Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, 6ix9ine, Mariah Carey)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson .Paak’s highly anticipated third studio album Oxnard, executive produced by Dr. Dre himself, sees the James Brown-esque rising funk star continue to exude charisma and mic presence like no other, even if his style is a little less immediately unique and personal. Dre spins the album more towards his own musical world of 90s G-funk, meaning the album is more hip-hop oriented than Paak has ever been as he explores some darker sounds for the first time. Part of what I loved so much about him in the past was his exuberant soulful delivery and boundless musicality – he’s far too talented to be just a rapper. So, although it took a while to grow on me, there’s still a lot to love about this project. Paak is one of the most exciting artists out right now.

Once again opening with the sounds of the beach, “The Chase” is an incredibly cinematic way to draw us into the album, continuing with Paak’s previous themes of drawing from the Blaxploitation-era sound as the mostly-instrumental track and accompanying sound effects makes you envision a car chase, some angelic and soulful backing vocals reminding us of the funk space Paak occupies. Especially as it transitions into the additionally vehicle-centric themes of the tracks “Headlow” and “Tints”, you can tell that the album is structured deliberately and it makes me especially appreciate a single like “Tints” even more in the context of the story Paak paints here. Easily one of my most listened-to songs of the year, a collaboration between Paak and Kendrick Lamar is all that I could have ever dreamed of. I love the complexity of the layered funk instrumental, especially as the chorus drops and Paak starts interlocking a couple of catchy hooks on separate vocal tracks – the harmonized female voices on the outro is such a cool moment as well. Both of these two just ooze charisma, dropping some humorous quotables.

Things take a turn for the political on “6 Summers”, a rollercoaster of a track that switches from inflammatory rapped jabs at the President to a more contemplative R&B section that sees Paak’s singing voice at its most beautiful as he wonders how to deal with the pain. He gets pretty explicit about his concerns here, dropping some lines about a lack of gun control reform. That lyrical flip is brilliant – the track will “bang” at least 6 summers, but so will the guns for the duration of the presidency. The back half is full of big-name features, one of the best coming from Pusha T on “Brother’s Keeper”, sinister as ever over some explosive bluesy guitar chords embellished with the most subtle of trap beats. The two are a surprisingly great match, Paak serving as the emotion Push would never show. “Cheers”, with Q-Tip, is a beautiful way to close the album out as well, as the two pay tribute to departed friends Mac Miller and Phife Dawg over one of the most upbeat and prominent instrumentals here – the whole track sounds like a celebration.

One of the main things I think I’m missing here from Paak is the prominence of soul samples in the mix, mostly from his collaboration project Yes Lawd! While there are still definitely elements of the genre in the mix at all times here, quite a few times it feels like it’s taking a backseat to a more West Coast hip-hop flair courtesy of Dre. “Headlow” is one of those tracks that adheres to the breezy sounds of the coast, but Paak’s lower-key approach to the track as the percussion knocks feels like he’s holding back from what he’s really capable of – he has one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard (it pops up briefly on “Smile/Petty”), and maybe it’s because of the lyrical themes of the track as he tries to keep quiet, but it comes across as a little low-effort. “Mansa Musa” is a heavy rap track that features Dre himself, but it feels a lot more rhythmically straightforward than a Paak song ever should be, sticking to some rap clichés. “Who R U?” is perhaps Paak’s most through-and-through hip-hop track ever, consisting of little more than a heavy drumbeat. Still, even when the funk is the most missed, Paak manages to impress, delivering some surprisingly technical bars and saving it with his personality.

I honestly think Paak’s previous projects were so spectacular that I had set my expectations for this one far too high, disappointment being inevitable. Oxnard is far from being a bad project, it’s just not what I expected from him. Paak still has one of the most unique and diverse skillsets in the game, and a project this great being his worst is the sign of a great artist.

