Mac Miller – Swimming

Image result for mac miller swimmingAfter taking a complete stylistic left turn on his previous album The Divine Feminine, Mac Miller returns two years later with a similar jazz-rap and funk sound that sees him singing more and taking the style even further into neo-soul territory. Dedicated to then-girlfriend Ariana Grande, Miller’s sudden metamorphosis from the goofy frat-rap persona into the soulful romantic on Divine produced his most enjoyable music yet. His fifth album, Swimming, finds Miller in recovery after having lost the inspiration for the sound that coloured his previous work in the wake of his public split from Grande. While the lyrical content of the project is very compelling – Miller trying to learn to rely on himself, rather than someone else, to mend the personal issues that contributed to the split, the music itself can often feel like a more subdued, less fun version of his previous album.

We’re introduced to the album with “Come Back To Earth”, a completely sung track over some orchestral strings and a funk bassline as Miller brings listeners into the emotional state of the album, still clearly affected and looking for a way to get out of his own head, but looking ahead to an optimistic future. This transitions into “Hurt Feelings”, produced by the unusual team-up of J. Cole and Dev Hynes, who I wish brought a little bit more to the table than the extended, moody synths and standard hip-hop beat that frame Miller’s return to more of a rap angle. It’s not the most exciting track, but hearing him describe his active attempts to prevent himself from getting stuck in a rut of depression and move forward continues the theme of the album and gives it more of a hopeful spin than I expected going into the project. Swimming truly picks up on the third track, “What’s The Use?”, which reminds me of Divine Feminine standout “Dang!” with Anderson Paak. Thundercat provides his always incredible contribution to the bassline as Miller picks up a faster flow and one of the catchiest sung choruses here that features backing vocals from Syd and Snoop Dogg. The ease of Miller’s nonchalant flow over a smooth funk instrumental was one of the biggest pleasant surprises in his career progression, and it’s similarly danceable and fun here.

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“Ladders” is another great funk-influenced track here, Miller’s flow at his brightest and most forward, sounding his happiest as the synths pulse in and out and accentuate his flow. The guitar on this track almost reminds me of some old-school Justin Timberlake material, and when the brass section roars in for an instrumental bridge it puts it over the top. It’s the most complex and involved instrumental here. “Small Worlds” reminds me of the shimmering dreamscape of The Divine Feminine more than anything here, as he makes his most obvious lyrical references to Grande as he sheepishly owns up to his faults over some pretty beautiful harmonized vocals, immersing himself briefly in that perfect fantasy world for just another second. DJ Dahi and Steve Lacy team up for another upbeat standout on “Jet Fuel”, where Miller acknowledges the damage he does to himself and his interpersonal relationships due to his drug and alcohol use.

Miller’s singing has never been the best, and it gets more of a focus than ever here to detract from the experience. I understand that he was trying to be emotionally vulnerable with it, but when the instrumentals are emptier than before, driven by some simpler funk loops and giving Miller more space to shine, it exposes that he doesn’t have to voice to carry the style all on his own. It’s fine as a contrast to another part of the song, but trying to carry whole songs with his lower, flimsy vocals can tend to lose the message of the tracks here. I see a lot of people gravitating to single “Self Care”, but Miller’s falsetto chorus and sliding vocal transitions in the interludes are simply not delivered well enough to make the longer track length worth it, despite the pretty decent verses.

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Quite a few of these tracks just never really catch my attention and end unceremoniously, Miller keeping the sound that I enjoyed so much earlier but staying in the murkier lower ends of things and not reaching the euphoric heights of his other tracks in the same style, not latching onto a meaningful motif or melody. The emotion behind it is obviously different, but for all of Miller’s talk of getting out of the stage where he’s “Swimming” in his overwhelming sea of feelings, you’d think the music would reflect this hopeful angle more often. Tracks like “Perfecto” and “Wings” don’t pick themselves up off the ground musically, the instrumentals getting stuck in the watery, creeping synths and sparse percussion, Miller’s off-key choruses not doing much to help the situation despite the strength of his rapping.

Getting lost in Miller’s inner thoughts over the course of this album is a very engaging experience, especially after we saw the aftermath of what he sings about here plastered all over the internet, but if he was going to try to recapture the sound that made his last project work so well, more alterations other than an attempt to make this the sad version could have been made to improve it overall.

Favourite Tracks: Ladders, Small Worlds, What’s The Use?, Jet Fuel

Least Favourite Track: Conversation Pt. 1

Score: 6/10

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Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldTravis Scott’s third album, ASTROWORLD, firmly cements himself in the pantheon of today’s rap superstars with a project where he does everything expected of him and then adds a little more creative flair on top. Of course, nobody is looking to Scott for a work of art, and he delivers fully on a fun and enjoyable summer rap album. While it may not be his best album yet, it’s certainly his most risky, and comes with a truly impressive selection of guests that elevate Scott’s performance to another level entirely. It’s definitely a huge step up from the mundane and disinterested Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (2016), and it’s great to see what Scott can produce when he slows down his speedy release schedule for the first time.

