Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Image result for flower boyFormer Odd Future member and horrorcore shock rapper Tyler, the Creator’s fourth studio album Flower Boy certainly made a splash upon arrival. In the wake of the lukewarm reception to his previous project, 2015’s Cherry BombFlower Boy sees Tyler’s first attempt to show a different side of himself, contrasting the boisterous and offensive persona he has presented in the past. Tyler’s music has always had multiple layers and is frequently self-referential, and the story of Flower Boy illustrates somewhat of a duel between these two sides of Tyler.

The album’s alternate title includes the words “Scum F*ck” before “Flower Boy”, and this dichotomy is explored through more meaningful and introspective lyrics than Tyler has ever delivered before. The revelation on the “Flower Boy” side of things is Tyler’s apparent confession that he is gay, providing context to his usage of offensive and disparaging words towards the community in his past. Trading in abrasive rap beats for more melodic and R&B-influenced instrumentals, Flower Boy is a captivating journey into Tyler’s inner struggles.

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Tyler is the only producer on this album, as usual, continuing to display his impressive musical vision. I could see from the beginning that Tyler was an experimental producer with endless potential, but I didn’t know that he would be capable of creating an entire album that sounds this … nice. It’s the antithesis of everything he used to stand for.

We get some vibrant strings, piano and jazzy soundscapes across this whole project, and Tyler’s new subject matter talking about his feelings for a man and struggling with the concept fits well. The beat of “See You Again” sounds just like falling in love for the first time, and then it’s immediately juxtaposed with the horror-movie score behind “Who Dat Boy” as his old persona creeps back in. The album ends with a completely instrumental track called “Enjoy Right Now, Today” that communicates Tyler’s new outlook on life perfectly without a single word.

The beat switches across the album show off Tyler’s full range as a producer and play more into the themes of dichotomy. The transitions, as well, are absolutely flawless across the board and I would love to listen to an instrumental version of this album. If you weren’t actually watching the tracks switch over, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they did.

Tyler’s lyrics really stand out on this project, whether he is finally learning how to make some catchy hooks on tracks like “Where This Flower Blooms” or showing how mature he has recently become. “Garden Shed” has been described as Tyler’s clearest signposting of coming to terms with his sexuality, and the story he tells on the track is compelling. Tyler mentions that he was expecting his “phase” to eventually end since he was a child, and how he dated multiple women to have something to brag about to his friends and keep up with his rap image despite feeling “barely interested”.

The story of the album is a meandering journey through Tyler’s psyche, as he begins to embrace the feelings he has felt for so long and explores the doubt, boredom and loneliness he felt when he was keeping them to himself. On “911/Mr. Lonely”, Tyler waits for a call that never comes before admitting “I’ve been lonely as f*ck”, ScHoolboy Q advising him to “get some b*tches or something” in the background. Tyler’s wandering mind settling on the fact that he’s so lonely he’s never even had a pet for a few bars is strangely endearing. The running motifs of the album, such as the frequent references to fertility and plants, are another nice lyrical touch.

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On another note, “I Ain’t Got Time!” is an absolute banger with a fun flip of a sample from “Groove Is In The Heart” and brings “Yonkers” Tyler back to life. It doesn’t really fit in with the album’s narrative, but how much fun is it to yell “I AIN’T GOT TIIIIME” in Tyler’s trademark growl?

Speaking of the growl, Tyler’s voice still feels a little out of place on these kinds of instrumentals, particularly the ones without prominent percussion like intro track “Foreword”. His more personal lyrics, while very welcome, sound strange coming from the same voice that’s gone wild on heavy rap tracks as well. It feels like there is still every chance in the world that Tyler could be up to his old tricks, playing a joke on all of us about his admissions here. This is why I feel like some of my favourite tracks on this album are actually the ones that resemble Tyler’s past work the most.

While Tyler’s creativity is coming through in full force here, some of the tracks feel a little too empty. Tyler relies on his guests, mostly spacey R&B singers, a lot. The thematic elements that these calmer sections deliver are interesting, but I want to hear a bit more Tyler as what he has to say is frequently very compelling.

