Fifth Harmony – Fifth Harmony

Image result for fifth harmony self titledFifth Harmony’s third studio album and first as a quartet comes only 15 months after last year’s 7/27. Self-titling their album in an attempt to reclaim identity as a group after the departure of Camila Cabello, Fifth Harmony offers more of the same on this project. Similarly to all of their past projects, the album contains both hits and misses due to the insistence on splitting the album between purely pop tracks and songs which add more of a 90s R&B/hip-hop flair.

The latter has always been their strong suit, and there are quite a few very strong tracks here despite the album’s brief runtime. While overall the project feels rushed and is a slight step down from 7/27, Cabello’s departure allows for some much-earned time in the spotlight for the remaining vocalists – and all four are still at the top of their game.

There are so many writers on this project I don’t even want to begin making sense of the list but they link up with some tried and true producers here. They recruit “Work From Home” producer Ammo for a few more pop tracks, as well as R&B veterans like Tommy Brown and Harmony Samuels. Skrillex appears out of nowhere to throw a trap beat and some woozy synths on “Angel”.

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The biggest revelation here is that Fifth Harmony seems to be living up to the second part of their name more than usual. The chorus to “Sauced Up” is especially delicious, but overall they throw some harmonies on just about every chorus here which was surprisingly absent from a lot of their past work.

I appreciate how some of the lesser-used members get to own their own verses now, all of them are pretty spectacular vocally and now it is easier to distinguish between them. Normani especially surprises me here. Her softer-toned alto contrasts well and stands out from the pack. As soon as she dropped into that 2nd verse on “Down” I felt like a new Fifth Harmony was blossoming – where’s that voice been before?

“Deliver” and “Lonely Night” see the group hitting their stride in the middle of the album – these are two of their greatest tracks yet. The girls have always had some percussive vocals that pair up best with some harder-hitting beats, and “Deliver” is certainly accommodating to this. Calling on The Stereotypes, they deliver a piano instrumental that provides a great bassline and R&B piano chords. The pre-chorus is one of the greatest musical moments on the album, as the chords start to ascend into the chorus and Dinah Jane sings some bouncy syncopated rhythms. This could be a classic Destiny’s Child track.

“Lonely Night” reverses that energy into a takedown of a man’s behaviour punctuated by some sassy “bye bye”s. “You look everywhere but my eyes? Bye bye, bye bye” is a great line. This is the kind of song that throws an offhand shot at Cabello.

We get what is perhaps the best musicality on this album as the delivery becomes more rhythmic and adds some great harmonies on the chorus as the stripped-back guitar instrumental allows room for them to shine. Dinah Jane once again attacks at full force on the song’s bridge. She lets some of her island flavour creep into her vocals, starts spelling out “LONELY” and angrily declares “this your woman, so get it right”.

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Outside of the big catchy radio single – which is still unbelievably infectious but doesn’t really measure up to “Work From Home” – a lot of the poppier tracks here falter. The lyrics are often pretty weak which is hilarious because there may be more writers on this album than I’ve ever seen. Basing an entire hook around your “pumps and a bump” on “He Like That” isn’t gonna work with me.

It’s been a joke on the internet since the release of “Down” that a typical Fifth Harmony chorus basically just repeats the song’s title ad nauseam. While it isn’t quite that bad, almost all of these songs are underwritten. Luckily, the associated hooks are sometimes catchy enough to carry them. But without the 90s piano to provide more substance behind their huge vocals or the speedier hip-hop delivery that comes so naturally to them, about half of a Fifth Harmony album always feels way too generic and these lyrics don’t help in that regard.

You would think that the dance break with the annoyingly squeaky instruments cliché would be getting played out – both on their last album and pop radio in general – but once again it appears on “Messy” and “Make You Mad”. Fifth Harmony as a group is so much more energetic and charismatic to be singing campfire songs about love and friendship on a sleepy pop track like “Bridges” – even if I appreciate them taking an all-too-obvious shot at Donald Trump’s wall. Still, Fifth Harmony is a group who harnesses the energy of a sassy dismissal like on “Lonely Night” much easier.

Fifth Harmony is more of what I have come to expect, as they prove they are still very effective without Cabello. Despite the more commercial tracks, they still give me enough glimpses of their electrifying energy.

Favourite Tracks: Lonely Night, Deliver, Sauced Up, Down

Least Favourite Track: Make You Mad

Score: 6/10

A$AP Ferg – Still Striving

aRap’s court jester A$AP Ferg returns with the follow-up to last year’s underwhelming Always Strive and Prosper album, which featured some questionable collaborations and stylistic diversions that never really worked for him. Still Striving is a return to the form that enabled Ferg to call himself a Trap Lord back in 2013, and with the increased prominence of the genre Ferg is back to reign supreme.

Ferg’s appeal has always been his ecstatic delivery and infectiously ignorant personality, and this combination contributes to an improved, but still very inconsistent project here. Still Striving plays into Ferg’s unique skill set very well at times, as he displays a surprisingly impressive flow, but too often falls back into disjointedness and trap cliches.