As soon as that fuzzy bassline hits for the first time on opening track “STARGAZING”, we’ve stepped into Scott’s sonic conceptualization of his childhood favourite Houston theme park, since demolished. It’s a frequently surprising and always psychedelic, a magical dreamscape of a place. We hear the sound of a rollercoaster about to drop as the beat completely switches up to this frantic rising synthline as Scott explains the inspiration behind the dedication to the theme park with an expressive, capable flow. The beat switch is a great tactic for Scott, as it shows up again on standout “SICKO MODE”, where Scott and Drake essentially just play around on various incredible instrumentals from Hit-Boy and Tay Keith – Drake brings the same kind of flow he does on Scorpion track “Nonstop”, but the fuller instrumental here, the bass hitting that much harder, is so much more accommodating to him. He actually sounds like he’s having fun! Scott’s deep, slightly melodic voice manages to find the catchiest flow it possibly can on the middle section as well, but this is Drake’s song, and it’s surprisingly all the better for it.

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The experimentation continues on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”, a complete artistic deviation and triumph for Scott that sees him pull from disparate musical worlds to create something completely unique. The pleasant, breathy hook where the title is repeated is backed up by ethereal hums from Kid Cudi, Scott’s Auto-Tuned singing voice in complete command of the slower instrumental – as the track goes on, we get (seriously) some dynamic harmonica solos from STEVIE WONDER, and a final harmonized section from James Blake that’s the most beautiful moment on this whole project. Of course, Scott has no shortage of blistering club tracks either. His quicker flow on moody trap cut “NO BYSTANDERS”, featuring an incendiary hook from newcomer Sheck Wes, is the greatest technical showcase here, and I love how well it complements that quickly oscillating synth noise that comes in in the second half of his verses. “5% TINT” might be my favourite instrumental here, an off-kilter piano loop that sounds like something out of a spooky children’s show, while “CAN’T SAY” is a classic anthemic Scott hook in the vein of a “Goosebumps” or “Antidote”. The Weeknd appears for a feature on “WAKE UP”, framed by a lazy acoustic guitar sample and trap hi-hats as the two get lost in lustful thoughts as only they do, the two trading verses cleanly.

Scott’s genre-hopping is pretty impressive, even if not everything sticks completely. Across the tracklisting, he additionally pays homage to the legendary DJ Screw on “RIP SCREW” with the chopped and screwed, calmer style of R&B-influenced hip-hop he helped pioneer, brings jazz bassist Thundercat and John Mayer together for the wildly spacey and psychedelic “ASTROTHUNDER” and recruits indie band Tame Impala to produce the shimmering interlude “SKELETONS”, which also features vocals from The Weeknd and Pharrell. While none of these tracks are the most structurally cohesive, as I personally am usually looking for something more present from Scott, I seriously have to admire that he managed to pull tracks like these off to some degree of success. Even the closing track, “COFFEE BEAN”, sees Scott’s voice at his all-time clearest, taking the more subdued route of a storyteller rapper for the first time as he speaks out about concerns he had with dating Kylie Jenner as a black man thrust so fully into the private eye, even mentioning that her family had advised against it.

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As a whole, however, ASTROWORLD suffers from the same curse most mainstream rap albums do these days, decreasing noticeably in quality as the album continues and extends to 17 tracks in length. Most of the songs in the back half don’t possess the same degree of experimentation that each one of the preceding tracks do, sounding like relics of Scott’s past work just as most of Birds The lack of polish is evident on a track like “YOSEMITE”, which features some inexcusable mixing problems that undermine a pretty catchy guitar instrumental, while the Migos-featuring “WHO? WHAT!” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” don’t have the immediately catchy hooks that I usually expect from a Scott track, sounding like Scott running out of ideas and opting for streaming numbers instead of the best album he could make. The existence of “BUTTERFLY EFFECT”, a mediocre Auto-Tuned trap cut which was released in May 2017, demonstrates how much less thought went into the back half of the tracklist.

Ultimately, Scott succeeds at painting a vivid picture of the park he loved so much, each of these tracks representing a different ride – “CAROUSEL”, “SICKO MODE” the rollercoaster, “5% TINT” the haunted house … ASTROWORLD represents a similar kind of exhilarating, fleeting joy, a little cheap, but that’s what we all signed up for and expected anyway. I certainly had a great summer day in Astroworld.

