Little Dragon – Season High

Image result for little dragon season highSwedish electropop band Little Dragon is now on their fifth studio album in the wake of critical acclaim and numerous well-received features. Yukimi Nagano’s unique voice and the eclectic, 80s-channeling synths from the rest of the band have appeared on albums by such artists as Flume, Mac Miller and Kaytranada recently, and as these appearances continue to increase the visibility of the band, I can’t help but think that their own album became somewhat of an afterthought.

As more and more artists gravitate closer to this sound, recreating the moodier aspects that the decade of music had to offer, some distinct and creative characteristics are needed in order to stand out. Season High  is a perfectly serviceable collection of tracks from a band who may have contributed most heavily to kickstarting a musical movement, but I’m not sure I’ll remember it by year’s end.

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Little Dragon doesn’t deviate from the sound that made them famous, but blends genres together into something that would be distinctive if it wasn’t what was all over the radio right now. However, there are certainly some special aspects here that make them more enjoyable than the typical pop artist – Nagano’s voice is versatile enough to save any misguided concept at times, while the spontaneous experimental decisions have an inconsistent track record at working effectively. The combination of a pitched-down human voice with the synth line on “Celebrate” is an interesting and new sound that works well, while the blistering guitar solo that appears out of nowhere on the same track doesn’t. The album applies a dreamy, synthpop sound to Nagano’s warm, soulful vocals, but remains too atmospheric and frequently fails to grab my attention.

For all the work that is put into the instrumentals of these tracks, it is easy to see why many artists are calling for Nagano’s vocals to appear on their albums instead. They are quiet, but intense and intimate, making every word count. The complexity of these songs is still someting to be marvelled at, as the three electronic musicians behind Nagano create upbeat soundscapes with many speedy and interlocking instruments and melodies. The masterful synth work on “The Pop Life” is something that all the main pop producers, many of whom being fellow countrymen, should look to for their next contributions to major releases.

Although many of these songs are rather one-dimensional, I have to give the band credit for how much fun it sounds like they are having creating it, as Nagano floats effervescently over the chaotic sea of electronic instruments trying to overtake her, the background often emulating a video game boss fight.

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Still, it feels like there are never any shifts in energy in these songs, remaining at the same level throughout as a synth line which is built to be slightly arrhythmic and experimental repeats itself one too many times. Sometimes there is a shift in the instrumental, but nothing in Nagano’s delivery indicates anything surprising just happened. “Should I” is a perfect example of all of these aspects coming together and making what should be a successful novel idea fall flat.

These problems continue to show themselves as 2 of these songs inexplicably extend past 6 minutes, becoming what are easily the most boring and hard to get through track here, adopting more of an atmospheric quality than the rest. Little Dragon is at their best when they are in full upbeat, 80s pop mode, which falls away in the album’s second half. The band used to receive critical praise when this sound was just beginning to re-enter the music scene, due to the precision they can pull it off with, but there is little here that gets me incredibly excited anymore.

Every band has to update their sound once in a while, and 5 albums in this may be overdue for Little Dragon. They have many strengths, they simply need to apply them to music which aspires to be more than pleasant background music with a few eclectic quirks.

Favourite Tracks: Celebrate, The Pop Life, Strobe Light

Least Favourite Track: Butterflies

Score: 5/10

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Image result for damn kendrickCompton rapper Kendrick Lamar, a mere two years after the release of one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time in To Pimp A Butterfly, releases yet another dense and conceptual collections of songs backed up by his outstanding technical skills and lyricism. DAMN. is Lamar at his most straightforward yet, abandoning the poetic and flowery verses set to freeform jazz for a more blunt and aggressive delivery set to radio-friendly trap beats. If anything, this angrier side of Lamar only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process.

Still, Lamar attempts to tackle some huge themes, reflected in the titles of these songs, and the creativity, artistry and musicality he reliably brings to the table at all times continue his hot streak. It looks like the general public has begun to catch on, if the projected first-week sales and streaming numbers are any indication. For such a short period in time between albums, it’s hard to believe just how good DAMN. is.

