BensBeat Top 25 albums of 2016

2016 was absolutely stacked with high-profile album releases. Somehow, it seems like everyone who matters managed to drop an album, and here are the best of the best:

Honourable mentions:

  • A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
  • DJ Khaled – Major Key
  • DJ Snake – Encore
  • Dragonette – Royal Blues
  • Fifth Harmony – 7/27
  • Logic – Bobby Tarantino
  • Savant – Vybz
  • Skylar Grey – Natural Causes
  • Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
  • The Weeknd – Starboy

25. Aphex Twin – Cheetah EP
Image result for cheetah epThe mysterious EDM producer drops the inaccessibility of his previous work, switching up his style to more closely follow the path of modern techno. 4/4 time is not something normal for Aphex Twin. Still, he imbues his boundless creativity into a few lengthy tracks.

24. Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine
Image result for the divine feminineAnother case of a complete change in style, Miller isn’t making music for parties anymore. The rapper’s influence from featured artists Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar and girlfriend Ariana Grande shows here, as he delivers a jazz and soul-influenced project which is much more complex and extravagant.

23. D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M
Image result for big baby dramLook at that cover art. The album sounds just like that. The man can do anything, and the resulting project is a blend of traditional soul music, upbeat hip-hop and humour. D.R.A.M. clearly thinks his deep, silky voice is hilarious, and uses it to make fun of the form at times.

22. Bastille – Wild World
Image result for wild world bastilleThe band expands to stadium status, as they create a balance between staying true to the pulsating synthpop sound that made the band a household name, and expand their influences to continue to innovate as they’ve done in the past. Frontman Dan Smith’s voice is impressive, and buoys many huge singalong choruses.

21. NAO – For All We Know
Image result for for all we know naoThe rising R&B singer with a unique voice brings the UK sound of electro-funk to the masses with her debut album. In the wake of her work with Disclosure, the production sounds somewhat similar. However, her voice is the true star of the show.

20. Banks – The Altar
Image result for banks the altarBanks turns up the energy on her sophomore album, turning away from her slower ballads to more upbeat and trap-influenced R&B tracks. Her voice, simultaneously breathy and lilting and somewhat menacing, draws us into her dark world and blunt lyrics.

19. Alicia Keys – Here
Image result for alicia keys hereThe veteran presence in the world of R&B shows us that the voice is still there in a major way, but on this project she has something to say. Over production from husband Swizz Beatz, which gives the project more of a hip-hop edge, Keys makes many affecting political statements.

18. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Image result for malibu anderson .paakThe only artist to appear on this countdown twice, the funk mastermind who was introduced to us on Dr. Dre’s Compton album explodes into the public eye. The genre-spanning debut effort is kept afloat throughout by .Paak’s confident presence and infusion of funk and gospel sensibilities into all that he does.

17. Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman
Image result for dangerous womanThe technically outstanding pop singer harnesses her own creative direction for the first time and presents a blend of innovative pop hits and returns to the old-school R&B form she showcased on her debut album. No longer is her voice buried in overproduction, and her personality shines through on the character-driven work.

16. Lindsey Stirling – Brave Enough
Image result for brave enough lindsey stirlingThe EDM violinist who became popular through YouTube is now a fully established force in the music industry. Bringing on a wealth of guests from different musical worlds, she somehow ties it all together with her unique style of violin playing and pounding electronic beats.

15. Vic Mensa – There’s Alot Going On
Image result for there's alot going onThe brief, personal and politically charged EP sees often misguided rapper Vic Mensa return to form, offering his energetic and passionate take on issues like police brutality and the Flint water crisis before explaining his defeat of personal problems with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. Welcome back.

14. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love

Image result for awaken my loveDonald Glover takes his creativity to another level as he presents one of the biggest stylistic shifts I’ve ever seen. The project is atmospheric and beautiful, Gambino injecting his hip-hop sensibilities into soul and funk music, creating songs that mean something for the first time and displaying his impressive singing voice.

13. Lapsley – Long Way Home
Image result for long way home lapsleyThe complete grasp of artistry Lapsley has harnessed at the young age of 20 is incredible. The singer, DJ and producer combines all her talents in her debut album that sees her full and soulful Adele-style vocals accompany trippy and atmospheric production.

12. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
Image result for untitled unmasteredThis collection of B-sides that didn’t make the cut on masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly is  still better than almost all the rap releases this year. Lamar’s creativity and technical skill are through the roof, and listening to him is always a pleasure.

11. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Image result for heavn jamilaWoods’ debut album is a statement, and not necessarily a bold one – which serves as its underlying strength. The R&B vocalist adopts a stance of hope for the future and embraces her own identity on the project, creating some breezy and fun R&B numbers that answer the anger with positivity.

10. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
Image result for yes lawdThis collaboration between Anderson .Paak and soul-influenced hip-hop producer Knxwledge gives the more old-school funk side of .Paak the correct instrumental landscape to shine. A large number of shorter tracks make the album feel like a joyful exploration and homage to an era of music.

9. Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION: Side B

Image result for emotion side bAnother collection of B-Sides from a spectacular album, Carly Rae Jepsen continues her pop music renaissance with the best writers and producers in the business (Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid, Greg Kurstin) on her side. Side B continues the all-out sugar rush of its parent album and contains some simple but deceptively smart songwriting.