Favourite Tracks: SICKO MODE, STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, WAKE UP, 5% TINT, NO BYSTANDERS

Least Favourite Track: BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Score: 7/10

Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13ooI’m not sure anyone was quite ready for Denzel Curry’s TA13OO. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist’s third studio album takes a deep dive into the most tortured levels of his subconscious, dividing the project into three shorter acts – Light, Grey and Dark, which signify the degree to which he gives into and accepts the violence and hatred surrounding him, as well as his own personal paranoias and anxieties. Curry’s lyricism is top notch here, stringing together complex wordplay and extended metaphors that are only bolstered by the sheer force behind his delivery. His confusion and mood swings are additionally represented by his greatest show of versatility yet, mixing his trademark scream-rap style with some extravagant, soulful and jazzy material closer to the “Light” side. This is one of the most essential hip-hop albums of the year without a doubt.

Although the album is broken up into three acts, distinguishing between them isn’t so easy – Curry introduces “Light” singing “welcome to the darkest side of taboo” on the title track. Even at Curry’s most optimistic, trying to distance himself from the issues he speaks on throughout the album, they still weigh heavily on him – specifically as he worries about a friend who had been abused as a child on this track. The sound of most of the Light section, on tracks like “Black Balloons” and “Cash Maniac”, is a complete sonic deviation from what we know from Curry, as he raps in a much clearer, expressive voice and even sings over some dreamy and funk-influenced instrumentals. These brighter instrumentals really allow Curry’s technical skill and lyricism to shine through in a way they never really have before, when we’re not so focused on how hard the beat knocks – this is still saved for later, of course. Curry runs through various characters and alter-egos, as they contradict each other and emphasize his mental chaos – his wordplay seriously verges on an early Eminem level at times here. Not only that, but “Cash Maniac” rides over this old-school 90s West Coast instrumental as Curry delivers a bouncy singsong flow accompanying Nyyjerya’s uncharacteristically catchy pop-rap hook – he does almost everything under the hip-hop spectrum right across the whole album.

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Still, Curry might be at his best doing what he knows best, and there is certainly no shortage of disgustingly grimy hardcore rap tracks here. Single “Sumo” is classic Curry, grit creeping into his voice as he yells his words into the mic, somehow keeping his breath going as he puts everything he has into a quicker-than-expected flow. Charlie Heat’s instrumental comes with fuzzy, industrial bass that injects the track with energy – it’s so hard to write this out as I’m listening right now, because the track just makes me want to get up and move, maybe knock some things over in the process. This transitions into the Grey area with “Super Saiyan Superman”, Curry speeding through the track that comes closest to a modern trap banger here. There’s something about his delivery that makes him stand so far above all of his contemporaries – he’s so present on the track, sounding like a man possessed by some spirit that absolutely needs to get these words out there. The track is punctuated by blood-curdling screams, ending too abruptly.

The Grey area is where we start to see some doubts and worries creeping into Curry’s lyrics, wondering if he’s already subsumed in the cycles he tries to escape from. “Switch It Up” is yet another absolutely searing track, the instrumental sounding like a horror movie as Curry’s flow becomes more stuttered in response to the irregularly cascading hi-hats. The way he switches flows so seamlessly just goes hand in hand with Curry trying frantically to fight off his “mean” persona creeping into his words just as the gravel creeps back into his voice and he starts fantasizing about indulging in his darker thoughts, desensitized to gun violence and expecting his own life to end as a direct result. “Sirens” is the most politically charged track here, getting an assist from similarly grim rising indie pop artist Billie Eilish on the hook and one of the most lyrical current rappers in Dreamville’s J.I.D., making direct references to the presidential election and the resulting state of America, comparing the negative effects of the political divide, the reach of the media and violence in his community to some seriously twisted and decidedly non-politically correct extended metaphors. The passion in his voice makes you understand that he fully believes every word he says.

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The final “Dark” section is some of the most disturbingly nihilistic material I’ve ever heard, but it’s incredibly compelling all the same. He addresses the effects of rappers romanticizing drug abuse on “The Blackest Balloon” and “Percz”, the instrumentals at their most ominous and anxious, menacing bells and deafening bass punctuating Curry’s distressed, mournful voice as he predicts terrorism and the continued deaths of those close to him. The final two tracks, “Vengeance” and “Black Metal Terrorist”, find Curry channelling the hardcore genre, recruiting JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami for some verses that are somehow even more aggressive than his own. It’s some very shocking stuff, and I’ve certainly never heard anything like it, but I can’t deny how much the music takes over my body and senses completely. Curry’s inflections on “Vengeance” are something else – I have no idea how he manages to take his voice to so many different places with such a fast flow.

