6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter

Lowkey alt-R&B crooner 6lack (yes, pronounced “black”) unleashes his sophomore project East Atlanta Love Letter after the success of his Grammy-nominated debut Free 6lack. Not changing up the formula that worked out for him in the past, 6lack still represents yet another of the scores of alt-R&B artists that rose to popularity in the wake of The Weeknd’s unlikely ascent to pop superstardom, many artists emulating the nihilistic lyrics, somber, moody instrumentals and intentionally emotionless and desensitized delivery of some heavier topics that he helped popularize in the early 2010s. While there isn’t much we haven’t already heard before on this project, the main thing that distinguishes 6lack from his contemporaries is the gravel in his voice and his very open approach to relationships in particular in his lyrics, especially after recently becoming a father. Still, most of this 14-track project fails to capture my attention, lingering in the hazy alt-R&B sludge.

The track “Unfair” opens the project, a shorter track in which 6lack emotes about two parties failing to see eye to eye on their desires in a relationship with some Auto-Tuned falsetto notes, the track opening with some frigid synths and watery piano notes before the telltale trap beat picks up in the second half – 6lack is back to the same tricks, and this track definitely establishes the atmosphere of the project. There are times here when his producers come through and craft an engaging instrumental around his unique voice and we get some pretty fun trap-flavoured material – the track “Loaded Gun” is another trap-piano cut from producer Bizness Boi where 6lack comes across like a more charismatic Bryson Tiller on the mic with a quicker, slightly melodic flow, the instrumental cutting out at the right times for his gravelly voice to shine through. He even demonstrates some pretty great harmonies on the track. The same producer returns on another upbeat track in “Let Her Go”, which is an equally catchy trap instrumental where 6lack’s hooks don’t really match up – the repeated note in the chorus doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason, and neither do his lyrics where he is indecisive over whether he would regret leaving the mother of his new child for one of the “distractions” on tour.

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6lack’s singing voice is at its best on the track “Sorry”, and it shows that he really does have potential with the right kind of approach – the track is only slightly different instrumentally, but this time the piano is accompanied by more prominent orchestral swells, the percussion sounding like more traditional R&B which frames his vocals better. J. Cole’s appearance taking over the second half of “Pretty Little Fears” is another highlight of the album – Cole has really retuned in a huge way, and he elaborates on the world 6lack builds with a calmer verse proclaiming his love for his wife with some genuinely heartwarming lyrics, a nice break from 6lack’s outlook.

Most of the project is a chore to get through, however. I thought an appearance from Future on the longer title track would inject some energy into 6lack’s meandering vocalizations over sparse percussion that colours most of the tracks here, but Future actually adapts to 6lack’s style instead. The two trade lines, even repeating some of each other’s motifs and verses as they both attempt some complex vocal runs through their Auto-Tune machine that just ends up sounding like a mess … that thing can’t make just anything at all sound good! Too many of the tracks here end up sounding the same, the instrumentals mostly comprised of isolated trap hi-hats and orchestral-themed creeping and moody soundscapes. When 6lack brings more of his hip-hop side to the table, injecting some energy into an instrumental like that can be a lot of fun, but we mostly just get the over-indulgent and melodramatic singing material that he can’t pull off as well as most of his contemporaries.

The back half is essentially all filler, even featuring some issues with mixing and mastering that are too obvious to ignore – especially regarding Offset’s awkward feature verse bringing the Migos flow to an environment that doesn’t accommodate it in the slightest on the track “Balenciaga Challenge”. The choice of tracks “Switch” and “Nonchalant” as singles instead of anything in the first half is a truly strange decision. The presence of a Drake-esque knocking hi-hat beat (produced by one of my favourites in pop producer Joel Little) on the former is definitely a nice change of pace, but the melodies still come together awkwardly, like he’s just slightly off-key in a few places, and the effect placed on his vocals make it sound like he’s singing underwater – it’s a very rare miss for the New Zealand producer.

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“Disconnect” is another track that sounds like they were going for a hit with some of 6lack’s most melodic hooks on the project, but the tempo of the song is a complete snail’s pace and since 6lack has far from the greatest singing voice in the world, it’s hard to get through. The final four tracks are essentially the same alt-R&B slow ballad copy-pasted and it’s tough to find individual things to comment on. I did enjoy the concept of closing track “Stan”, flipping the narrative of the Eminem classic to speak on his own pursuit of a fan, while Khalid’s feature on the track “Seasons” is as underwhelming as most of his solo work.