This is the biggest artistic statement that Tyler has ever made, and seeing this side of him is very cool. It makes you see his career in a whole new light, almost as if a whole new, more promising artist has been born in front of our eyes. The future should be fascinating.

Favourite Tracks: I Ain’t Got Time!, 911/Mr. Lonely, See You Again, Who Dat Boy, Where This Flower Blooms

Least Favourite Track: Glitter

Score: 8/10

 

Oh Wonder – Ultralife

Image result for ultralife oh wonderAlt-pop duo Oh Wonder’s second studio album follows their self-titled debut released just under two year ago. Ultralife sees the duo draw perhaps even closer comparisons to their most obvious musical contemporaries, fellow London indie-pop duo The xx. Ultralife is full of spacey and stripped-back pop tracks with a reliance and strong focus upon their lyrics. The duo also frequently sing at the same time, a lower-than-usual male voice quietly supporting the front and centre presence of the female in the same way.

While the songwriting abilities of Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht possibly exceed what was found on The xx’s recent I See You, the other musical aspects fall far short. Ultralife is a perfectly serviceable pop record, but it fails to capture the listener’s full attention and ultimately becomes incredibly forgettable.

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The album’s primary focus is the lyrics, and the two make it clear on quite a few occasions how effective their brand of pop songwriting can be. I was impressed to learn that the duo are the only people involved with the album, taking hold of all aspects of writing and production, and the best tracks of the album really do show great achievement for so little personnel. Oh Wonder’s lyrics are slightly more poetic than the average pop fare, but still possess the exuberant, carefree and simplistic quality that some of the best pop lyrics do.

“Lifetimes” is an example of where everything comes together perfectly for the duo. The track has a smart concept exploring time in a relationship, accompanied with an intoxicating melody and an instrumental that differs from the simplistic beat and power chords that overpower most of the album. Vander Gucht repeatedly hitting that “doin’ it right, doin’ it right” over the slowly pounding piano chords and skittering beat is a great moment. “Heart Strings” is another track where the instrumental does the duo all the favours, breaking up the monotony with a 90’s pop sound and some more bright and vibrant chords when the chorus hits.

Oh Wonder have gone on the record multiple times stating how little they desire to be celebrities, and you can kind of tell. A lot of this album seems to be recorded for the two of them rather than the outside audience. The music is very intimate, as the two voices wrap around each other, but it is too slow and self-indulgent to be interesting for the majority of the album. I was surprised to learn that the two band members are not, in fact, a couple.

To be honest, there are quite a few tracks on this album that I enjoyed a lot upon first listen, but this album is simply forgettable like none other this year. When I am ranking tracks and I have to write a few lyrics beside each title for fear of forgetting what the song was, it is a bad sign. Perhaps it is because there is so much like it that has that one extra degree of creativity recently, but Ultralife gets lost in the shuffle.

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A few of the songs are too unnecessarily cluttered as well. The title track “Ultralife” is clearly meant to be a huge centrepiece of the album, with a well-structured chorus melody and joyous lyrics about a relationship, but something about the way the instruments in the background clash with Vander Gucht’s highest notes in the chorus throws me off. “High On Humans” is another strange one, as the robotic voice that introduces the track is eschewed back into the chorus as an extra element that makes things all the more messy.

A lot of this album feels like it is a more highly produced update to the trend of folk bands that were taking over the radio waves a few years ago, and that trend died out for a reason. A song like “All About You” dips dangerously close to resembling a band like Of Monsters and Men at their most hackneyed and repetitive.

This is a shorter review than I usually write because I really did struggle to find much to say about this album. The pair are clearly talented songwriters and instrumentalists, but there has simply been too much similar material that was done slightly better recently for me to desire many revisits to this project.

Favourite Tracks: Lifetimes, Heart Strings, Overgrown, Ultralife

Least Favourite Track: Slip Away

Score: 5/10

Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa album21-year-old Guernsey-born DJ Mura Masa’s debut studio album is a multicultural and genreless mashup that takes listeners on an exhilarating ride through the twists and turns of his unique style. He states that his biggest influence is Gorillaz and you can clearly tell. The ability to pull aspects from such diverse musical worlds and unbridled creativity with regards to the instrumental that the band is known for comes across here.

