DJ Khaled – Grateful

Grateful by DJ Khaled cover.jpgOnly 11 months removed from the release of his last album, Major Key, DJ Khaled is back with a new purpose. Clearly fully embracing his status as the biggest walking, talking meme alive, Khaled delivers a double album that takes everything about Major Key and makes it bigger, and oftentimes, a lot more ridiculous than it needs to be.

The album is 23 tracks and runs for approximately an hour and a half, as Khaled and many of his collaborators appear to phone it in and provide quite a few obvious filler tracks. Major Key saw Khaled taking full advantage of his new public profile and making a clearer, focused effort, but outside of a few appearances of Khaled’s uncanny ability to be perfectly tapped in to exactly what music purchasers didn’t know they needed, Grateful is a disorganized mixed bag.

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Khaled albums have always been all about the collaborators, and Grateful boasts what might be his most impressive list yet. Despite the bigger names, Khaled still struggles with using his collaborators in the most effective way, as they are unevenly distributed across tracks and many could benefit from more recognition of what is working and what is not over each instrumental. Many of music’s biggest stars appear in the album’s early goings, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Drake and Justin Bieber, while hot rappers of the moment such as Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott, and Future appear multiple times across the album’s many, many tracks.

One interesting development on the project is Khaled stepping up more than he ever has before as a producer – Many of his contributions are rather generic takes on the popular trap sound, but he shows that he actually has some musicality and delivers some great chords on tracks like “Billy Ocean” and “Unchanging Love” as well. Still, many of the album’s best tracks were the ones he wasn’t involved in.

I might have gotten a little too excited for this album based on the two excellent singles “Wild Thoughts” and “I’m The One”, and they still stand tall on this jumbled tracklist. A flip of Santana’s “Maria Maria” with a megastar like Rihanna is something that only the culturally tuned-in mind of Khaled could come up with, and the results could not be anything other than an undeniable hit. And where is the fun-loving spirit and personality infused into every aspect of “I’m the One” on the rest of the album?

While Khaled has clearly just attempted to capitalize on his meme potential hitting the ceiling with the birth of his son, it is easy to forget how much quality music he has actually provided us with over the years, and the album actually starts picking up that energy again at the tail end of the tracklisting of all places. The run from “Iced Out My Arms” to “Unchanging Love” are some of the most melodic, creative tracks here with strong performances from everyone. I have to give out a few feature shoutouts as well – Nicki Minaj continues her hot streak and knocks her “I Can’t Even Lie” verse out of the park, Alicia Keys sounds great as always and 21 Savage and Migos bring it to “Iced Out My Arms”.

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Where nearly every song on Major Key had a memorable hook, quotables for days and at least one guest making the absolute most of their appearance on the track, many of these tracks just feel like a bunch of compiled leftovers. Leftover beats, leftover verses and leftover ideas. Too often a track is built around a hook that sounds like it was improvised on the spot overtop of a trap beat that I’ve heard a hundred times before. Travi$ Scott is really not the hook man Khaled seems to think he is, and his ability to sound off-key while still using Auto-Tune ruins all 4 tracks he’s on.

Not only this, but the mixing and mastering of the album is pretty noticeably unfinished on quite a few occasions, most notably “It’s Secured” – the levels are completely unbalanced. This album was clearly rapidly thrown together without any regard for organization – I hate to think what didn’t make the cut, if anything.

There are so many unfinished and terrible ideas on this project that it’s hard to think of a few to list, but some of the most egregious things include “I Love You So Much”, a track seemingly for Khaled’s son and his son alone in which Chance the Rapper legitimately raps the alphabet amidst Khaled’s proclamations of his son’s “genius”, a track featuring Future and Yo Gotti barely paying attention to basic structures of rhythm that was so much of an afterthought they couldn’t give it a better title than “That Range Rover Came With Steps”, and the sheer idea of putting Kodak Black on anything and thinking it’ll make it better.

There really are some good or even great aspects of almost every track here, but the nature of Khaled albums, loaded with collaboration, leaves too much opportunity for some less focused part of a song to bring it way down. Grateful was “executive produced” by Khaled’s infant son, supposedly meaning that only the perceived positive reaction of Asahd allowed a track to be featured on the album. You can tell. Congratulations Khaled, you played yourself.

Favourite Tracks: Wild Thoughts, Billy Ocean, I’m The One, Unchanging Love

Least Favourite Track: That Range Rover Came With Steps

Score: 5/10

Big Boi – Boomiverse

Image result for boomiverseAtlanta rapper and former OutKast member Big Boi has released his third solo album and his first in 5 years. His previous project, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, never really lived up to the widespread critical and commercial acclaim of his debut, but this project here is certainly a swing back in the right direction. Musically, Boomiverse is a complete mixed bag which holds it back from becoming truly great, but this is a fun collection of songs for a variety of occasions. It is all held together by some great features and of course, Big Boi’s calm and dexterous flow that always served as the contrast to Andre 3000’s chaos.