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Lamar employs all of his collaborators perfectly, recruiting some obvious choices for the direction he chose, as well as some unexpected collaborators who fit in just as well. Outside of TDE in-house producer Sounwave’s contributions to many tracks, trap producer Mike Will Made-It contributes the three most energetic beats on the album in “DNA.”, “HUMBLE.”, and “XXX.”, while DJ Dahi, usually responsible for such beats, appears on four tracks as well.

Veteran experimental producers The Alchemist and 9th Wonder lend some old-school beats for Lamar to flex his storytelling muscles on, as he explains the concept of the album in its closing moments, while 2017 Grammy Producer of the Year Greg Kurstin (Taylor Swift, Adele), helps him cross over to the pop world on “LOVE.”. On the mic, Lamar and Rihanna trade bars effortlessly, TDE artist Zacari provides a thematically blissful chorus, and Bono’s eerie vocals complement the world Lamar paints on “XXX.”.

One of the best things about Lamar’s albums are his running themes, and the biggest one here seems to be dealing with the shock of his rapid critical and commercial success after Butterfly. He comments on people revering him as a sort of saviour or prophet figure, but repeats “nobody praying for me” on a few tracks, and states he was afraid of losing it all. As he examines these themes, pairs of songs serve in stark contrast to each other – “LOVE.” vs. “LUST.”, “PRIDE.” vs. “HUMBLE.” and so forth.

If anyone can tackle these broad concepts in a single song, it is Lamar, and his lyricism is once again top notch here. One of his greatest new tools is the emphasis of a message through repetition, used previously on one of his greatest verses ever – Butterfly track “Momma”s second.  “FEAR.” uses this best, as he pens three dense verses outlining his greatest fears at ages 7, 17 and 27, repeating the same words at the beginning of every line – his mother’s “I beat yo ass” at 7, and being convinced “I’ll probably die” in numerous ways at 17, before explaining the theme of the album in the third verse with his feelings after Butterfly‘s success. The insane true story he tells on closing track “DUCKWORTH.”, of how his father was nearly killed by eventual label boss Anthony Tiffith, is captivating as well.

Lamar’s poppier tracks are a nice deviation from his past, making catchy melodies more endlessly replayable than say, a monster like “How Much A Dollar Cost”. “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” may not be the best tracks on the album, but I’ve certainly played them more than any other. “DNA.”, on the other hand, might be Lamar’s best track ever, as he sounds more urgent than ever before on his most energetic beat of all time. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing the first time the thunderous bass hit as the track switches into its second half and Lamar’s performance kicks into another gear.

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Some aspects of these instrumentals are so beautiful that they deserve mention as well, such as the woozy and intoxicating chord progressions of “PRIDE.”, complete with a falsetto chorus that complements it perfectly, and the creeping guitar melody that introduces Lamar’s unnerving chorus and thematically appropriate dead-eyed verses on “LUST.”.

A few of these songs do fall a bit short musically with the shift closer to radio-friendly territory, but the reasons for the sound are all understandable within the full narrative context of the album. After a track like “DNA.”, “YAH”‘s failure to assert itself at the forefront of the listener’s consciousness feels a little underwhelming, while “GOD.” is the least developed of the pop tracks despite its instantly quotable hook.

As the album ends with the same gunshot that scared me half to death on opener “BLOOD.”, the album rewinds, and Lamar repeats the album’s first line, I realized that Lamar had released a cohesive and conceptual masterpiece once again. This stretch of three studio albums is the best hip-hop trilogy since Kanye’s first three, and Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation. Believe the hype, DAMN. is damn good.

Favourite Tracks: DNA., PRIDE., FEAR., LUST., LOVE.

Least Favourite Track: YAH.