Favourite Tracks: Cheers, Tints, Brother’s Keeper, 6 Summers, Saviers Road

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

We weren’t sure we were actually going to get this album at all. 6ix9ine, the controversial rapper and walking meme, is still embroiled in court hearings and facing life in prison after being charged for racketeering a few days before its scheduled release. Officially his first studio album after dropping the Day69 mixtape early this year, DUMMY BOY was released without fanfare a couple days after the scheduled release date. Loaded with high-profile features, it sees 6ix9ine tone down his abrasive and energetic vocal delivery for a few tracks, venturing into a more pop and even Latin-oriented space. There’s almost nothing that can match the pure shot of energy 6ix9ine can give you when he’s on his game, and that does give him a lot of credit here, but most of these tracks seem rushed, the features inconsistent.

As much as it’s easy to hate on 6ix9ine, you can’t deny how exhilarating opening track “STOOPID” is. Over a Tay Keith beat that sounds like a ringing alarm, when it hits at the end of that line of chopped up “dumb-d-dumb”s is one of the most energetic moments of the hear. One of the main reasons 6ix9ine immediately occupied such a huge space in the public consciousness (other than his rainbow hair of course) is that there was such a void for this style of hardcore, gangsta-oriented material that 6ix9ine’s voice is so well-suited for. It’s also why so many of these tracks that see him taking the gravel out of his voice, seemingly for more pop appeal, are so disappointing – he shouldn’t be holding that machine-gun of a voice back. “FEFE”, his biggest hit so far with Nicki Minaj, feels so much emptier than a 6ix9ine song ever should, the main hook a sluggish crawl. Nicki shows up later on “MAMA” with Kanye West, a track that let me down for how much hype it’s gotten since release. The instrumental and 6ix9ine’s hook are pretty basic trap material, while the slower pace of the track isn’t quite enough to accommodate the huge personalities of the two guests. I want to hear a more powerful instrumental behind those supercharged “Maaaan, oh my god”s from Kanye!

Quite a few of these tracks are taken over by their guests, 6ix9ine almost an afterthought on his own album. “WAKA” is almost entirely dedicated to A Boogie wit da Hoodie’s awful singing voice, while the engaging guitar-driven beat of “TIC TOC” is squandered by Lil Baby’s low-effort flow. Most of the final few songs seem like they might have been manufactured last-minute, giving too much mic time to his videographer TrifeDrew’s struggle raps on “DUMMY”, while “WONDO” sounds like a track that was left off the already-messy Day69 for not being complete enough of an idea.

“KIKA”, on the other hand, is pretty incredible. Featuring a carefree hook from Tory Lanez over a steel-drum instrumental, we’re reminded that 6ix9ine is actually capable of switching up his flows and finding himself in a rhythmic pocket, which is all the more exciting when he’s nearly blowing his vocal chords out – the track reminds me of why I enjoyed previous one “KOODA” so much. At this point 6ix9ine’s mere presence on a track is enough for virality, but it actually seems like he’s trying here. Latin pop track “BEBE” is way too sugary and fun to hate as well – I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger hit, that synth tone is such an earworm. “KANGA”, another track with Kanye, is the peak of both of these artists’ meme potential. Featuring ridiculously over-the-top and juvenile lyrics and a playground chant of a flow, it’s one of those tracks that’s so bad it’s amazing.

If this is really the end of 6ix9ine’s musical career, it’s safe to say that he’ll be remembered more for his antics and social media presence than the actual music itself. For a one-trick pony, his one trick is pretty great and succeeded at drawing attention towards him, but so much of his material seems like an afterthought.

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

15 studio albums in and her iconic Christmas classic once again shooting up the charts, Mariah Carey’s Caution proves that she’s still got something to offer – even if it’s not quite the same thing as before. We’ve all seen the internet criticism that her voice isn’t what it used to be, and while that’s all been exaggerated it’s easy to tell that the full power of one of the greatest vocalists of all time isn’t being utilized here. Carey tones down her vocals to a more subdued purr rather than the full belt here, which works fine fitting into the modern, more chill landscape of R&B anyway. Recruiting a few excellent collaborators, Caution is a mostly engaging 10-track breeze.