Imbued with the newer aspects of the future bass and house music scene that is taking over the nearby United Kingdom, the project comes across as somewhat of a combination between early Gorillaz work and Disclosure’s deep house masterpiece Settle. Make no mistake though, Mura Masa brands everything with his own personal touches and his self-titled debut marks the rise of an exciting young talent.

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The complexity of many of these songs stands out. Even though they often adopt a rather standard song structure that we come to expect from the electronic genre, building up to a drop and such, they possess enough interlocking and unique aspects that it is a refreshing and enjoyable listen throughout. When “Messy Love” progresses to its second drop, we have the central chime melody interlocking with the bouncy bassline, chopped up vocals and the complicated piano riff. All 4 of these things are catchy enough to be used as a main hook, but when they come together it amplifies the vibrant feeling.

Many of these songs are unique because of Mura Masa taking instruments from other cultures that we don’t hear often and making it his defining feature. His songs range from hip-hop to bubblegum pop to deep house to dancehall, but they are all united by modern hip-hop beats and the clinks of marimba, chimes and steel drums that become the defining feature of his sound. I would say we are bringing these things into the mainstream with modernising aspects, but it sounds like this is coming from the future. “Love$ick” is a standout track that features ASAP Rocky jumping around a calypso rhythm that builds up to a huge drop with futuristic synth swings and pitched-up vocals.

Mura Masa uses his guests very well – a lot of these songs can only be described as euphoric when they finally reach their climax, and Mura Masa has harvested a few artists from very different places who also possess this quality. I’m not sure I could have ever expected NAO’s otherwordly R&B vocals, life of the party Charli XCX and trap court jester Desiigner in the same place, but that’s what they all have in common.

It’s easy to get lost and submit completely to someone like Desiigner’s seemingly reckless love of life on “All Around the World”, and Mura Masa brought out the best in him – I didn’t think he had it in him to flow on a beat this rhythmically complex. But it’s “1 Night” that I’m shocked isn’t on every dance floor worldwide. Charli XCX’s recent music has really succeeded in capturing that incredible feeling – the freedom of just letting loose. As she playfully asks “Do you wanna go?”, the music cuts out for a fleeting second, and comes back in full force with a catchy chorus melody of “oh”s, I feel like I’m the centre of attention in the greatest club in the world just sitting in my chair at home.

Image result for mura masa liveLook at this guy’s setup!

It’s this spirit of fun that carries these tracks, and the creative musical aspects only bring me into that world even more. Tracks like “What If I Go?” and “helpline” are pretty poppy in the best way. The electronic sounds are different for a change, and the vocalists just sound like they’re having the time of their lives and beckoning for you to join them. Bonzai’s voice climbs up the scales as she repeats “go, going, going”. It’s a driving, beautiful, infectious energy.

I also have to give a special shoutout to closing track “Blu”, a quieter affair that focuses on a nice harmonized melody from Mura Masa’s hero, Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn. It’s a great way to ease us out of his crazy world.

Because Mura Masa executes the high-octane party tracks so well, it gets a little disappointing when he starts to slow things down at the tail end of the album. But if anything, this just speaks volumes to the strengths of his greatest tracks. After an album full of driving basslines, blaring synths and ecstating choruses, the quieter nature of tracks like “Second 2 None” and “Who Is It Gonna B”, with less of the frenetic and interlocking aspects of their predecessors, sound like standard electronic fare in comparison despite the quality that is still there.

Mura Masa is one of the year’s greatest albums so far, and the fact that it comes from a 21-year old newcomer from a tiny island is pretty exciting. In a world where many DJ’s are just going through the motions, all of the tracks here feel alive, and make you feel the same way.

Favourite Tracks: Love$ick, 1 Night, What If I Go?, helpline, Firefly

Least Favourite Track: Who Is It Gonna B

Score: 9/10

HAIM – Something To Tell You

Something to Tell You artworkCalifornia pop-rock sister trio HAIM unleash their sophomore album after a 4-year wait that felt much longer. After the spectacular debut Days Are Gone, and the many interviews the band gave where they stated that they were going to “tap into their inner Kanye” – that is, perfectionist – fans were expecting something big from this project. The band has also detailed a few instances of their writers’ block, and this plan may have suffered a bit.

