Jidenna – The Chief

Image result for jidenna the chiefSigned to Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Records, Nigerian hip-hop and R&B artist Jidenna finally releases his debut studio album after the success of his 2015 single “Classic Man”. The project comes with a lot of backstory, having been completed months ago but delayed due to Jidenna’s desire to release the project on the anniversary of his father’s death. The title, The Chief, is a direct reference to his father’s status as a powerful Igbo chief. His status led to a significant amount of danger in Jidenna’s life, as the artist even recalls being protected by armed militia when attending the funeral in Nigeria.

The lyrical content of the album frequently refers to life in a Nigerian tribe, while delivering an innovating and fresh combination of African-influenced “highlife” music with many diverse and different aspects of modern urban contemporary music. Such a refreshing style accompanied by Jidenna’s delivery, lyricism and storytelling ability makes for an immensely enjoyable project which keeps listeners on their toes throughout.

Image result for jidenna

There is a wide range of sounds present on this project, despite keeping a general running theme of the African influence – many tracks come with deep-voiced chanting, prominent drum patters and other tribal aspects – but they are mixed with modern features. Trap hi-hats, use of Auto-Tune, aggressive synths that could have been featured on “Watch The Throne” and the type of melodic R&B sensibilities that made a song like Kent Jones’ “Don’t Mind” a hit are scattered over the hour-long runtime. Most of the collaboration is with fellow Wondaland artists, production being handled mainly by “Classic Man”-helming Nana Kwabena, though Jidenna himself admirably has credit on many of the songs including primary credit on R&B-influenced standouts “Trampoline” and “Bambi”. Kwabena, Roman GianArthur, and label boss Monae all appear in small roles on the mic as well.

Jidenna divides his singing and rapping about evenly across these 14 tracks, most resembling Ty Dolla $ign and Chance The Rapper respectively in his style of delivery. Despite referencing so many other artists, the unique sounds that are displayed on many of these songs create something that is completely Jidenna’s own,  imbuing aspects that others use with his personal style and story.

“Bambi” is the greatest breath of fresh air present – it is as if he took an old standard and threw a great trap beat on it. This is the most highlife-inspired track on the project and it makes me want to learn more about the genre. It sounds like the wave of 50s music and Motown that is making a comeback on pop radio today. Such a simple and beautiful melody that intersects perfectly with the bright looping keys in the background. This is a truly innovative track that is a clear standout on a great album.

As “Bambi” tells the story of a chief’s traditional practices of polygamy keeping him from devotion to the one woman he cares about, the lyricism pertaining to Jidenna’s personal story and Nigerian roots throughout is the main thing that makes these songs so distinctive. Even the basic uses of references to things like The Lion King, safaris, and himself as a chief in his punchlines remind us of how bold Jidenna is as an artist and reinforce the importance and deliberate choice of the accompanying musical backdrop. His storytelling is at is most profound and affecting on the song “White Ni**as”, where he imagines a world where the roles are reversed and stereotypical white families faced the same issues of discrimination, racial profiling and police brutality as black families do today – the police “kick in the door, knocking over your golf clubs…spilling your Napa Valley Wine”.

Image result for jidenna janelle monaeJidenna and Wondaland label boss Janelle Monae

Jidenna is perhaps at his best when his music turns dark and aggressive, demonstrating the strength of the threats he issues at his detractors as the chief. The crunchy and dissonant industrial beat and delivery on hard-hitting rap track “Long Live The Chief”, and pitched-down and menacing trap chorus of “Helicopters/Beware” are perhaps the best examples of drawing listeners into the energy of how great it feels to be on top as the chief.

The only thing the album is truly missing is cohesion. Perhaps a more deliberately ordered album would have come across better. As we continuously jump back and forth between different styles of modern urban music, it can start to feel like blatant imitation of all facets of the music industry despite the other unique aspects of the tracks. If we had more running themes, like putting similar tracks such as the smooth R&B “Bambi” and “Adaora” or heavy trap “Helicopters/Beware” and “The Let Out” closer together. Other anomalies like the purely pop-rap (but incredibly catchy) “Little Bit More” abound as well.

The Chief is a great example of what happens when an innovative artist with a unique story is unleashed on the world. All of the music here, while taking aspects from the current popular hip-hop landscape, could only be Jidenna’s. Should he extend the risks he took on his debut album to the rest of his career, we are witnessing the birth of a truly great artist.

