Rapid Fire Reviews (Justin Timberlake, Black Panther, Rich Brian)

I’ve been pretty busy lately with midterms and the Olympics but a couple of these rapid fire posts should get things back on track!

The cover image features two images of a male, edited to appear as one. Top-diagonal-half image features male in all-black suit and white undershirt, in a snow-covered wooded area. Bottom-diagonal-half image features male in ripped blue jeans, flannel button down shirt in a smog-filled wooded area. Below this title: MAN OF THE WOODS, appears in capitalised handwritten print.Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Timberlake’s fifth studio album and his first in five years follows one of the best pop albums of the decade with a confusing amalgamation of genres and a striking musical deviation into a territory that is a markedly poor fit for the r&b inflections his voice naturally possesses. Inspired by the birth of his son and described as “Americana with 808s”, Man Of The Woods still possesses moments where the talent we all know Timberlake has cuts through the misguided decisions in production, put for the most part tries to do too much and appeal to every music listener, losing its sense of self in the process.

The main problem the album has is its lack of direction. Lead single “Filthy” alone runs through three clashing sections, all seemingly jumping on trends of the past that have overstayed their welcome – and it doesn’t even have any of the country-folk flavour that colours about half of the project. While I can often be a proponent of blending genres together in an experimental fashion, Timberlake’s exaggerated country accent and campfire-song acoustic melodies just don’t work with the trap beats and synth-bass here. Timbaland’s production has been unsure of itself for a while now, but dragging Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes into this was a truly strange choice. He does his best with what he is given, but this style of music simply isn’t his forte.

Timberlake’s lyricism is noticeably weaker here as well, abandoning the suave wittiness of his romantic come-ons for ready-made phrases and Internet lingo, seemingly trying too hard to become a meme or catch the attention of a certain demographic by pandering. It just makes him appear disingenuous – people were appropriately outraged at the buzzword titles at the back end of this tracklist. This ingenuity extends to the instrumentals, it’s as if nobody working on this project is actually aware of the reality of the trends they emulate here. Many of the country elements here are stereotypical and derivative twangy guitar loops that haven’t been in fashion for a long time for a reason. His r&b vocals clash with the obnoxious “country” guitar pattern on “Sauce”, for example. He can certainly save a few of these weird decisions with his charisma and talent – the title track has some impressive harmonies and fun, goofy delivery that’s just campy enough to fit – but for the most part it’s a very confusing listen.

Unsurprisingly, the best moments on this album are it’s most traditionally r&b tracks, at times sounding like Timberlake is trying to recapture some of his earliest work rather than the neo-soul of 20/20 Experience. “Higher, Higher” is a solid old-school r&b track with a catchy guitar pattern that sounds like it could have fit perfectly on Justified, while his duet with Alicia Keys, “Morning Light”, is easily the best track here. The two complement each other well, Timberlake giving us those vocal runs he holds back for the rest of the album. The slight country flavour fits better here, as a meandering, lazy guitar line slinks through the slower bassline and accentuates the two lovers’ sweet words as they lie in bed in the morning. Co-written with Chris Stapleton, it’s got his real, heartfelt soul that the rest is devoid of.

I just … sincerely can’t believe that the song “Flannel” exists. It sounds like if you put a trap beat on the “F.U.N.” song from Spongebob. For someone with so much natural ability this is certainly a huge disappointment, especially for how long it took in between albums. Let’s hope he rights the ship, and it doesn’t take as long this time.

Favourite Tracks: Morning Light, Higher Higher, Man Of The Woods

Least Favourite Track: Supplies

Score: 3/10

Black Panther - The Album.pngTop Dawg Entertainment – Black Panther Soundtrack

Kendrick Lamar and the rest of his label step up to curate the soundtrack to one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, and while the soundtrack format and the commercialization of many of these songs to fit within Marvel’s easily accessible narratives hold it back from the narrative complexity of one of the label’s great albums, it’s impossible to deny all of the talent assembled here and the refreshing African flavour of the tracklist, recruiting some artists from the continent itself.