The project starts strong, as “Trap And A Dream” hits on everything that Ferg does best. He one-ups Migos on the triplet flow, going completely all-out and never stopping to take a breath. Perhaps his closest contemporary in Meek Mill appears to deliver some energetic bars alongside him. The two are both keeping the antiquated art of punchline rap alive, and they drop some pretty good ones here. The beat is provided by relative unknown Frankie P, but it is easily the best on the whole project, with two separate rhythms overlapping and intersecting overtop of what sounds like Drake’s “Energy” melody on steroids.

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Ferg can drop some lines that are very funny, but not in a conventional sense. There’s something about his delivery and unique choices in what he references that he can make anything sound quotable. Why is it that I smile when he puts emphasis on the wrong syllables in “Rubber Band Man”, with a gleeful “Running this s**t, you can call me u-SAIN Bolt”? I’ll never know.

Ferg’s flow is a lot better than you would expect on quite a few occasions, effortless flipping between triplets and standard flow for some pretty complex rhythms. His voice is almost like a human hi-hat, providing those oscillating trap rhythms himself. He quickly drops two completely different flows on his first two lines on “Aww Yeah”, smoothly dropping in and announcing his presence.

“Plain Jane” is another standout track, as Ferg turns his sing-song flow to the maximum and offers some nice multisyllabic rhymes. Plus, I can always appreciate a good Get Out reference. “One Night Savage” is great for the same reasons, and it just makes me wish Ferg played to his strengths more often on this project.

Still Striving is very reliant on features, and almost none of them try to steal any spotlight from Ferg. There’s a reason why “Plain Jane”, one of only 3 featureless tracks, stands out as one of the best. Ferg is so far in his own lane that there are quite a few people who are hard-pressed to complement his style well. The inclusion of someone like Lil Yachty on “Aww Yeah” just kills the energy, as his laidback style clashes with the more boisterous beat.

It seems like Ferg is aiming for some trendier features here that don’t really work – Playboi Carti’s contribution to “Mad Man” is so empty and antithetical to what Ferg does that I’m surprised it wasn’t cut. There is certainly an increasing trend of presenting ambivalence in trap music, and appearances from these individuals as well as people like Nav and MadeinTYO don’t do any favours, frequently just making the tracks a lot more boring than they need to be.

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Lyrics can often be a downfall as well, which just shows a need to cut the album down a bit more. Ferg has more than enough ability to craft engaging lyrics for the entire duration of an album, but as it stretches on and he starts relying more on shock value and unnecessarily vulgar lyrics you can feel him running out of ideas. There are a few too many tracks here that don’t turn up the energy as much as a Ferg track really should, and it draws more attention to these lyrical discrepancies.

This lack of polish is quite evident over the course of the whole project, and it starts to make me wonder whether most of these are throwaways that didn’t make the similarly titled parent album. On tracks like “Nasty (Who Dat)”, the hook seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. Ferg’s Auto-Tuned wails might have been better left in the hands of Quavo, who is right there on the same track, and they just kill all the rest of the track’s potential due to how awkward they sound.

Ferg has been an inconsistent figure for a while now, whose genuine talents can be dragged down by his facade of ignorance. It makes for some spectacular feature verses on others’ work, but improvements are still necessary to carry a full album. The potential is there.

Favourite Tracks: Trap And A Dream, Plain Jane, One Night Savage, Rubber Band Man

Least Favourite Track: Nasty (Who Dat)

Score: 6/10

Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me EP

Image result for billie eilish don't smile at me15 year old indie pop prodigy Billie Eilish has released her debut collection of songs after piquing interest with the haunting single “Ocean Eyes”. With her don’t smile at me EP, Eilish quickly establishes herself as one of the most exciting new acts at the moment. It is impossible to believe that she is only 15 – not only due to her talent and fully developed artistic vision and identity, but also due to her subject matter.

Eilish’s dark and menacing lyrics, and that cold stare she stares at you from her music videos, can be genuinely terrifying. Clearly inspired by the blend of sweet sounds and disturbing thoughts recently popularized by artists like Melanie Martinez, Eilish delivers on 8 tracks with an aching, paper-thin voice and outstanding musicality.

Much of the project is actually a collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who produces every track and provides harmonies on a few. Known primarily for his acting work on Glee, his contributions to the instrumental do quite a bit to help his sister stand out.

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Many sound like an amalgamation between more creative trap beats, using elements of the genre to make more complex rhythms, and the most aggressive material to come out of the dubstep boom of the early 2010s. The creeping bass and other elements that sound like they’re from a haunted carnival really paint the picture of Eilish’s words.

Eilish’s vocals are the centerpiece of each and every song despite how much is frequently going on in the background – “COPYCAT” drops into its chorus with some skittering hi-hats and a punishingly loud bassline, but the attention is snapped right back when she first hits that three-part harmony on the chorus.