Curry truly has the full toolkit of a great rapper. It’s so easy to get lost in one of the great aspects of this project and completely miss one of the others – I certainly didn’t understand the importance of most of Curry’s lyrics on the first listen. TA13OO is the most experimental and unique rap record of the year – and is one of the most insane listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Favourite Tracks: Switch It Up, Vengeance, Sumo, Cash Maniac, Super Saiyan Superman

Least Favourite Track: Clout Cobain…?

Score: 9/10

RL Grime – Nova

Image result for rl grime novaElectronic musician RL Grime, fluent in the sounds of future bass, drum ‘n’ bass, and of course grime, defies most EDM artists’ approach to drop a well thought out and cohesive project rather than sporadic singles. Nova is his second full-length, following 2014’s Void, and runs through a high-energy and endlessly fun selection of different sounds and genres, recruiting a great selection of guests as well. Most of these tracks are shell-shockingly heavy with bass and other dominant, flaring synths, and puts RL Grime in a category all on his own by sheer virtue of his ability to craft these tailor-made party tracks that still include a selection of sounds so distinctive and distracting. The transitions and clear album structure, as well, make the usually taxing task of listening to an EDM album, almost an hour straight of one-note dance tracks, much more engaging – though at 15 songs it still does fall victim to a few pitfalls of almost every electronic full-length.

RL Grime has always incorporated elements of trap music into his work, even before the huge boom in popularity of the genre, so he makes an easier transition than most in keeping his brand of EDM relevant to the musical conversation as the mid-2010s brostep wave dies out. The focus on it isn’t huge here, Grime maintaining what makes him unique, but the familiar hi-hats serve as the foundation that Grime builds his dynamic soundscapes on to a successful degree, tracks where hip-hop artists show up some of the best here. “Feel Free” is a great instrumental intro that displays his musicality as it relates to the wonky, perfectly arrhythmic future bass sound – the track is a nice introduction to the rest of his work here, being pretty abrasive immediately but dynamic and experimental enough to surprise the listener as it breaks from formula. I always love when the 2nd drop switches up the sound rather than looping the first half of the song once again.

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As the tracklisting continues, Grime really does show his diversity in running through a lot of different styles here, the album rarely boring to listen to. “Shrine” re-introduces some of his older elements of high-speed drum ‘n’ bass, while “Light Me Up” brings both Miguel and Julia Michaels aboard for a bouncy, tropical pop track, Michaels’ soft and seductive vocals contrasting surprisingly well with the pounding synth line in the chorus.

The following run of 3 hip-hop influenced tracks is where the album hits its experimental and euphoric stride, however. Jeremih’s delivery on “Undo” is intoxicating, flowing smoothly over a traditional rap instrumental before Grime unexpectedly drops a quirky, jagged synth melody that sends the track into an energetic overdrive. “Take It Away” is a track that really shocked me, however. Featuring (2018 MVP?) Ty Dolla $ign, it’s one of the biggest musical sensory overloads I’ve ever experienced. The chorus features these gargantuan sliding synths, elevating upwards like some kind of twisted carnival ride, eerie yet completely celebratory and triumphant, alternating with complete silence as the undeniable effortless cool of Ty holds it all together. The same kind of euphoric, top-of-the world feeling is replicated on “Reims” – something about it just makes you feel powerful. The wailing, distorted vocal sample underscores what can only be described as a strobe light in sound form, a completely in-your-face oscillating synth line. “Pressure” is another great instrumental track, a slightly menacing bassline building to the kind of trademark off-kilter future-bass chorus Grime is known for.

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As is to be expected with an EDM project, a few of these tracks have too many similarities to exist on the same tracklisting together, although I do appreciate how Grime tries to make it appear more than rinse-and-repeat with his transitions. There’s only so much pummelling my senses into submission that I can take in one sitting! Actually though, some of my least favourite tracks on this project are when Grime opts to tone it down a bit. “OMG” is an upbeat and fun track, but it pales in comparison to the previous two similar tracks with hip-hop artists, Joji’s laid back delivery not fitting in as well. “Shoulda” introduces a run of instrumental tracks with a more atmospheric sound bordering on chillwave that takes too long to get to its higher-energy conclusion and doesn’t align with his greatest strengths. “I Wanna Know”, featuring Daya, and “UCLA”, featuring rapper 24hrs, feel out of place tacked onto the end of the tracklisting as well farther away from their counterparts.

Nova is one of the most consistently engaging EDM projects I’ve heard in a while, due to RL Grime’s ability to switch up his style all the while inserting himself in the current musical conversation. It’s easy to see why he’s had staying power over quite a few of his contemporaries who started around the same time, and his creativity and adaptability across the board here make him stand out. I’m sure I’d like it even more in a live setting.

Favourite Tracks: Take It Away, Reims, Pressure, Undo, Feel Free

Least Favourite Track: Shoulda

Score: 8/10