Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

Image result for miley cyrus younger nowMiley Cyrus’ sixth studio album is a return to her roots, abandoning the ridiculous persona that coloured her previous two albums and somewhat problematically distancing herself from the hip-hop genre as a whole, saying the materialism associated with it doesn’t represent her anymore. Younger Now reverts back to some country-tinged, mostly acoustic pop music, Cyrus’ voice still surprisingly impressive but the instrumentals bland and uninspired.

Cyrus speaks a lot of her engagement to actor Liam Hemsworth, who reportedly inspired her lifestyle change. While her music did improve slightly from her disastrous Dead Petz era, for Cyrus to be taken seriously once again she needs to find more genuine personality, or even the smallest spark of innovation.

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“Week Without You” is the only time we break up the monotony here, as it stands as the greatest song from the set. We switch up the simple acoustic rhythms for a swung tempo and doo-wop influence as Cyrus describes her life in the four years spent apart from Hemsworth. A classic lyrical twist in the song’s final chorus shows the joys of the single life stop being fun, as Cyrus starts wanting him back. She actually sounds interested and engaged with the music here, digging into the groove of the song and having fun singing along to and riffing off of the piano solos in the background.

The slightly improvisational tone of the instrumental and actual musicianship displayed on this track really caught me off guard, showing that Cyrus does have some serious talent that she often has no idea what to do with. Her voice is at its best on lead single “Malibu”, sweet and emotive with some great harmonies to go along with it. It’s a shame the climax of the song turns into nothing more than some weirdly dissonant guitar picking and handclaps.

One of the biggest issues with this album is the colorless and safe musical backdrop that rarely changes from song to song, diminishing the effectiveness of promising melodies by being content to plod along and remain stagnant in the background, taking away most of the concept of dynamics from the project. A song like opening track “Younger Now” sounds like one of Cyrus’ career great songs when performed live, as it is quite smartly written and allows her voice to steal the spotlight, but hearing the full studio mix with its bland acoustic chords and packaged backing vocals just sucks out all of its energy.

Too many of these songs sound like they are set to the same set of acoustic chords, switching up the rhythm of the strumming and calling it a different song. The whole album was produced by lesser-known Dead Petz collaborator Oren Yoel, who adds some pretty awful melodies to some of the worse tracks here as well. The chorus of “Miss You So Much” begins with repetition of some strained high notes before somehow turning a pivotal “here” into a two-syllable word just to fit.

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Even though Cyrus isn’t as visibly embracing drug culture as much with her updated image, some of the laughable lyrical content of her previous two albums persists here, offering some Jaden Smith-esque, starry-eyed musings on the state of the world. Closing track “Inspired”, which Cyrus describes as her “Hillary Clinton song”, seeks to empower her listeners as she lists her dreams for the world … “Starting with the bees, or else they’re gonna die. There will be no trees or air for us to breathe”.

She also continues the unfortunate trend of artists attempting something like activism without actually saying anything of consequence. On the incredibly derivative “Rainbowland”, she teams up with godmother Dolly Parton over the same bouncy country-pop twang we’ve heard before to imagine a future where all the prejudices people face have magically evaporated. “Wouldn’t it be so nice?”, she sings. In other places Cyrus seems more focused on shoehorning in awkward rhymes that telling the story of the song. The only writer on the project, she definitely needs some help at this point.

There isn’t really much to talk about here – the only thing that isn’t forgettable about Younger Now are Cyrus’ outlandish lyrics. Now that it has been made evident that Cyrus’ previous era was nothing more than appropriation to jump on a rising sound, too much of this project just feels similarly fake – and not even in an entertaining way anymore.

Favourite Tracks: Week Without You, Thinkin’, Malibu

Least Favourite Track: Miss You So Much

Score: 4/10

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Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for demi lovato tell me you love meDemi Lovato’s sixth studio album sees the singer return to her strengths and take a new direction of creativity. After breaking free from the Disney machine and hitting her peak with 2011’s UnbrokenDEMI and Confident saw her music veer towards generic electropop and she struggled with substance abuse. Lovato was already starting to win be back by one again demonstrating the full extent of her vocal power on single “Stone Cold”, proving that she is one of the most technically skilled pop singers.