We get the first glimpse at just how dynamic here vocals can be when the song hits its bridge – after threatening “watch your back” at the copycat in question, the electronic instrumental drops out and is replaced by some sparse piano notes. Eilish reaches into the top of her range and sounds like she’s about to cry as she apologizes for being so antagonistic. Then, she whispers “sike”, and the bass drops again. Her voice does sound very similar to Martinez’s, but these songs are a lot more rhythmically driven, and perhaps even more lyrically twisted.

“idontwannabeyouanymore” drops into one of those 3/6 time signatures that hook me every time. The piano ballad adds a swinging drumbeat in the chorus as she delivers some beautiful and breathy harmonies. It’s the best melody line on the whole project, as she alternates hitting her biggest notes with the off-beat of 4 pounding piano strikes. The song’s title is spoken to Eilish’s mirror, as she sings about her insecurities.

“my boy” is even more reliant on rhythm, as she once again navigates speedy hi-hats, a beat switch, and adds a few extra syllables to words resulting in a delivery almost like a rapper’s triplet flow.

“bellyache” is the darkest song here, and the most musically upbeat and unique. Written from the perspective of a serial killer who kills all her friends and then herself, Eilish wails “Where’s my mind?” and muses on how “funny” it is that she’s “too young to go to jail” as the police close in on her house. “It’s really fun to put yourself into a character”, Eilish said in an interview. “You don’t have to kill people to write a song about killing people”.

Eilish’s songwriting is never overly wordy, but makes the most of every word she writes down to affect listeners without saying a lot. It’s the smartest and most concise pop songwriting I’ve heard since Lorde, who also got her start young. “Party Favor” is perhaps the best juxtaposition here – the sugary sweet melody and instrumental punctuated by ukulele and a children’s toy piano sounds like a bedtime lullaby, but the lyrics betray something else.

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The song’s first minute is low-fi, framed as a voicemail breaking up with an overly possessive boyfriend. “I hate to do this to you on your birthday”, she says. “Happy birthday, by the way…”. As she cheerfully cuts him from her life, she threatens to call the cops – or worse – his dad. It’s one of the only moments where we’re reminded we’re hearing a teenager’s voice.

By the time we get to “ocean eyes” at the end of the project, the warmer sounds and poppier sensibilities give us some much needed reprieve from all the dark thoughts we’ve heard. She finally starts singing about falling IN love instead. I really can’t say enough about how flawless Eilish’s vocals are – the track is less in your face with the production here and her laser-focused pitch on some difficult high notes is highlighted here.

Written when she was only 13, her confession “I’m scared … never fallen from quite this high” is very emotionally affecting due to her delivery. She sounds scared, and we were all there once at her age. Her words are all the more meaningful when placed after 6 tracks of scathing anger directed at herself and others.

It’s easy to see why Eilish is already getting attention from some very innovative artists like Marian Hill and blackbear, who have both offered remixes of her songs. Regardless of her age, this is one of the most unique and interesting debuts I’ve heard in a very long time.

I try to be stingy with my 10s and wouldn’t normally give one to an EP but Eilish’s fully realized vision completely shocked me. She deserves it, and here’s to a long career ahead.

Favourite Tracks: idontwannabeyouanymore, my boy, ocean eyes, bellyache, COPYCAT

Least Favourite Track: watch

Score: 10/10

Kesha – Rainbow

Kesha - Rainbow (Official Album Cover).pngFormer dance commander and proponent of sleazy electropop Kesha is now minus a dollar sign in her name and a contract with an abusive producer. Rainbow is her first album since 2012’s Warrior and thankfully, we finally get to see the kind of music Kesha wanted to make all along. There were very brief glimpses of just how talented Kesha really is on her earlier work, but the character she portrayed was fun enough to transform her into a massive pop star anyway.

This latest project was her opportunity to let loose, and as she runs through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock, Rainbow is all over the place in the absolute best way. A few of her experiments are noticeably weaker in execution than others, but the combination of actual talent with the goofy eccentricities of her past and a powerful message of strength is more than enough to carry Rainbow.

It would appear that Kesha’s found some new producers! Quite a bit is attributed to go-to pop producer Ricky Reed, but some of the more interesting choices here include Ryan Lewis (of Macklemore fame) and alt-rocker Ben Folds. Her uniqueness is demonstrated even further with her feature list: She recruits both a horn section, and hard rock band Eagles of Death Metal for TWO tracks. Most interestingly, however, country legend Dolly Parton joins Kesha for a cover of her hit “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)”, which was actually written by Kesha’s mother.

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Hearing Kesha actually sing for the entire duration of an album is a great experience. It’s like watching a whole new artist being born. Kesha without any restrictions is a truly dangerous thing to unleash upon the world. We open with “Bastards”, where she bluntly sets the tone over some acoustic strumming: “Don’t let the bastards get you down, down let the assholes wear you out”. This message of personal strength persists throughout.