There is a wide range of collaborators on this album, which likely contributes to how all over the place it ends up being. Big Boi recruits quite a few of his old friends, turning to established rap producers such as Organized Noize, Mannie Fresh and even the legendary Scott Storch, who lends a beat to “Order of Operations”. But for crossover appeal, he also brings in modern-day producers known for making more commercial bangers such as DJ Dahi, who contributes what might be the poppiest song of his career on “Mic Jack”, 808 Mafia’s TM88, and even the combination of Dr. Luke and Cirkut, pure pop hitmakers, on “All Night”.

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On the mic, we have old OutKast collaborators like Sleepy Brown and Killer Mike, who predictably knocks it out of the park on all 3 tracks he appears on here, as well as other southern rap stars young and old – Gucci Mane, Pimp C, Curren$y. Snoop Dogg comes out of hiding to deliver a spectacular verse on “Get Wit It”, while pop hooks from Adam Levine, Eric Bellinger and LunchMoney Lewis swing things back the other way. When you thought the genre hopping was getting out of hand, we get “Chocolate”, a completely misguided electronic dance track that Big Boi still somehow manages to save with his personality.

The main appeal of Big Boi’s music is his technical ability and overall demeanor, which can really tie together such a wide variety of instrumentals. Big Boi’s voice is the universal solvent of rap music. Who knew he would be able to make a whole project with an indie band like Phantogram? Still, he’s at his best on the more standard rap tracks, especially when they have a little extra aspect of something creative.

“Kill Jill” is an absolute knockout of a banger featuring fellow Atlanta larger-than-life mic presence Killer Mike and a menacing Young Jeezy on the hook. The beat has trap elements, but it also samples Japanese hologram sensation Hatsune Miku quite heavily. “Mic Jack” is another great track that features a poppier, bouncy instrumental and an Adam Levine feature, but we still get a rapid-fire flow with that deep voice that brings to mind OutKast tracks like “The Way You Move”. Sleepy Brown, who of course was featured on that track, just so happens to appear on this one briefly as well.

OutKast was almost more about the interplay between the two characters than the spectacular music they were creating, and Big Boi by himself is still a fun enough personality that when he delivers a straight pop track like “All Night”, complete with a piano sample that would make D.R.A.M. proud, it’s still enjoyable to hear the veteran artist having so much fun making music.

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Boomiverse could have benefited from more organization, perhaps a reordering of tracks or better selection of what ultimately made it onto the project. Placing a pop-rap track like “Mic Jack” in between the two most unapologetically Atlanta tracks in “Kill Jill” and “In the South” doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it would serve better next to the Dr. Luke track “All Night”. Many of these tracks aren’t bad at all, but the lack of cohesion in the album takes a lot away from the listening experience.

A few of the pop tracks here are a little awkward, not quite figuring out how to shoehorn the hook in or contrast it well with Big Boi’s all-out assault on the mic, like Eric Bellinger’s hook on “Overthunk”. As well, Big Boi doesn’t even try to pretend like he’s making any sorts of new developments in his career, and as a result we get a few tracks that come across very dated. We need to leave things like Sleepy Brown’s talkbox hook on “Freakanomics” in the 90s where they belong, regardless of how great Big Boi’s verses are.

You’ve almost got to listen to this project out of respect for all Big Boi has done, and even though it’s becoming clear that he’s turned this into a science and he’s coasting a little bit, he’s still just as technically proficient, hilarious and fun-loving as ever before, and it makes for a pretty good listen. Now where, for the love of god, is that Andre 3000 solo project?!?

Favourite Tracks: Kill Jill, All Night, Mic Jack, Freakanomics

Least Favourite Track: In The South

Score: 6/10

Lorde – Melodrama

Lorde Melodrama album cover 2017 03 02.jpgAlternative pop artist and former teen sensation Lorde drops her sophomore studio album, nearly 4 years removed from winning a Grammy at the age of 16 for “Royals”. The extensive time Lorde has put into perfecting this album has been well-documented, and the resulting concept album of sorts, chronicling the story of a single house party, can certainly reside in the same area as her stellar debut, Pure Heroine.

Lorde’s transition to adulthood is reflected in her lyrical themes, and the accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world are brought out here by one of the strongest songwriters in the game. While the project does take a few experimental risks that don’t pan out exactly as planned, this is another very strong, ambitious and beautifully written effort from the rising star.

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The project opens with single “Green Light”, a song which Max Martin, who knows a thing or two about songwriting, deemed “incorrect songwriting”. He was likely referring to the abrupt shift as the song transitions into its chorus. This should only tell you about the fearless decisions Lorde and her songwriting and production partner Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers) have in store for the rest of the project. Melodrama is pop music, to be sure, but it’s a dark, twisted and constantly surprising take on it.