East Atlanta Love Letter doesn’t have much going for it in the way of showing 6lack’s personality, artistry or originality, falling short of the successes of his debut project. It’s clear that this trend and this genre are here to stay for the foreseeable future – would it hurt anyone to switch it up in the slightest?

Favourite Tracks: Pretty Little Fears, Loaded Gun, Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Nonchalant

Score: 3/10

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Tori Kelly – Hiding Place

Hiding Place Official Album Cover by Tori Kelly.jpegR&B singer/songwriter and one of the most impressive technical singers in the game Tori Kelly finally releases her second studio album after 2015’s Unbreakable Smile, teaming up with multiple Grammy-Award winning gospel artist Kirk Franklin to go in a heavily Christian-influenced direction. Franklin has recently contributed to albums by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper and is credited as a writer and producer on every track here, matching up his always enjoyable brand of jubilant soul to the vocal clinics that Kelly puts on here. While a few of the slower tracks here do extend a little long and verge into the territory of prioritizing the ideology behind the lyrics more than the enjoyability of the song itself, old-school gospel music is a great fit for Kelly’s ridiculous vocal runs, and she certainly shows off her skillset here.

The project kicks off with a bang on the track “Masterpiece”, which features Christian rapper Lecrae. A church organ slides into the enormous and uplifting chords coming from the backing gospel choir and horn section as Kelly breezes through some truly Aguileran vocal acrobatics before the breakbeat drops and the track turns into a pretty standard upbeat R&B track you’d find on one of her albums regardless. Tori Kelly’s voice would be instantly recognizable anywhere, usually staying in an impressively high belting range accompanied by the trademark emotional little breaks and squeaks that make her so distinctive as she ascends up and down the scales in seconds on almost every end to a musical phrase. The track really picks up near the end with more of a trap-influenced breakdown, the choir returning to shine over the more minimal, half-time instrumental before Lecrae drops in with an enjoyable verse.

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There really is something undeniable about the specific chords associated with gospel music, and Franklin is the best man to turn to in order to bring them out. The combination of old-school gospel sensibilities with the 90s R&B style Tori brings to the table with her vocal delivery makes for the kind of display of musicality that makes your face scrunch up and make some involuntary noises of excitement. Take me to CHURCH! The track “Help Us To Love” plays out like a late-90s slow jam, featuring soul singer Anthony Hamilton’s backing vocalists the Hamiltones sounding like Boyz II Men as they complement Kelly’s emotional pleas for a world full of more love. “Sunday” is another great track where Franklin adds some classic 90s hip-hop sounds to an acoustic funk guitar pattern and walking bassline. Tori comes through midway through the track with a beautiful harmonized scat solo and it really reminds you just how boundless her talent is – classically trained, she can tackle anything from pop to jazz to gospel effortlessly.

After the opening three songs, the lyrical content of the album gets more explicitly Christian as the songs become more traditional, taking away from my personal enjoyment and replay value of the album even as Kelly continues to display some seriously impressive vocals. Apparently, she will release another, more commercial album relatively soon, and I’ll be waiting impatiently for that one. “Just As Sure” is more of a pop/folk style song, Kelly dropping down to a lower range than usual in a duet with singer Jonathan McReynolds over a calmer acoustic guitar pattern. With McReynolds’ higher tenor voice, it’s interesting to hear Kelly’s capable vocals in support rather than taking the flashier role in a duet and the two really do sound great together – I can’t deny how beautiful their harmonies and the backing choir that appears at the track’s conclusion are, but there’s only so many ‘Jesus I love you’s I can take seriously.

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The track “Psalm 42” is based off of the words of an actual Biblical psalm and is the most low-key track here, extending to 5 and a half minutes as Kelly repeats most of the same phrases for the whole duration – turning these ancient words into a pop song makes for some awkward syllable emphasis as well, making the chorus easily the least memorable on the project. “Soul’s Anthem (It Is Well)” closes out the project with an extended, percussion-less display of Kelly pushing her voice to its limits in praise in a kind of freeform call-and-response with the choir that leaves me in awe of her talent but unlikely to return to the song due to it losing its sense of rhythmic structure that holds everything together. “Questions” is another slower track that features some awkwardly phrased and painfully blunt Christian doctrine referring to important world issues in its lyrics, but gave me the most visceral reaction of any here as Kelly layers her vocals to incredible, chills-inducing effect in the second verse.

As a huge fan of Kelly’s musical style without the faith she speaks of, it’s hard to know how to quantify or analyze the project due to its ability to resonate differently with different people. The combination of the massive talents of Kelly and Kirk Franklin do create some of the most incredible musical moments I’ve heard all year – but for me personally, its hard to get over some of the less contemporary aspects of the project.

