repetition on the album and some elements go on a but too long, losing the message in a less interesting musical moment. Keys also tends to go on long and meandering stories about characters she’s made up to prove her point, and this can come across as less affecting than she intended. This comes to full fruition on the only real miss on the tracklist “Where Do We Begin Now”, where she depicts the struggles of an ambiguous member of the LGBT community.

Still, Here is an absolute triumph in the wake of the image and messages Keys has been attempting to promote all year, backing up her words with excellent and soulful music. This is the work of a veteran artist who knows her element and her strengths clearly, and offers a celebration of those characteristics that turned her into a legitimate R&B legend.

Favourite Tracks: Work On It, More Than We Know, Pawn It All, Blended Family (What You Do For Love), The Gospel

Least Favourite Track: Where Do We Begin Now

Score: 8/10

Kacey Musgraves – A Very Kacey Christmas

In the midst of Halloweening, critically acclaimed country singer Kacey Musgraves inexplicably decides that it is already time for Christmas, and releases a delightful collection of songs. The project contains new and interesting spins on some classics, four great originals and a heavy infusion of the adorable personality we’ve come to love her for. There are a select few artists that I will actively seek out Christmas music from, and Musgraves is one — her sugary sweet vocals can put a smile on my face singing anything any all. A lack of many other interesting projects released this week did not help either. But although I may be somewhat of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas music, I must admit that this project made me incredibly happy.

One thing that excited me about the project immediately were its collaborations. On the fantastic original “Present Without A Bow”, Musgraves teams up with fellow Texan and rising soul singer Leon Bridges, and it is the match made in heaven I never saw coming. She also reunites with country legend Willie Nelson (who is in his 80s and sounding great) after including him in a bonus track on her previous album Pageant Material, on the ridiculous and appropriately titled “A Willie Nice Christmas”. On two classic Christmas songs, she recruits Western swing fiddle group The Quebe Sisters, whose combined voices sound like something directly out of a 1950s TV Christmas special and add to the overall vintage feel of the entire project.

Image result for kacey musgraves

The four original songs included on the project are all able to stand on their own. She recruits many of the same songwriters that contributed to her studio albums such as Brandy Clark, now an esteemed singer in her own right, and Shane McAnally, and they continue to deliver. The collaboration with Bridges truly shines, combining the styles of the two perfectly as slide guitars and horn sections collide over a bouncy piano beat. The two are both incredible singers, and their harmonies on the catchy chorus come across very well. Another great track is “Christmas Makes Me Cry”, a song Musgraves states she included in order to capture the lonely side of Christmas when loved ones can’t be present that nobody talks about, and it really works. Throwing in a heartbreaking line like “It’s always sad seeing mom and dad/getting a little greyer” continues the tradition of emotionally jarring Musgraves songwriting.

The genre-spanning spins she put on some of the classic Christmas carols surprised me as well. Musgraves really wanted to experiment here, and has given interviews describing the recording process as the most liberated she’s felt with music. She covers Mele Kalikimaka and it sounds authentic, and applies the same Hawaiian flavour to “A Willie Nice Christmas”, even throwing in a reference to Waikiki to confirm the inspiration. “Christmas Don’t Be Late” (Yes, the Alvin and the Chipmunks song) sounds like you’re floating down the river in Vienna, complete with accordions and an oom-pah-pah beat. And what other country singer than the one whose music is banned from many country stations could pull off a mariachi cover of “Feliz Navidad”? She makes some simple songs like “Let It Snow” newly quite musically complex as well, adding beautiful harmonies and spiraling and almost improvisational-sounding instrumentation.

Image result for kacey musgraves

Musgraves herself is adorable and hilarious as always, making some absolutely endearing choices across the board. Putting some of the more childish Christmas songs like “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”, “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and “Rudolph” shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise given how much she goofed around on stage when I saw her in concert. When Musgraves sings “I still want a hula hoop”, she means it as much as a child on Christmas Eve would. She sees the inherent humour in rehashing these songs that we all know too well as well, explaining that “Feliz Navidad” means Merry Christmas in the middle of the song, and introducing “Rudolph” by saying in her most overly Southern voice “Well, here’s one for all the little kids”. She even brings on a chorus of children to shout “LIKE A LIGHTBULB”.

But although Musgraves’ sweet voice still works well on these sillier songs, when things take more of a mature turn is where her voice really shines. Musgraves is one of my favourite singers in the world for a reason, and her chills-inducing performance of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” to close the album is something breathtaking.

A Very Kacey Christmas is about as good as a collection of Christmas music can get, and any new music from Musgraves is very welcome in my book. Thanks to her, I’ll probably be listening to Christmas music all November and annoying most of my friends. One has already chastised me for posting one of these songs on Facebook the day after Halloween.

Favourite Tracks: Present Without A Bow, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, Christmas Don’t Be Late, Feliz Navidad, Christmas Makes Me Cry

Score: 🎄/10