Score: 10/10

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyFolk-rock singer-songwriter Josh Tillman releases his third studio album under the Father John Misty moniker, abandoning the deeply emotional love songs which characterized his critically acclaimed 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear. Instead, he turns to crushingly depressing and frequently hilarious social and political satire. Pure Comedy is an incredibly dense album, extending to nearly an hour and a half and containing some absolutely beautifully written commentary on the issues plaguing humanity as a whole, including some very self-aware analysis and criticism of himself as a speaker, a musician and a human.

Almost nothing escapes Tillman’s cynical eye – capitalism, religion, the political divide and the entertainment industry all receive scathing takedowns from a largely nihilistic perspective. Since the self-inflicted destruction of humanity is so clearly imminent, what else are we to do but laugh at ourselves?

Even though things are much more focused on what Tillman has to say here, the musical aspects are far from relegated to the background. These tracks are all based on acoustic guitar loops and elements of rock piano, but the variation between tracks, usually to fit a theme, means even the most repetitive of instrumentals stays interesting and appropriate. Some of the tracks about religion utilize aspects of gospel music to their full ironic potential, while the joyous pounding on the piano takes over some others, accompanied by celebratory brass sections, when Tillman is speaking about the perfect utopian world advertised to us.

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The instrumental is stripped back and repetitive when Tillman gets most introspective, such as on the 13-minute “Leaving LA”, but the analysis of ourselves that he offers is so striking and profound that serviceable and pleasant instrumentals containing a few interlocking aspects and great musicianship is almost more than we can ask for in addition. It’s for the best that the music never distracts us from what he has to say.

Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. It’s almost as if he is trying his best to prevent from breaking down and crying at any moment. However, the real magic of this album is its lyrical content. Incredibly detailed, he weaves philosophical and literary references and dark humour into vivid description of post-apocalyptic societies and the human condition.

In a terrifying and hilarious track, “The Ballad Of The Dying Man”, the titular character wonders who will critique the “pretentious, ignorant voices” of the “homophobes, hipsters and 1%” once he, and his superior opinions, are gone. He checks his Facebook news feed one more time before taking his final breath. “Total Entertainment Forever” is the album’s most upbeat and triumphant track, commenting on how technology is encompassing our lives and leading to our deaths. Tillman issues the most sarcastic “na na na come on” of all time before closing the track with the image of a historian finding corpses plugged into hubs, “a frozen smile on every face” as we escape from the real-life hell we wrought in virtual reality.

“When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay” skewers religion, envisioning a confused Death on Judgement Day saying that Earth is similar to the Hell he is about to take them to, as the speaker informs God that his creation of flawed beings was bound to fail from the start – “Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”. There are so many fantastic lyrical concepts on this album I wish I could fit into this review.

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Tillman takes it upon himself to make most of the criticisms I could make about this album first. “Leaving LA” is a 13-minute epic addressing Tillman’s displeasure with the industry’s treatment of artists in his vein, before attacking himself for the 2nd half of the song. He envisions his critics: “That’s just what we all need, another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”, losing fans as he delivers a “10-verse chorus-less diatribe”, while they say “I used to like this guy, this new s**t really kinda makes me want to die”.

It is true that repetition of vocal melody and instrumental can get somewhat tiresome, but the only real time I was taken out of the experience was the extended instrumental section on “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. Tillman’s commentary is what elevates the typical folk backgrounds to something special. However, his diversion from the theme on “Smoochie”, a track dedicated to his wife’s ability to keep him sane, and a failing attempt to convey meaning with blunter lyrics regarding the political divide on “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” are two aspects which detract from the awe-inspiring stream of consciousness which dominates the rest of the album.

Pure Comedy is the perfect soundtrack to the world we live in today. There is really nobody like Tillman making such in-depth songs right now, so if you don’t mind being served a hefty dose of reality, this is one of the year’s greatest albums so far.