Many of these tracks are anchored by nearly whispered and rapid-fire vocals from Lorde over a variety of instrumentals – the muffled and pulsating synths on tracks like “Homemade Dynamite”, horns on “Sober”, “Writer in the Dark” sounding like a Kate Bush song, or bare piano on “Liability”. Still, Lorde’s personality is so distinct that the project remains incredibly cohesive. Some pretty great artists appear for additional production credits too, including Frank Ocean collaborators Frank Dukes and Malay, and future-bass DJ Flume.

Lorde’s greatest asset is her songwriting, and despite her many other strengths, it’s not even close. She has now perfectly captured exactly what it is like to be both 16 and 20 years old. There’s something special about hearing a young pop artist, venturing even closer to a radio sound than before, delivering complex and meaningful lyrics that end up being this powerful. Lorde introduced herself to us by criticizing the recycled themes of popular music, and she continues her quest to find meaning in the tumultuous experience of youth here. This culminates in excellent closer “Perfect Places”, where she smacks the romanticized images of teenage partying to the ground.

Lorde extends this strength in songwriting to the melodies that she and Antonoff create. These are two musicians who both really know their way around a chorus. Just try to get that “Homemade Dynamite” hook out of your head – that’s some pop magic. The most enticing thing about Lorde, and what makes her a truly special artist, is her capability to simultaneously embrace the finer sciences of crafting a pop song that fills a dancefloor, all the while analyzing the societal implications of doing just that.

Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. “Writer in the Dark” sees her master her instrument in a way we haven’t seen before, contrasting the anger and cynicism of her matter-of-fact lower register with the passion and vulnerability of her upper register.

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“Liability”, as well, is still not only the album’s best, but an early contender for my favourite song of the year for many of the above reasons. Little more than a brief piano loop, Lorde hits her emotional peak with her most beautifully written melody yet as she takes a look at herself in the wake of a breakup, cursing herself for the burdens her fame and her personality places on her partners.

Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here, making a house party sound like a magical, transcendent experience on who you are as a person. She succeeds for the most part, but this has always proven to be a very difficult task for quite a few artists. Luckily, most of the lesser-faring experimental ideas all congregate on a single track, “The Louvre”. Featuring sparse instrumentation and a spoken hook, there just isn’t really enough here.

Her reprises of two songs – an Antonoff favourite tactic – is a little excessive as well, but in the context of the story, they are absolutely necessary. And after all, Lorde is a storyteller above all else.

Lorde takes the refreshing perspective on the world she offered in Pure Heroine, and imbues it with an elevated sense of ambitious artistic vision. Even if it isn’t as concise as her debut, it’s a lot more impressive that she pulled this one off to a level of quality this high. This just might be a legendary career.

Favourite Tracks: Liability, Homemade Dynamite, Perfect Places, Writer in the Dark, Green Light

Least Favourite Track: The Louvre

Score: 9/10

Katy Perry – Witness

Witness artworkIn a world where the idea of the “pop girl” is holding less and less weight, the mainstream sound shifting to a more urban area, trend-setter and record-breaker Katy Perry drops her fifth studio album, Witness. It is her first in nearly four years, surprising fans with her new appearance, politically geared messages and new ventures in sound on singles like “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”. Perry certainly takes a lot of risks on Witness, and seeing her venture out of her comfort zone is very welcome, even if a few of them are more successful in concept than in execution.

Unfortunately, the other half of the album is weighed down by bland, filler pop tracks that sound like they were recorded years ago. We couldn’t expect Perry to be completely experimental now, could we? Still, this album ends up being better than I anticipated, and there are some standout tracks which rise far above the rest.

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Perry ventures down more of an EDM path over the course of this album than she has in the past, often letting synth piano hooks or pounding basslines dictate the flow of the track in the chorus rather than her vocal melodies. She does recruit some interesting collaborators to bring these aspects out – Trip-hop duo Purity Ring appears on more than one occasion, standout track “Swish Swish” was masterminded by deep house DJ Duke Dumont, and the closing track is credited to indietronica band “Hot Chip”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Perry album without Swedish pop wizard Max Martin, who is in charge of about half of the tracks here.

There are a lot of misguided decisions on this project, to be sure, but when Perry hits, she hits hard. I never thought a Katy Perry song would give me chills, but here is “Roulette”. A dancefloor synth bassline slowly creeps in behind a breakbeat building up to a perfectly structured chorus. Perry’s range is in its sweet spot here, and the little alterations made along the way, like cutting out the music for a bit on the second chorus, only make it better. This actually kicks off a fantastic three-track run: “Roulette” is followed up by “Swish Swish”, which might be the best single of Perry’s career, and eerie ballad “Deja Vu”.