One of the best parts of Rainbow is how you can tell that some of her old persona was actually real, as her personality comes through in full force. Studio banter is often left on the final cut, and she even breaks down laughing halfway through a verse in “Woman”, missing some of her lyrics in the process.

Tracks like “Godzilla” and “Boogie Feet” are the greatest exhibition of this. Honestly, I was waiting for at least one more party-girl rap verse from Kesha and I got it and then some on “Boogie Feet”. The track turns into a B-52s style back and forth with Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes before they both drawl “Are you scared of these boogie feet?” You have to hear the song to understand the magic. “Godzilla”, on the other hand, is just an adorable song with whimsical lyrics on falling in love with a man who might scare others with his nonconformity – hence, Godzilla.

On almost every track, Kesha finds a way to throw in subtle references to how much more control she has over her life and music in the absence of her contract. “I write this s**t”, she asserts in “Woman”, a track about female independence. Celebratory pop track “Learn To Let Go” offers “The past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it”.

Lead single “Praying” is a heartbreaking ballad where she addresses Dr. Luke directly and displays her most emotional vulnerability on the project. It takes a special kind of strength to write a song to your abuser thanking him for “How strong I have become” and hoping that one day he “find[s] his peace” and learns the error of his ways. Not that the song isn’t tinged with a bit of anger either – a bit more fire creeps into her voice in the second verse, where she relishes in proving Luke wrong with her success without him. “When I’m finished they won’t even know your name”, she concludes. To top it all off, she hits a whistle note that spawned reaction videos. It might be the most powerful piece of songwriting this year.

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Kesha’s diversity is great to hear for someone who used to be so one-dimensional. Something like “Hunt You Down” is a fun country track – in a feminist twist on outlaw country, Kesha threatens to kill if she’s cheated on over a twangy bassline – but her true strength as a pop songwriter is the biggest revelation of Rainbow. The title track, “Hymn” and “Learn To Let Go” are all incredible pieces of pop music. “Rainbow” especially is another incredibly affecting track, apparently written on a toy keyboard while in rehab. The strings and backing harmonies swell as Kesha implores every girl to find the magic inside themselves and fall in love with being alive.

I truly believe that Kesha laid down every crazy idea that got in her head just because she could on this project, and that means there had to be a few questionable moments. “Let ‘Em Talk” is a mess. I like that she wanted to channel this crazy energy with the assistance of a hard rock band, but this is a bit too much chaos for me. The track speeds along with a frenetic guitar riff as Kesha taps into her inner rock and roll frontwoman. I can’t tell if it’s a slight distortion effect on her voice, but the higher pitch of the song eventually makes it pretty grating. The whole song is just too loud.

“Spaceship”, as well, closes the album on a low as Kesha ventures a little too close to self-indulgence over a bluegrass instrumental. It is easily the longest track, and ends on a speech that could be mistaken for a series of Jaden Smith tweets.

Someone as free-spirited as Kesha was never going to make a perfect album, but this is an absolutely spectacular return to the music industry that blew my expectations away. I’m not sure how the mainstream will receive this, but this new, dynamic and unleashed version of Kesha is a force to be reckoned with.

Favourite Tracks: Praying, Rainbow, Learn To Let Go, Boogie Feet, Hunt You Down

Least Favourite Track: Let ‘Em Talk

Score: 8/10

Avicii – AVĪCI (01) EP

AVĪCI (01).jpgSwedish superstar DJ Avicii returns with a brief 6-track EP in the wake of commercially underperforming 2015 album Stories and a retirement fake-out. There isn’t a lot of diversion here from the sound that helped him ascend to worldwide status, which is becoming somewhat outdated in the current musical landscape. However, it is nice to have the original pioneer back, even if the folk roots that he draws from have since fallen out of favour on mainstream radio.

Avicii’s formula is a smart one, and with assistance from features like Rita Ora and AlunaGeorge, his brand of folktronica and catchy drops that sound like they belong on a video game soundtrack could easily insert him back into the public eye. There could be a much greater degree of creativity here, but I can’t deny that these energetic and uplifting tracks do their job effectively.

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The album opens with some acoustic chords and a bouncy bassline, as a pleasant tenor voice starts singing about friendship. We could be watching a guy strumming a guitar at a campfire here. Avicii still definitely knows how to tap into this sentimentality, and there isn’t really anyone else in this exact lane.

I really do have to commend him for how he was able to keep some of the aspects of tracks like “Wake Me Up”, but do just enough to modernize his sound as well, especially on “Friend of Mine”. THe voices aren’t overly folksy, the acoustic strumming cuts out at the most climactic portions of the song. It’s a very intelligent approach.

“So Much Better”, a remix of Swedish singer-songwriter Sandro Cavazza’s track, sees him abandon his style the most and tap into some more current EDM trends – there are some definite tropical house influences here as he attacks listeners in a quieter manner like a Kygo or Cashmere Cat. We get a single main synth and some rhythmic bass stabs, and sometimes that’s all we need. He fits quite well into the newer laid-back style. Cashmere Cat actually appears alongside Benny Blanco for “Lonely Together”, but it doesn’t stand out as much due to Rita Ora’s overly poppy vocals.