Favourite Tracks: Pure Comedy, Ballad of the Dying Man, The Memo, When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay, Leaving LA

Least Favourite Track: Two Wildly Different Perspectives

Score: 9/10

The Chainsmokers – Memories … Do Not Open

Image result for memories do not openEDM production duo The Chainsmokers, biggest success story of 2016, release their debut album by request of their fans. Previously against the idea of selling albums, perhaps smartly given the success of their singles, Memories…Do Not Open represents the first collection of songs for the duo, containing only the more recent hits “Paris” and “Something Just Like This”.

If you thought that some of their more recent singles sounded eerily similar to their past hits, you wouldn’t be wrong. The Chainsmokers are following their formula as closely as possible in the wake of one of the most successful songs of all time in “Closer”. And since this formula involves uninspired and melancholy dance breaks, lyrics about failing relationships that sound like they come from the mouth of the average attendee at a frat party, and whiny vocals from the more attractive Chainsmoker, Memories…Do Not Open is not for me. Yet, they have somehow tapped into the pulse of the millennial generation perfectly. Since you already know what this album sounds like, a review is almost unnecessary.

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The album opens with some wistful piano keys as Andrew Taggart blandly sings “You know, I’m sorry, I won’t make it to your party. Got caught up in my own selfishness”. It’s really a tiny microcosm of the entire album. Ever since “Closer” blew up, The Chainsmokers opted to have one song, and it’s working out pretty well for them. At this point, as others have pointed out, they are the Nickelback of EDM. They have taken the worst cliches of a genre, become its biggest artist, and, if history repeats itself, will slowly kill its popularity and mainstream viability.

Each song on this project features the same musical structure, the vocals being handled by either Taggart, a relatively unknown female vocalist, or on the last track, an AutoTuned beyond recognition Florida Georgia Line, who I suppose are the Chainsmokers of their genre in terms of their pandering, bro-country lyrics. The Chainsmokers are on autopilot, more painfully obviously making music for the fame rather than the art than any of their peers.

When the Chainsmokers actually attempt to briefly innovate on this album, it surprises so much that you actually get lost in their saccharine pop world for a second and remember why they are so successful. These guys are really, really good at pop music. “It Won’t Kill Ya” takes a break from the lightweight future-bass sound and contrasts some grittier, almost dubstep sounds with a soaring chorus from French The Voice finalist Louane.

Current single “Paris” is more complex than it lets on, with interlocking piano and guitar hooks that provide and nice backdrop to Taggart and frequent collaborator Emily Warren’s surprisingly pleasant duet. The actual creativity it exhibits reminds me of “Roses”, their best song by miles. And while the song ultimately devolves into the usual Chainsmoker tricks, hearing Jhene Aiko’s breezy vocals on “Wake Up Alone” always puts a smile on my face.

The Chainsmokers try excessively hard to have some sort of edge with their lyrics, as Taggart takes primary writing credit on each song (with a lot of help!), but ultimately just look absolutely ridiculous. The veneer is so easy to see through, and with every unnecessary F-bomb or nostalgic look back at what might have been you wonder how everyone continues to fall for their shtick. The Chainsmokers attempt to transform the utterly vanilla into something incredibly profound, and the novelty of this should only have worked once before everyone realized the talk of drinking, regret and struggling to find your place in the world was the furthest thing from cutting-edge.

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The worst part of all of this is part of the same reason that I dislike artists such as Drake or Macklemore at times: The Chainsmokers really want us to feel sorry for them, singing about struggles of success. On “Honest” Taggart whinges “There’s this girl, she wants me to take her home/She don’t really love me though, I’m just on the radio”, wiping the tears from his eyes with a hundred dollar bill.

Disliking the Chainsmokers has become somewhat of a meme at this point, but having to hear those “doo-doo-doot doo-doo-doo”s from Chris Martin, or another interview where they brag about how successful they are with increasingly problematic and offensive terminology makes me very worried about the direction of popular music in the future. These guys are really breaking some of the Beatles’ chart records. Help us all.