Favourite Tracks: Masterpiece, Sunday, Help Us To Love

Least Favourite Track: Psalm 42

Score: 7/10

MAGIC! – Expectations

Image result for magic expectations coverNot much came out this week, so here’s something that’s a lot more popular in my home country of Canada: Pop/reggae band MAGIC!, fronted by prominent pop songwriter Nasri Atweh, drop their third studio album Expectations (didn’t we already have 2 other major albums with this title this year??). The group veers closer to pure pop music than ever before, offering a relatively safe and inoffensive album as their popularity in the rest of the world wanes coming down from 2013 #1 hit “Rude”. Atweh’s voice is still as impossibly smooth and enjoyable to listen to as ever, but Expectations loses a lot of its power through the songwriting and structure here.

The project opens with the title track, which immediately drops into the familiar “One Dance” watered-down dancehall groove and one of those choruses that consists of a drawn-out syncopated syllable: “Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-expectations”. One of the things that drew people to MAGIC! at the height of their popularity was the fact that their reggae fusion sound was completely unique on pop radio, and to see them immediately revert to these tired trends at this point is disappointing to open the project. Their roots aren’t gone completely though, and the reggae style reappears on tracks like single “Kiss Me”, which has a definite feel of 80s pop – the staccato jumps of the underlying guitar groove almost remind me of Toto’s classic “Africa” and the track is just as maddeningly catchy. The ending of the track is MAGIC! getting its closest to recapturing something special, Atweh ad-libbing some runs over the repeated hook as the horn section roars in.

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Atweh’s voice is the strongest point on the album, and we get to hear it in a way we haven’t really before on the acoustic track “More Of You”, an angle the band hasn’t explored often. The strummed, minimal romantic ballad places his vocals at the forefront, and the track gets very emotional with the same kind of believable, honest delivery we’ve heard on the band’s more passionate singles and some beautiful harmonies – the piano finally comes in to sell the track as it reaches its conclusion. “Appreciate You” is another reggae-tinged track that closes out the stronger run at the beginning of the project, those classic rolling drum fills a staple of the genre but still so missed in the current landscape of music.

Atweh has been in the business a while as a successful songwriter, and he certainly has a strong sense of musicality and knows how to write a good pop song if he needs to. There are a few tracks here that do fit the bill, but fail to go the extra mile and excite, not measuring up to their previous similar works or breaking out of the mold of pleasant, safe pop songwriting or structure. “Core” is a track that drops into a fun electronic instrumental chorus after being built up by some full harmonies supporting Atweh’s lower, tender and emotional delivery that he is known for, but again it’s something that sounds like it would be more in place in the musical landscape of 3 years ago. The back half of the album is filled with more uninspired and unoriginal tracks, mostly full of awkward and cliched songwriting and strange sonic choices that signal some serious desperation and losing sight of what made the group interesting in the first place.

“Darts In The Dark” begins as a promising track with more of a rock/ska sound before dropping into an overproduced electronic chorus that completely clashes with the sound of the rest of the track and is startlingly loud in the mix. When the synth pattern continues over the drumbeat of the remainder of the song as the two elements combine in the end (in predictable pop music fashion), the two rhythms don’t come together at all and create a jumbled mess. Tracks like “Motions” and “How You Remember Me” are underwritten, repeating a single phrase for most of the chorus, while the sound of the tracks don’t do much to distinguish themselves from the stronger yet similar songs in the first half – the latter especially is another surprising misfire from someone as experienced as Atweh, the percussion dropping out for a louder, harmonized first chorus but deflating the building energy of the track in the process.

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The sole highlight of the back half is “When The Trust Is Gone”, another complete sonic deviation into more of an R&B territory but one that really works for the band, using their funk-infused reggae sensibilities for a bouncy old-school soul instrumental like the ones we heard on Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love, complete with an impressive guitar solo … and then the album closes with whatever that obnoxious pitched vocal on “A Little Bit Of Love” is.

MAGIC! was never the most innovative band, but they were a unique presence in pop music when they debuted 5 years ago. Atweh still carries a few of these tracks with his vocals, and some of that uniqueness does remain, but for the most part Expectations is far too safe to linger in my mind.