Really though, how much fun is “Swish Swish”? That SNL performance, with the dancing backpack kid, really brings out the insane energy of this track visually. Dumont’s deep house instrumental, Perry ruthlessly dishing out shots and Nicki Minaj delivering a hilarious, characteristically incredibly feature verse complete the dance floor banger. When Perry’s voice hits its emotional peak, her songs come across better, which is why it is unfortunate how disingenuous her current era seems. Some of the later tracks stand out as well for this reason: “Save As Draft”, in particular. It is one of the slowest tracks on the album, EDM influence being removed while Perry convincingly emotes about her inability to communicate in her relationship.

“Hey Hey Hey” is the biggest manifestation of the problems which affect the album as a whole. Perry has always attempted to have some sort of quirky edge to her lyrics, making outdated references or strange similes and metaphors to fit her fun-loving persona. It’s rarely worked, and I’m not sure why it continues here. All it does is make her look like an out-of-touch aging act trying to fit in with today’s culture. “You think that I am fragile like a Fabergé”? God…

The instrumentals of quite a few of these tracks don’t help rid her of that image much either. Some of the EDM aspects are simply completely outdated – the enormous breakbeat and wobble bass that backs “Power” hearkens back to the days when dubstep was inescapable, and the distortion on Perry’s vocals detracts from the song even further. “Mind Maze” is another inexplicable decision, as she is coated with excessive Auto-Tune for seemingly no artistic or meaningful reason.

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“Bon Appetit” as a whole is pretty inexcusable. Much like rival Taylor Swift’s track “Bad Blood”, it sounds almost as if the melody of its chorus was made up on the spot. The completely blatant and pervasive food metaphors and puns running throughout and repetitive instrumental only make things worse. There are so many times over the course of this album where Perry still opted to play it safe, which is confusing given how successful her artistic reaches on tracks like “Roulette” and “Swish Swish” were on the same album. Much of the second half- tracks like “Tsunami” and “Pendulum” – just devolve into the same tired pop tropes she’s been trying to push for her whole career.

And just as a final, weird nitpick – Perry tends to write lyrics so that she needs to emphasize the wrong syllable of a word in order to fit with the song’s rhythm. This persists here, infuriatingly.

Witness is ultimately an uneven and oftentimes contradictory compilation of tracks that shows promise to be so much more. Perry has a lot of people on her side, and it’s not like she isn’t a talented singer. Something better really should have come together here.

Favourite Tracks: Swish Swish, Roulette, Deja Vu, Save As Draft

Least Favourite Track: Mind Maze

Score: 5/10

SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlTop Dawg Entertainment signee SZA, their solitary female artist, finally unleashes her long-delayed debut album on the world. We last heard from her in 2014, on the EP Z, which reached for lofty heights with its neo-soul style and atmospheric soundscapes but was ultimately too underproduced to be exciting. Now with a few more years to hone her craft, SZA’s debut is certainly a surprising breath of fresh air. While her previous work didn’t offer a lot of insight into her life or personality, here she adopts a very confessional tone that could only be compared to what Frank Ocean was doing on his recent masterpiece Blonde. As the album progresses, she takes us on a sexually charged and brutally honest ride through her relationship struggles. This is exactly what a burgeoning talent finally coming into her own should sound like.

SZA, like most of her labelmates, keeps as many of her collaborators as possible within the TDE family. Some of TDE’s lesser-known in-house producers show up here, as well as label rappers Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar. Surprisingly, it is Travis Scott who delivers the best feature verse on “Love Galore”, elevating himself over Rashad’s sleepy verse and Lamar’s turn on “Doves in the Wind”, in which he references a certain female body part 20 times. Lamar is there more to add to the dry humour of the song than to add a technically amazing guest verse. Pharrell Williams is the only big producer here, and he sets the tone perfectly with the opener “Supermodel”.

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On this opener, SZA recites some rapid-fire lyrics over a sparse guitar instrumental, addressing the problems she faces with her own self-image in the wake of being cheated on. Her melody is all over the place, her lyrics rarely rhyme and her phrasing doesn’t follow a typical structure. But the thing is — it’s more human than anything else I’ve heard this year. These are real issues and emotions, and when she reveals, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” in a sudden burst of rage, you’re on her side.

The confessional and straightforward nature of her lyrics, many of them addressing female sexuality in a very open and refreshing way, carry the project far above any of the lingering issues from projects like Z. SZA lets the listeners eavesdrop at her bedroom window, and hearing things we aren’t supposed to hear is intriguing. It’s even better that her ex-boyfriend, as well, apparently didn’t know about the aforementioned line until the album dropped.