It’s true, we all enjoy pop music and it’s very hard not to nod your head to almost all of these songs. I really do have to commend The Chainsmokers for finding a Max Martin-esque approach to ensuring everything they touch is a hit. But at some point you have to step back and realize there are much better, harder-working, more deserving pop artists to turn your attention to for the same thrills. Everyone knows that they probably shouldn’t eat at McDonalds, but they do it anyway. Resist the temptation, and stop feeding their ego.

Favourite Tracks: It Won’t Kill Ya, Paris, Wake Up Alone

Least Favourite Track: Don’t Say

Score: 3/10

Kodak Black – Painting Pictures

Image result for painting pictures kodak black19 year old Florida rapper Kodak Black releases his debut full-length studio album surprisingly quickly after the meteoric success of single “Tunnel Vision”, considering the fact he is in prison more often than not. While graduating past his mixtape days and working with some larger names in the industry has improved the overall production value of his music considerably, Kodak’s grating nasally voice and eye-rolling lyricism are still far too prevalent to get past. Painting Pictures is over an hour of repetitive trap beats – though there are a few diamonds in the rough – and immature, cliched lyrics delivered by an individual whose success baffles me.

Painting Pictures is a trap album through and through, as the all-too-familiar 808 bass and snare rolls echo for the hour-plus runtime of the album. However, Kodak did attract some of the genre’s best innovators to the studio and sometimes the beats can actually be good enough to save a song here and there.

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One of the biggest contributors to the album is frequent Weeknd collaborator Ben Billions, who brings along some of his XO labelmates to co-produce. His joyful piano melody on “Patty Cake” surprised me in its ability to make me genuinely enjoy a Kodak Black Song. Mike Will Made It shows up on one track, choosing to showcase the bland trap side of him rather than the genuinely very creative side we see sporadically, while the flutes on “Tunnel Vision” were of course made by the now-ubiquitous Metro Boomin and Southside. Still, all of this unfortunately becomes largely irrelevant.

Some of the features on here make the best of their appearances, or perhaps they just sound like hip-hop savants next to Kodak. The production is the only consistently strong aspect of the album even if it does get rather uninspired after 18 tracks, and better rappers like Bun B, Future and Young Thug make the most out of these beats. Honestly, if Kodak has anything going for him it is a knowledge of how to make a catchy rap melody – “Tunnel Vision” is by no means a good song but I still find myself singing the hook often, while “Candy Paint” is one of the better songs on here due to the sing-song chorus. If Kodak had a better voice, the album might have been much more enjoyable.

Kodak is largely incoherent and even arrhythmic at times. In fact, everything about his delivery is some of the worst I’ve heard on a major label hip-hop release. Incredibly monotone, making the chorus of a song like “Coolin and Booted” sound like a playground chant from hell, he brings new meaning to the term “mumble rap” and when you can understand him he’s delivering sexual lines about mac and cheese and Caillou. Sometimes it fits a rapper’s style to sound like they don’t care, giving the impression that it is effortless, but as Kodak’s voice drones on you start to wonder why someone who raps like this bothered to make an 18-track album.

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Kodak completely lacks the charisma to stand out in any way despite all of his vocal shortcomings, and I could really go on all day about all the many ways he makes me want to swat the mosquito buzzing in my ear for an hour. And yet, the lyrics are still somehow the worst part of the album. They are frequently unnecessarily vulgar, or terrible attempts at making a Lil Wayne-level punchline. You could make a hilarious list of all the worst bars on this album. For all the material here, there is really nothing that makes me come anywhere close to taking Kodak Black seriously.

The bottom line is that this album honestly gave me a headache, and that hasn’t happened in a long time. This is the album that I needed to truly appreciate the return of Kendrick Lamar.