Something To Tell You is still a strong project, but it is a clear step down from Days Are Gone for the amount of time it took to create. Luckily, the sisters’ music is still packed with rapid-fire rhythms, snappy harmonies and enough boundless confidence and charisma to keep me returning to the project multiple times. But as the genre of genreless pop they helped create expands ever wider, something a little more ambitious may have been needed to stand out from the pack.

The project was almost singlehandedly produced by Ariel Rechtshaid (Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen), who also contributed heavily to Days Are Gone and has since entered a relationship with Danielle Haim. He also appears alongside the three sisters in the writing column on each track. Backing him up on a few tracks are frequent collaborators Dev Hynes (Tinashse, FKA twigs) and ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij (Frank Ocean, Solange), so on paper there was absolutely nothing to worry about here. These are the best in the business.

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Something To Tell You opens with lead single “Want You Back”, which features a shimmering, glossy chorus as lead vocalist Danielle Haim deftly navigates through tongue-twisting phrases and her two sisters back her up with sugary sweet harmonies. It is everything that is great about HAIM, and many of the album’s opening tracks follow suit. All of the sisters are multi-instrumentalists, and it is nice to see the band leaning heavily on their own musical ability. Is any band with HAIM’s level of popularity still using this much guitar in their work?

The rhythms created by Este Haim’s slap bass and Alana Haim’s percussion drive all of these tracks, but HAIM’s greatest appeal of all might be hearing all three sisters come together in perfect harmony. It brings to mind some of Fleetwood Mac or Wilson Phillips’ best tracks. If anything, Something To Tell You brought this degree of their music even more. “Little Of Your Love”, the album’s best track, features an incredible moment in the bridge where most of the instrumentation drops out and the rapid-fire three-part harmony is brought directly to the forefront. The bouncy guitar hooks and pseudo-country flair of the track make it a unique gem on an album where many tracks slowly start to blend together.

Danielle Haim is still a rockstar in every sense of the word, and I love the way she quiets her voice down when she’s delivering her most passionate and heartfelt lines. The understated chorus of “You Never Knew” is one of the best here. “Walking Away”, the only solo Batmanglij track, is another standout due to its uniqueness, as HAIM drifts closer to R&B than they’ve ever been and build much of the instrumental through loops of their own vocals. HAIM’s live shows are always incredible, and I’m excited to see if they can pull the complexity of this one off.

There are some very strange musical decisions all over the project, and the lack of polish makes me think that the writers’ block may have been worse than we imagined. It feels like the band was rushing to finally get an album out in the world after so many years. What reason is there to suddenly snatch all of the building energy away from a great track like “Nothing’s Wrong” for a very quiet bridge and distorted vocals? “Right Now” was originally released as a beautiful, stripped-down version in order to promote the album, but now there is too much background clutter and white noise distracting from the simple but powerful melody of the track.

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One more than one occasion, a few transitions from verse to chorus never quite click the way they’re supposed to, which is strange for a band so focused on rhythm – “Ready For You” and “Walking Away” come to mind.

Ultimately, the most noticeable change from Days Are Gone is the new sparkling sheen of production that is placed over all of these tracks. Where their previous work felt so much more organic and real, like they simply put their raw recording session on the record, all of this just seems a little too perfect. HAIM is working with some of the greatest producers out – I can truly say I’ve almost never heard an idea that’s less than perfect from either Rechtshaid or Batmanglij. This decision, and the way these tracks seem to attempt to capture a big idea through repetition of one chorus line and never quite get there, is an uncharacteristic dip in the quality of their work.

HAIM has fallen head-over-heels into all of the pitfalls of a sophomore slump. Many of the aspects that made the band so great in the first place are still here in abundance, but the seemingly rushed nature of the logistics detract from what made Days Are Gone such a trailblazer.

Still – anyone who has seen the band live knows they are one of the most talented and exciting groups out there right now, and I hope I don’t have to wait another 4 years before they inevitably get back on track.