On Tell Me You Love Me, her songwriting has greatly improved, and tracks rarely sound the same. She imbues most of them with a sultry R&B flair that shows off her vocal fireworks, maintaining some poppier aspects as well but taking a more unique and experimental direction with them. The project stands as some of her best work yet.

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I knew Lovato might be turning things around as soon as I heard opening single “Sorry Not Sorry”, which might be one of the best leads of the year. Lovato channels the underlying gospel feel of Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem”, but throws some 90s R&B piano chords on top for a cool and confident send-off to an ex-boyfriend. What’s most important here is that Lovato’s vocals are back at the forefront, turning up the energy for the chorus where she once again demonstrates that full-voiced soprano belt. Where it often got lost in the mix of overproduction on her recent albums, here it sounds fuller, and much more mature than her earlier work. Not only does she have the belt, her lower range is just as passionate and intense, sounding almost like an Emeli Sande on the dramatic title track.

I always wanted more from Lovato’s breathier, more sensual side to her voice in her earlier work and it shows up in a big way here – now with the appropriate subject matter to match. She embraces her full potential as an R&B artist on tracks like “Concentrate” and “Ruin The Friendship”, complete with a trumpet solo in the chorus and bouncy walking bassline. Lovato drops into lower-tempo rhythmic grooves here that could only be carried by a very strong singer.

The album’s greatest strength it its diversity, with some kind of surprising and new sonic element thrown onto nearly every track. She masterfully switches between genres without dropping the cohesive, in-control sense that Lovato applies to all she does. This is an album where the two best tracks sound absolutely nothing alike, but both give the listener that feeling where they’re ready to take on the world, be it out of confidence or anger. I’m talking about “Daddy Issues” and “Cry Baby”, a creative standout and a massive ballad that knocks “Stone Cold” out of the water.

“Daddy Issues” is Lovato at her most bubblegum, but this sounds like it was influenced by the experimental minds over at PC Music. It’s actually Oak Felder, one half of duo Pop & Oak (Kehlani, Alessia Cara), who surprisingly contributes to almost all the instrumentals here despite their diversity. Lovato is surprisingly, but endearingly tongue-in-cheek about her complicated relationship with her late and estranged father – “Lucky for you, I’ve got all these daddy issues”, she sings over an instrumental that is sparse save for synth stabs that raise the energy so quickly they scared me a bit the first time. The track eventually settles into an uptempo pop groove.

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But my goodness, “Cry Baby”. “CRY BABY”. Over a swung waltz tempo, this explosive track features Lovato’s biggest and most ambitious chorus yet. Dropping into it with some great flat notes that accentuate her technical ability, Lovato is out for blood as the guitars wail in the background and the harmonized backing vocals echo. I was immediately drawn to that melody line on “Congratulations, celebration” followed by the stratospheric high harmonies on the catchy triplets that make up the bulk of the chorus. The energy just continues to build as Lovato’s runs just ascend higher up the scales and get more impossibly complex. It’s such a beautiful, brilliantly written track.

While this might not have been Lovato’s decision, the ordering of the album seems a little strange, giving prime third track placement to the album’s most formulaic song in “Sexy Dirty Love” and placing many of its best at the tail end. Pushing Lovato as a pop artist for this particular album doesn’t make much sense, and basing the album around something like “Cry Baby”, the ninth track, would organize the flow of the album better.

On an album with so many diverse standouts, a few aren’t going to stick as well. Lovato’s voice is consistently strong throughout, but the dip in energy in the instrumental of back-to-back tracks “Only Forever” and “Lonely”, which features an awkward appearance from Lil Wayne, is a low point in the album’s middle. The minimal percussion on something like “Lonely” especially doesn’t contrast well with Lovato’s growls and enraged lyrical content.

Regardless, Tell Me You Love Me is a huge step forward for an artist I was worried had fallen off a cliff. This is what happens when Lovato understands her strengths.

Favourite Tracks: Cry Baby, Daddy Issues, Hitchhiker, Ruin The Friendship, Sorry Not Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Lonely

Score: 9/10

Jhene Aiko – Trip

Trip by Jhené Aiko cover.jpgR&B/Soul singer Jhene Aiko’s sophomore album, Trip, is less of an album and more of an experience. Nearly an hour and a half in length, Aiko’s silky smooth vocals guide us through a project framed as one long drug trip. Aiko’s becomes lost in a psychedelic and sometimes scary world, addressing her relationships including her disastrous and short-lived marriage to producer Dot Da Genius and her new “soulmate” Big Sean along the way.