Favourite Tracks: Patty Cake, Candy Paint

Least Favourite Track: Side N***a

Score: 2/10

Freddie Gibbs – You Only Live 2wice

You Only Live 2wice cover.jpgProlific rapper Freddie Gibbs makes a return to the music industry after dealing with a truly unfortunate situation. Gibbs jumped into the public consciousness after the widespread critical acclaim of Pinata, his 2014 collaboration with experimental producer Madlib. The rapper has been removed from the public eye recently due to being falsely accused of sexual assault, being extradited to Austria and held in custody for 4 months, putting his career on hold. Now that the charges have been dropped, Gibbs sounds as urgent as ever on the mic, which was already one of his best qualities. He specifically addresses his anger at the situation and the many inconveniences it caused him on the brief 8-track project.

However, the project seems rapidly cobbled together and lacks cohesiveness, and the mismatching of musical elements often fails to make this collection stand up to his previous works. Wanting to quickly put your foot back in the door is understandable, but calling You Only Live 2wice an album takes away from the strength of Gibbs’ discography.

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The instrumentals here are actually very strong, featuring more complexity than the average rap instrumental, but Gibbs’ performance over them is often out of place for one reason or another. The majority of the album sounds like what you might expect judging by the album artwork which was chosen. There is a heavy usage of choral and orchestral elements, aiming for a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-esque grandiose sound.

There is also a strong influence of jazzier elements, creating backdrops which are often beautiful in their complexity but perhaps too complex at times for Gibbs’ straightforward, hard-hitting flows. The best instrumental comes on a song which is far from being the project’s best overall, “Alexys”. The song features contributions from experimental electronic artist Kaytranada and jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD as the only larger names associated with the project.

Gibbs always sounds like he is out for blood, and his real life situations only exacerbated this. He is also very technically skilled, frequently breaking out into double-time triplet flows, even if these cease to be a surprise after using the same technique on almost every song. The conviction in his voice always helps with his lyrical delivery – and they are characteristically strong here with the transparency with which he speaks on his situation, and some clever punchlines and pop culture references as well.

Unfortunately, the instrumentals don’t click very often but when they do they are absolute gold – this often results from a beat switch which injects new energy into the song. Gibbs is naturally gifted at simply knowing how to flow on a beat to the best of his ability. He sounds like he is giving everything he has to the performance, and yet makes it sound incredibly easy for him at the same time. When the instrumental is as triumphant as Gibbs’ energy, like on the 2nd half of “20 Karat Jesus”, it makes me wish the rest of the album was equally polished.

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This lack of finishing touches are the underlying problem of the album. The instrumentals and Gibbs are both actually quite strong, but at times they seem mismatched for each other, or issues of mixing and mastering are present. There are certain moments when the energy of one side changes, but not the other. Gibbs’ voice and flows are very dynamic – at times he can get strained and desperate, turning his flow more straightforward with more downbeats, and the looping instrumentals of soaring orchestral sounds behind him stop fitting so well. Sometimes one side overwhelms the other, the instrumental tending to overpower and muffle Gibbs’ more introspective and quieter vocals.

The song concepts are also rather half-baked here. The hooks are frequently underwritten and feature muted female vocals – Anthony Fantano actually put it best when he said they sounded like placeholders for a better idea that didn’t come in time. When Gibbs does take over a hook, it actually tends to be even worse. The wave of singing rappers is not something that he should have jumped on, often sounding too monotone or less interested than in spitting his menacing bars. “Phone Lit” is a very low point on this project for this reason.

The perfectionist in Gibbs likely saved this project from being a complete disaster, bringing the characteristics that got him here to the majority of tracks and reminding us that he’s capable of creating some truly great rap albums. Hopefully Gibbs takes some time before his next major release and delivers something just as strong as before.

Favourite Tracks: Andrea, 20 Karat Jesus, Amnesia

Least Favourite Track: Phone Lit

Score: 6/10

Trey Songz – Tremaine The Album

Image result for tremaine the albumR&B artist Trey Songz is now on his seventh studio album and a few years removed from his last big hit, though still maintaining an impressive level of relevance throughout his lengthy career. On this self-titled effort, he continues to deliver sensual soul anthems largely driven by his technically impressive voice, which carries the project when it dips in lyricism and originality. Tremaine The Album has just enough sonically adventurous standout tracks to make the argument that Songz is still providing a steady stream of quality R&B albums, but as younger artists with bigger ideas continue to assert themselves in the modern musical landscape, it remains to be seen if an effort which is seemingly on autopilot for half of its runtime will get lost in the shuffle.