It’s easy to get lost in this album – SZA’s delivery really manages to hook you and draw you in to what she is saying like no other. She’s talking to us like a trusted best friend, and we want to hear the next part of the story. “Normal Girl” is another very compelling track, as SZA speaks on her desire to be more conventionally ladylike in order to have a better chance at maintaining a relationship. Punctuating all of these truth bombs are some pretty beautiful high harmonies, synth basslines and trap hi-hats that help accentuate SZA’s quicker delivery on tracks like “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”.

The biggest critique of SZA’s earlier work was a simple one – that she was boring. While she’s improved her lyrical aspects tenfold, a few of these instrumentals still call back to those earlier days. Many of them are minimalist, clearly inspired by tracks like Frank Ocean’s recent “Ivy”, but they are not as dynamic as Frank’s end up being, often looping endlessly. This might be fine if SZA had more to offer vocally, to give the track a few more “wow” moments – but she often opts for a scathing burn or a rhythmic, rambling stream of consciousness to make up for the lack of a big note or vocal acrobatics. Her delivery is a lot more like a rapper’s.

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“Drew Barrymore” is a great example of one of these slow guitar instrumentals  which is saved when she kicks the chorus off with a beautiful high note – “Warm enough for ya?” – as the drums explode and guitar builds slowly. The instrumentals are frequently very similar, nearly an afterthought on this album. This makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between some of the lesser tracks here, as one song flows into the next and you wait for something to snap your attention back. Usually, it is one of those lyrics that makes you do a double take. The fact that this specific aspect of the project is the thing consistently doing this makes it a very unique listening experience, and is one of the main reasons why this album is so innovative.

For a few years, it was looking like SZA might be one of the members of TDE with the least to offer. She has now made it clear why the decision to sign her was made, and since this is technically considered her debut studio album, the quality and artistic vision she presents here is very impressive for a debut. There are still some lingering issues, but like she says on the album’s closer – she’s still just “Ms. Twenty Something”.

Favourite Tracks: Drew Barrymore, Garden (Say It Like Dat), Normal Girl, Broken Clocks, Supermodel

Least Favourite Track: Pretty Little Birds

Score: 7/10

Bleachers – Gone Now

Bleachers-gone-now-cover.jpgEx-fun. guitarist and superstar pop producer Jack Antonoff returns with his side project turned full project’s sophomore album, Gone Now. In contrast to debut Strange Desire (2014), Bleachers delve a little deeper into a musical niche here, specifically the arena rock of the 1980s that slowly began to become nearly synonymous with pop. For the most part, this works out for the better. Antonoff has proven time and time again that he has an innate knowledge of how to craft melodies which become instantly anthemic, and his scarce but excellent and diverse choices of collaborators here help the album reach higher heights than their somewhat uneven debut.

The musical landscape surrounding Antonoff is still a little muddled and over-the-top, and his insistence on revisiting the same musical motifs on many tracks over the course of the album is awkward at best. But when that huge chorus on a song like “Everybody Lost Somebody” drops, you forget about all of that and want to be a part of that crowd yelling along with him.

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Antonoff’s musical influences are clearly out in the open over the course of this project. His arena-sized choruses, elements of piano rock and gruff yet tender voice bring to mind artists like U2, and, perhaps most evidently, fellow New Jersey singer Bruce Springsteen. An incredibly successful producer and songwriter himself since the disbanding of fun., Antonoff links up with some of the industry’s best for an impressive and talented team behind the soundboard, still retaining primary credit on every aspect.

3 of the world’s best songwriters in Julia Michaels, Lorde, and Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars) appear to co-write, while a diverse and accomplished team of producers show up in some unexpected places. Fellow Grammy winner Greg Kurstin, who recently contributed greatly to Adele’s 25, appears on two tracks, while a pair of hip-hop producers, OVO’s Nineteen85 and TDE’s Sounwave, both known for working almost exclusively with a single artist in Drake and Kendrick Lamar respectively, somehow fit right in with the 80s pop-rock sound.

As soon as opener “Dream of Mickey Mantle” unleashes a huge breakbeat and gang vocals explode “Rolling! Thunder!” you know you’re in for a few moments of well-written pop bliss. Antonoff is a Grammy-winning producer for a reason – these are the most energetic choruses in the game, daring you to join in and scream them as loud as possible. Antonoff is making music closer to the magic of fun. at their best than ex-bandmate Nate Ruess is.

Many of these tracks are backed by bluesy piano melodies and fuzzy synths – and while there is not a lot of variation (“Lets Get Married” immediately brought to mind Strange Desire track “You’re Still A Mystery”), this is more complex music than you hear in the pop genre most of the time. It’s all very sugary and cheerful in the best way. Bleachers’ lyrics are often empowering when positive and crushingly relatable when negative, but always with a tinge of hope that things will get better.