Favourite Tracks: Little Of Your Love, Walking Away, You Never Knew, Want You Back

Least Favourite Track: Found It In Silence

Score: 6/10

Jay-Z – 4:44

Image result for 4:44Decade-spanning rap superstar and one of the most successful musicians in history both critically and commercially, Jay-Z, releases his thirteenth studio album 4:44 as a response of sorts to wife Beyonce’s recent juggernaut Lemonade. After the fears that Jay-Z was losing his edge sprung forth after the uneven and disappointing Magna Carta Holy Grail 4 years ago, as the rapper unleashed retreads of the same boasts we’ve heard many times before, 4:44 plays out as his most introspective and personal work yet.

Over production from frequent collaborator No I.D., Jay-Z contemplates all aspects of his life and legacy, apologizing for his infidelities, criticizing himself for his extravagant past, and re-evaluating his relationships with his family and friends.

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The legendary No I.D., responsible for many of Jay-Z’s biggest hits in the past, takes production credits for the entire album and revives sample-based hip-hop for now. He draws from artists like Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. Production on Jay’s albums has always sounded pristine and luxurious, and it doesn’t stop here. While perhaps not reaching the heights of the greatest beasts on even something like Magna Carta, the subtext behind many of the samples allows the instrumentals here to do their job very well.

Opening track “Kill Jay Z” represents a transition, or killing off, of Jay-Z’s arrogant, boastful persona. The voice he uses on the remainder of the album, who we might call Shawn Carter, is then able to emerge. The song’s beat is a modified version of a trap beat over a cascading piano sample, and it is representative of the harder sound of the first half of the album. This first half is much stronger, as Jay-Z brings back his lyricism and personality over some great and impactful samples from No I.D. – samples that Jay himself supposedly suggested to the producer to build a track around.

As Jay-Z begins speaking about his regrets of spending his money in places like strip clubs instead of investing it for the majority of his career on “The Story of O.J.”, you can truly see the change in his mentality that the events of Lemonade incited. “Smile” is another great track, set to a Stevie Wonder gospel-sounding sample. In the climate of rap Jay-Z came from, nobody would be able to to do something like praising his mother for coming out as a lesbian late in life and telling her to “smile through all the hate”, letting a speech from her close out the track.

Jay-Z’s many apologies are believable and tearful, and they really are very moving from someone you might not expect to deliver such a profound emotional impact. “4:44” is the track where he most directly addresses his wife’s allegations of infidelity, opening the track “I apologize, often womanize, took for my child to be born [to] see through a woman’s eyes”. As a soul sample from Hannah Williams wails “I’m never gonna treat you like I should”, and Jay begins to let emotion creep in his voice as he contemplates what his children will think of him on the day they eventually fully understand his actions, it becomes the most powerful track on the whole album.

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4:44 is clearly much more about the message being delivered than making a perfect project in a musical sense – the album was supposedly still being recorded and finalized less than 48 hours before its release, and contains references to very recent events confirming this. This is fine for the diehard Jay-Z supporter, but I typically am looking for something to surprise me musically. This hastiness begins to make itself clear as the album transitions into its second half, as the samples becomes less meaningful and more repetitive and Jay-Z’s delivery becomes less impassioned and inspired.

The exception is “Bam”, where he states he is abandoning the “pretty Shawn Carter s**t” of the previous tracks and brings back his old persona to remind himself that he needs some ego sometimes. But even here, his flow is a little disjointed. For a song with these huge horns and a Damian Marley feature, he brings the fire in his voice to match but isn’t as comfortable on the beat as tracks in the first half.

“Moonlight” is the sleepiest track of all, as Jay-Z shows his age by criticizing new school rappers, believing them to be sending the culture backwards. He makes a reference to the Best Picture fiasco at the Oscars – “Even when we win, we gon’ lose”. Over an overused sample of the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La”, it is the wrong message to send on an album where many other aspects are so progressive.

4:44 is for longtime listeners who care deeply about Jay-Z’s personal life and where he stands as his impressive career winds down. Although it does not offer as much as I’d hoped in the way of thrilling me with its musical aspects or Jay’s delivery, the rapper has certainly re-affirmed himself as a strong public presence and an absolute, undeniable legend. There are some absolutely incredible moments on here I didn’t think he still had in him. Now can we revive the Jay-Z persona with this intelligent lyricism again on the next one?