“You Be Love”, even though I fully recognize how many of the boxes it ticks on the “overly sugary party track” checklist, gets me to submit all the same. It is the most rhythmic track of all, as Clean Bandit-esque synth-piano chords begin pounding away and a quickly oscillating and high-pitched main synth line activates the confetti cannons and the beginning of the party. Billy Raffoul’s slightly gravelly vocals syncopate well with the rhythm and give it a bit of an added dimension of soul. I was very surprised to learn that the track was written by massive country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, who doesn’t seem like she belongs anywhere near this world but has given us some great stuff in the past.

Despite all this, Avicii seems to have forgotten that the first track that got him any recognition was “Levels”, a completely instrumental track. The instrumental bits really still are the best parts of his songs, and for the most part, they end far too abruptly here.

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The release of energy that the track builds up never lasts long enough and ends up making me resent the gimmicky nature of the remainder of the track. Avicii knows that he can rely on a basic formula of wholesome lyrics and a brief infusion of electronic aspects and coast on it. The AlunaGeorge track is basically entirely this without even getting to the drop – it sounds like a more electronic version of a track like Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me”. That’s how overly saccharine some of this stuff gets, as Avicii uses their childlike voices to maximum effect.

Even on a very short 6-track EP, it feels like Avicii’s old tricks grow tiresome quickly. Buy the time “Without You” comes on and we get the 4th track in a row of a voice with some indie inflections singing a very basic melody over an acoustic guitar, eventually being taken over by a massive synth breakdown that sounds like a same instruments were being used every time, you begin to tire of all of it and that’s a problem for a project so short.

This is really the underlying problem with doing in-depth reviews on EDM music, because so often the album format is not really how these tracks were meant to be consumed. I’m confident in saying I would lose my mind if any of these came on in a social situation.

Ultimately, these tracks are far from my favourite EDM material I’ve heard this year but they meet my expectations for an Avicii project and I respect what he’s doing. This is supposedly the first EP of 3 that will combine into the album, so I’m excited to see if he takes a few more risks later this year.

Favourite Tracks: You Be Love, Friend Of Mine

Least Favourite Track: Without You

Score: 6/10

Ugly God – The Booty Tape

TheBootyTape.jpgYes, it looks like the end of summer, where little albums of consequence are ever released, is finally upon us. With that dearth, Ugly God’s The Booty Tape is one of the most popular projects this week. It has been difficult to tell just how seriously the rapper takes his career and status as a musician and artist in the wake of viral singles “Water” and “F*** Ugly God”, which is a diss track aimed at himself. This first mixtape does little to assist with this confusion. Ugly God continues to be a polarizing figure, offering 10 brief tracks in which be both integrates with the current trend of mumble rap and seemingly attempts to parody it. His lyrics are often self-deprecating or so profane and ridiculous that they become comedy gold.

The issue I have with The Booty Tape is that if I really am meant to take it as a joke, he doesn’t commit to it nearly enough. The song concepts are mostly unfinished, and he does not explore the unique aspects he does bring to the table nearly enough. He very quickly devolves into a mediocre version of the artists he is meant to be parodying. It’s difficult to give this project a score due to Ugly God’s sheer idiosyncrasy, but just looking at things from a musical standpoint, it is painfully average, which is the last thing someone like Ugly God should be.

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The mixtape opens with a recording of a YouTube video where a white mother reacts to some of Ugly God’s hit singles with some choice words. “Good luck to him” is her initial reaction, before dubbing him “not that attractive” and calls his lyrical content “dumb stuff”. When asked her final opinion, she just says “no” 14 times. This is a perfect introduction to the strange world Ugly God is about to lead us into. The man embraces these words and turns them around into a position of confidence.

“F*** Ugly God” is an absolutely hilarious idea. I wish the track was a lot longer, but for him to do this to even some degree of success is incredible, and ideas like this are why people know who he is at all. Over the course of the track, Ugly God undermines some of his own boasts, saying he is not as rich or sexually experienced as he claims to be, while criticizing himself for riding “Water” too long and saying “your whole career a joke”. The worst part? “Back in 10th grade, your coach kicked you off the team”. Ouch.

Ugly God is completely stuck in the middle and I have no idea which way he wants to go. If he wants to be seen as a comedic rapper, then the presence of tracks like “No Lies”, where he attempts a standard-length rap track with standard material and a standard feature, is inexplicable. The Wiz Khalifa feature is such a strange misplacement as well – it sounds like he accidentally wandered into the studio and dropped a verse. The instrumental is boring and repetitive and Ugly God says absolutely nothing that would alert me to the fact it is him and not one of the other thousands of SoundCloud rappers trying to make it.