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“Hate That You Know Me” is the beautiful result of four of the leading figures in quality pop music – Antonoff, Kurstin, Michaels and Carly Rae Jepsen – all entering a studio together. Jepsen’s backing vocals elevate the sugar rush to another level…it’s just a brilliantly written pop chorus. Julia Michaels always knows how to flip a lyric and juxtapose the positive and negative aspects of a situation in a poetic way. But this is Antonoff’s album more than anyone else’s, and the sense of musicality he brought to fun. is felt throughout. “I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise” opens with his breathtaking layered multipart harmonies, a beautifully simple fireside folk melody at its centre, before running through all of the album’s many motifs once again in its second half.

The album certainly lulls a bit in the middle – these songs are all brief little tidbits of happiness, but putting them all next to each other makes you realize the similar tactics Antonoff uses to pull on your emotional heartstrings. “All My Heroes” never really builds up to anything in the same way many of these tracks do, while the too-prevalent 808 drum machine that introduces the overly earnest “Let’s Get Married” seems rather out of place here. While Antonoff is such a lovable, goofy guy that there isn’t much he could to to seem too upbeat and happy, “Let’s Get Married” might be it.

Antonoff’s revisiting of musical motifs, a theme on Strange Desire, re-appears here, and while the actual melody of them are often quite good, it begins to become a bit of a cop-out when he sings that “Goodmorning/goodbye to my upstairs neighbour” bit on 4 separate songs. The sheer fact that he can do this at all speaks even further to the interchangeability of many of the instrumentals here.

Still, great pop music is harder to find than you would think, and Antonoff is one of the few who really knows what he is doing. He has this down to a science, and his timely and intelligent choices of collaborators shows just how much he is tapped into the ever-changing pulse of the music industry. Sometimes you just need to let the weird-looking guy with the round glasses sing a happy song and cheer you up.

Favourite Tracks: Hate That You Know Me, Everybody Lost Somebody, I Miss Those Days, Foreign Girls, I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise

Least Favourite Track: Let’s Get Married

Score: 8/10

Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom

Halsey - Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.pngIndie pop artist turned stadium-status superstar Halsey returns to deliver her sophomore studio album, following up 2015’s lacklustre Badlands. Since being featured on one of the biggest songs of all time, The Chainsmokers’ “Closer”, Halsey’s place in the public eye has grown exponentially and this album drops at a very opportune time for her.

Halsey has perhaps deservedly drawn some negative ire for her recent comments on her placement in the musical world, seeing herself as alternative and countercultural. She criticized the public naming her a pop artist and stated her belief that urban artists who do pop features don’t get the same treatment. However, we have to separate the music from these comments a bit. hopeless fountain kingdom is a spectacular and surprising pop album and a major improvement from Badlands, and I can always appreciate a bit of a story tied in. Halsey has certainly learned from her mistakes here and dropped one of the best pop albums of the year.

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Halsey has really assembled the best possible team she could here — the writing and production are both very strong. The album is unified by the darker sound and aspects of her indie past that Halsey kept, but there is enough variation in the pop elements that have begun to creep in that it stays interesting. When those horns came in on “Alone” after the first two tracks gave me some nice harmonies and then a big trap beat, I was sold.

The project is essentially divided into quarters between 4 big pop producers – Lido, a big contributor to Badlands, dance-pop auteur Ricky Reed, emotional balladeer Greg Kurstin and Benny Blanco, who brought his frequent collaborator Cashmere Cat along to explore his more experimental side. Some fellow pop artists on the darker side of things show up in the writing column as well – The Weeknd, Sia, and Phantogram’s Josh Carter.

Halsey knows how to use her haunting, somewhat creepy vocals to her advantage here, mainly through her lyrical content. One of the main problems with Badlands was a feeling of disconnect from the lyrics, proclaiming in its biggest hit that she was “raised on Biggie and Nirvana”. The winding, loose story of star-crossed lovers here is very believable and makes a lot more sense. Halsey even opens the album with a monologue from Romeo and Juliet. This is how to do dark pop effectively.

Linking up with people like The Weeknd was a great decision, coming across on the incredible “Eyes Closed”. Halsey delivers a heartbreaking and instantly catchy chorus over a huge hip-hop inspired beat from the dynamic duo of Blanco and Cashmere Cat. Halsey’s music is very large-scale and cinematic, which is why inclusion of a story strengthens things. Her understated voice is a good contrast to the gargantuan production that frequently surrounds her.

“Bad At Love” is another standout track, as many great aspects link together perfectly: That deceptively cheerful piano instrumental. Halsey’s rapid-fire vocals. The refreshing lyrical themes, which address her failed relationship with a man in the first verse and a woman in the second – all of this builds up to her biggest chorus yet. This of course leads into “Strangers”, the highly publicized collaboration with Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony, also bisexual. Their voices fit together better than I could have ever imagined, and as they harmonize about a lesbian relationship losing connection over a pounding synthpop beat, it paints the most vivid picture yet of the album’s storyline.