8. Solange – A Seat At The Table
Image result for a seat at the tableA more soft-spoken and understated component to her sister’s bombastic artistic statement Lemonade, Solange’s message rings true in the same way. Over hip-hop influenced beats, her observations of the state of the world are communicated through breathy and beautiful harmonized vocals.

7. Francis & The Lights – Farewell, Starlite!
Image result for farewell starliteOne of the biggest creative statements I’ve seen since Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus, Francis uses his Prismizer vocal manipulation program to create an entirely new sound. His distorted, harmonic and ambient vocal style is brief, happy and upbeat, and ties together conceptually in the story of the rise and fall of a relationship. Francis is here to stay.

6. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Image result for coloring bookChance The Rapper is quickly becoming one of the world’s greatest creative forces. Finally breaking through to widespread public consciousness, his brand of positivity and gospel-influenced hip-hop and R&B music creates an incredibly endearing album. Chance delivers track after track of fun party tracks like “No Problem” and profound messages of perseverance like “Same Drugs”.

5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Image result for the life of pabloKanye’s “living breathing changing creative expression”, an album that he continued to update and perfect months after its release, is just another way that the most forward-thinking mind in the music industry continued to prove his excellence. While not perfect in the way a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be, The Life of Pablo finds beauty in the chaos.

4. Broods – Conscious
Image result for conscious broodsNew Zealand-born indie pop brother-sister duo Broods teams up with Grammy-winning producer Joel Little to deliver the best pop album of the year. Consisting of clean-cut and punchy rhythms and anthemic choruses, Georgia Nott’s powerful vocals lend a pulsing energy to the entire project. Very cohesive in sound, Broods have found a melodic synthpop formula that works perfectly for them.

3. Bruno Mars – 24k Magic
Image result for 24k magicThis is what an artist relishing in the fact that he is at the top of his game sounds like. The boisterous and extravagant persona that came across on “Uptown Funk!” continues here, as Mars takes us through a tour of the popular sounds of 80s and 90s funk R&B, showing his mastery of the material and having a lot of fun in the process. There are so many things to love here you almost forget that he’s by far the best male singer to grace the radio waves.

2. Beyonce – Lemonade
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce is on another planet. After surprise-dropping a visual album in 2014, she took it one step further with the accompanying  Lemonade musical film, one of the greatest shows of artistry and creativity I’ve ever seen. The messages regarding the state of the world through the lens of infidelities in her marriage presented through poetry in the film carry through to her music, which spans genres and features some unexpected high-profile collaborations. Of course, Beyonce is still the star of the show – what else did you expect? Her vocals are still mindblowing, and they span 12 individual songs that each encapsulate an emotion annotated in the film perfectly.

1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Image result for blonde frank oceanAfter a wait so agonizing it became an Internet joke, Ocean’s release of this sprawling and interconnected work reveals it was definitely worth it. An incredible number of genius artists join forces on this project – Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Pharrell, Kanye, James Blake, Rick Rubin… the list goes on – and the resulting music is immaculate. The majority of the album is set over minimalistic production involving acoustic guitars and synth piano, giving Frank’s dynamic and outstanding voice complete control. But while this minimalism occurs, the songs shift and change, both within themselves and in transitions to the next – sometimes incredibly jarringly and sometimes so smoothly you don’t realize the song has changed. The album was clearly ordered deliberately despite its chaos, themes presenting themselves at different areas of the album. Soon enough, the chaos begins to make sense. This is the most complete, thought-out and well-executed release since To Pimp a Butterfly, and I’ll let producer and frequent collaborator Malay close it out: “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”. Take all the time you need, Frank.

And so concludes BensBeat list week 2016. It’s been a spectacular musical year, and I’m excited to see what 2017 brings us.

BensBeat Top 50 songs of 2016

Despite the quality of the year itself, 2016 has been one of the best years of music I’ve ever seen. The next two posts are going to be dedicated to counting down the best of the best, starting with the Top 50 songs of the year. I’m aware that Run The Jewels just dropped an album, and while they won’t appear on these lists, I’ll have a review up for the first post of the new year. Without further ado:

Honourable Mentions:

  • Banks – Mother Earth
  • Calvin Harris – This Is What You Came For (Ft. Rihanna)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Roses
  • The Chainsmokers – Roses (Ft. Rozes)
  • Danny Brown – Ain’t It Funny
  • Lapsley – Hurt Me
  • Logic – Super Mario World
  • MAGIC! – Red Dress
  • Sia – Reaper
  • Tegan and Sara – Faint of Heart

50. Vic Mensa – Danger
Image result for vic mensa there's alot going onOn an EP full of politically-charged rap tracks, this more standard fare stands out due to Mensa’s passionate delivery.

49. Lindsey Stirling – Those Days (Ft. Dan + Shay)
Image result for lindsey stirling brave enoughViolinist Stirling’s blending of genres on her fantastic Brave Enough takes another surprisingly successful turn when she offers a guest spot to a country duo.

48. Solange – Borderline (An Ode To Self Care) [ft. Q-Tip]
Image result for a seat at the tableSolange’s soft-spoken contrast to her sister is enhanced by old-school hip-hop production from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and a message of perseverance.

47. JoJo – Mad Love
Image result for jojo mad loveThe title track of former child star JoJo’s return to the music industry after contract disputes features a doo-wop sound and effortless vocals.