Favourite Tracks: When The Trust Is Gone, Kiss Me, Appreciate You

Least Favourite Track: Darts In The Dark

Score: 4/10

Joey Purp – QUARTERTHING

Image result for QUARTERTHINGChance the Rapper affiliate and SAVEMONEY Crew member Joey Purp finally delivers his debut studio album, 3 years after exploding onto the scene with his 2015 mixtape iiiDrops. The Chicago rap scene has been thriving in recent years, and Purp maintains his standing as one of the most creative artists from the city with this project, continuing to contrast his blunt and straightforward raps with some of the most innovative and quirky production we’ve heard on a rap album all year. Working with local jazz/funk collective The Social Experiment, the combined efforts make QUARTERTHING one of the best rap projects of the year.

Similar to his last project, QUARTERTHING opens with a grand and cinematic number in “24k Gold/Sanctified”, which features R&B vocalist Ravyn Lenae. The track cascades through sections of triumphant and explosive piano loops and live percussion, harmonized choral backing vocals and quieter sections as Purp draws out a half-sung “I’m still aliiiiiive!” Purp’s emotionally charged delivery frequently sees him perfectly balance a characteristically Chicago soulful timbre and pushing his vocals to the point of a borderline out-of-control shout. The tracklisting really dives into completely unique territory with a seriously impressive run beginning with its second track, “Godbody Pt. 2”, a continuation of a track from iiiDrops introduced by none other than the RZA. Purp’s flow dexterously navigates through chaotic rolling drum fills and a seriously funky descending synth-bassline in an absolute sensory overload of a track, Purp at what might be his most technically impressive on the album as the instrumental cuts out at the most opportunistically euphoric moments.

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One of the greatest things about QUARTERTHING, strangely, is some of the abrupt endings and shorter tracks here, and that is because of just how versatile Purp is. When under most circumstances this might be annoying, Purp cutting off some of these tracks midsentence with a second of static before catapulting listeners into a completely different sound is absolutely exhilarating and just makes his talent all the more impressive, and makes me want to play the full album instead of individual tracks. “Hallelujah” is a shorter, celebratory track featuring some blaring horns from Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet) that tumbles into the back-to-back party tracks built for the Chicago juking dance style in “Elastic” and “Aw Sh*t!”. I’ve always loved Purp the most in this style, introduced to me with 2015 standout “Girls @”, the more minimal instrumental and Purp’s deeper vocals delivered with a fun-loving wink making a completely unique-sounding track – nobody else is rapping over instrumentals quite like these. The latter especially is a blast, Purp delivering some quotables over a skittering breakbeat and handclaps as his vocals are chopped up in the background – the track ends with what sounds like the trap version of an ice-cream truck, because why not. It’s all Purp’s off-the-wall aesthetic.

Talking about this project in chronological order is a lot of fun, writing as I listen through, because every twist and turn the tracklisting takes is surprising. The title track “QUARTERTHING” shows yet another dimension for him, Purp at what might be his most aggressive delivery yet as he distorts his vocals and lowers to a menacing drawl over some eerie sliding synths, a droning bassline and off-kilter Pharrell-esque percussion. The ridiculously strong first half of the album closes with “Paint Thinner”, the only track here that’s unabashedly trap music, but Purp makes it work for him by applying a speedy yet much more straightforward flow than usual and somehow making it sound great anyway – he drops into the Migos flow for a few bars at the start of the second verse just to show how different what he’s doing really is.

The second half definitely lags behind, but it was a pretty difficult act to follow. The song “2012” features a much calmer instrumental of higher-pitched synths that doesn’t really fit with Purp’s energetic yelps in the forefront – the man thrives in the chaos. The lack of distracting bells and whistles exposes Purp’s weaknesses as a lyricist for a second, his delivery sounding strangely one-note. “Fessional/Diamonds Dancing” sounds more like Purp trying to fit in with modern rap trends than anything else here, adopting a bit of a Blocboy JB slurred cadence here that feels more inauthentic than his genuine joy just to be here on every other track, while “Karl Malone” is essentially a combination of the previous two criticisms – he layers his voice in Auto-Tune and raps over a menacing sparse piano beat … OG Maco he is not, and the track drones on and falls apart.

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Still, the fuzzy synth-bass and quirky bleeps and bloops of braggadocio-laden track “Look At My Wrist” is no less of a complete shot of adrenaline despite the underwritten hook – I love how every aspect of the track just starts gradually speeding up at the end, like Purp is unable to be contained. “Bag Talk” and “Lebron James” are more of Purp elevating unique instrumentals with his Energizer Bunny self as well.

Purp, for the most part, has done something pretty incredible in creating an album that flows together perfectly in certain areas, each track impressive and engaging for a completely different reason. Even with the inconsistencies, you can listen to the whole thing and not realize that 40 minutes have gone by due to how much of a mic presence Purp possesses. I’ve been waiting 3 years to see what he could deliver on a full-length studio album and like usual, he impressed.