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Although Halsey has certainly learned to play to her strengths here, I can certainly see where some of the criticism is coming from – there is some pretty heavy borrowing of some other popular aspects here. I believe that Halsey has injected enough of her own personality for this to be hers and hers alone for the most part, but when we get a radio single like “Now Or Never”, you begin to get a bit skeptical. The track sounds a little too similar to Rihanna’s “Needed Me”, and even shares a writer in Starrah.

“Sorry” is the only time when Halsey slows things down here – it is also the only time she doesn’t get primary writing credit, going instead to producer Greg Kurstin. It’s painfully obvious that it’s a throwaway from Adele’s 25, the album that he masterminded. In addition, the album is 13 tracks long and doesn’t even run for 40 minutes, as some tracks like “Lie” and “Walls Could Talk” are much too short and never really elaborate on some great ideas.

Halsey will always be a somewhat polarizing artist, but great pop music is great pop music. To improve so much on a sophomore album is quite impressive, and I’m sure she’ll only continue to discover her own sense of artistry as her career continues to progress.

Favourite Tracks: Eyes Closed, Bad At Love, Strangers, Alone, 100 Letters

Least Favourite Track: Lie

Score: 8/10

Bryson Tiller – True To Self

TRS Bryson.jpgRapidly rising R&B vocalist Bryson Tiller surprise drops the follow-up to the wildly successful debut T R A P S O U L a few weeks earlier than anticipated, following more or less the same formula as he did before. Much like T R A P S O U LTrue To Self is full of 90s R&B and hip-hop samples, no features, and woozy, laid-back delivery over some lower-key trap instrumentals. Extending to 19 tracks, True To Self ultimately comes across as T R A P S O U L‘s much less innovative cousin, full of filler tracks and using the same tried-and-true formula that isn’t as groundbreaking as it once was. There are still moments when Tiller exhibits flashes of the genuine star power that catapulted him to widespread recognition so quickly, but for the most part True To Self is bland and uninspired.

There is not a wealth of recognizable names contributing to this project, which is surprising considering the strength of the instrumentals. The lack of songwriting help certainly shows, however. Established producers like Boi-1da and T-Minus appear here in limited roles, while the 20-year old Wondagurl continues her strong work on “Blowing Smoke”. The tone of the album is made clear with a quick glance at the sample credits. While I’m usually a fan of samples, they are not incredibly prevalent or flipped in a new way here. Having such a heavy reliance on popular sounds of 90s R&B for a second straight time fails to show much creativity on Tiller’s part.

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On a 19-track album of songs that begin to sound largely indistinguishable from one another, any deviation from the norm stands out more. Tiller’s decision to rap on a select few tracks here actually brings out some of the better moments of the album, as we finally get something to break up the endless string of Great Value Drake passive-aggressive moody R&B tracks. The instrumentals are definitely the greatest aspect of the album, and many of these trap beats are better geared to energetic rap bars anyhow.

Tiller stated that he restarted his entire album in order to build around the work of relatively unknown producer NES, and he does contribute some of the greatest beats here. It’s getting increasingly difficult to sound innovative making trap beats, but he manages to do it here. “Self-Made” is easily the album’s best, featuring a cascading chime instrumental complementing a trap beat that would make Future double-take. Tiller only had to drop a single quotable on the chorus and I was completely sold just on the strength of the beat. And although the Caribbean-infused “Run Me Dry” is even more of a blatant Drake rip-off than Tiller’s moody musings, it’s at least something different.

Tiller does almost nothing here to distinguish himself from the many artists who are making very similar music to him at the moment, and his passive delivery just asks for the album to be relegated to background music at some social function. A good trap beat and a serviceable voice can only take you so far on an album of this scale. There are very few tracks on this album I could honestly describe or name something distinctive about, and I’ve listened to it a few times now. This is a pretty rare occurrence, and this is very forgettable music.

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Tiller’s insistence on a lack of features hurts the album as well — some people can pull it off, but collaborations were needed to break up the monotony a bit here. Tiller’s moody and detached lyrics about relationships begin to stretch thin as well, drawing comparisons to his peers and repeating the same tropes a few times over the course of the album. He takes primary writing credit on every song here, and for the most part you can tell. Tiller uses my least favourite current trend in popular music a few times here as well, desiring pity from his listeners as he lists the struggles of being famous. When he begins to complain about the spectacular women he meets distracting him from being able to finish his album on time on “In Check”, the image Tiller presents of the relatable, normal guy who made it big begins to crumble apart.