Favourite Tracks: 4:44, Smile, Kill Jay Z, The Story of O.J., Caught Their Eyes

Least Favourite Track: Moonlight

Score: 7/10

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgVersatile DJ and frequent hitmaker Calvin Harris’ 5th studio album is a reinvention of sorts. While he has frequently incorporated some aspects of funk and hip-hop into his music in the past, he has never attempted to make this much of a fully-focused and cohesive project. Harris abandons the formulaic dance drops here, instead turning his attention to the creation of a compact, star-studded 10-track affair full of breezy synth-funk instrumentals. Harris has all but succeeded at making the perfect summer album here.

Although some of the logistics of the project leave a few things to be desired, most of the fun of Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 comes from letting loose and not caring about them. Harris said it best himself in a tweet – this isn’t “feel good music”, this is “feel INCREDIBLE music”.

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As soon as you hear those opening piano chords on “Slide”, you know that what you’re about to experience is going to be a lot more musically complex than your typical Calvin Harris album. Harris has always been one of the more talented mainstream DJs, a multi-instrumentalist who plays all the piano and guitar parts on his albums among other things, but the many interlocking aspects of a funk album helps you understand just how difficult his job here was, more than in his previous work.

Harris may have assembled the most impressive guest list of the year here, recruiting legitimate superstars from the worlds of pop, R&B and hip-hop on every track. We have legitimate superstars like Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, rap heavyweights like Migos, Future and Young Thug and R&B stars both indie and mainsteam like Frank Ocean, Kehlani and Khalid all on the same project.

Many of these instrumentals sound rather similar, but the tracks are easily distinguishable due to the diverse roster of guests. The whole album flows well into each other, and Harris makes the most out of some collaborations that you never could have imagined. We have three excellent songs on this project in “Cash Out”, “Holiday” and “Feels” that feature artists that you could have never imagined in the same universe. ScHoolboy Q, PARTYNEXTDOOR and D.R.A.M. combine their three completely different takes on urban music into one beautifully oiled machine on “Cash Out” – ScHoolboy calms down a bit and channels his inner Snoop Dogg to glide over the bouncy, G-Funk inspired instrumental. The Dogg himself appears later on “Holiday” and sounds more comfortable and confident than he has in years.

The overall essence of the project is just so much fun. At one point as the song is fading out, Harris punctuates a critical beat intersection of “Prayers Up” with a loon sound effect. It’s the goofy, carefree spirit of a move like this that pervades the album as a whole. Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams sound like they’re recording the chorus of “Heatstroke” while reclining on a huge flotation device in a pool.

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Pharrell’s more prominent turn on “Feels” is another standout moment, bringing to mind some of the better tracks on his similarly funky 2014 album, G I R L. Harris’ bassline is punctuated with guitar stabs on beats 2 and 4 that give the track somewhat of a reggae flair. Pharrell’s light vocals transition to a chorus from Katy Perry, whose frequently forced quirky persona finally fits in this environment, and we close with a beat switch and a characteristically relaxed Big Sean entering with an eye-roll and a “God damn”. If you’re looking for crowd-pleasing hits, this album really is an embarrassment of riches.

A few of these guests are simply not suited to this style of instrumental, and don’t really try all that hard to fit in either. Harris went all-out to land these features, but Future’s appearance on “Rollin”, flexing his characteristically disjointed flow over a pounding funk bassline, is completely misplaced. The appearance of other mumble rappers like Travis Scott and Lil Yachty don’t go over much better. Despite the detractions coming from vocal delivery on more than one occasion, the instrumentals are often enjoyable enough to overlook them. Nicki Minaj’s Auto-Tune drenched cadence on “Skrt On Me” is a little excessive, but the melody associated with it is so catchy that it doesn’t really matter either.