On the other hand, if he is trying to make a name for himself past his meme status, then he needs to put more effort into the development of songs without diverting from his creative topics as quickly as he brought them up or ending them abruptly. Things barely get going on almost all of these tracks, many of them not even reaching 3 minutes and ending after 1 verse before he really says much of anything. “I’m A Nasty Hoe” is perhaps the most fully fleshed out track here, and it is really one of his funniest because he manages to fully explore a topic for once. Ugly God is ugly, but he has the confidence to get girls anyway. When he starts singing in a high-pitched voice like Lil Yachty on helium halfway through, it only adds to the comedic effect.

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Ultimately, the musical composition and Ugly God’s delivery of these tracks don’t do enough to separate him from the pack, and separation from the pack is the whole point of Ugly God’s existence. Possibly the biggest reason for this are the basic trap instrumentals. I feel like I say this in most of my hip-hop reviews now, but we’ve reached the apex of trap production and you have to do something insanely creative to still be interesting here.

It’s cool that Ugly God produced a lot of these tracks himself, and it suggests he might take music a bit more seriously than he lets on, but the only instrumental that really jumps out to me is “I’m Tryna F***”. It is a trap beat, but it’s more energetic than most and the traditional rolling drums continue to echo throughout the whole track and guide us into huge beat drops. Again, why isn’t this longer?

Basically, The Booty Tape is somewhat satisfying as as one-off novelty project to get a few quick laughs from. As music, I’m confident in saying I’m never going to listen to it again.

Favourite Tracks: F*** Ugly God, I’m A Nasty Hoe

Least Favourite Track: L.D.C.

Score: 4/10

Vic Mensa – The Autobiography

Chicago rapper Vic Mensa’s debut album has been in the works for a very long time. With the incredible 2013 mixtape INNANETAPE and EP There’s Alot Going On under his belt, The Autobiography is finally being delivered to us in the wake of many problems in Mensa’s life. The introspective lyricist was seemingly lost for a while, releasing subpar throwaway singles. He revealed on There’s Alot Going On that this was due to suicidal thoughts, drug abuse and a toxic relationship, and he continues to address these issues on his very personal lyrics on this project.

Now that a full project from Mensa is finally here, it’s a lot more inconsistent than I would have expected. Despite Mensa’s frequent lyrical flashes, he is certainly not without his occasional misguided concept or questionable singing voice and delivery. There are a lot of great musical moments on here, but for a project with a title as ambitious as The Autobiography, Mensa leaves a lot to be desired.

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Mensa recruits a few high-profile producers, including The-Dream, Pharrell Williams, who features on “Wings”, and the legendary No I.D., who plays supplementary roles to lesser-known Chicago area producers on almost every track here. I give props to the producers and Mensa for the project not being very trap-influenced and riding trends, the unique rock-influenced instrumentals fitting Mensa’s aesthetic better.

For someone who is known for their lyricism, a lot of the greatest moments on this album are actually due to the instrumentals. Mensa’s inspirations are quite obvious on this album and some of the greatest tracks here resemble some of Kanye’s early work – both in terms of his complexity and soul sampling, and the stadium rap of Graduation. Even though it’s an overused sample, the flip of Darondo’s “Didn’t I” on the opening track of the same name complements Mensa’s erratic flow well. The innate rhythms of the soul track in its walking bassline and syncopated guitar stabs highlight his technical abilities.

The Graduation-style tracks make things a lot more anthemic on tracks like “Rollin’ Like A Stoner”. The track brings to mind Kid Cudi’s more pop-driven early tracks as he shouts the chorus and the synths blare. Mensa knows exactly what he is doing when he speaks about the dangers of drug abuse on a catchy party track, knowing it will go right over some people’s heads.

Mensa’s lyricism is very compelling when at its best, such as on tracks like “Wings”. Mensa describes himself spreading his wings and leaving his problems in his past. The lyrical and emotional peak of the album comes when he lets the voices in his head take over the second verse, yelling at him to end his life and that he’s an embarrassment before he breaks free at the track’s conclusion.

Mensa seems to really struggle with originality here. His flow on Innanetape was refreshing and different, but here he adapts so much to J. Cole’s style of storytelling that he picks up his flow on almost every track. He has elements of Kanye in his cadence, and doesn’t even try to hide how much of a blatant rip-off of Eminem’s hit “Stan” “Heaven On Earth” is.

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It additionally makes it hard for me to get invested in Mensa’s lyrics when some of the song concepts here either don’t make much sense or are downright offensive. The back-to-back tracks “Homewrecker” and “Gorgeous” address Mensa’s past disastrous relationship, getting very specific and personal about scenarios where the two got into violent physical altercations.

Mensa criticizes his partner’s behaviour for destroying his property and calls her “crazy”, acting as if he did nothing to provoke her. Mensa’s reveals she acted in this way after he was caught cheating, but he quickly skims over this detail and even tries to justify it. Instead of showing a shred of remorse, Mensa tries to convince us that he absolutely had to do it – they’re both “Gorgeous”. A cringeworthy punchline in reference to the band Smashing Pumpkins only adds to the nonsense.