46. D.R.A.M. – Broccoli (ft. Lil Yachty)
Image result for big baby dramThis was a huge hit for a reason – is there anything more addicting than that looping piano instrumental leading into the huge beat drop?

45. Skylar Grey – Come Up For Air
Image result for skylar grey natural causesGrey teams up once again with frequent collaborator Eminem, who earns a rare production credit for this striking ballad.

44. The Weeknd – Starboy (Ft. Daft Punk)
Image result for starboy the weekndNot the first collaboration between Abel and the robots on this countdown, we’ve all heard this song hundreds of times by now and still want to sing along.

43. NAO – Feels Like (Perfume)
Image result for nao for all we knowThe final track on rising R&B singer NAO’s debut album utilizes her very unique voice to its maximum sensual potential.

42. John Legend – Darkness and Light (ft. Brittany Howard)
Image result for john legend darkness to lightThe veteran soul singer unleashes a surprising collaboration with Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard and her production team for a powerful duet.

41. Rae Sremmurd – Black Beatles (ft. Gucci Mane)
Image result for sremmlife 2Who would have ever thought these two artists would have a #1 hit single in 2016? In the wake of the election, Black Beatles is the song we needed.

40. Kanye West – Real Friends (ft. Ty Dolla $ign)
Image result for life of pabloThe first song we ever heard from The Life of Pablo as a promotional single, the slow and reflective track has Kanye posing the relatable question: “How many of us are real friends”?

39. Bastille – Send Them Off!
Image result for wild world bastilleThe most energetic track from Wild World, Send Them Off! continues the band’s always impressive ability to write a huge chorus, complete with references to Othello and The Exorcist.

38. Fifth Harmony – Work From Home (ft. Ty Dolla $ign)
Image result for 7/27Although Camila Cabello has since left the band, we still have the earworm of the year to remember her by. This song will never get old.

37. Beyonce – Daddy Lessons
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce has always been a risk-taker, but nobody expected her to pull off a country song so well. By the time the horn section breakdown comes in, we’re all convinced.

36. Childish Gambino – Me and Your Mama
Image result for awaken my loveThe sprawling 6-minute intro to the experimental Awaken, My Love, the song begins with a peaceful choir loop before exploding into Gambino’s anguished cries for love.

35. Flume – Never Be Like You (ft. Kai)
Image result for flume skinWhile the instrumental tracks on Skin were often clunky, Flume’s first introduction to the radio waves brought his innovative future bass sound to wider attention.

34. Broods – Are You Home?
Image result for broods consciousThe razor-sharp rhythm and harmonies from vocalist Georgia Nott over her brother’s catchy instrumental contribute to a standout from one of the year’s best pop albums.

33. Frank Ocean – Pink + White (ft. Beyonce)
Image result for blonde frank oceanWhat did you think would happen if you put Frank Ocean, Beyonce and Pharrell Williams in a room together? The bouncy string instrumental and Frank’s soaring vocals shine.

32. DJ Shadow – Nobody Speak (ft. Run The Jewels)
Image result for the mountain will fallThe veteran DJ’s return featured a collaboration with the abrasive and unapologetic rap duo that saw El-P punching bears and Killer Mike robbing Peanuts characters.

31. A Tribe Called Quest – Black Spasmodic
Image result for we got it from here thank you for your serviceThe best track on ATCQ’s long-awaited comeback album features an island-style instrumental and a standout verse from the late Phife Dawg.

30. Chance The Rapper – Same Drugs
Image result for coloring book“Same drugs is not about drugs”, Chance tweeted one day. The subtly beautiful melody sees Chance stretch a Peter Pan reference into a plea to stay positive after losing childlike innocence.

29. Kanye West – Famous (ft. Rihanna)
Image result for life of pabloYou know it had to be on here. Despite Kanye’s now most-infamous line that reignited his feud with Taylor Swift, you can’t deny how great that flip of reggae classic “Bam Bam” to close out the track is.

28. Bruno Mars – Too Good To Say Goodbye
Image result for 24k magicMars’ vocals are at their absolute best on the closing track to his brief 24k Magic album. The track has apparently been around since his first album, and he finally perfected it.

27. Mac Miller – Dang! (ft. Anderson .Paak)
Image result for the divine feminineThe collaboration with newfound funk sensation .Paak sees Mac Miller abandon his goofy frat-rap past for a complex horn-laced instrumental and passionate delivery.

26. DJ Khaled – For Free (ft. Drake)
Image result for major keyA collaboration with OVO producers and essentially a Drake song that Khaled got to put his name on, it’s the best track to come out of their dancehall obsession.

25. Drake – Feel No Ways
Image result for viewsHere he is again, but this time on a beat by none other than Mr. Kanye West that sounds like a leftover from Graduation. Sometimes Drake’s charm is more than enough.

24. Lapsley – Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me)
Image result for lapsley long way homeMasterfully flipping a sample of The Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator”, the 20-year old singer and producer sounds like a mini-Adele lamenting her long distance relationship.

23. Lady Gaga – Million Reasons
Image result for lady gaga joanneThe powerful acoustic ballad shows that despite some frequent uncertainties in direction, Gaga still has the raw talent to knock it out of the park.