Lead single “With You”, a collaboration with DJ Mustard, is easily the best song here and shows just how captivating Carey can be even with her breathier vocals here. Reminding me a lot of why we’re all so captivated with Ella Mai this year, this is the kind of music that we’ve been missing, with some classic 90s R&B piano chords and a finger-snap beat. When she drops down to her more powerful lower register in the chorus, it’s just a very warm sound overall. Her vocal technique is still pretty unmatched, running through some impressive riffs and jazzy minor notes with ease. She even delivers some of those classic Carey whistle tones briefly as the song fades to a close. Transitioning into the title track “Caution”, she taps into her hip-hop side once again with a more aggressive faster flow in the verses and a hi-hat-embellished beat. With one of the catchiest melodies here, the track settles into a solid groove, Carey her flawless and flippant self as she warns her man about disloyalty.

She links up with the always-versatile Ty Dolla $ign on “The Distance”, another pretty classic-sounding track with a prominent rubbery bassline that kicks off with a cheerleading chant that’s smartly woven into the fabric of the track by its end. Ty holds his own with a legend, his lower tone laying the foundation for Carey’s trademark vocal acrobatics as the track closes. Blood Orange’s spacey, experimental style takes over for the 6-minute “Giving Me Life”, which also somehow features lauded rapper Slick Rick. The track never feels long, Carey’s newfound tone playing off of the icy piano notes – it’s almost hypnotic. The final two tracks are a good way to close it out, “Stay Long Love You” a dynamic upbeat pop track with an explosive and bubbling synth line and “Portrait” the best showcase for Carey’s voice here, a slower ballad.

There are definitely a couple weird decisions across the board here as well – I was surprised that promo single “GTFO” was on the album at all, but it’s actually the opening track here. After “With You” came out Carey herself was proclaiming how much better it was, referring to the former as just something fun she recorded – it’s a very awkwardly structured song, the rhythmic delivery in the chorus not landing well with me and the whole song staying rather one-note and not picking up in energy for 3 and a half minutes until a fadeout. “A No No” is similarly underwritten, the tempo almost too upbeat for Carey’s calmer vocals as the strangely staccato chorus drops, Carey simply repeating “no” throughout most of the song. The lazily rapped sample and the diversion into French at the end of the track just add to the confusion. Tracks like “One Mo’ Gen” and “8th Grade” still recapture the spirit of 90s R&B well enough, but at the end of the tracklisting they sound a little too similar to counterparts earlier in the album and have me wishing Carey still had more variation in her vocal delivery.

Caution is just about the best album I could have expected from 2018 Mariah Carey, still finding ways to surprise me almost 30 years into her career. While there are certainly a few inconsistencies here and there, this is a fully enjoyable R&B project.

Favourite Tracks: With You, Caution, The Distance, Giving Me Life, Stay Long Love You

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

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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.

Image result for dev hynes

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

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.

Image result for mac miller

“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.

Image result for mac miller live 2018

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

The Internet – Hive Mind

Image result for the internet hive mindR&B/funk collective The Internet, now on its 4th studio album after the disbanding of parent group Odd Future, unleashes the collection of subdued, effortlessly cool tracks Hive Mind. Their young producer Steve Lacy, already making hits with other big name artists like Kendrick Lamar, brings his multi-instrumentalist skill to the complex jazz-funk instrumentals here, while ex-Odd Future vocalists Syd and Matt Martians handle the mic, becoming stars in their own right after other members like Tyler The Creator, Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt’s successes. While the project does stand at a meandering 57 minutes, a few of these tracks getting too indulgent and disjointed for their own good, Syd’s captivating vocal work and Lacy’s production holds it together well.

Quite a bit of this album reminds me of what made Kali Uchis’ Isolation, one of my favourites of the year, work so well. Syd’s vocals, often catching the attention of my ears over Martians’ lower supporting voice, have the same kind of aloof and breathy yet determined quality, while the instrumentals share the same degree of refreshing complexity. The tracks that are delegated entirely to Syd are always the strongest here, especially when the instrumental and lyrical content takes on the sensual quality that her voice was built for. A lazy funk guitar pattern and bouncing bassline frames a request to “Come Over” on the titular track. I love how her vocals are layered with her head voice, an octave higher, quieter in the background, like a representation of the genuine excitement behind what she’s saying that she’s afraid to betray to the recipient completely. Instead, she plays it cool with her lower voice in the front of the mix.