On “Heaven On Earth”, Mensa’s deceased friend calls him from Heaven to inform him – good news – Kurt Cobain loves his music, and he said Vic is “on the right path”. It’s maddeningly self-righteous for someone who just put out their debut album.

Mensa’s delivery is pretty terrible at times – “Memories on 47th St.” is a middling track that could have been injected with a bit more energy during the raps, but it is brought way down when he reaches into his upper register on the chorus and can’t actually hold a note. “Coffee & Cigarettes” shows this at it’s absolute worst. The instrumental is quite empty, and Mensa sings throughout the whole track with some romantic lyrics directed at the same girl from the earlier tracks. He sounds very immature in his approach to everything, and it’s not even believable due to his antagonism towards her earlier. By the time he’s wishing she loved him “even half as much as weed” halfway through the track, I’m completely over what he has to say.

It’s clear that despite what Mensa states on “Wings”, he’s still a pretty troubled individual and we can never be sure what we’re going to receive from him. It’s a shame because Mensa is so naturally talented and he’s demonstrated this on many occasions. I can only hope he continues to work on himself and hits us with another INNANETAPE in the future.

Favourite Tracks: Down For Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby), Rollin’ Like A Stoner, Didn’t I (Say I Didn’t), Wings

Least Favourite Track: Coffee & Cigarettes

Score: 5/10

Julia Michaels – Nervous System EP

Image result for nervous system epMassively successful pop songwriter turned solo artist Julia Michaels has finally released her first collection of songs in the wake of hit single “Issues”. Ever since I heard that track and follow-up single “Uh Huh”, I’ve been waiting rather impatiently for more of that magic we get when combining her dark and incredibly personal lyrics with that dynamic flutter of a voice. However, while Michaels does deliver 7 very solid pop songs here, I can’t help but feel like she already gave up many of her greatest songs to other artists.

The new songs here are more radio-friendly, without as much of a dimension of uniqueness and creativity that tinged the others. Still, despite being frontloaded with singles, Michaels demonstrates why she is one of the most exciting new artists to come out of 2017 on her Nervous System EP.

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Producers Mattman & Robin, who have been rather hit-or-miss this year and are known for grandiose and in-your-face pop tracks like DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself”, handle the majority of the tracks here. It’s a somewhat surprising choice even with the success of “Uh Huh” – “Issues” is handled by more proven hitmakers Benny Blanco and Stargate, and what might be the best new track here in “Don’t Wanna Think” was actually done by Michaels herself. The track is a stripped-down piano ballad where Michaels lays her emotions bare, struggling with moving on in the wake of a break-up even though she knows it would be violently destructive to both of them if she went back.

We all know “Issues” by now, and it still stands out as one of the greatest songs of the year. I love a good slow build in a song, and as we ascend from that simple melody of the pre-chorus into the dramatic conclusion, all the motifs brought up over the course of the song colliding into each other perfectly, it reminds me why I fell in love with the track in the first place.

Follow-up track “Uh Huh” is almost as good just due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like a typical pop song in the same way. The track goes to a lot of unexpected places, beginning with a neatly picked acoustic riff and then hitting us with that distorted chorus as Michaels’ voice turns into a high-pitched squeak and crams in more syllables than should ever fit into a line. The two tracks seem like the least likely of these seven to be serviced to pop radio, and yet, here we are. The refreshing nature of these tracks is quickly removed for some more standard fare.

Despite how novel an artist Michaels is, many of the new songs here fall flat on the actual structure of the song. After how dynamic her first two singles were, tracks like “Worst In Me” just sound like a boring pop song. Something about the melody in the chorus never sticks. It might be due to how upbeat the track is juxtaposed with such bleak lyrics from Michaels – it feels like with how much her voice is capable of emoting, the track should be a lot sadder. A clicking beat and some bright piano chords speed the track along, and it feels like the production drowns out her voice at times.

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“Make It Up To You” is another very upbeat and electronic track that feels strangely underwritten for a Michaels song. The instrumentals need to be giving Michaels a lot more room for her voice to breathe. It comes with enough surprises and quirks to steal the show every time. “Pink” seems like it’s trying to achieve the same effervescent and flirty quality of her first two singles, but the idea isn’t executed nearly as well. Numerous times in the track, all music cuts out to allow Michaels to deliver two lines of the chorus in a full whisper. This might have worked if they only did it once, but as it stands it kills the energy of the track.

Michaels is a songwriter at heart, and this is where she shines. Many lyrics on this project are very personal, with blunt and specific musings on relationships gone disastrous. As she told us, both of them have issues. She comes across as so much more real than most, especially when she drops lines that are simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and depressing. She asks if he remembers when he “could go out with [his] female friends and I’d be totally fine”, or dreads the “seven texts and three calls” she knows she’s going to send.

Many of these tracks tackle some pretty dark topics in this way, all mostly coming down to Michaels’ criticisms of her own behaviour. She realizes that most of her problems actually stem from her own attitude. Newer tracks “Don’t Wanna Think” and “Just Do It” stand out because there is the least distraction from Michaels’ delivery of these emotions in the way only a brilliant songwriter can.