22. Beyonce – Don’t Hurt Yourself (ft. Jack White)
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce is out for blood on this collaboration with rock musician White, seeking vengeance on her unfaithful husband over a surprisingly heavy instrumental.

21. Ariana Grande – Into You
Image result for dangerous womanThe best single yet from one of the industry’s best technical singers. From the soaring chorus to her innovative vocoder use as the track closes out, it should have been a much bigger hit.

20. Fifth Harmony – Write On Me
Image result for 7/27Over a tropical house beat from rising EDM star Kygo, the group displays the individual talents of their members in a more R&B-influenced track.

19. Carly Rae Jepsen – Higher
Image result for emotion side bEven Carly Rae’s B-sides are in the running to be called the best pop song of the year. The producers and writers she has on her side are the industry’s best and this one will get stuck in your head for weeks.

18. Frank Ocean – Solo
Image result for blonde frank oceanOcean is completely emotionally vulnerable once again on this track, examining various aspects of what it means to be alone before unleashing an impressive string of vocal runs in the chorus.

17. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled 02
Image result for untitled unmasteredWhat was it about B-sides this year? This leftover from my favorite album of all time had people quoting “Get Top on the phooone!” all over the internet. The last verse is a technical clinic.

16. D.R.A.M. – Cash Machine
Image result for big baby dramJust watch the video and try not to smile. It’s hard to not love this guy, who acts like a complete goofball over a Ray Charles piano loop. Fun fact: he made the cash machine sound effect with his own voice!

15. NxWorries – Scared Money
Image result for yes lawdThis collaborative project between Anderson .Paak and soulful producer Knxwledge was a great idea, and their styles interact perfectly on this track that sounds like an updated version of The Hustle.

14. Alicia Keys – Work On It
Image result for alicia keys hereAnother great Pharrell Williams beat, Alicia Keys proves she’s got one of the best voices in the world with her impressive delivery and thoughts on working through marital difficulties.

13. Solange – Cranes In The Sky
Image result for a seat at the tableThe most impressive culmination of Solange’s artistic statement on the racial climate of America, her beautiful breathy vocals detailing the ways she tried to forget about the inescapable discrimination.

12. Jamila Woods – Holy
Image result for jamila woods heavnFrom another very politically charged album, Chicago artist Woods teams up with The Social Experiment’s Peter Cottontale and finds the escape Solange couldn’t in religion.

11. Rihanna – Love On the Brain
Image result for rihanna antiI never saw this one coming. As soon as she stepped out onto the Billboard Music Awards stage and performed this song I was instantly reminded how much talent our biggest pop star really has.

10. Travis Scott – Pick Up The Phone (ft. Young Thug and Quavo)
Image result for birds in the trap sing mcknightFrequently inconsistent artist Scott still manages to give us one of the most fun songs of the year, featuring a watery steel drum instrumental and endlessly quotable verses. “It’s lit!”

9. The Weeknd – I Feel It Coming (ft. Daft Punk)
Image result for starboy the weekndThe instrumental here is classic Daft Punk, as The Weeknd channels the spirit of Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson to bring us one of the best pop songs in recent memory.

8. Broods – Freak of Nature (ft. Tove Lo)
Image result for broods consciousThe incredibly affecting duet between Georgia Nott and Swedish alt-pop artist Tove Lo tackles personal struggles with mental illness as their soaring vocals rebound off each other effortlessly.

7. Bruno Mars – Versace On The Floor
Image result for 24k magicIn an album full of throwbacks to previous sounds, this 90s R&B track stands out. Bruno still describes it best: “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.”

6. Beyonce – All Night
Image result for lemonade beyonceThe calm after the storm in the Lemonade narrative, Beyonce forgives her husband and continues on. The bouncy rhythm of the chorus and the sample of the horns from OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” sell this song.

5. Childish Gambino – Redbone
Image result for awaken my loveWho knew Gambino had this in him? The best product of this complete musical U-turn, his falsetto vocals over a Prince-esque classy funk instrumental still give me chills. The moment he yells “STAY WOKE” is the best musical second of the year.

4. Chance the Rapper – No Problem (ft. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne)
Image result for coloring bookI don’t think I played any song more than this one this year. Chance’s lighthearted threat to major labels is simply a party from front to back. The craziest part is that the gospel choir in the instrumental isn’t a sample – that was done live!

3. Frank Ocean – Self Control
Image result for blonde frank oceanLike three mini-songs in one that flow into each other perfectly. Once again, Frank is lonely. “Keep a place for me”, he sings. “I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing”. By the time the outro comes on and Frank’s increasingly layered vocals start lamenting about that other guy, it almost brings a tear to your eye.

2. Kanye West – Ultralight Beam (ft. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and Chance The Rapper)
Image result for life of pabloThere’s something new to discover to love about this song every time you hear it. First of all, Kanye is barely on it, offering some words praying for peace before letting his collaborators continue the prayer. And between Chance’s incredible verse, Kelly Price’s apparently one-take vocal showcase communicating with God, and preacher Kirk Franklin’s sermon at the end, Kanye’s message rings clear. The deafening gospel choir closes out the track with the echoes of their words: Faith. More. Safe. War. It might be West’s best work yet.