Trust me, when you roll down the windows and blast these tracks, the little nitpicks I’m making here aren’t going to make you turn it down. Harris has tapped into summer vibes perfectly and I’m going to be nodding my head to these bouncy funk instrumentals all summer and beyond. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the most fun album of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Slide, Feels, Heatstroke, Cash Out, Holiday

Least Favourite Track: Rollin … if I had to choose …

Score: 8/10

Imagine Dragons – Evolve

ImagineDragonsEvolve.jpgPop-rock band Imagine Dragons, 2 years removed from their sophomore album Smoke + Mirrors which failed to spawn any successful singles, hit back at the radio airwaves with their third full-length studio album, Evolve. Frontman Dan Reynolds has stated that the album’s title refers to a shift in their sound, which certainly hasn’t occurred to such a degree that I’d name an album after it.

These tracks are following the same formula that made “Radioactive” and “Demons” big hits. However, their newfound reliance on established pop producers, rather than producing their instrumentals themselves, sees them making an evolution of sorts to become more similar to modern-day Maroon 5. Ultimately, outside of a select few tracks which crackle with the energy that drew people to the band in the first place, Evolve is painfully generic and feels like a lifeless shell of the band.

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In the past, very little outside influence went into an Imagine Dragons album, the writing and production credits all being almost entirely handled by the members of the band. While they retain primary writing credit on each, they produce none of the tracks here, essentially restricting the non-Reynolds band members to play the simple pop charts that are handed to them, maybe trading something like a real drumset for an electronic one in the process. They bring in producers like Mattman & Robin, who take about half of the tracks here and are perhaps best known for producing DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean”, which can tell you a lot about the direction Imagine Dragons are heading in here. Alex Da Kid (X Ambassadors, Skylar Grey) and Joel Little (Lorde, Broods), who is really too good for this, appear briefly as well.

Imagine Dragons have proven in the past that their driving, almost tribal rhythms are essential to their best tracks and this continues here, as the highlights of the project all have a strong focus on this. “Whatever It Takes”, Joel Little’s track, sees Reynolds delivering impressively quick vocals before an infectious beat and rapidly cascading synths kick in and the song explodes into its chorus. The song sees them bring back some semblance of musicality instead of blindly following the same structure of steadily building up to an overly dramatic chorus.

“Believer”, as well, is an above-average single for the band and it is easy to see why their mainstream viability has returned along with it. The drum pattern and the delivery of vocals in rapid triplets exude a kind of animalistic energy, and for once, that huge chorus is actually warranted. But after these two tracks, the album takes a huge nosedive.

Now that Imagine Dragons have swung in more of a pop direction than ever before, Reynolds’ powerful voice of a rock frontman sounds quite out of place at times. Opening track “I Don’t Know Why” features perhaps his loudest growls over a pretty synth pattern in the pre-chorus. It is far more than the track demands and crosses over into headache-inducing territory.

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Adherence to pop formulas is not a good look for them, and their decreased input into the creative process is quite evidence. A band like Maroon 5 always had underlying pop sensibilities, but at least Imagine Dragons were a little bit edgier for a commercially successful group. Many of these tracks feel like they are leftovers for pop artists’ albums, with cookie-cutter pop choruses copy and pasted onto each track. “Rise Up” literally feels like exactly this has happened. The abrupt shift in energy as the chorus comes back in after an uncharacteristically quiet bridge, Reynolds unexpectedly yelling in your ear, is so misplaced I broke out laughing in public.

These producers have boiled down the previous works of the band to their most basic defining aspects and spread them as thin as The Chainsmokers do, catering to the more oblivious members of their audience. The album is only 39 minutes long, but it feels like it takes much longer to get through as you endure copy after copy of the same song, essentially a very watered-down “Demons”.

“Yesterday” is a contender for the worst song I’ve heard all year, as the tempo slows down to a snail’s pace even as the massive drumbeats and Reynolds’ overblown vocal deliveries persist.

Imagine Dragons were never the most innovative or exciting act, but at least their artistic vision was clear. Now that they have lost that strong sense of selfhood, more and more voices guiding them on which way to go, the result just feels like lowest-common-denominator pablum for people who can’t quite make the jump to real rock music. This is not an evolution, but a reversion to a more primitive form.

Favourite Tracks: Whatever It Takes, Believer, I’ll Make It Up To You

Least Favourite Track: Yesterday

Score: 3/10