These artists frequently come much harder than I would ever expect them to on a soundtrack, giving us a number of tracks that could easily stand out on their own. Kendrick appears in at least a very small capacity on each of these tracks, but he certainly makes his presence felt. TDE in-house producer Sounwave is behind most of these beats, and he’s on the top of his game as usual – “X” is one of the greatest rap beats I’ve heard in a long time, and Kendrick’s quotable hook and hilarious, dynamic verses from ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz make the track an obvious highlight. Kendrick’s curation shows that he knows the right artists to put together as well – “The Ways” doesn’t really fit in with most of the album, but the adorable r&b exchanges between Khalid and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee as they long for a “power girl” are cheesy and endearing in the best possible way – the two complement each other very well. And while we’re talking about great teams, Kendrick and Travis Scott link up once again on “Big Shot”, as they dismiss their foes in the carefree and instantly iconic way that only they could.

One of the project’s greatest strengths, however, is the showcasing of smaller artists that give the project its unique sound. African artists, particularly Saudi on “X” and Sjava on “Seasons” deliver most of their verses in Zulu, the instrumentals emulating the popular heavy percussion of African music and channelling the spirit of Wakanda. “Opps” is an absolutely insane, dark and grinding instrumental. “Paramedic!”, featuring a DJ Dahi beat and rising rap group SOBxRBE, is another highly energetic, personality-driven track

I think we finally found something Kendrick Lamar can’t do – on opening track “Black Panther” he tries his hand at production for the first time and the juxtaposition of tones on the brief track just comes across as way too jarring despite his technical dexterity on top. There are quite a few moments on this project when its clear that Kendrick and others are holding back a bit from creating the creative, thought-provoking material we know they are capable of, but I appreciate this for what it is. Even so, Kendrick doesn’t have his typical urgency in his verse on “All The Stars”, not measuring up to SZA’s virtuosic chorus, while tracks like “I Am” and “Bloody Waters” are similarly watered down and the rap verses from individuals like Jay Rock can be underwritten – this isn’t their own, well-crafted work and the effort level can show it at times.

While many soundtracks can seem entirely phoned in and commercialized in the pursuit of a radio hit or two, not many have Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment behind them. The phoned in version of these artists are still sitting firmly at the peak of culture right now, and what better way to show it than with the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther.

Favourite Tracks: X, Paramedic!, Pray For Me, King’s Dead, The Ways

Least Favourite Track: I Am

Score: 8/10

Amen RichBrian.jpgRich Brian – Amen

The viral 18-year-old Indonesian rapper drops his debut album – and his previous controversial name – and displays his unique artistry and approach to the genre across a full-length project for the first time. Produced almost entirely by himself, Brian accommodates his deadpan, slightly comedic delivery with some spacey, synth-oriented beats that draw more attention to his words. While this lack of variation in his delivery and similarity across a few tracks withhold it from being truly great, Brian’s legitimate technical skill, great personality and unique production makes Amen an impressive debut.

The project opens strong with “Amen” and “Cold” – the first of which just introducing us briefly to his surprising level of technical prowess for someone who exploded onto the scene with a song like “Dat Stick”, while “Cold” sees everything click into place at the same time for him – the instrumental sounds like it comes from a 90s video game, Brian’s cadence and the off-kilter production reminding me of some of the best work on Tyler, The Creator’s latest project. When the beat drops and you hear just that little bit of extra spark in Brian’s voice it’s a refreshing sonic experience – nobody is doing it particularly like this.

“Introvert” is another great track that shows off Brian’s unique production style – it is calming and chilled, yet so appropriate for when he starts rapping some outlandish punchlines on top. An appearance from Joji – or as you may know him, YouTube’s Filthy Frank – only increases the early-Gambino kind of quality to the music. It’s funny and endearing, but there’s not a particular, overt reason why – this is just a talented guy who learned how to rap through the Internet and is having fun as his exposure peaks. There’s something about his cadence that is aggressive and percussive even though it is quiet and reserved, and when it links up with these hi-hat-infused beats it just goes ridiculously hard, all the while he’s dropping jokes about everything from ISIS to The Incredibles. Brian’s carefree and unexpected lyricism is another highlight, showcasing exactly who he is for the project’s full runtime.