1. Francis & The Lights – Friends (ft. Bon Iver)
Image result for farewell starliteThis is what happens when a handful of my favorite musicians in the world get together. Backing up Francis’ innovative vocal stylings with his Prismizer program is production from Kanye West, DJ Cashmere Cat, pop wizard Benny Blanco, Ariel Rechtshaid (Carly Rae Jepsen, HAIM) and Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. Francis and guest Bon Iver’s harmonies layer on top of each other with incredible complexity as they sing about the hope to remain friends after a relationship comes to an end. It inspired Chance the Rapper’s “Summer Friends”, many great artists have named it their song of the year, and it just so happens to be mine too.

And there we have it. This Wednesday, my top 25 albums of 2016 will be posted!

Ab-Soul – Do What Thou Wilt.

Image result for ab soul do what thou wiltTop Dawg Entertainment’s most uncategorizable artist is back for the first time since 2014’s lacklustre These Days…, and continues to straddle the line between ScHoolboy Q’s unapologetic approach to his gangsta rap tracks and Kendrick Lamar’s intelligent and conscious lyricism and messages. Do What Thou Wilt is an incredibly dense album, and for the first time Ab-Soul isn’t aiming for any particular path — the album possesses a diverse range of creative and largely freeform instrumentals.

However, the real focus of the album is Soul’s words. The wordplay he demonstrates on this album rivals any current rapper, loading his bars with an incredible amount of puns and double entendres. As a result, Soul’s flow can sometimes drift into slam-poetry territory, and he doesn’t exactly have the charm that someone like Chance the Rapper does to pull it off. This makes a 16-track album of listening to Soul take it upon himself to ignore the beats to focus on his wordplay come off as rather contrived. Still, it is an impressive showcase of talent from the label that may have won 2016.

Image result for ab soul

The overall sound of the album is rather dark, continuing the jazzy style on many of the recent TDE releases that falls in line with the trend set by their biggest artist Kendrick Lamar. Many tracks feature a creeping and sinister horn section and rattling drums, making them somewhat unsettling at times and providing an appropriate environment for Soul’s confused and cracking voice offering the latest in what he terms his “enlightenment”. In terms of collaborators, I must say the features on the album are a major strength, especially in the album’s early goings. Soul brings the best out of a feature verse, and knows how to adapt himself to his guests to provide the greatest contrast. Da$h, Bas, and especially labelmate ScHoolboy Q on “Beat The Case/Straight Crooked” ground and enhance Soul’s spacey demeanor.

Soul isn’t obeying any conventions of hip-hop music on this project at all, completely doing his own thing in what comes off as an hour-plus long stream of consciousness. The topics he touches on are very spiritual and conceptual, focusing on “big ideas”. While his revelations range from being incredibly poignant to his stunning discovery that dialing “M-O-M” on a phone yields 666, an interesting running theme is Soul’s play with gender, often flipping commonly agreed religious notions to pose questions of what might have happened if the genders were reversed.

Despite not showing them off as much as he could, Soul’s technical abilities are actually very impressive. Some earlier tracks like “Huey Knew”, “Braille” and “Beat The Case/Straight Crooked” sees him respecting the confines of the beat a bit more, fitting the typical structure of a song more. The combination of Soul’s speedy flow and his impressive lyricism makes for a very enjoyable listening experience. Soul once called himself “Lupe Fiasco on drugs” and he couldn’t be more accurate — the allusions and wordplay make the album almost difficult to discuss in a similar way, but sometimes a song like the appropriately titled “D.R.U.G.S.”, a song depicting his devotion and reliance on them, comes up and outlines the catalyst for these thoughts.

Image result for ab soul live

The instrumentals, as well, show a good balance between harder beats on the more hip-hop oriented songs discussed and what sounds like To Pimp A Butterfly leftovers — even when Soul’s flow goes off the rails, listening to the ghostly jazz band in back of him, courtesy of TDE in house producers, reveals a display of artistry and musicality.

Unfortunately, despite many positives going for the project, Do What Thou Wilt is severely undercut by its length. Standing at 16 tracks and reaching nearly 80 minutes, not only do certain tracks go on too long as Soul mumbles in the background, but the album as a whole is too dense to be tolerated for that long. Despite the lyricism, Soul’s messages can be mixed, and I’m sure there’s a reason for this — but when he deviates from the norm and adopts a surprisingly progressive stance on some of these tracks just to negate them a few songs later it can come off as borderline offensive. Soul doesn’t make me care enough to inspire me to delve deep into these messages and find the underlying meanings.

The write-up of this album took a while, because it is one of those projects that is so far into left field but still fails to be engaging, leaving little to write about. Despite being much more of a show of Ab-Soul’s greatest aspects as an artist than These Days… was, Soul’s preaching and acting like his thoughts are revolutionary for an extended period of time grows tiresome.

Favourite Tracks: Beat The Case/Straight Crooked, God’s A Girl?, Huey Knew, Braille

Least Favourite Track: Evil Genius

Score: 6/10

J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only

Image result for j cole for your eyes onlyDreamville label boss and North Carolina rapper J. Cole’s 4th studio album is released on the 2-year anniversary of his fantastic previous effort 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and comes as a huge surprise. On DJ Khaled’s Major Key album earlier this year, Cole expressed his frustrations with the rap game, feeling dissociated and considering retirement, also declaring at a recent concert that it would be his last show in a very long time. On this album, Cole is at his most introspective yet, crafting a story around the similar narratives he introduced on Khaled’s album with the added twists of his newfound family life after the birth of his daughter.