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Tracks like “Stay The Night” and “Mood” see Syd step convincingly into the role of a typical R&B seducer as well. Lacy’s percussion (are those wooden instruments?) and funk bassline on the former lends it to a kind of bossa-nova vibe, Syd’s vocals at their most breathy and longing as she whisper-sings “maybe you should stay the night” quickly into alternating ears, surrounding the listener in her voice. It’s pretty convincing. “Mood” turns Syd’s bedroom into a shimmering dreamscape with some ascending synth-piano as she taps into a faster-paced, hip-hop influenced storytelling angle of her successful date plan – even receiving some good luck texts from her friends – dropping into an enticing rap vocal as she finally gets her (female!) partner home. “Next Time/Humble Pie” drops into a pretty fun groove immediately, Syd offering some of the catchiest melodies across the whole project in the verses of the first half of the song – I wish we got more of it instead of the distorted, sparser “Humble Pie” section.

“Wanna Be” is another strong, dreamy track built around a funk guitar riff – it seems like there’s some kind of ethereal, echoing effect on Syd’s vocals as she sheepishly asks if a partner wants to take the next step, while the next track “Beat Goes On” is the only song here with Martians as a primary writing credit, and it’s the experimental track that panned out the best of any of them here. As the title would suggest, it’s built on numerous interlocking, heavy percussion rhythms, verging on drum ‘n’ bass as Martians echoes Syd’s sentiments on “Wanna Be” from the male perspective.

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The project starts to lose replayability as the songs continue to extend past their welcome, many of these tracks existing more as experimental jam sessions than a deliberately thought-out song that one is likely to easily remember – for example, something about that introductory guitar pattern on “La Di Da” doesn’t line up rhythmically with the rest of the song the way I want it to for some reason, the band seemingly going for a noisier, experimental angle. “Bravo”, as well, is built on some explosive percussion stabs that are a little too loud in the mix and throw off the chill vibe of the song as Syd harmonizes with herself beautifully underneath. The hooks are never quite memorable enough to stick long after listening – “Come Together”, the opening track, feels like the hook was structured to be immediately anthemic, but the lower energy of the song and the slightly awkward emphasis placement doesn’t lend it any favours. In other places, the hooks are simply underwritten, but most of the time I’m easily distracted by the prominent percussion anyway. “Roll (Burbank Funk)” lends a bit too much time to Martians’ wavering vocals and a mostly empty hook, but the click-clack of the upbeat, danceable percussion dominating the track’s space turns the song into an inescapable, driving force regardless.

The Internet is essentially the immense talents of five individuals colliding in an often messy and occasionally brilliant way. Syd is a force to be reckoned with all on her own, but The Internet have tapped into a niche in quite a strong way with this project. The replayability factor might not be there, but this is a truly refreshing work.

Favourite Tracks: Stay The Night, Mood, Come Over, Wanna Be, Hold On

Least Favourite Track: Bravo

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Eminem, N.E.R.D., Charli XCX)

We’ve finally reached the last review post of the year, which means it’s time for Year-End Lists! My top 50 songs and top 25 albums of the year should be out before the new year, stay tuned.

Revival by Eminem cover.jpgEminem – Revival

Best-selling hip-hop artist of all time Eminem returns after a 4-year break with his ninth studio album, Revival, concluding a trilogy that included more poorly received work in Relapse and Recovery. While Revival does give the generational talent some more space to flex his unparalleled technical muscles, the team around him contributes to the same problems that have been plaguing him for a while, reaching some pretty inexcusable levels on this project.