Some tracks, such as “Glow Like Dat”, feature more of an r&b approach, toning back the rap percussion and letting Brian’s ethereal instrumentals dominate. Brian’s intentionally sleepier approach to his bars doesn’t translate as well to his singing, going a bit too off-key to be enjoyable. Across 14 tracks as well, some of these songs begin to sound too similar to counterparts in the album’s earlier stages – even something as early as “Trespass” is the same style of trap banger with a moderately straight, monotone flow he had already demonstrated 2 or 3 times, quickly becoming forgettable. It’s certainly a trademark artistic choice that makes him stand out – but this flow can only take you so far across a full project. Someone like 21 Savage only stands out as contrast to someone more energetic.

More variation in his cadence and flows would benefit Brian well in the future, but at the moment we have to remember he is still only 18 – and this much of a fully defined artistic vision is quite impressive for someone as self-taught as Brian is.

Favourite Tracks: Cold, See Me, Kitty, Attention, Introvert

Least Favourite Track: Glow Like Dat

Score: 7/10

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Above & Beyond – Common Ground

Image result for common ground above and beyondVeteran British trance trio Above & Beyond meet a wider audience with their fourth studio album, Common Ground, and while they succeed at the genre’s basic aim of calming listeners and absorbing them in an ethereal realm of sound, some of the poppier elements they add here make the album feel increasingly uninteresting, utilizing the same patterns to achieve their aims each time. Above & Beyond’s music is clearly very carefully crafted, each tiny blip of sound in exactly the place it was intended, but ultimately becomes very forgettable, not pushing itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness.

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The project opens with expansive, cinematic synths, drawing listeners in to the slower pace of the project. While the instrumental opener “The Inconsistency Principle” is certainly very beautiful, it’s not something I see myself having any desire to listen to repeatedly. The main thing about Above & Beyond is that their music feels like the kind of widely appealing and yet disposable music that appears as the backdrop to commercials and documentaries.

Some of the greatest moments on the project are when Above & Beyond opt to get a bit more rhythmically complex, a track like “Naked” reaching a thrilling climax in the middle of the chorus as a faster-paced synth arrives to disrupt the slow crawl of the sweeping soundscapes associated with many of these tracks. The best track here is “Sahara Love”, vocalist Zoe Johnston delivering some great harmonies on the soaring chorus as her voice is digitally manipulated in the perfect way. The song sounds less like a dance track than any on this project, relying more on the strength of the vocals and driving guitar riff than tried-and-true formulas of the buildup to a drop and calming, higher-pitched melodic elements.

After getting a few tracks in the formula becomes increasingly evident, as Above & Beyond deploy a constant melodic, shimmering synth line and softer-toned, ethereal vocalist before getting suddenly louder with the same brand of rhythmic, syncopated and danceable synth stabs that have been echoing through EDM sets since the beginning of time. The trio are certainly good at what they do and have settled into a groove that have allowed them to conquer in their specific niche, but the best dance music is beginning to move past this and discover some new trends. At the end of the day, I’m looking for music that aspires to more creatively than the exact sounds the average rave attendee would want to hear in that moment, exhibiting more of a sense of musical innovation.

Image result for above and beyond live

Above and Beyond essentially present themselves as the Coldplay of EDM on this project, with easily consumable charm, frequently eye-rollingly cheesy lyrics and catering their sound to fit arena-sized ambitions. The vocalist Richard Bedford in particular appears a few times to deliver lyrics about boundless happiness, indulging the trio’s most overtly cloying tendencies to their absolute limits. “You can never take my soul” he emotes repeatedly on “Northern Soul”. By the time we reach the middle of the album and some less eventful tracks begin to take over, the nearly 6-minutes without much of a satisfying moment for the amount of restraint a track like “Is It Love? (1001)” shows becomes hard to sit through.