Favourite Tracks: Bambi, Long Live The Chief, The Let Out, Helicopters/Beware, Little Bit More

Least Favourite Track: Safari

Score: 9/10

Future – FUTURE

Image result for future self titledWildly successful Atlanta rapper and reigning president of trap music Future continues his prolific output, surprise dropping this 17-track self-titled effort. The project is technically his fifth studio album and first since last year’s EVOL, but counting the mixtapes that get just as much attention it is stunningly his ninth body of work since 2014. Understandably seeing absolutely no reason to change up what he has been doing, FUTURE is more Future for Future fans, and the quality is up there with his greatest work. While it is simply in the nature of the genre he dominates to be somewhat repetitive, and a trap album of this length certainly begins to sag in the middle, Future’s energetic and rejuvenated delivery as he focuses more on his bars than his mumble-infused melodies elevates this album to one of his most consistently hard-hitting collections.

Image result for future

The instrumentals across the board are absolutely incredible throughout, it only makes sense that the overlord of trap gets the best beats sent to him. Even if Future’s performances fall into certain patters from track to track, you can’t say that the distinctive features underlying the characteristic rolling hi-hats are. All of the beats succeed in conveying the mood of the track perfectly and all of the most prominent trap producers show up here and do what they do best. Southside is the most frequently called on here and is very consistent throughout, but some of the best work comes from trap savants Metro Boomin and Zaytoven. Up-and-comer The Beat Bully appears once on the explosive tone-setting opener, “Rent Money”, and if this is any indication this man is going to be huge. It speaks volumes to the compelling nature of Future as a character to deliver this album successfully without a single feature, and it isn’t even the first time he’s done this.

We know what the full project is going to be like as soon as the beat drops 20 seconds into the opening track, “Rent Money”. This is a trap beat on steroids and Future sounds like there is a gun to his head and he needs to convince everyone as well as he can that he really did steal all those girls. “Poppin Tags” is another example of attacking the mic like his life depends on it. “Mask Off” is another absolute highlight – I never anticipated a Future sing that would make me want to close my eyes and take in how beautiful it is. The song had me under its control from the beginning to the end on first listen, thanks to some brilliant work by Metro Boomin with the flute and choral samples. He is doing some inspired production right now, it seems like I’ve been praising him endlessly on every album he’s contributed to recently.

I enjoy Future a lot more when I can understand him, and there are a lot more tracks than usual on this project where he relegates himself to straightforward raps, his voice coming through more clearly as a result. Future has the kind of magical X Factor where he can quietly slink onto a track before the beat drops and immediately intrigue the listener as to where he is going with it. His voice is equal parts unique in sound and convincing in delivery. “Super Trapper” is a great example of this, opening with perhaps the most menacing chords on the project as Future drops in with the lower-key hook. His personality shines more than usual – even hilariously mocking imitator Desiigner’s ad-libs on the outro skit of “Zoom”.

Image result for future live

For someone who puts out so many songs about relatively similar subject material, you’d have to think that the writing isn’t going to be top tier on all of them. The structure of songs like “Good Dope” leave too much empty space, and the words are too repetitive and can contain awkward rhyme schemes. You wouldn’t expect Future to be one to pay much attention to logistics, and seeing as this project was likely put together rather quickly it can result in some problems with mixing and mastering. The beats can drown out Future’s vocals at times and it’s already hard enough to hear what he has to say normally. Some songs definitely could have been cut as well, as it all begins to feel like the same song over and over – all of this being said, however, never underestimate how easy it is to be distracted from almost anything by a great trap beat. Any of these songs come on in the club and it’s over.

Future is an truly interesting presence in the music industry because he essentially delivers the same project time after time, at an incredibly prolific speed, and it still works out for him and propels him to higher and higher levels of success. As long as he continues to work with beats like this, he can ride out this formula as long as he wants.

Favourite Tracks: Mask Off, Rent Money, Poppin Tags, POA, Super Trapper

Least Favourite Track: Good Dope

Score: 7/10

Lupe Fiasco – DROGAS Light

Image result for drogas lightOn veteran Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s sixth studio album, the constantly swinging pendulum of genres continues its pattern as he reverts to his more radio-friendly ways. He does this with the same inconsistent levels of success as his last foray into this world, 2011’s Lasers, which produced smash hit “The Show Goes On”. A precursor to the upcoming album DROGASDROGAS Light has been referred to by Lupe as a more fun companion to the upcoming album which would fall in line with past projects like the dense and conceptual Tetsuo & Youth. The project certainly offers glimpses of the novel ideas and experimental sounds we have come to expect from Lupe over the years, but the album is much too full of misguided pop tropes and filler to showcase the full range of capabilities we know he possesses.