For every one of Eminem’s dad-joke punchlines that becomes the butt of a joke on the internet, he has about five brilliant displays of wordplay here. There’s a moment on “Chloraseptic” where he laces only words with three different “a” sounds together in a recurring pattern for about 30 seconds – nobody else can do this stuff. Revival excels when Eminem’s goofy persona cuts through all of the commercialization of his more recent efforts, embracing the cringe factor perfectly on the Joan Jett-sampling “Remind Me” with some delightfully disgusting pick-up lines. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as hilarious on the other dated Rick Rubin-produced rap-rock tracks, of which there are too many that fall flat. The final two tracks, “Castle” and “Arose” are the album’s highlight, offering the only believable emotional content on the album as Eminem revisits his overdose and near-death experience in 2007, writing to his daughter as he recounts his career and expresses his love for her in his final thoughts. “Arose” references “Castle”, rewinding to its final verse as Eminem completes it by abandoning his pills instead of taking them. It would be a beautifully fitting end to his career, if his threats of retirement are true.

Many criticized the tracklist for including so many pop features, and the final product certainly features a glossy pop-rap sheen that decreases the impact of Eminem’s vitriolic delivery technique. “Need Me” is basically a P!nk song. The mixing on this album is shocking for such a high-profile artist, tracks like “Tragic Endings” legitimately confusing me if something on my end was wrong due to how off-kilter the vocal levels were. What might be the most disappointing thing however, is Eminem trying incredibly hard to show us that he has emotional depth, all while sounding like a robot with the choppy staccato flow he insists on using lately. The same artist who gave us ruthless tracks in his Slim Shady persona opens the album with “Walk On Water”, a 5-minute track about how criticism hurts his feelings. For whatever reason, hearing Eminem care about things is disheartening. I expected Eminem to offer scathing, nihilistic takes on the world’s problems, but instead he falls back into fake-deep, baseline “inspirational” content on political tracks like “Like Home”. He follows up his 2013 apology to his mother with a copy-and-pasted apology to ex-wife Kim on “Bad Husband”, and legitimately censors himself on “Framed”. I understand why with the current wave of sexual assault stories, but this is Eminem we’re talking about. His lyrics on “Offended” aren’t as shocking anymore, what really offends me is the atrocious playground-chant chorus that completely disrupts the rhythm.

At the end of the day, Eminem is still one of the most talented artists to ever live, and the brief glimpses of that on this project are enough to save it from being unlistenable. It’s not doing much for his legacy though.

Favourite Tracks: Castle, Arose, Remind Me

Least Favourite Track: Nowhere Fast

Score: 4/10

No one ever really dies album.jpegN.E.R.D. – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES

Superproducer Pharrell Williams revives his band for their first album in 7 years, delving back into his funk and hip-hop roots with one of the most sonically experimental albums of the year. Things are still based around The Neptunes’ stripped-down, percussion-heavy style, but Pharrell adapts to his many guests and builds some solid walls of sound around it, creating waves of pure hyperactive energy around his James Brownian vocal delivery.

We open strong with single “Lemon”, Pharrell immediately jumping into a frenzied, slightly off-kilter rap verse before the track breaks down and Rihanna struts onto the track and delivers an incredible, quotable and confident verse like she’s been doing it her whole career. The tracks only get more complex from there, bringing Chad Hugo’s guitars back in and frequently offering abrupt shifts mid-song. “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” is a nearly 8-minute, constantly fluid masterpiece that begins with Pharrell asking his 9-year old son to sing the letter “G” – a note which he electronically extends as a recurring motif throughout. The first half sounds more like Pharrell’s more contemplative work on G I R L. We hear chirping birds and running water in the background as he sings of a universal connection, the second half breaking out into a hip-hop beat and metallic synth pattern as his peaceful prophecies are realized. The Future-featuring “1000” could easily start a riot, built on rhythmic interlocking vocal samples, distorted synth bass and Pharrell yelling “HOLY S**T IT’S WORKING”. Halfway through the track he says something about “rainbow angst” and the sound follows suit, with high pitched sugary yet distorted synths suddenly at the forefront of the track in what could only be described as rainbow angst. It’s complete madness, and it’s beautiful.