Ultimately, in a world quickly becoming oversaturated with moody R&B vocalists begging to be signed to Drake’s XO label, there is no reason to revisit this project a few years, or even a few months down the road. T R A P S O U L worked because it was a breath of fresh air. Now that some more talented people have hopped on the same trend, Tiller needs to start a new one.

Favourite Tracks: Self-Made, Run Me Dry, Money Problems/Benz Truck

Least Favourite Track: Somethin Tells Me

Score: 4/10

Lil Yachty – Teenage Emotions

Teenage Emotions artworkPolarizing 19-year old rapper Lil Yachty’s debut album, Teenage Emotions, is an absolute mess. But don’t get me wrong – in Yachty’s case, that’s a good thing more often than not. Yachty refuses to play by the rules over the course of this 21-track monster, throwing everything we know about hip-hop music out the window and leading the way for the new generation of rappers which have been slowly starting to dominate the Billboard charts.

Simply put, Yachty is too busy having fun making music to care about trivial things like having a flow or knowing the difference between a clarinet and a cello, and this unbridled joy comes across to the listener. Of course, on a 21-track album by someone who is often quite unmusical, there are more than a fair share of dude. However, the way Yachty approaches his craft is completely novel and is sure to influence hip-hop music for decades to come. He just needs a bit of polish before then.

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Many of these beats are youthful, jubilant and triumphant, often featuring high-pitched synth melodies that could easily be used as the background of children’s music. Like Yachty himself, the project is frenetic and disjointed, as no producer shows up more than twice. The biggest dichotomy in the project’s sound is introduced in the album’s opening speech, establishing a difference between the two characters we will hear speaking on the album – Lil Yachty, who sings and is happy-go-lucky, and “Lil Boat”, his ignorant rap persona who is typically associated with harder, traditional trap beats.

There are not many recognizable names in the credits, but the ones that do show up contribute to some of the best tracks. Veteran rap producers like Lex Luger and The Stereotypes appear, as well as EDM superstar and bonafide hitmaker Diplo, while Migos, YG and Australian singer Grace share the mic.

Yachty’s ear for melodies is unparalleled, taking what Fetty Wap did in 2015 to another level entirely. Poppier tracks like “All Around Me” and “Forever Young”, the Diplo collaboration, make the strange thought of Yachty on the radio sound like a very real possibility. You can hear the smile on his face as he calls for a toast on the former. Why? “I see nothing but the money in my face”. Yachty’s greatest strength is the believable communication of real human emotions, hence the album’s title, made all the more genuine by his disregard for being all that musical. Yachty is simply expressing himself to the fullest possible degree here, and whether he is expressing his childlike enjoyment of life, or lamenting relationship troubles, we feel it along with him. The happier tracks, however, are absolutely euphoric.

On “Say My Name”, Yachty rhymes “Hyundai now” with “fun day, wow”, and then gets “slapped in the face with a blessing slap like pow”, and if you can’t see the fun in that, Yachty isn’t for you. “Better” is the album’s best track, featuring a sunny reggae-infused instrumental and Yachty’s greatest melody as he expresses his love to his girlfriend, commending her ability to make his life better with surprisingly heartfelt lyrics. My favourite on the whole album? “Let’s lay on the hood and look at the stars, and name them whatever / You always call that one Trevor”. His tribute to his mother on the album’s outro, “Momma”, continues Yachty’s believably heartfelt streak, and is another standout.

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Yachty’s lyrics are often very unintelligent and have little variance in subject matter, but his delivery is what has the potential to change things. The way he says some of his most ignorant and nonsensical lines with such confidence has the capability to make the most idiotic things brilliant, and incredibly catchy. Still, this doesn’t happen every time. The most evident detraction from the enjoyment of the project is Yachty’s lack of rhythm. “DN Freestyle” is the most traditional rap track here, and his laughably bad lyrics are more noticeably terrible when they frequently lag a little bit behind the beat. “Dirty Mouth” might be even worse in this sense. While Yachty does a lot of novel things for the genre here, I don’t think I’m ready yet for rap that has a complete disregard for rhythm – that is something that should stay central.

The tracks where Yachty sings greatly outweigh the rap tracks here, with the exception of maybe “Priorities”, which features an ecstatic delivery of a great hook. It doesn’t help his case that Yachty tries to act a lot tougher than he really is on these tracks, in line with his Lil Boat persona which should really be abandoned. Yachty has a lot of time to figure out the things he’s good at, and trying to be something he’s not is not one of them.

Rating Teenage Emotions was very difficult, as I only really enjoyed about half of the tracks here, but it is easy to see how influential Yachty has already been, and will continue to be, for many years. Yachty has turned the genre upside down, and when it works, it really works. Soon, he’ll learn how to make things click more often than not.

Favourite Tracks: Better, Priorities, Bring It Back, Forever Young, All Around Me

Least Favourite Track: No More

Score: 7/10