As Songz is a purely R&B artist who has had a good level of success on pop radio over the years, the album is an unsurprising blend of R&B which skews closer to the darker, moodier alt-R&B which has been popularized by the OVO label recently, piano-driven slow jams which Songz has come to be known for, and pop-influenced swings for the radio fences which still feature Songz’ R&B vocal sensibilities.

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Songz has primary writing credit on every song here, and many of the recognizable names assisting him reside in this category rather than production – which is surprising due to the latter being considerably stronger. Veteran R&B producer Rico Love shows up on 2 tracks here, while Dr. Luke associate Cirkut and Justin Bieber collaborator Poo Bear appear sporadically in secondary roles. R. City, Ester Dean and Luke himself, likely dating the material due to his current legal situation, provide lyrical assistance.

Songz is surprisingly at his best on the poppier tracks here, as R&B instrumentals have all become so similar recently. Although his voice should be better suited to a sparse musical landscape which allows him to ascend and descend the scales freely, when the sound of the album is broken up by a unique beat – such as the driving, bouncy piano medley and upfront, catchy chorus breaking from the somber, warbling R&B mindset on lead single “Nobody Else But You”, it captures the listener’s attention much quicker. The instrumental and melody on “Priceless” is so endearingly cheesy that it actually makes some of Songz’ more questionable lyrics work.

A few of the slower tracks, however, are certainly saved by Songz’ abilities on the mic. Typically sticking to his lower register, much of the appeal comes from the surprise when he transitions into a falsetto with the same ease. “Playboy” is another great track, featuring some 90s-influenced synth piano and minimalistic trap hi-hats, as Songz convincingly details his struggle with commitment despite knowing it is what he wants. It is the greatest marriage of engaging lyrics, upbeat instrumental and allowance of room for Songz’ impressive vocal runs and trills to shine on the project.

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Lyricism is a main detraction from the enjoyment of these songs – Songz all but throws away the concept of metaphor and simile in his bedroom jams, and gets straight to the point in a way that can be unnecessarily explicit. He doesn’t even fully commit to this explicitness as others do, almost coming across as immature as a result. The chorus of “#1Fan”, which I’d rather not replicate in text, is a perfect example of this – the song sounds perfectly fine musically, but as soon as the chorus hits it brings you completely out of the experience due to the repetition of a certain cringeworthy line.

Other areas of the album see lazy songwriting in terms of themes which have been done to death, such as the track “Animal”. Here we see yet another artist compare the uninhibited side of themselves to various animals, complete with awful animal puns. Another recent trend in R&B which is negatively reflected on the song “The Sheets…Still” is needlessly stretching a darker, ambient song far past its limits, somehow almost always choosing to repeat a particularly unpleasant motif. Here, Songz drones on for close to 3 minutes about his partner’s nails leaving scratches on him. On a 15 track album, there is a definite lack of originality here as well.

Trey Songz’ good intentions on this project are certainly there, but for the most part he appears to be stuck in the past. Still a talented artist capable of leaving an impact on listeners, Songz is now seven albums deep and needs to find a new sound to fit his personality rather than attempting to follow modern trends and only getting halfway there.

Favourite Tracks: Priceless, Nobody Else But You, Playboy, Song Goes Off

Least Favourite Track: Animal

Score: 5/10

Betty Who – The Valley

Betty Who - The Valley.pngAustralian pop artist Betty Who releases her sophomore studio album, and continues the long line of fledgling female pop singers experimenting with alternative sounds to great success. Now achieving a string of number 1 hits on the US Dance Charts, beginning with a cover of Donna Lewis’ 1996 one hit wonder “I Love You Always Forever” that remains Who’s most recognizable track, The Valley is an excellent showcase for her talents, even if it is made evident at times that she is not using all that is in her arsenal. She breaks through here as a more musically adventurous and vocally strong Katy Perry, who she has opened for on tour and shares extensive vocal similarities.