N.E.R.D.’s lyrics get political as well, sending thinly veiled accusations against “Mr. Wizard of Oz”, the President, on nearly every song and dedicating the Frank Ocean co-written track “Don’t Don’t Do It!” to victims of police brutality. Pharrell’s lyricism is still as whimsical and optimistic as ever, so hearing him talk about these issues is equally endearing and affecting. “I hope you’re just talking, man”, he emotes regarding the border wall on the frantic “Deep Down Body Thurst” before exploding into a huge breakbeat and group chanting. “Don’t Don’t Do It!” begins with this sunny funk guitar pattern, but an angrier riff starts slowly creeping in as you start to realize the darker subject matter, coming in fully as Kendrick Lamar delivers one of his most technically incredible verses of the year verbally obliterating the police force.

There are certainly times here where Pharrell’s lyrics get a little too cheesy, or the more toned-down, early Neptunes sections of the track verge on tedious and repetitive, but there are so many surprises on this project that they just fly by and you become immersed in something else. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

Favourite Tracks: 1000, Lemon, Deep Down Body Thurst, Lightning Fire Magic Prayer, Don’t Don’t Do It!

Least Favourite Track: ESP

Score: 9/10

Charli XCX - Pop 2.pngCharli XCX – Pop 2

Charli XCX’s second mixtape of the year ventures into even more experimental territory than Number 1 Angel did, bringing on a wealth of guests and taking PC Music production to another level. While some of these ideas are a little too out there for my personal tastes, Charli XCX has been triumphantly leading the way for experimental pop music this year and delivers some great tracks on this project.

Most of the production here is handled by PC Music figurehead A.G. Cook, but of course Charli had to bring the most unique producer working in SOPHIE on board for a single track once again. Her track “Out Of My Head” is a pretty flawless pop song, forming a trio with Scandinavian singers Alma and Tove Lo, reiterating the titular line in the chorus by interrupting and layering on top of each other for a truly unique and immersive listening experience. Charli declares herself a “Femmebot” on the track of the same name, an all-out sugar rush of explosive 80s synth chords and robot metaphors, and the glitchy effects on her production and vocals here can be used for some pretty brilliant effects. “Lucky” slows things down, one of the only tracks without a guest, and her vocals are shifted rapidly between notes for a Kanye West-esque emotional effect, her vocal cutting out while she sings about a connection breaking up and somehow conveying more emotion through incomprehensible autotuned mumbling than actual words.

For whatever reason, Charli turns up the autotune effect here, and for someone who already has a kind of nasal tone to their voice, the juxtaposition of these effects to the PC Music style of heavy electronic synth production can get a little grating, becoming too robotic by removing too much personality. Her long-awaited collaboration with Carly Rae Jepsen, “Backseat”, layers multiple harmonies of her heavily autotuned vocals with Carly’s more folksy, untouched vocal takes over some high-pitched background synths for a track that is much too chaotic. In the same vein, the decision to include a faint recording of Charli’s blood-curdling scream, recurring in the background of already repetitive track “Tears”, distracts too much from the experience.

Charli XCX has truly morphed from the burgeoning bubblegum popstar we envisioned in 2013 to a proponent of all things weird. This is pop music in 3017, and perhaps I just haven’t caught up to it yet. A lot of these tracks sound more like a celebration of her spectacular year than cohesive music, throwing absolutely everything at the wall because she can – and you have to have some respect for that.

Favourite Tracks: Out Of My Head, Delicious, Femmebot, Lucky, Unlock It

Least Favourite Track: Tears

Score: 7/10

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgVersatile DJ and frequent hitmaker Calvin Harris’ 5th studio album is a reinvention of sorts. While he has frequently incorporated some aspects of funk and hip-hop into his music in the past, he has never attempted to make this much of a fully-focused and cohesive project. Harris abandons the formulaic dance drops here, instead turning his attention to the creation of a compact, star-studded 10-track affair full of breezy synth-funk instrumentals. Harris has all but succeeded at making the perfect summer album here.