There are not many well-known features and producers here, but the production certainly stands out as one of the greatest strengths of the album. Individuals like Soundtrakk and Simon Sayz provide some saving graces to Lupe’s less inspired writing at times, though not even Soundtrakk’s menacing violin instrumental could save “Promise” from that delivery. The collaborators obviously show that the album is as much of a jumbled mishmash as Lupe himself says it is, recorded over many years without a clear creative direction – RondoNumbaNine, who has been serving a 39-year murder sentence since June 2016, is even featured on “City Of The Year”.

Image result for lupe fiasco

The more well-known features actually seem out-of-place on their respective tracks, such as tacking on the always just-there Ty Dolla $ign to two tracks, and “Tranquillo”, where Rick Ross and Big K.R.I.T. (who characteristically steals the show with his verse, don’t get me wrong) clearly didn’t hear Lupe’s intentions before getting on the song and speak about completely different topics. Other features play more of a role in storytelling and make the most of it, like Gizzle speaking as the fictional rapper Suzie Uzi on “Jump” and Victoria Monet rolling her eyes at the men on strip-club anthem “Kill”.

Storytelling is still a strength for Lupe even if the lyrics aren’t up to par with what we know him for, “Jump” is a great track in which Suzie Uzi comes to Lupe to learn how to rap and leave her street life behind before the pair hilariously get abducted by aliens – the chopped up shouting vocals and absolutely punishing 808 bass and energetic handclaps makes for a very entertaining backdrop to this madness as well. Lupe is very technically skilled, and the appeal of most of the better tracks here comes from a great beat mixed with his impressive flow like on the intro “Dopamine Lit”. We know that Lupe has a lot of talent from his better albums, and there are frequent reminders here that he can do almost anything well if he puts his mind to it – he can even pull off a purely pop-oriented campy song complete with a guitar loop and whistles like “Wild Child” well against all odds.

Lupe is supposed to be a brilliant lyricist but this is basically the same tired pop-rap lines over and over – repetitive songs like “NGL”, “Made In The USA”, and “City of the Year” all sound like he was aiming for a big hit but all end up with Lupe basically yelling those titles repeatedly as the chorus. It’s almost like he was trying to put himself on the level of current radio rap and improve it with his own style, but he doesn’t do enough to change it and comes across as a bland imitation. “Promise” is the worst Drake song ever. While many people are blatantly copying the 6 God’s style, this one is the most evident. Too often there are pop sensibilities that don’t fit with the songs at all.

Image result for lupe fiasco live

Multiple songs features choruses ripped straight from terrible radio tracks – what in the world is that chorus on “Pick Up The Phone”? The vocalist, who is perhaps understandably uncredited, actually can’t sing at all in addition to the bad pop songwriting. Hearing a strained voice yell “My tears run off your shoes like water from a goose” was not something I could have ever anticipated on a major studio release.

“It’s Not Design” and “Wild Child” have these weird disco vibes like they’re trying to copy the popular sound of 2008. There are so many questionable decisions on this project I don’t really know where to start; honestly in all likelihood these were probably throwaways from DROGAS. The autotuned and obnoxiously pitched-up vocals on “High (Interlude)” are just completely inexcusable (which is unfortunate because the rest of the song is pretty fantastic), and there is absolutely no reason for “Kill” to be over 7 minutes long.

In an unprecedented and very detailed review of his own album posted to Twitter, Lupe gave himself a 7/10. If the artist himself doesn’t believe this style generates his best work, it boggles the mind why he continues to revert to it after delivering some great projects. We desperately need smart Lupe to come back, and it is all we can do to hope that these tracks were more along the lines of being cut from DROGAS, rather than signaling what is to come.

