James Bay – Electric Light
James Bay completely revamps his image on sophomore album Electric Light, linking up with Adele producer Paul Epworth to take his music in a much poppier direction, while still maintaining the soulful, almost gospel-influenced delivery that lent itself well to his stirring rock ballads. The transition isn’t always seamless, the album coming across as quite a mixed bag at times, the songs containing a lot of raw power that doesn’t always fall perfectly into the structure of a song. But when Bay settles into a groove, his delivery stands out among his contemporaries.
Opening track “Wasted On Each Other” is a pretty good representation of what we’re going to get over the rest of the album, Bay introducing the chorus with some falsetto vocals and a steadily building synth line before his heavier guitars and powerful delivery cascades back in too quickly. Bay doesn’t have the greatest grasp of his strengths on the project, offering some spectacular moments inconsistently. Many of these tracks are perfectly fine, but they could be a lot more as demonstrated by standout tracks like “Pink Lemonade” and the incredible gospel harmonies on “Fade Out” that feel so much more natural than the digitally altered companions “Wild Love” and “In My Head”. The latter especially feels like it’s teetering right on the edge of being something incredible, never reaching it. The sparse, passionate chorus feels immediately anthemic and iconic, but it’s brought down by abrupt shifts in energy and out-of-place pop synths. It feels like three genres collide awkwardly on the majority of the tracks, and when he focuses on a single one, he shines every time. Single “Pink Lemonade” is an energetic retro-pop track, driven by a prominent bass riff and a harmonized chorus. The crunchy guitars and electronic elements make the track chaotic in the best way, most of the musical elements dropping out near the track’s conclusion to showcase that standout voice before the drums roll back in for the dramatic conclusion.
For someone who seems so desperate for a change in his perception across the project, the most characteristically Bay songs frequently stand out, adding enough of a change with the fuller instrumentation while maintaining the things that make him a unique artist. “Us” is a beautifully-written gospel piano ballad, a choir backing him up as he returns to the intimate, confessional songwriting that drew him notice in the first place. Closing track “Slide”, as well, is a much quieter song detailing the rediscovery of love after the end of another relationship – and Bay’s ability to convey emotion absolutely sells it with every tiny warble and trill. But if there’s one thing he’s consistently incredible at, its the ability to write a dynamic and stirring chorus. “Just For Tonight” is another larger-than-life harmonized track that brings back the fuzzy guitars and coasts on its own energy.
Bay essentially performs a reverse Harry Styles here, shifting from cheesy rock to universally appealing pop rather than cheesy pop to universally appealing rock. In a similar way, he undergoes a dramatic shift to shed the image of the guy with the huge hat singing an acoustic rock ballad for something more ambitious and dynamic, citing Prince and Frank Ocean as influences, and overplays his hand. Still, the fact that about half of it works VERY well is incredible in and of itself.
Favourite Tracks: Pink Lemonade, Us, Slide, Fade Out
Least Favourite Track: Stand Up
BTS – Love Yourself: Tear
The staggering popularity of Korean boy-band BTS has become too great to ignore, the group debuting this album at #1 and receiving a Top 10 hit in the USA with their lead single “FAKE LOVE”. I didn’t know much about what to expect with this album, and I must say that BTS certainly exceeded my expectations. Love Yourself: Tear is a little erratic and trend-hopping due to the stronger focus on widespread commercial appeal in the K-pop market, but the interplay between the group’s many members and their inclusion of sounds from the 90s, even diving into some instrumentals that remind me of old-school West Coast hip-hop, make the project a lot of fun.
“FAKE LOVE” is a certified banger and absolutely deserves all of the success it’s getting. It introduces a lot of the 90s vibes of the album well, and it’s one of the rare occasions where the singers of the group steal the thunder from the rappers – those “just for you” backing vocals are delivered so well to support them, and there’s about three different hooks to get stuck in your head permanently here. RM, or Rap Monster, emerges as the true star of the group on most of the track he features on, however. “Anpanman” and especially “134340” clearly draw heavy inspiration from West Coast legends, RM sounding like he’s trying to emulate Snoop Dogg over the woodwind instrumental and G-funk tempo. His deep, laid-back vocals are effortless and distinctive from the group’s other rappers – and he has some seriously impressive technical skill as well, “Outro: Tear” verging on speedrap.