Although some of the logistics of the project leave a few things to be desired, most of the fun of Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 comes from letting loose and not caring about them. Harris said it best himself in a tweet – this isn’t “feel good music”, this is “feel INCREDIBLE music”.

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As soon as you hear those opening piano chords on “Slide”, you know that what you’re about to experience is going to be a lot more musically complex than your typical Calvin Harris album. Harris has always been one of the more talented mainstream DJs, a multi-instrumentalist who plays all the piano and guitar parts on his albums among other things, but the many interlocking aspects of a funk album helps you understand just how difficult his job here was, more than in his previous work.

Harris may have assembled the most impressive guest list of the year here, recruiting legitimate superstars from the worlds of pop, R&B and hip-hop on every track. We have legitimate superstars like Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, rap heavyweights like Migos, Future and Young Thug and R&B stars both indie and mainsteam like Frank Ocean, Kehlani and Khalid all on the same project.

Many of these instrumentals sound rather similar, but the tracks are easily distinguishable due to the diverse roster of guests. The whole album flows well into each other, and Harris makes the most out of some collaborations that you never could have imagined. We have three excellent songs on this project in “Cash Out”, “Holiday” and “Feels” that feature artists that you could have never imagined in the same universe. ScHoolboy Q, PARTYNEXTDOOR and D.R.A.M. combine their three completely different takes on urban music into one beautifully oiled machine on “Cash Out” – ScHoolboy calms down a bit and channels his inner Snoop Dogg to glide over the bouncy, G-Funk inspired instrumental. The Dogg himself appears later on “Holiday” and sounds more comfortable and confident than he has in years.

The overall essence of the project is just so much fun. At one point as the song is fading out, Harris punctuates a critical beat intersection of “Prayers Up” with a loon sound effect. It’s the goofy, carefree spirit of a move like this that pervades the album as a whole. Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams sound like they’re recording the chorus of “Heatstroke” while reclining on a huge flotation device in a pool.

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Pharrell’s more prominent turn on “Feels” is another standout moment, bringing to mind some of the better tracks on his similarly funky 2014 album, G I R L. Harris’ bassline is punctuated with guitar stabs on beats 2 and 4 that give the track somewhat of a reggae flair. Pharrell’s light vocals transition to a chorus from Katy Perry, whose frequently forced quirky persona finally fits in this environment, and we close with a beat switch and a characteristically relaxed Big Sean entering with an eye-roll and a “God damn”. If you’re looking for crowd-pleasing hits, this album really is an embarrassment of riches.

A few of these guests are simply not suited to this style of instrumental, and don’t really try all that hard to fit in either. Harris went all-out to land these features, but Future’s appearance on “Rollin”, flexing his characteristically disjointed flow over a pounding funk bassline, is completely misplaced. The appearance of other mumble rappers like Travis Scott and Lil Yachty don’t go over much better. Despite the detractions coming from vocal delivery on more than one occasion, the instrumentals are often enjoyable enough to overlook them. Nicki Minaj’s Auto-Tune drenched cadence on “Skrt On Me” is a little excessive, but the melody associated with it is so catchy that it doesn’t really matter either.

Trust me, when you roll down the windows and blast these tracks, the little nitpicks I’m making here aren’t going to make you turn it down. Harris has tapped into summer vibes perfectly and I’m going to be nodding my head to these bouncy funk instrumentals all summer and beyond. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the most fun album of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Slide, Feels, Heatstroke, Cash Out, Holiday

Least Favourite Track: Rollin … if I had to choose …

Score: 8/10

Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkVirtuoso jazz-funk bassist Thundercat, now exposed to a wider audience due to his outstanding work on Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly, unleashes his third studio effort and first since 2013. The album is sprawling, conceptual and incoherent in the best way, musical tidbits flying past you before you even have a chance to grab hold of them. Songs rarely extend past the 3-minute barrier. The title, Drunk, is intended to be as appropriate as it ends up being.