Cole just wants to be left alone, away from his responsibilities as a performer and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, coming from a huge fan of his work, this attitude towards his musical career really shows. Cole is still a great storyteller on this project, one of his greatest strengths, but you can clearly hear how much less he cares about this album. He doesn’t attack the beats as hard as he did before and falls back into tried-and-true formulas of rap music despite the album’s engaging narrative.

Image result for j cole

Once again, after fans beat to death the fact that 2014 Forest Hills Drive went double platinum with no features so much it became a running joke, the album features Cole and Cole alone. The sound certainly deviates from a typical hip-hop album, but not in a creative way – the project is generally very quiet and internal, accommodating its introspective qualities. This is all about Cole’s voice and his story. Cole himself produces most of the album with some occasional assistance from lesser-known producers and doesn’t deviate much from his usual style of production, featuring soul samples and somber piano loops, but they’re very basic and meant to bring out the contemplative state of the album and the significance of what Cole is saying. However, for anyone who isn’t one of the diehard Cole fans who truly believe that his lyricism is his strong point and requires a “certain level of intelligence” to appreciate, as the much-maligned YouTube comment goes, it makes for a very boring listen.

The story is actually pretty fantastic, and the culmination in the 9-minute closing track “4 Your Eyez Only” makes the whole album clearer and easier to appreciate — although before hearing this at the end some of the references are very confusing and the listener could have been guided through easier than a huge explanation at the end. Cole frames the album as a cassette tape that his friend who was killed instructs him to play for his daughter as a dying wish, speaking from the perspective of his friend for the majority of the album. Cole’s life parallels his friend’s in many ways, beginning in the streets and confused about the direction of his life before falling in love and having a daughter, but where his friend ultimately never made it out of the streets, Cole does and begins the domestic family life he celebrates here.

Some tracks certainly stand out, each showing brief glimpses of why Cole was so great before this project. “Neighbours” displays his technical ability, deftly maneuvering through the speedier beat while offering a narrative of how his neighbours assume he is selling drugs after moving to a white neighbourhood. “Change”, an address of Cole’s shifting perspectives as he matures that culminates in his friend’s death being made explicit, shows his storytelling, while “Immortal” is the only track here where Cole sounds truly energized and passionate.

Despite Cole’s ambitious intentions, the lack of care he puts into the actual musical content brings the project very far down. To fit in with the very emotional nature of the album, Cole sings a lot more than he usually does. His passionate declarations of love for his wife and daughter on “She’s Mine” parts 1 and 2 would be beautiful and affecting, especially with the cascading string instrumentals, if his vocals weren’t so off-key. I respect what Cole is trying to do with the story, but his delivery often sounds disinterested and phoned in, replicating aspects that succeeded in his previous music and not fulfilling them to the same degree.

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Single Deja Vu, which debuted in the Billboard top 10 and became Cole’s biggest hit immediately, is a blatant rip-off of Forest Hills track “G.O.M.D.”, complete with the same mockery of unintelligent rap choruses serving as its chorus. Finally, regardless of what many fans say, lyricism has always been Cole’s weakest point, coasting through due to the charm and relatable nature of his stories, and it only gets worse on this project. When the lines are not outright cringeworthy, often disrupting the tone of a song with an immature sexual reference, they are simply lazy. He turns half a chorus into instructions to put fingers in the sky, and yes – inexplicably rhymes “almond milk” with “almond milk”. Even the hooks are often terrible, something like “Ville Mentality” sounding like a melody that was made up on the spot.

In “She’s Mine, Pt. 2”, Cole sums up his feelings towards the direction of his life when he says “F*** this album s***, hey mama look what god made”, referring to his newborn daughter. His head is in a different place. People are making fun of Cole at the moment for making a song called “Foldin Clothes” which is actually about folding clothes and feeling like the best version of himself because he’s completing mundane household tasks – and if that’s what he wants to do he should do it. J. Cole, if you ever find your passion for music again, come back and renew this fan’s interest.

Favourite Tracks: Neighbours, 4 Your Eyez Only, Change, Immortal

Least Favourite Track: Ville Mentality

Score: 4/10

John Legend – Darkness and Light

Image result for john legend darkness and lightR&B/Soul singer John Legend’s fifth studio album is significantly stripped down from his previous efforts, choosing to focus more on his impressive voice as he sings about some rather heavy concepts. Featuring some interesting and unexpected collaborations, the album of slowed down and introspective ballads has some very high points, showing off Legend’s musical ability that has kept him as a force in the industry for so long, but the lack of variation between tracks and general sluggish pace to the album can detract from the experience as a whole.

The album’s production is mainly handled by Blake Mills, who recently contributed heavily to blues rock band Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, which garnered an Album of the Year Grammy nomination. The best song on the album, its title track, features the band’s lead singer Brittany Howard, suggesting that despite Mills’ best intentions he is much better at what he knows. He offers some rather basic contributions mirroring the structure of a typical R&B song in his leap across genres. Speaking of Howard, Legend’s collaborators frequently overshadow him on the project. While Legend is very good, his very humble demeanor that he even celebrates in his lyrics here – “Legend is just a name”, he says on the opening track – prevents him from doing anything too showy. He lets duet partners Howard and Miguel attack the big notes and go further than him vocally, while Chance the Rapper delivers a standout verse as always. These are all some of the best tracks on the album, but mostly because of the featured artists.