Favourite Tracks: Jump, Dopamine Lit (Intro), Wild Child

Least Favourite Track: Law

Score: 4/10

Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – Zombies On Broadway

Image result for andrew mcmahon in the wilderness zombies on broadwayVersatile artist Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, fresh off a career-boosting spot opening for veteran rock bands Weezer and Panic! At The Disco on their monumental summer tour, unleashes his second studio album under this moniker after jumping around between different musical projects. He continues to settle into a nice of pop-punk vocals covering melodies that sound like they were meant more for an indie-pop audience to great effect. Zombies On Broadway frequently shows that McMahon has an excellent penchant for catchy hooks despite frequently falling into similar-sounding territory. The album is brief and to the point, and contains 10 upbeat, sugary microcosms of the unique mix of sounds McMahon is trying to put together here.

What we’re going to get from this project is a surprise from the very start, as opening track “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me” actually features a very simple chorus that accompanies the track’s main draw: Twenty One Pilots-emulating rap verses from McMahon that work a lot better than they should due to the speedy and energetic live drumbeat which buoys the track. For the most part, however, McMahon presents an intersection of pure bubblegum pop melodies and lyrics, and guitar-driven instrumentals that harken back to the days when bands like the All-American Rejects dominated pop radio. The vocalist accompanying this combination falls more on the latter side of the scale. The overall feel of the project seems to be an attempt to overload listeners with happiness, so much so that it almost becomes annoying in its excess. But in small doses, this is incredible feel-good music. I want to sing along to every one of these hooks in the crowd at a music festival.

Image result for andrew mcmahon in the wilderness

The main takeaway from having this many extremely catchy hooks on this project is this – this man needs to start writing for some pop music superstars and the musical landscape of the radio might get a lot better. The contrast between his almost whiny voice and the joyful words he sings regarding the rushes of life and love are engaging. “Don’t Speak For Me (True)” is the clear jewel of the album, featuring a more musically complex melody in the structure of a pop song that reminds me a lot of Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent work on tracks like “All That”. The quick syllables in the pre-chorus and pounding synth piano all assist in building up and exploding into a huge falsetto chorus.

McMahon is frequently overtly cheesy, but he is an expert in selling the cheese. “Shot Out Of A Cannon” is another song which is obnoxiously positive on the surface, but the passionate delivery eventually makes you submit to the sugar rush – McMahon knows how to play to his strengths. As one might infer from the great song titles, the lyrics’ pop sensibilities don’t mean they conform to the meaningless cliches the radio throws at us either – when taking a break from speaking about just how great he feels, McMahon is able to paint vivid pictures of places and situations. “Love and Great Buildings” is a good example, beginning “My heart is an apartment building on the verge” and spending most of the track describing the room and its state of disarray in detail.

Image result for andrew mcmahon in the wilderness

Despite standing at only 10 tracks in length and not even reaching the 40-minute barrier, the album becomes way too similar as it reaches its end. I can only take so much four-on-the-floor and saccharine hooks at one time – these songs are all actually quite good, but were not really made to listen to one after another. To continue the Jepsen comparison, I think McMahon could be a lot better if he ascends to fame further and accrues a more established team of writers and producers to assist – almost every Jepsen song is a polished pop masterpiece, but there are some clearly weaker tracks here. A song like “Walking In My Sleep” is painfully underwritten and relies on drawing out the word “sleep” repeatedly to an unbearable degree.

While its safe to say that McMahon successfully avoided the sophomore curse, I think there is still a lot of room for improvement – which is saying something, as most of these tracks are so fun that I almost can’t help but to get up and dance. Having a unique and fully-fleshed out niche sound is important in today’s ever-evolving musical world, and McMahon has this in spades. Further diversification of individual tracks is the main thing which will continue to help down the road.

Favourite Tracks: Don’t Speak For Me (True), Shot Out Of A Cannon, Dead Man’s Dollar, Fire Escape, Love And Great Buildings

Least Favourite Track: Walking In My Sleep

Score: 7/10

Sampha – Process

Image result for sampha processBritish R&B singer-songwriter Sampha, whose distinctive vocals and electronic sound attracted the attention of critics back in 2013 with his EP Dual, has finally released his much-anticipated debut album after appearing on some of the biggest projects in recent memory. Last year alone he racked up guest spots with Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”), Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), and Frank Ocean (“Alabama”, from Blonde‘s accompanying visual album Endless. Breaking away from the low-key sound that resulted from recording in his own bedroom on his previous material, Process is a diverse mix.