Favourite Tracks: Godbody – Pt. 2, Aw Sh*t!, Hallelujah, Paint Thinner, 24k Gold/Sanctified

Least Favourite Track: Karl Malone

Score: 8/10

Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngFormer YouTube sensation and retro-pop rising star Troye Sivan evades the sophomore curse with his second studio album Bloom, a celebratory and confessional look at Sivan’s powerful self-expression as he details his approaches to relationships as a gay man set to the kind of pop music that inspired him growing up. Working with some of the best writers and producers in the business right now, Sivan’s honest and raw vocal delivery sells the more minimal and understated tracks, while the rest are an energetic yet captivatingly sensual pop extravaganza.

We’re immediately transported into the kind of deeply personal lyricism we’re going to get throughout the project on opening track “Seventeen”, in which Sivan reflects – with the slightest hint of regret – on having his first romantic experience through online dating at a young age with an older man. Like most of tracks here, the instrumental isn’t comprised of much more than moody, lush and cinematic synth lines that frame Sivan’s vocals in a kind of ethereal, dreamy way – save for the briefly explosive chorus where some syncopated percussion evokes an earlier era of pop music. Sivan’s descriptions of his relationships here is often viewed through a kind of idealistic sense of wonderment and discovery, and the sound of the music itself reflects this perfectly.

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Sivan’s similar single “The Good Side” has already landed on my midyear list for 2018, and examines the other side, after a relationship has come to an end, with a similarly ambiguous outlook and minimal instrumental produced by Ariel Rechtshaid. The track is a lengthy slow-burn, Sivan’s vocals at the forefront – and he doesn’t even have to do much to sound great, pouring so much emotion into every syllable. Rechtshaid’s small instrumental embellishments that pop up throughout the track do so much to paint the atmospheric world of the song, Sivan’s lyricism at its best as he details his techniques for moving on from the end of a relationship, thankful for the life he’s able to live as a famous musician, but still reminiscing on the good times and wanting to reconcile things. Troye is feeling guilty that he got “the good side” of the breakup. Sivan’s vocals reach their emotional peak on the track “Postcard”, a somber piano ballad where he duets with Australian folk singer Gordi. Sivan vividly describes a specific instance of a failure to respond to a postcard as the first instance of doubting the longterm success of a relationship. Those tiny breaks in his voice at the bottom of his range mean so much to the overall delivery, and the harmonies on the chorus when both singers finally come together are one of the most beautiful moments on the whole project.

Sivan gets more upbeat as well, as many heralded opening single “My My My!” at the start of this year. It’s a smartly structured chorus, with a persistent bassline and immediately anthemic delivery from Sivan as his vocals are layered to sound larger than life. One of the real crown jewels of the album, however, is the Ariana Grande duet “Dance To This”. The track took a long time to grow on me, but it really sneaks up on you as one of the catchiest tracks of the year. It’s yet another instance of Sivan embracing a less-is-more mentality, not pushing his vocals on us too much but drawing the listener in with that breathy, almost whispered chorus line. Grande is always a welcome addition to any track, and the two both drop into the sensual part of their range that they’re each known for, complementing each other incredibly well. The bassline is very percussive, and brings that factor of danceability they speak of to what would otherwise exist as a pretty calm and understated track. That repeated synth hook in the background sticks in your head as well – I doubt I’ll ever get tired of listening to this one.

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“Bloom” is another track that leans fully into the late-80s dancepop sound, featuring some vibrant building synth chords and a syncopated guitar riff as Sivan harmonizes overtop, once again speaking of the excitement of a first love. So much of the strengths of this album comes from the production value, which, like Sivan’s voice, is never overly flashy or too prominent, but fits the mood of the descriptive lyrics perfectly. The driving percussion on the track mirrors the kind of building anticipation that Sivan speaks of. The album loses a bit of steam as it starts to wind down to its conclusion, but there’s still some strength to every track here. Tracks like “Plum” and “Lucky Strike” are slightly redundant in sound at that point of the album, but still possess some pretty flawless dance-pop choruses, while “Animal”, which Sivan describes as an “80s stadium love song”, is a great way to ease listeners out of the project with another slow build Rechtshaid instrumental.

Bloom is one of those rare albums for me this year where I can find something to like about every track here, making the selection of a least favourite very difficult. Sivan has a very engaging mic presence, seemingly without even trying too hard to have one, and his lyrics are some of the most compelling of the year while bringing back a great retro sound with an excellent degree of cohesion.

