Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

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You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

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Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

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gnash – we

Officially back for the new year – this should hopefully be the first of three new posts this week.

Image result for gnash weGenreless artist gnash finally puts together a debut studio album after dropping a flurry of singles over the past couple of years – some of which made it onto this project, alongside the now-ancient smash hit “I hate u, I love u”. Difficult to pin down, gnash both sings and raps over the duration of the project with a sort of distinctive, almost pop-punk inflection to his voice. While his introspective lyrics surrounding struggles with self-worth and dealing with loneliness often border on eye-rollingly melodramatic, there are certainly a few instances here where he strikes a genuinely moving emotional nerve. The instrumentals are similarly inconsistent, some more exciting upbeat, electronic material breaking up the safer acoustic patterns, but we shows sparks of potential in gnash that I wasn’t sure were there.

After the shorter intro track “happy never after” that awkwardly combines some near-spoken word rapping, minimal acoustic chords, and some badly mixed harmonies on one of the poppiest choruses here, the project drops into its clear best song “imagine if”. Featuring some soulful piano chords supporting a chorus where gnash’s singing is at its best, they mute in favor of a more electronic segment in the verse that better fits his speedier delivery. Good luck getting that ay-oh-ay segment that shows up with the slightest of trap beats out of your head – along with gnash’s more subdued vocal performance, not leaning into his more obnoxious nasal tone, the various segments of the track from decidedly disparate musical worlds are added and subtracted at perfect times.

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There are a couple tracks across the rest of the project that sound just as good as “imagine if” in theory, but gnash’s execution brings me out of it. “nobody’s home” is another smartly composed pop track featuring a tried-and-true chord progression that’s augmented in the chorus in a satisfying way, but the 25-year-old gnash’s lyrics make him sound like an overly dramatic teenager going through his first breakup and the nonchalant delivery of his raps doesn’t sound like he’s taking it seriously, just using the form due to its popularity.

There are quite a few times where gnash’s lyrics really bring me out of the whole experience, like he’s going way too far to describe his pain in melodramatic and sensational terms rather than hitting something more poignant through a less-is-more approach – especially on a track like “insane”, which concludes with a spoken-word segment explaining that he no longer agrees with its sentiment, the joy with which he gets oddly morbid seems out-of-place. “the broken hearts club” is another one that seems almost like it’s trying to manipulative the listener into feeling something, inviting the listener to join him in a community wallowing in sadness – “it’s easier than love”, he sings at the conclusion.

“dear insecurity”, on the other hand, sees gnash’s songwriting at its best. His approach is really not all that different, but there’s something a lot more believable in his words, listing his various anxieties but then flipping his verses at the end to be more embracing of himself for a more complex analysis of the issue. The deep-voiced and soulful Ben Abraham makes you really feel the hook, and The Broken Hearts Clubgnash singing it himself at the end over some more minimal chords is a genuinely affecting moment. gnash embraces the more guitar-driven style his vocals seem more suited for on the track “t-shirt”, featuring some live drums and a genuinely pop-punk chord progression as he reaches up into his upper register, his emotional delivery actually matching up to some of his more dramatic claims. Again, despite some pretty laughable songwriting (“karma tends to be a b-word”…??), the track functions pretty well as an homage to a sound of the past that gnash should explore more rather than his hip-hop acoustics.

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“pajamas” and “feel better” are fun enough pop tracks that has me wondering if gnash would be more effective as a producer on other people’s material – the latter especially is a welcome change from the dark clouds that colour the rest of the tracklisting as he sings about that one person’s ability to bring him out of the dumps with a more hopeful, upbeat vocal performance.

Despite some of the better aspects of the tracklisting here, we is weighed down by some more confusing choices that are too prominent to fully ignore – mostly on the lyrical side of things. While his combination of genres and ear for catchy pop hooks have the potential to be exciting, gnash’s debut is inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: imagine if, dear insecurity, t-shirt

Least Favourite Track: insane

Score: 4/10

 

Bad Bunny – X 100PRE

X100pre.jpgOne of the biggest musical trends over the previous year was pop music beginning to draw from many different aspects of various Latin-American genres, perhaps none more so than Latin trap. Already a global superstar, it was Bad Bunny’s feature verse on Cardi B’s “I Like It” that turned him into a household name in North America, and he shows off a diverse range of sounds from his native Puerto Rico across his first official full-length project, bridging the gap between them with his distinctively lower register and charismatic Auto-Crooned sound. The title a Spanish shorthand meaning “Por siempre”, or “Forever”, X 100PRE isn’t at all structured like your typical pop album, more like a shifting, changing playlist – many of these tracks have abrupt beat switches, and the flow of sounds from one track to the next is somewhat disjointed. While that does bring me out of the experience a bit, this is certainly a solid and wide-reaching debut.