The project features tracks buoyed equally by the simple melodies of Sampha’s piano, which he has been playing since the age of 3, and frantic, skittering electronic beats. To take things to an even higher level of significance, the majority of the album is framed around Sampha’s reactions to the death of his mother, who introduced him to music, after a battle with cancer. While the lofty ambitions outlined by its sound aren’t always fully realized, carving out this kind of an identity on a debut album is an admirable risk.

Image result for sampha

Process is almost entirely made by Sampha himself which is yet another commendable move – there are only two tracks that have anyone else credited, the only recognizable name being Kanye West’s co-writing credit on “Timmy’s Prayer”. This is a very ambitious debit and the artistic vision he displays here has me very excited for the future, mostly because the sonic landscape is all over the place. There are surprising twists and turns that frequently occur mid-song, “Kora Sings” being a great example – we start with some very exotic-sounding instruments giving off almost a Bollywood vibe before a brief electronic click signals the song’s second half, featuring an electronic tribal drum pattern reminiscent of West’s own 808s and Heartbreak.

Sampha is mostly reliant on this upbeat and electronic style to complement his emotive and frequently falsetto vocals but when we drop back into piano arrangements in the middle of the album we see just how talented he is in this area too. The weakest link is unquestionably the vocals, which frequently have effects placed on them in a clear attempt to aim for the kind of sound that becomes undeniably the artist’s own, in a similar way that Francis & The Lights is doing currently. However, in the context of this album, it never really works the way it’s meant to.

The lyrics are the primary strength of the album, not incredibly complex but displaying genuine and harrowing human emotion in a tying time in Sampha’s life. The project is very rich in sound, as to be expected from a very technicall skilled musician and a necessary step to take in establishing a place at the forefront of this relatively new genre combining electronic music with R&B vocals. The energetic percussion that shows itself on about half of these tracks is innovative and very carefully crafted. “Blood On Me” might be the catchiest melody here which is only buoyed further by its beat, while “Reverse Faults” features Sampha’s version of a trap beat as it drops into its chorus.

You can really feel the Kanye influence on “Timmy’s Prayer” as well, showing his magical innate ability to craft lyrics that hit you hard despite their simplicity. Sampha describes his relationship simultaneously as “heaven” and “a prison”, continuing the surprising twists of sound as his voice flits over what sounds like a bagpipe playing a catchy riff in the background before the time signature is attacked by an oscillating, tripleted melodic electronic beat in the second half.

Image result for sampha live

When the percussion drops out, however, there is far too much empty space. Songs like opener “Plastic 100 C” never really pick up off the ground in terms of energy and I don’t think Sampha is as stellar a singer as he needs to be to carry tracks that don’t feature other interesting musical aspects. The slower tracks like “Take Me Inside” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?” feature more of a sluggish and atmospheric landscape that ultimately comes across as quite boring. I feel like Sampha is at his best when the huge amount of emotion he pours into his vocal delivery is accompanied by chaotic music that captures the feeling he is trying to express better.

In terms of song structure, the choruses could be worked on more. Sampha applies the same vocal effect to most of them, a choice which I suppose is meant to add momentum to the song but is ultimately a bit too dissonant to remain enjoyable. He seems to enjoy playing in the chaos that results from a few crunchy chord patterns, going as far to open “Blood On Me” with some layered isolated vocals that are clearly off-kilter, but contrasted with the rich instrumentals they fall flat. “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” is another great song that I get taken out of by the chorus.

Sampha’s Process is fantastic in theory, but doesn’t fully deliver on the execution. I understand where the rave reviews it is currently receiving are coming from, as the idea he set out to achieve shows some serious potential and artistic vision, and does display quite a few aspects of an artist who could become visionary in the future. But this is just the debut album, and a lot of the excess in the form of rookie mistakes still needs to be trimmed before what is truly great about Sampha can shine.

Favourite Tracks: Timmy’s Prayer, Reverse Faults, Kora Sings, Blood On Me

Least Favourite Track: What Shouldn’t I Be?

Score: 5/10

Big Sean – I Decided.