Favourite Tracks: The Good Side, Dance To This, Animal, Seventeen, Postcard

Least Favourite Track: My My My!

Score: 9/10

Eminem – Kamikaze

Image result for eminem kamikazeRap powerhouse and king of controversy Eminem’s tenth studio album Kamikaze, released as a surprise less than a year after his previous effort Revival, continues to take a deep dive into Eminem’s self-examinations of his own artistry and the criticism that accompanies it. After the negative reception to Revival, a complete tonal misfire that easily stands out as the worst of his career, it would appear that all the negative commentary has made Eminem angry again – and angry is evidently a great place for him to be. While its still far from perfect, Kamikaze sees Eminem’s unparalleled technical skillset back on display over some sorely missed heavy-hitting hip-hop beats, as he sets out to prove that one bad album doesn’t destroy his legacy.

The first three tracks on this project are honestly some of the most impressive rapping we’ve heard from Eminem in close to a decade, as he finally abandons his choppy staccato flow and drops back into some Slim Shady-esque material. Not only that, but on opening track “The Ringer” he essentially lyrically obliterates the entire industry, artists and critics alike. While Eminem’s approach to the current wave of rappers can seem out-of-touch at times, when he’s dropping wordplay like this he’s allowed to criticize the repetitive lyrical content of modern rap music. The track is a complete technical showcase to reintroduce us to what is to come and remind us of just how good Eminem still can be when he tries. The track “Lucky You” recruits fellow controversy-starter Joyner Lucas, and he honestly holds his own with Eminem as his extended verse introduces the song. Both of them ultimately drop into a searing double-time flow to close out their verse and the anger, and more specifically the pure energy each one of them brings as the beat drops mirrors some younger artists’ focus on hype today. Eminem emphasizes a few times here that he is more disrespectful towards the artists than trap music itself, and hearing him and Lucas absolutely destroy this trap-piano beat from Boi-1da is exhilarating.

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For all the attacks Eminem lobs at people like Lil Pump and Lil Yachty, some of the greatest moments here actually come when Eminem takes a more modern concept and proves he can not only replicate it, but add to it. He rhymes over some beats from modern producers Mike Will and Tay Keith. The latter contributes to the track “Not Alike”, where Eminem starts by emulating the Migos flow over a beat similar to “Look Alive”. It’s great to hear him with frequent collaborator Royce da 5’9 again, and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun with his extensive toolkit here. The tracks “Kamikaze” (despite the awkward and childish hook, but what else is new with modern Eminem) and “Fall”, as well, are great returns to form, Eminem sounding like he’s delving back into his battle-rap upbringing.

There’s been a lot of criticism that Eminem isn’t focusing on structuring actual effective songs here, forgetting that technical skill isn’t all you need to make a good rap song. It’s definitely valid, but when we haven’t heard the full extent of his powers for this long, just hearing him back on these kinds of songs is enough to bring a smile to my face – there’s absolutely no one who can come close to touching him in so many areas, it’s a shame that he’s so far behind the game in just as many.

There are still some tracks on Kamikaze that certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on Revival, Eminem still getting away with some pretty inexcusable things that someone really should have told him was a terrible idea. He slows down his flow on relationship track “Normal”, seemingly trying to tap into some of what’s making Drake songs tick currently as he adopts a half-singing cadence that is pretty unlistenable, his singing voice nasal and honestly causing him to fall off the rhythm a few times as he draws out his syllables. It’s all very surprising and uncharacteristic of him after the introduction to the album.

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He fares slightly better on the next track “Stepping Stone”, a career retrospective that sees him mourn the end of D12 with some introspective and confessional lyricism over a beat that sounds like some classic Eminem material, but his poor selection of hooks continues to haunt him as the track awkwardly flips into what sounds like yet another country-tinged classic-rock sample, Eminem singing along overtop. The clinical, robotic flow still isn’t completely gone either, as he closes out the song with an extended section where he delivers a seriously cringeworthy understanding of how to adapt to the music that backs him up, layering his voice in that awful way he has for years, with a falsetto delivery prominently on top. The final three tracks also bring the album way down, and it leaves me wishing that this was cut down to an EP. “Venom” is relatively fun, but the tie-in to a commercial movie leaves a bad taste as the album concludes, and as much as I love Canadian pop-R&B artist Jessie Reyez, her style and Eminem’s do not mesh well at all on the two tracks she features on here.

Eminem proved his point with Kamikaze. No matter how many people try to discredit him, he shows here that his legacy as one of the greatest rappers of all time is still intact, and for good reason. Still – as his career winds down, it’s getting to the point where he should be a lot more careful about what he puts out there. For now, I’m just going to keep playing those opening three tracks.