“Paradise” continues the streak, creating the most immediately catchy track here by adding a skittering trap beat to some classic 90s cascading synth chords and another chilled-out verse from another of the group’s rappers, Suga contrasting a pretty flawlessly written chorus melody. The producers here know exactly what they’re doing, and when you combine their dance ability with these catchy pop choruses and rap talent it’s easy to see why the group is such a worldwide phenomenon. There was never a popular boy-band quite this dynamic and versatile – the closest comparison being something of a much larger, male TLC. They try out a lot of styles across this project and succeed at most of them – I even love the enormous EDM breakdown on the cinematic, uptempo “Magic Shop”.
The project is carried by the energy generated by the group’s interplay and rapid-fire delivery, and the album does take a little while to get going in this regard. The intro, “Singularity”, and the Steve Aoki-produced “The Truth Untold” are both structured like a 90s slow jam, the singers of the group delivering passionate vocals over a waltz tempo, but knowing what I know now about the group I’m just waiting for RM to jump back on the mic and electrify the song. I can’t deny how well these tracks are produced, though – maybe this is a case of the language barrier stepping in. You can see the wheels of marketability turning behind the scenes a bit too much as well, a track like “Airplane pt.2” being a pretty watered-down imitation of the Latin pop explosion.
BTS have a lot of things going well for them, and it seems like the team around them know how to cater to those strengths. Love Yourself: Tear makes it impossible to deny the talent behind one of the world’s most popular acts.
Favourite Tracks: Paradise, 134340, FAKE LOVE, Outro: Tear, Magic Shop
Least Favourite Track: So What
Pusha T – DAYTONA
I really thought I was going to be reviewing A$AP Rocky’s latest disappointing release TESTING here, but Pusha T’s victory over him in sales is incredibly exciting for everyone at G.O.O.D. Music and it means I have no excuse but to talk about it. DAYTONA is the first of five 7-track albums in superproducer and controversy magnet Kanye West’s ambitious plan to release back-to-back projects produced primarily by himself. With a ruthless and dominating mic presence like Pusha T, it means there is absolutely no room for filler and the shorter length works wonders, Pusha taking no prisoners for just over 20 minutes. West’s beats are as soulful as they’ve ever been, with a new cold and calculating edge that matches Pusha’s menacing sneer and ominous wordplay.
As Drake may have famously learned, Pusha T is not to be underestimated as a lyricist, or anything else – even if the subject material is mainly the same, he has some of the cleverest wordplay and cultural references in the game. The real appeal for me has always been the way he delivers the lines, however. Pusha T’s voice is very distinct, very expressive with its inflections yet remaining at the deeper tone we know him for that complements darker instrumentals so well. His ability to sound so happy, or surprised, or angry by raising his voice just a tiny bit allows him to issue threats to his enemies with a kind of demonic glee. The project opens with a great 1-2 punch in “If You Know You Know” and “The Games We Play”, which are a welcome return to classic Kanye production. The former chops up a piercing guitar wail into a syncopated hip-hop beat, but “The Games We Play” sounds like it’s directly off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, looping a catchy guitar riff with some cinematic horn stabs punctuating Pusha’s every gritty description of his drug-dealer past and yeugh ad-lib. It makes you feel like he puts everything he has into every single word he states, drawing out syllables and overpronouncing words to make sure we understand. We get the greatest display of commanding vocal presence on closing track “Infrared”, an incredibly thinly veiled shot at Drake and other members of what was once the Young Money label, accusing him of ghostwriting and losing his identity pandering to white audiences.
West’s production always succeeds both in bringing the absolute best out of Push and offering a bit of a counteraction to the non-stop verbal assault when necessary. “Come Back Baby” is the centerpiece of the album, Pusha T delivering a more basic flow that makes every word count over one of the most minimal beats here, not much more than two notes of creeping synth-bass, before the chorus transitions into a generous sample of soul singer George Jackson, a jarring shift to a completely different and catchy alternative that shouldn’t work as well as it does. West’s sample work is what he’s known for, and they show up on every single track here. “Hard Piano” has another great sampled chorus and looped, muted jazz piano that draws just enough attention as Pusha takes the spotlight – average Rick Ross feature aside. The beat switch in “Santeria”, the off-kilter soul organ picking the track back up from 070 Shake’s chilling, echoey vocals, is the best moment on the whole thing.
I almost want to say that the true star of the project is West, but that isn’t true at all – all the studio sessions in Wyoming resulted in a perfect fusion of their respective strengths. The beats are still characteristically West, but we’ve never really heard anything like this from him. Not incredibly different artists, Pusha accomplishes his aims through a no-nonsense approach where West might fall back on a joke, and the adaptation of his production style to a dark and straightforward approach gives Pusha T all the ammunition he needs to exert his dominance.
Favourite Tracks: If You Know You Know, Santeria, The Games We Play, Come Back Baby
Least Favourite Track: Hard Piano