Image result for big sean i decidedDetroit rapper, G.O.O.D. Music artist and Kanye West protege Big Sean’s fourth studio album continues to showcase his remarkable consistency, always delivering a decent project despite not taking as many creative risks as many of his peers. More trap-influenced than its predecessors and reflecting the rapidly rising popular sound of today, I Decided. has been described by Sean as a concept album. The cover art depicts Sean standing beside an older version of himself, a theme which becomes clear as the older, alternate universe version of Sean speaks in interludes throughout the album. This character regrets not living life to the fullest, working the same job and going through the same routine for 45 years and imploring listeners to live in the moment. Many of the album’s tracks reflect this theme as the Sean we know describes his lifestyle, and many of them manage to come across very energetic and fun, if less than original.

Sean has some pretty interesting and unexpected features here, as well as some familiar faces in production that help him transition to the hi-hats and 808 bass of today’s day and age. While the majority is handled by Sean’s relatively unknown touring keyboardist Amaire Johnson, he is assisted by an all-star team of rap producers including Key Wane, DJ Mustard, DJ Dahi, Metro Boomin, who has 3 great beats on here, and 20 year old Wondagurl, who broke through at the age of 16 on Jay-Z’s “Crown”.

Image result for big sean

Complementing Sean on the mic, we have none other than the pride of his hometown Eminem, who flexes his lyrical muscles but ultimately delivers an uncharacteristically off-kilter and awkward verse, “Bad And Boujee” rappers Migos, who join Sean on “Sacrifices”, injecting him with their energy for a punishing track, and girlfriend Jhene Aiko, who drop a brief promotion for their collaborative project Twenty88’s upcoming sophomore album with “Same Time Pt. 1”, Part 2 nowhere to be found. Jeremih and The-Dream also deliver on their respective R&B choruses, rounding out an impressive roster.

Sean’s flow is one of the most unique in the rap game, showcasing rapid irregular flows on songs like “Bounce Back” or going for stretches at a time where he continues to act like he’s deftly filling in the empty spaces on a huge and complex beat that isn’t actually there – the song “Light” has no percussion at all, for example. Lyricism has always been one of Sean’s strong suits and there are no shortage of clever bars and wordplay here – although I’m not sure many can top wordplay king Eminem’s now suddenly topical “I may be deserving of a pat on the back like a Patriots jersey”. Some of my favourites: “I’m the one at the end like I count backwards”, “‘Ye found a pro, I guess I’m profound”.

At the same time that Sean can sound somewhat detached and disinterested, he resembles someone like J. Cole in his ability to use his voice to draw you in to what he’s saying, his raps sounding like he’s having a casual conversation with you. When he goes into storytelling mode, like on “Owe Me”, an account of his breakup with Ariana Grande, and the soulful “Sunday Morning Jetpack”, where he speaks about his faith, it’s compelling.

Image result for twenty88Sean and the other half of Twenty88, girlfriend Jhene Aiko

Even so, sometimes it isn’t enough to distract from the fact that his delivery can be quite flat and monotone at times. On lower-key tracks like “Light” and “Inspire Me”, this can make the track a lot sleepier than it needs to be and it wouldn’t hurt to add some variation in his tone. Perhaps my biggest criticism with the album is one that spans his entire career – Sean really can’t sing and does on far too many tracks here. When it’s contrasted with Jhene Aiko’s voice it sounds slightly better, frequently bringing the best out of him as demonstrated on their fantastic interlude here. However, dedicating most of a track like “Jump Out The Window” to his mediocre and frequently off-key singing voice can really ruin a song that otherwise could have been great as it features a sonically unique Key Wane beat.

For all of his efforts, Sean doesn’t really present anything new here, nor has he ever. His biggest hit, 2014’s “I Dont F*** With You”, was the closest he’s come to making something that is uniquely Big Sean, infusing it with his personality, but outside of maybe “Moves”, which is a bit too Drake-y, nothing comes close to matching that here. I wish he took more risks like he does on “Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan”, which features a completely innovative song structure that switches back and forth between the two motifs, increases and decreases the tempo, and just so happens to have the best beat on the entire album – thanks again, Metro Boomin.

Despite all of this, it is hard to argue against Sean’s growth from 2011’s Finally Famous to today. Always a bit behind the curve but delivering when he eventually gets there, Sean as a personality is engaging enough to continue to keep me interested in his albums. When he rises above the average content that he settles for to fill up about half of each album, he shows brief glimpses of the star power I’m sure he can eventually reach considering his incredible work ethic.