Too many of these tracks begin with a promising melody from the vocalist before the drop hits and Above & Beyond resort to the same EDM tricks we’ve heard far too many times, which might work on the dance floor but fail to make much of an impact on active music listeners. It’s easy to see why the trio have come as far as they have, but Common Ground is too formulaic for me.

Favourite Tracks: Sahara Love, Naked, Cold Feet

Least Favourite Track: Is It Love? (1001)

Score: 4/10

Migos – Culture II

Culture II.pngAtlanta rap trio Migos return with the sequel to the album that catapulted them to superstardom, which extends to a gargantuan hour and 45 minutes in length and recruits some high-profile guests as they flex their newfound muscles in the industry in the way only they can.

While the project is very excessive, not varying as much as it certainly should for such a long runtime, the album frequently surprises you by how much the Migos still have a firm grip on the sound that they helped popularize, their technical skill elevating them to another level amongst the scores of trap-rappers today and still finding ways to surprise the listener despite the oversaturation of the group and its individual members. Sure, the album is a chore to get through, but Culture II is full of sure-fire hit singles.

Image result for migos

Can we just talk about “Narcos” for a second? This might be my favourite song associated with the rap trio yet, displaying their ridiculous personalities and quotable lyrics (“Magnifico!”), technical skill and a more innovative beat than usual all in the same place. I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t explode – it’s set over a great Latin-sounding guitar sample that actually originates from Haiti, Offset settling into that chorus perfectly while Quavo provides the melodic hook and Takeoff absolutely demolishes the final verse in a technical showcase. This is the interplay between the trio’s strengths working at its absolute finest.

Speaking of innovative instrumentals, Migos are at their best on this project when they deviate from their formula and still succeed at displaying their chokehold on the pulse of current hip-hop music. They recruit Pharrell on single “Stir Fry”, apparently a leftover beat from T.I. in his prime, and demonstrate their versatility on the more Neptunes-esque production, adapting their flows to more of a swung tempo for a rare moment of deviation from the norm. Also, none other than Kanye West appears on the 21 Savage-featuring “BBO”, which still has a trap beat provided by co-producers – but West’s flipped brass section sample is still refreshing for the group.

Although we’ve heard the least from Takeoff since the Migos takeover, he is the star of this project, often trusted with the final verse and displaying some serious technical skill. We’ve heard everything the other two can do at this point, and the increased role for Takeoff is still giving us some new surprises. There’s too much content on this album to fit into a short review, but some other highlights include Post Malone’s hook on “Notice Me”, and the great piano instrumental, actually produced by Quavo himself, on “Crown The Kings”.

Image result for migos live

Major production contributor DJ Durel recently confirmed that Migos only spend 45 minutes at most on each song – and you can tell that they’re basically on autopilot here (They even have a song with that title on this project!). When you’ve defined an entire cultural movement, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but listening to 24 tracks straight is tiring, especially when you begin to recognize the same tricks they use on many tracks. The lyrical themes become increasingly thin and repeated, a chorus of repeated lines such as the disappointing Drake-featuring “Walk It Talk It” or a carbon copy of an earlier song like the “Deadz”-emulating “Open It Up” leaving me wondering why the album wasn’t cut down to the pristine effect of the trap masterpiece that was the original Culture.

There are far too many filler tracks on here to proclaim the successes of the project’s highest highs – I will never listen to this album in full again, simply picking out my favourite tracks and forgetting about the rest. Not that the album doesn’t go as hard as you’d expect it to at all times, but for so many tracks, when the beat or the hook is just a bit subpar in comparison to its counterparts, songs quickly become expendable.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting something that even closely resembled an album after the nearly endless stream of Migos content we’ve received since “Bad and Boujee” hit #1, but in comparison to the original Culture this plays as more of a mixtape quality project. It’s not enjoyable as an album at all, but it’s still absolutely impossible to deny that Migos energy and the interplay between the members that sparked the whole resurgence of a genre. Culture II is just fun enough throughout.

Favourite Tracks: Narcos, Stir Fry, Notice Me, Crown The Kings

Least Favourite Track: Flooded

Score: 6/10