Can you imagine if Michaels had kept a track she wrote like Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” or Ed Sheeran’s “Dive” to herself? She’d be spectacular, and her full portfolio of work shows so much more promise than this EP has to offer. I’ll just get back to playing “Issues”.

Favourite Tracks: Issues, Uh Huh, Don’t Wanna Think

Least Favourite Track: Make It Up To You

Score: 6/10

Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Image result for lust for lifePop enigma Lana Del Rey’s fourth studio album Lust For Life is her most consistent and focused project to date. Allowing some of the hip-hop influences that peppered debut album Born To Die back into the mix, but maintaining the defining aspects of her old soul personality and unique musical niche, she is finally able to keep me engaged for the entire duration of one of her lengthy albums.

Over these 72 minutes, Del Rey touches on some familiar topics for her but enriches them with repeating motifs, pop culture references and a political edge that we haven’t really seen from her before. As we can see from the excellent recruitment of features among other things, Del Rey knows herself very well and is steadily perfecting her craft.

Del Rey’s voice is instantly recognizable and still a breath of fresh air after all these years in the spotlight. She is capable of infusing so much emotion in to an understated delivery and simple melody. Opening track “Love” reminds me of what made her first big hit “Video Games” so great – it’s very bare-bones musically, but her breathy vocals and the melody at the center carries the track. Her song concepts are often intriguing, and as she disregards the mundanity of life because “it’s enough to be young and in love”, you believe her.

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The kindred spirits that Del Rey finds here really enrich the album and the messages she’s trying to convey as well. The Weeknd appears for their 4th collaboration, and the two are always stellar together. Their track, “Lust For Life”, alludes to the suicide of Peg Entwistle, who jumped off the “H” in the Hollywood sign after a failed career in acting. In the music video, the two nihilistic stars sit perched on the “H”, convincing themselves that life is worthwhile over doo-wop harmonies and twinkling keys. It feels like the biggest song Del Rey has ever written.

Stevie Nicks appears on “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems”, and it is clear how much Del Rey has been inspired by her. You can barely tell the difference between the two on the somber piano duet. But the real star here is Sean Lennon, who produced standout “Tomorrow Never Came” with some of his dad’s vintage instruments and sounds just like him. The two tell a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love with the beautiful simplicity in music and lyrics that The Beatles were known for. The track sounds absolutely timeless, and could easily have been released many decades ago.

There is a lot more percussion here than on most of her albums, and while she may venture a little too far into trendy trap territory at times, I do appreciate it keeping her hazy reflections from becoming too sleepy.

The real centerpiece of the album, however, is Del Rey’s lyrics. Ever so often she drops a darkly accurate gem like “Real love – it’s like smiling when the firing squad’s against you”. The album is deliberately ordered like many of the best – the same track, “Cherry”, references the “peaches”, or small joys, she brought up on preceding track “13 Beaches” being ruined as she gives herself a reality check. Many of these repeating motifs can be tracked throughout the album’s duration.

Where Del Rey’s frequent returns to the same lyrical themes got old quickly before, here she gets a bit more specific and personal to make them interesting again. “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind” is a full account of Lana taking in a Father John Misty set at the festival with the singer’s wife. She worries about all the surrounding youths using the festival as an escape from real world problems in her typical Del Rey way. She states that she wrote the track in response to tensions with North Korea mounting, and her newfound political angle crops up elsewhere too.

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“When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” asks “Is this the end of America?” No, she states – the last time the nation faced problems this size during the Cold War, the Hippie movement ushered in a new era – “We just kept dancing, and we’ll do it again”. Meanwhile, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It” is the most sarcastic dedication to the country ever written, as the seemingly triumphant chorus is peppered with gunshots.

While Del Rey does explore some very interesting lyrical themes on the project – many of which contain complex allusions that you might have to look up to understand – the album is still incredibly long. A few of these tracks serve the same narrative purpose, and could easily have been cut out. The stretch from “White Mustang” to “Groupie Love” feels a little weaker than the rest, especially as we receive back-to-back A$ap Rocky verses.

Lana goes full trap on these two tracks, and the influences are a little weird, not really fitting with the rest of what she conveys here. On an album where Lana realizes what she does incredibly well in many areas, the presence of these two tracks that aren’t really her put a bit of a damper on things early. “White Mustang”, meanwhile, is written more lazily as she checks the boxes of what to include in a Del Rey song.

For the first time, Del Rey’s album cover pictures her with a smile on her face. While there’s still certainly some dark subject material on here, a lot of it comes with an element of hope. Lana would have jumped off the Hollywood sign on previous albums, and this added dimension has made her music a lot more compelling. Lust For Life is a massive improvement on her past work.

Favourite Tracks: Tomorrow Never Came, Lust For Life, Cherry, God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It, Change

Least Favourite Track: White Mustang

Score: 8/10