Favourite Tracks: The Ringer, Lucky You, Not Alike, Greatest

Least Favourite Track: Nice Guy

Score: 6/10

Bas – Milky Way

Image result for bas milky wayDreamville Records signee and J. Cole protégé Bas delivers his third studio album, continuing in his lane of making semi-melodic, laid back rap tracks. Bas is far from the most charismatic or original rapper in the world and it does seem like he takes a lot of inspiration from J. Cole at times, making Milky Way an inconsistent project with a few fun moments sprinkled in. The most engaging parts of the project come from Bas showcasing his unique vocals, his deep and raspy voice containing a built-in soulfulness. He doesn’t go for anything that really pushes the envelope here, definitely succeeding at the creation of some catchy, feel-good tracks but failing to deliver anything truly exciting.

The opening track “Icarus” sees Bas and Dreamville singer Ari Lennox exchanging some soulful vocal moments over a watery piano hip-hop beat before the trap percussion drops and Bas steps out of the shadows with an aggressive and prominent flow. He might sound more like Cole on this track than any other, his singing sounding like his detached and somber style while his rap delivery is somehow simultaneously very present and laidback at the same time, demonstrating a speedier technical flow but trailing his voice off at the end of sentences. Cole himself appears on the track “Tribe”, the first of two big-name features at the start of the tracklisting. The chill, summery vibe of the album continues with some lazy strummed acoustic guitars on the beat, and we really start to see some of Bas’ greatest strengths on the track. The beat produced by Childish Major and Cole is one of the greatest here as the hi-hats come in and knock harder than the rest – Bas delivers one of his fastest flows here and he actually sounds like he’s trying his hardest to impress. He plays off of Cole well, who might have mastered jumping into that beat drop with his best bars a little bit better than Bas does, but only a little.

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The track “Boca Raton” with A$AP Ferg is what you might expect, a goofy, quotable hit song in the making. A lot of tracks here do stand out due to having a kind of worldly influence, instruments and percussion that we don’t often hear, and this track is no exception, with some shakers and clicks that tie into the Hispanic title. It’s one of the most unique tracks on the project, and Bas sells the track as soon as he immediately rhymes “Boca Raton” with “Roca Patron”. The track “Purge”, as well, has a great soulful vocal sample that really enhances Bas’ flow – it’s hard to listen to the track without a smile on your face, and I think that’s probably what Bas was going for most across this whole project. He really does have a great ear for both melodies and rhythm, and he knows where to shine with his fast-paced flow and where to let the sample take over here, endearingly singing along with it.

When so much of the tracklisting is still based on trap production, it’s starting to get harder to remain engaging for the duration of a full album without a degree of originality, when they sound disinterested on the track, or when it’s an artist who isn’t as naturally built for the style as a group like Migos. All of these things collide painfully on a track like “Front Desk”, where Bas spends the whole track singing over a pretty standard trap instrumental – it almost sounds like he hopped on the wrong trend here, his vocals seeming more like he was aiming for the popular tropical feel. At the end of the day there isn’t a lot about Bas’ style that is his own, sounding like he’s emulating the hit songs of the day or playing into the monolithic Dreamville sound that was started by Cole, and even when he comes hard on most of these tracks here it doesn’t make me want to pay attention to him as there are others I could turn to who deliver the same thing with more personality or charisma. I remembered almost nothing from the project when I went to review it on my second listen only a few days later.

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The second half of the album features a lot of shorter tracks and an apparent lack of focus. Correy C delivers an out-of-key hook on not one but two tracks on “Fragrance” and “Infinity+2”, and I’m not sure why Bas didn’t just sing the hooks himself. “Sanufa” drops fully into the dancehall trend that just refuses to die, Bas putting less effort into his bars and opting for a repetitive hook that fails to catch my interest as the whole track is dumbed down by the same beat I’ve been hearing for the last 3 years.

Bas essentially meets expectations without exceeding them on Milky Way – I would have liked to see more of a degree of originality as he gets farther along in his career, an attempt to distinguish himself from the rest of the Dreamville pack as their second most popular member. There are definitely some highlights here, but it’s mostly inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: Purge, Tribe, Boca Raton, Spaceships + Rockets

Least Favourite Track: Sanufa

Score: 5/10

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgBritish producer and psychedelic pop/R&B artist Dev Hynes, better known by his alias Blood Orange, releases his fourth studio album which offers both his most accessible music yet and his most powerful message. Negro Swan is mostly inspired by tales of discrimination against Hynes, an LGBT black man, in his youth, as multiple spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock regarding confidence and perseverance tie the project together. Hynes still acts mostly as a producer here, often letting a featured vocalist take over a track when he sees that they suit the instrumental better than him, but the sound he delivers is much more cohesive and consistent than something like his last project Freetown Sound. Leaning in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, parts of this project sound like the kind of soulful, upbeat pop tracks we’re missing from the 80s revival appearing around modern music at the moment.