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Miguel’s track, “Overload”, was also produced by the singer and stands as a clear highlight as the two men consider the implications of relationships in the public eye. The quicker beat on the song alone makes it stand out from the pack while the two R&B virtuosos harmonize in falsetto and trade lines — “Must we make a spectacle of love?”. Coming of his biggest hit yet in “All of Me”, of course there are a few plays at pop radio here too that are more dance-oriented and far from where Legend should be. “All of Me” was a hit without the production bells and whistles after all, so the necessity to rely on them is disappointing.

“Darkness and Light”, the song, rises miles above the other tracks on the album with its bluesier feel accommodating Brittany Howard’s vocals well – Legend adopting a sensual falsetto to complement her full-voiced reaches into the stratosphere. A drumbeat clearly played live and an impressive blues guitar solo while both singers wail in the background adds even more, expressing the combination of all the organic talent in the room where it was created.

The overall musicality across the full album is a strength – Legend’s harmonies with himself and his guests are to be commended, while the instrumentals are often riskier than a typical song you might hear on the radio, featuring soulful guitar loops and even a saxophone solo from up-and-comer Kamasi Washington. Legend’s voice really can be spectacular, and a very stripped-down song like “I Know Better” shows off his traditional R&B abilities. The lyricism is also a strong point, as Legend dives deep on many of these songs to discuss some complicated topics. He appears disenchanted with his celebrity status and the attention that comes with it, while also addressing the political climate of the world. His perspectives are pretty grim at times and rather pessimistic – but with the tiniest glow of hope.

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As the album continues, however, the similar-sounding minimalistic and introspective ballads begin to pile up and the 2nd half of the album becomes boring. The songs are not necessarily bad, but they are very safe. It’s almost as if Legend is satisfied to deliver something good rather than spectacular or innovative — a lead single, “Penthouse Floor”, which supposedly had intentions of emulating Stevie Wonder and features a huge talent like Chance the Rapper, should be much more interesting than it ended up being. A more energetic performance from Legend and more lyrical variation would have helped here – the song doesn’t have as much kick as it needs to.

On my first listen to “Temporarily Painless”, a rather paint-by-numbers chorus had me lamenting more of the same as the album began to draw closer to its end – until Legend hits a great falsetto note out of nowhere to end the main melody line. Taking risks such as these really works out for him sometimes, and there are not nearly enough on this album. Still, the album is am effective showcase of Legend’s talent and contains some brief moments of greatness. To maintain this level of success for over a decade, he must be doing something right.

Favourite Tracks: Darkness and Light, Overload, How Can I Blame You, Temporarily Painless

Least Favourite Track: What You Do To Me

Score: 6/10

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love

Awaken, My Love!.jpgDonald Glover is having a good year. After creating one of the most critically acclaimed new shows in Atlanta, his casting as Lando Calrissian and becoming a father, the man of many talents sens his musical style to another dimension entirely on his latest project Awaken, My Love. He abandons the braggadocio and punchlines and the surprisingly well-sung pop hooks that characterized his rap career for something more closely resembling the spirit of Prince reincarnated. Shades of this creative side of him came out on concept album Because The Internet, but this is on another level.

While we already knew that Gambino could pull off almost anything well between singing, rapping, acting, screenwriting, stand-up comedy … when he dropped the sprawling, genre-hopping “Me and Your Mama” it still came as a surprise. To pull such a shift in character off this well takes some serious ability, and Gambino joins the ranks of hip-hop artists who have stretched the confines of the genre to become something so much more in the process. He follows in the footsteps of fellow Atlanta artists OutKast in his ability to create powerful, brilliant music by injecting smaller aspects of hip-hop into other areas of music despite their perception as rappers.

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The album continues the great streak of funk and soul-influenced mainstream albums we’ve been getting this year, showing that Gambino has been studying his musical history in his ability to revive the intricate sound of artists like Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone, who he cites as major influences on the project. It is interesting that the production is still mainly handled by close friend and Community composer Ludwig Goransson, who worked on all his previous material as well, as these could easily be two different artists. Goransson is credited for playing an incredible number of instruments here, contributing to the production value that may be the best of the year.

The album is very atmospheric – it opens with 2 minutes of a repeating choral loop bringing us into the musical world. Gambino’s soul-piercing screams of agony in the middle third of “Me and Your Mama” are bookended by 2 instrumentals from 2 different musical worlds. It really is hard to process what we’re hearing here at times. Even though there is a running theme in the sound it is imbued with aspects from everywhere and anywhere – “Have Some Love” could be a gospel hymn and “California” could be a Young Thug song. The production resembles Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly at times in how complex it is, and like Butterfly, funk legend George Clinton is credited on “Riot”. Many tracks come equipped with freeform solos which close them out which can even be more entertaining than Gambino at times. I’d love to see the harpsichord solo which concludes “Zombies” being played.