Favourite Tracks: Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan, Sacrifices, Bounce Back, Sunday Morning Jetpack, Moves

Least Favourite Track: Jump Out The Window

Score: 7/10


Sweetsexysavage.jpgOakland R&B upstart and former America’s Got Talent finalist Kehlani’s SWEETSEXYSAVAGE is technically her debut studio album, though her previous critically acclaimed mixtapes Cloud 19 and Grammy-nominated You Should Be Here are what put her in the spotlight. The album stands as a huge statement and assertion of self in the wake of last year’s heavily covered suicide attempt and hospitalization stemming from relationship drama between OVO artist PARTYNEXTDOOR and basketball star Kyrie Irving. The title being a direct reference to TLC’s classic album CRAZYSEXYCOOL, Kehlani effortlessly channels that era of music and delivers a 17-track album that never feels like it overstays its welcome. The album certainly checks off all the boxes it promises in its title, and continues to introduce the world to this confident rising star set to be a major force in the music industry. Still only 21, the spirit of Aaliyah is alive and well.

The sound of the album is a dedicated homage to 90s R&B, all with a Californian twist that features classic sounds like the vocoder at the end of “Keep On” and the jazzier feel of West Coast hip-hop style beats. The album samples New Edition and Aaliyah herself, and even brings more contemporary R&B into it with a great interpolation of Akon’s 2007 smash hit “Don’t Matter”. The three sides of the album are not explicitly marked but they certainly come across in the sound, which can tend to get a bit too similar as the album goes on but varies enough in tone to remain enjoyable throughout. Kehlani can be sweet, accompanied by breezy and tropical synths and pianos, sexy – with instrumentals sounding like R. Kelly at his prime, or savage – where the instrumental turns dark and trap-influenced for Kehlani to unleash a verbal assault on her detractors.

The majority of the production is done by Pop & Oak, who have been doing great work with up-and-coming R&B and hip-hop artists for a while now – recent credits including Alessia Cara’s Know-It-All and Elle Varner’s Perfectly Imperfect. Special shoutout goes to G.O.O.D. Music producer Charlie Heat, who brings the bouncy and melodic synth lines he showed off on Kanye’s “Facts” and D.R.A.M.’s “Cute” to standout track “Undercover”.

Single “Distraction” commands your attention from its opening few seconds, as a small bit of the chorus is amplified with reverb and additional harmonies before dropping into a bassline-driven traditional R&B beat. Kehlani’s voice is truly unique – somehow equal parts aggressive and vulnerable. She acts more like a rapper with accented delivery more often than showing off her singing abilities, but can easily surprise with some impressive runs and reaches into her upper range, such as on the outro of slower track “Hold Me By The Heart”. The project is frequently surprising in the musical technique that goes into it, you don’t typically hear a complex sharped harmony like on the chorus of “Piece of Mind” anymore.

She uses her R&B sensibilities to make certain songs extremely beautiful, which might not be expected on an album where she frequently proclaims how hood she is. Tracks like “Escape” and “Everything Is Yours” slow things down to allow Kehlani to put harmonies at the forefront, sounding like a one-woman TLC. Another strength running through the project is just how confident Kehlani comes off, which is a great look for her. Kehlani is going to get the man she wants becuase she loves who she is. The line from “CRZY”, “If I gotta be a b*tch, imma be a bad one” really sums up the entire project.

Image result for kehlani live

The song structure tends to get a little strange at times. The individual fragments of the songs are always great, but the transitions are a little awkward and can leave listeners thinking something is going to happen after a perceived build-up. The choruses of tracks like “Undercover” (which recovers better than most) and “Not Used To It” end on a bit of an unresolved chord that makes us think a huge drop of some sort is coming that never does. Even a song like “Advice” features a chorus that decreases in energy from the verse. Standing at 17 tracks, some of the similar-sounding ones certainly could have been cut for a more compact and focused album, but Kehlani has a lot to say on every one of these tracks, and considering the events in her life, we should let her.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kehlani catalogued the evolution of her albums: Cloud 19 proved “I can sing!”, You Should Be Here proved “I can write!” and SWEETSEXYSAVAGE proved “I can chill! And have fun!” which is a great place to see the singer. Closing track “Thank You” is a very emotional letter to the fans who supported her through the hard times, and with a product this fantastic immediately after, it is us who should be thanking her.

Favourite Tracks: Escape, Distraction, Get Like, Too Much, Undercover

Least Favourite Track: Not Used To It

Score: 9/10