Aiko additionally taps into her alter-ego, Penny – a nickname her grandfather gave her that she states is her “purest, most authentic form” and dedicates the album to her brother, who died of cancer in 2012 and shows up a few times here. Aiko paints a world to get lost in while addressing some pretty heavy topics. Trip is the well thought out concept album I’ve been waiting for this year.

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I’ts tough to compare individual songs on this project, as they all flow together seamlessly in one concrete experience. While some have criticized the album’s length due to its similar sounding tracks, Aiko’s voice has a hypnotic quality and I barely realized how long I had been sitting there listening to the album. Aiko’s vocals stay true to her trademark breathy style, but over such a sparse and psychedelic instrumental they adopt this beautiful, almost ghostly quality, floating above the track with a calming presence. With every vocal run and harmony she draws me deeper into the world of the album.

“LSD” introduces the album as Aiko begins her trip and says “And what I saw, oh my god…”, referring to the images she comes across over the course of the album. What she talks about certainly warrants her surprise. Aiko experiences the highest highs and lowest lows of human emotion, often blissfully in love, but she begins her journey by venturing into Japan’s suicide forest on “Jukai”. “Hell is not a certain evil, Hell is other people … or the lack thereof”, she sings, introducing the themes of love and loneliness. She is rescued from the forest by an unknown man who accompanies her in spoken dialogues after a few tracks here, revealing his dark side as more and more drugs are offered.

Some of my favourite projects are clearly deliberately ordered and tell one cohesive story, and Trip certainly fits the bill, as the sections of the album are demarcated with different drugs that cause Aiko to experience different things. “LSD” introduces a slew of songs that see her in a young romance, until she starts having some lingering doubts on final track “When We Love”. She suddenly instructs the male voice “Don’t hurt me, OK?” before “Sativa” introduces a longer segment full of Aiko’s ideal images of love being tormented by some darker thoughts, culminating in the chaotic “Bad Trip (Interlude)”.

Her brother makes an appearance as she addresses her struggles with addiction in the wake of his death on “Nobody”, and runs through feelings of loneliness, confusion and negative self-image. “Never Call Me” sees Aiko get uncharacteristically angry (even if her sweet tone of voice would never betray such a thing) as she criticizes the inability of her man to communicate his feelings instead of acting passive-aggressive. She references Dot Da Genius’ alimony lawsuit directly, the communication issues likely referencing his infamous series of cryptic tweets regarding his relationship with Aiko.

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The story of Trip parallels Aiko’s real-life issues, as the first part of the album represents the younger, naive version of herself that rushed into a relationship with the wrong person. The resulting fallout of the divorce and doubt entering a new relationship makes up the majority of the album, while the final section, “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is more representative of her new, healthy relationship with Big Sean.

Jhene recruits some colourful collaborators here to spice up the sound just enough. She brings Sean himself in to revive their funk-infused side project Twenty88 on the upbeat “Only Lovers Left Alive”, while John Mayer’s sensual guitar riffs back her musings of newfound love on the quieter “New Balance”. Her father delivers two extended outros, while she duets with her 9 year old daughter Namiko Love on endearing track “Sing To Me”.

There’s certainly a lot to unpack here thematically, but did I mention the music is great as well? “Overstimulated” stays true to its title, as Aiko delivers an intoxicating melody over some rolling hi-hats and a very dreamy soundscape, juxtaposing a speedier rhythmic delivery with her beautiful higher notes over some soft synth chords in the chorus. “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is another standout, a nearly 8-minute monster that brings in a horn section and infectious synth pattern resembling a siren amidst some of Aiko’s best harmonies.

I love how many layers there are to this project – this review would be a lot longer if I delved into what Aiko has stated some of these symbols mean. The album is very long, but I could listen to that voice forever, especially tied to these deeper conceptual themes. On title track “Trip”, Aiko concludes the album “Love pays, but love taxes – it’s a real trip”, summing up the journey we’ve just been on. Trip is a trip indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Overstimulated, Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect), While We’re Young, OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive), Never Call Me

Least Favourite Track: Oblivion (Creation)

Score: 9/10