Opener “NI BIEN NI MAL” is a pretty perfect example of the important presence Bad Bunny serves in the music industry right now, built primarily on some traditional acoustic Latin-sounding chords with the odd interspersed heavy trap beat that always complements these sounds so well, Bad Bunny sing-rapping a catchy, repetitive tune on top. The track eventually morphs into a more minimal, industrial hip-hop track and then a calming string section in its instrumental without the vocal track changing much, showing just how malleable Bad Bunny’s voice is – it’s strangely soothing even when in a more aggressive, hip-hop influenced register, and can fit over almost anything. He shows off his laid-back register at its peak on the track “Otra Noche en Miami”, the chorus a more electronic synth-based explosion as he repeats the title, sounding like he’s relaxing by the beach and taking the city in – the track reminds me of something from The Weeknd’s STARBOY.  Drake is honestly a pretty perfect guest to join him on the single “MIA” which closes the project – even as both sing in Spanish, their voices and the charismatic energy they are clearly bringing to the track match each other in a surprisingly great way.

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In the next few tracks after the opener, we get “200 MPH”, which comes with a Diplo feature, “Caro”, with surprise vocals from none other than Ricky Martin, and one of the experiments that doesn’t really work, “Tenemos Que Hablar”, which ventures into what almost sounds like a 2000s-era alternative rock territory with a watered-down guitar riff and out-of-place trap beat.

While the project does run throughout various areas of reggaeton, bachata and dembow music – that same reggaeton beat you hear on every pop track isn’t quite dead yet when Bad Bunny augments it with some of his most emotional vocals on “Si Estuviésemos Juntos” – he is at his best dropping the high-energy trap bangers we know him for. The track “¿Quien Tu Eres?” is a shorter one that packs a serious punch, the beat dropping just as he raises his voice up into this higher-pitched yelp as he celebrates his success.

There are quite a few moments on the project where it loses direction a bit with a beat switch or the track listing’s order putting some sounds that aren’t incredibly complementary beside each other in the track listing, making it tougher to rank favourite tracks since so many of the greatest musical moments here come as part of a longer track that also features a strange diversion from what the track was trying to accomplish. Ricky Martin’s appearance on “Caro” is one of these moments, the track abruptly dropping in tempo to deliver the slower ballad pace Martin is more known for before Bad Bunny closes the track with a very brief return to the original high-energy section. “Solo de Mi” is split into two very good sections with completely opposite tones, vaulting into a chaotic hip-hop beat for less than a minute after a more emotional ballad – I’m all for a good beat switch, but there has to at least be a tiny bit of a through-line.

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“La Romana” is another track that begins excellently with one of the most fun Latin trap beats over this maddeningly catchy picked mariachi guitar pattern complete with airhorns as the beat drops, but glitches out Bad Bunny’s verse early and diverts into this more straightforward, percussive ragga/riddim section delivered by El Alfa that goes on for too long. The track listing probably could have been shortened as well – as much fun as Bad Bunny always sounds like he’s having, when he’s attacking a few of these Latin trap instrumentals with more of a melodic angle to complement a beat that isn’t quite so active, on tracks like “Ser Bichote”, the language barrier loses me a bit when I don’t have lyrics to spice up a less immediately exciting instrumental.

Alongside J Balvin, Bad Bunny has emerged as one of the Latin stars poised for continued dominance in a post-Despacito world, and the range of his talents on this project is a clear indicator of why. You could throw him on any vaguely Latin track and he’d turn it into a hit. Despite some structural qualms, this is the sound of an artist just getting started.

Favourite Tracks: NI BIEN NI MAL, ¿Quien Tu Eres?, Otra Noche en Miami, La Romana, MIA

Least Favourite Track: Tenemos Que Hablar

Score: 7/10

21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

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It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10