The album is full of well-written, shouted power-pop choruses accompanied by instrumentals that are just the right degree of left field to come across as innovative rather than disposable. To compare it to my recent review of Zara Larsson’s similar album So Good, you can hear Who’s personality on every track here. She brings a unique presence to each song that can overpower even the most dominant instrumentals. These instrumentals feature glittery synths, the album being 80s-influenced in instrumentation but decidedly 90s-influenced in vocals and melody.

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Who is making engaging pop music which is perhaps less of an attempt to make unorthodox sounds work well a la PC Music than perfect inhabitation of a niche sound. She is more similar to Carly Rae Jepsen than Charli XCX. The song structure still rides the wave of the necessary pop-music dance break at times, but the build-up that Who’s anthemic choruses creates warrants it. Some unexpected collaborators appear here in the form of 90s g-funk rapper Warren G, who is nearing his 50s, and Superfruit – a cappella group Pentatonix’s Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying, who fit into Who’s weird and wonderful world as well as you might expect them to.

Who has primary writing credit on every song here and hits the heights of direct, smart pop songwriting, while recognizable producers include The Monsters & Strangerz, as well as Pop & Oak, whose recent contributions include Kehlani and Alessia Cara’s excellent albums.

The intro, “The Valley”, is incredibly beautiful and demonstrates the real potential and range Who has as an artist. It features a minute and a half of layered a cappella, as what sounds like 5 or 6 voice parts blend together perfectly. The transition into “Some Kinda Wonderful”, the most blatantly electropop track on the album, was very jarring – not that she shouldn’t be making these pop tracks as she clearly has a gift for pop songwriting as well, but I’d love more of the pure musicianship we saw on the opener. Who’s voice is one of the most dynamic I’ve ever heard in the genre, malleable and applicable to every place and emotion her music needs to hit. Her range is its best component, opening her album with some impressive a cappella low notes before reaching into the heights of her breathy head voice on the soaring chorus of a track like “Wanna Be”.

“Wanna Be”, speaking of which, might be the best track here. As the synths ascend up the scale and the piano pounds out a 90s-influenced bass melody, Who delivers a longing and passionate chorus wanting to reconnect with a partner. It kicks off an amazing 3-track run: “Pretend You’re Missing Me” might be the only track where I enjoyed the instrumental more than Who’s vocals, presenting a punishing drop which features what sounds like 8-bit video game samples and already has me envisioning the cannons going off in a live setting. “Blue Heaven Midnight Crush” is another unapologetically 90s power-pop ballad.

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Every so often there is one repeated element which brings me out of the song as a whole, as a result of strange vocal choices rather than too-experimental instrumentals. Turning the drop of “Mama Say” into sharp inhales of breath did not work at all, deflating the energy provided by its strong chorus, while Who’s channelling of Fergie’s “London Bridge” era party-girl raps on “Some Kinda Wonderful” sounds too grating to be enjoyable.

As the album nears its end, it becomes clearer that trimming a few tracks could have benefited the project as well. “Reunion” isn’t particularly bad, but the instrumental is perhaps the least inspired on the project and as a result is completely indistinguishable from a Katy Perry hit, while the chorus of “Beautiful” is rather underwritten and monotone despite the impressive vocal runs that the Pentatonix members lend to the track.

The reckless abandon with which Who attacks the vast majority of these tracks sets her apart from her counterparts, the number of which is growing rapidly. As people on my side of the globe have already been connecting with Who’s playful sounds on the dance floor, it is only a matter of time before her defining hit.

Favourite Tracks: Wanna Be, Pretend You’re Missing Me, Blue Heaven Midnight Crush, Make You Memories, You Can Cry Tomorrow

Least Favourite Track: Mama Say

Score: 8/10