We immediately get what might be the album’s two best tracks in openers “Orlando” and “Saint”, which fully embrace the soulful, harmonized jazzy funk tracks that are still somewhat of a new venture for Hynes. His falsetto delivery on the opening track is aching and vulnerable as he speaks about his troubled adolescence, recalling a time when he was physically assaulted and moving past it. “First kiss was the floor”, the lyric repeats. The transitions and instrumentation across the board here are pretty flawless for how complex the backgrounds are at times, often either a completely seamless musical transition or dissolving into a frantic saxophone solo.

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Janet Mock introduces the track “Jewelry” with a monologue questioning why people criticize others for “doing the most”, stating that people who have been previously marginalized especially should embrace doing the most as they continue to slowly permeate the culture – it feels like Hynes tried to reflect these sentiments in his production work, often featuring some solos doing their own thing in the background of a track or layering vocals to an overwhelming, ethereal degree. “Saint” seriously brings to mind an almost gospel territory, featuring some great female harmonies on the chorus. The track picks up with some light gospel piano chords and an aggressive breakbeat, Hynes touching on the inescapability of discrimination with some touching vocal moments, saying he’s unable to escape his skin colour but committed to spreading love regardless. The gospel theme continues on the powerful “Holy Will”, featuring some explosive high-pitched vocals from church singer Ian Isiah as he covers a track from gospel group the Clark Sisters, Hynes bringing it into his world with some of his trademark synth textures.

Quite a lot of the album’s power comes from just how raw and unfiltered most of the vocal takes on the project are here, Hynes actually stating that he sang through most of them in one take multiple times rather than recording different sections separately, simply selecting his best take. For this reason, more experimental, sparse tracks like “Take Your Time” and “Dagenham Dream” take on an added degree of power, focusing on the pure, natural emotion in Hynes’ vocals as the chaotic instrumentation jostles about behind him.

Another element that we haven’t seen from Hynes in a while is the addition of rap and hip-hop influence to his work. He brings Diddy on board for a catchy, repeated hook on “Hope” that contrasts with a silky soprano main vocal from Colombian singer Tei Shi – Shi’s vocals and the lush piano and shuffling percussion remind me of Hynes’ Carly Rae Jepsen track “All That”. A$AP Rocky and Project Pat’s contributions to “Chewing Gum” are a lot less immediately memorable, feeling unrelated to the message Hynes is attempting to convey here, but Hynes himself actually raps on tracks like “Jewelry”. Especially on an album where Hynes attempts to embrace his identity, hearing him rap “I’m feeling myself” is encouraging. Hynes even takes a thinly veiled shot at Miley Cyrus on “Vulture Baby”, regarding her recent comments about her renouncement of hip-hop culture and going back to her roots after her appropriative Bangerz era. Hynes is completely comfortable in his element here.

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Hynes continues to hit us with some great tracks as the album winds down to its conclusion, delivering one of the catchiest hooks on the project straight out of the bouncy funk areas of Prince’s catalogue on “Nappy Wonder”, offset by a disjointed and distorted guitar solo – those high harmonies feel like they keep shimmering for a few seconds after the track ends. Another one is “Out of Your League”, in collaboration with young producer Steve Lacy. Lacy’s production style fits right in with Hynes’ here as the two essentially have a jam session on their opposing instruments, Lacy on the keys and Hynes playing bass guitar – the percussion on the track is a lot of fun, this one feeling less like a profound statement and more like two really talented dudes messing around in the studio.

Some of Hynes’ ethereal and psychedelic R&B tracks can tend to blend together a bit and make the album more one-note than its masterful instrumentation in other areas would suggest, but the real strength of Negro Swan is the degree to which Hynes expresses his message to the listener through a series of smart lyrical references that cleverly disguise lifetimes of sadness, not lingering on the past too long as he takes control of who he is in the present. The superproducer delivers some of his best production work yet here, and I’m going to remember Negro Swan at the end of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Saint, Orlando, Hope, Out Of Your League, Charcoal Baby

Least Favourite Track: Chewing Gum

Score: 8/10