On top of this layered funk production is the real surprise – Gambino’s vocals. His voice goes to so many strange places that many weren’t sure it was even him when the first two promotional singles were released, and the range he displays is very impressive. He knows how to capture an emotion perfectly just by altering his voice. His distress on “Zombies” as he’s being hunted by metaphorical ones makes you genuinely uneasy. “Redbone” is one of the best tracks of the year, featuring interlocking loops of 70s funk keyboards and guitar enhanced by Gambino’s aching falsetto. The passion in his delivery gives me chills every time, culminating in an amazing moment where he full-out yells “STAY WOKE” into the microphone before being cut off in the song’s return to its more chilled-out nature.

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While Gambino dropping punchlines full of pop culture references and basically acting like a solo battle-rapper was entertaining, and he’s certainly very talented at that as well, these songs mean something. “Baby Boy”, a poignant message to his newborn son expressing his desire to stay close to him despite his tumultuous relationship with his mother, is written with the sensibilities of a screenwriter to perfectly make you feel his words. The words of advice he gives to his son are revealed to be the same words given to him by his own parents 2 tracks later on outro “Stand Tall” – “Smile when you can”.

Since the album does involve throwing a lot of different sounds at the wall and seeing what sticks, it can tend to go off the rails sonically at times despite usually meshing very well. “Riot”, although brief, is quite disjointed as its title might suggest, putting too many different sounds in at once before ending abruptly. “Stand Tall” does the same thing, extending too long and jumping back and forth between one motif to the next. The short breaks in sound before something completely different is thrown in could really make the song 3 separate tracks.

While I do hope Gambino raps again sometime in the future, hopefully elements of this project can find their way into his music and this isn’t just a side experiment, because Awaken, My Love comes from another planet. To take such a huge artistic risk and follow through to this level of success and with this much certainty in direction is an incredible achievement. Every time I think Donald Glover can’t surprise me any more than he already does, he feels the need to prove me wrong.

Favourite Tracks: Redbone, Me And Your Mama, Baby Boy, Terrified, Zombies

Least Favourite Track: Riot

Score: 9/10

YG – Red Friday

West Coast gangsta rap revivalist YG returns with a brief collection of songs which didn’t make the cut on Still Brazy, his acclaimed album from earlier this year. Although YG continues to bring the high-energy tracks we’ve come to expect from him, and reunites with some key collaborators, some of this material falls much shorter in the creativity department. At times, it is easy to see why some of these songs were left off the album — especially with the unique story attached to the project.

YG is only distributing a very limited number of physical copies of the EP, each costing $100. The project stands more as a novelty associated with the Black Friday craze than a legitimately assembled collection of songs, though there are still a few great tracks here. Though especially in the wake of creating a song that resonated with people as much as political protest song “FDT”, YG seems to be simply going the motions of what creates a standard West Coast banger here.

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The sound of the EP is still classic YG, offering melodic and bombastic West Coast beats while he continues to do what has made him famous overtop of them – the loud, in your face flow associated with old-school gangsta rap. The tone is very celebratory, fitting in with his more party-oriented tracks rather than the social commentary which has recently been getting more critical attention. Notable collaborator DJ Mustard, who was a major part of YG’s debut album My Krazy Life, is back here after differences kept the pair apart, and contributes some of the project’s best beats.

As a matter of fact, the instrumentals here are easily the best element of the project. YG brings back this West Coast retro sound very well, and in a world where many rappers are going as experimental as they possibly can, deviating from frameworks, not many people are left still doing what YG is doing at this caliber. While the features here vary in their success, rapidly rising star 21 Savage steals the entire project with his turn on “I Be On”, amplifying considerably what is an otherwise mediocre track and demonstrating why everyone wants him on their song right now. Despite the abundance of party tracks here, YG is still at his best when talking political – the only time he really brings up any of the issues he mentions on Still Brazy is on the best track here One Time Comin’. Over a monstrous beat resembling a police siren, he addresses the trepidation he feels around the police while still delivering a catchy hook.

When it comes down to it, however, this is still an album full of leftover tracks. Although many of these tracks do succeed in being hard-hitting enough to get one’s head nodding, the similarities of the tracks and inability to bring anything new out of the tried-and-true LA gangsta rap framework become overwhelming on even a project this brief. This does not measure up to the strength of his previous two albums at all, and for a project worth $100 should have been better.

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The main issue here stems from lazy songwriting, especially in the hook department. These songs were cut for a reason, and as featured artist Mitch, who may or may not be the guy who caught a body ’bout a week ago, imitates somewhat of a drunken Travis Scott on “I Know”, or YG delivers an uninspired and generic trap hook without any variation in his voice, the strength of the beat stops mattering. YG’s cadence can get grating at times – like fellow rapper Meek Mill, a lot of the energy of his tracks comes from his loud and unapologetic attack on the mic. It does involve a lot of yelling, and it works if it’s used in the right way, but a lot of the time it isn’t here. Delivering repetitive hooks at this same level of volume isn’t the most pleasant listening experience. To bring 21 Savage’s great verse back into the conversation, his more laid-back style fit the beat of “I Be On” much better.

YG has all but mastered his craft, and demonstrated it on his full-length studio albums. While Red Friday serves as somewhat of a blemish on his wildly successful work, its status as an EP and novelty release surrounding Black Friday allow it some breathing room. But unlike fellow Californian rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered, YG’s B-Sides pale significantly in comparison.

Favourite Tracks: One Time Comin’, I’m A Thug Pt. 2, I Be On

Least Favourite Track: I Know

Score: 5/10