It not only feels like we are drunk ourselves, listening to the music which is equal parts woozy and frantic and getting constantly distracted by different things, but that we are listening to an hour-long diatribe given by the drunken Thundercat. He has absolutely no filter on this project to hilarious result and says any stray thought that enters his mind. The album is very difficult to make heads or tails of, but the convincing degree to which Thundercat executes the concept and the stellar musicianship on display makes Drunk more than worth your time.

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The album is an infinite loop, as the same melody from opener “Rabbot Ho” is repeated with different lyrics on closer “DUI”. “Where this ends we’ll never know”, Thundercat sings, knowing that he is going to continue to revert back to the negative thoughts and tendencies he speaks about over the course of the album. The whole album really is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole that he alludes to on the opening track.

Thundercat is accompanied on nearly every song by producer and Brainfeeder labelmate Flying Lotus, whose usually electronic work is just as experimental in sound and gels nicely here. Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave (B***h Don’t Kill My Vibe, King Kunta) appears on three tracks and offers his funk sensibilities to great effect as well. Lamar himself appears on the mic, one of three hip-hop features with Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell Williams, who all do their best to maneuver through Thundercat’s unique soundscapes. Most interesting are the appearances on “Show You The Way” from none other than Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, clearly inspirations for Thundercat’s style of singing, who sound as at home as ever on the jazzy instrumental.

Thundercat’s work with his bass guitar is an absolute wonder to behold — “Uh Uh” introduces his skill level early on in the album with a largely instrumental track where he duels with a piano player, seemingly attempting to play the fastest while maintaining a coherent sense of melody. It all reminds me of Sebastian’s “conflict and compromise” speech in La La Land.

The lyrics are consistently a surprise, hiding some much deeper themes behind some seemingly random and mundane topics. Yes, Thundercat sings about how he doesn’t understand technology (“Thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t Tweet our thoughts?”, he sings sarcastically), skirting romantic relationships to play video games, and how he wishes he lived the carefree life of a cat (complete with meowing vocals), but the tempo frequently slows down to offer more poetically written statements on death, loss, loneliness and discrimination. It shows that tracks like “Tokyo”, where he travels to the city to “blow all [his] cash on anime”, are more of a coping mechanism with this pain. It’s all very conceptual, and will take further listens to fully understand.

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Thundercat’s voice is a beautiful falsetto, but as the focus is more on his instrument, he never takes much effort to put variation in his tone and as a result many of these songs end up sounding very similar. If it weren’t for the distinctive lyrics, this album would get incredibly boring as it reached its end.  Standing at 23 tracks, there is certainly some filler here, as some tracks touch on largely the same topics – though perhaps the ultimate meaning hasn’t clicked yet. Thundercat seems like the kind of artist who would deliberately order these tracks to communicate an overarching artistic vision.

The unique musical style displayed throughout is often too abstract to accommodate guests, and it leads to some awkward verses from Lamar, Khalifa and Williams, who all seem as surprised by the twists and turns as we are. As they are trying to deliver their verse, they tend to clash irrhythmically with the shifting, changing musical landscape behind them.

While Drunk certainly has its faults, the sheer attempt to pull off something like this and irreverent creativity and absurdism issued in Thundercat’s lyrics makes this 2017’s most interesting project thus far. Thundercat has proven himself to be a talent far beyond his manic bass playing, and it’s easy to see why a visionary like Lamar keeps calling on him.

Favourite Tracks: Show You The Way, Tokyo, A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II), Uh Uh, Friend Zone

Least Favourite Track: Where I’m Going

Score: 8/10

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love

Awaken, My Love!.jpgDonald Glover is having a good year. After creating one of the most critically acclaimed new shows in Atlanta, his casting as Lando Calrissian and becoming a father, the man of many talents sens his musical style to another dimension entirely on his latest project Awaken, My Love. He abandons the braggadocio and punchlines and the surprisingly well-sung pop hooks that characterized his rap career for something more closely resembling the spirit of Prince reincarnated. Shades of this creative side of him came out on concept album Because The Internet, but this is on another level.

While we already knew that Gambino could pull off almost anything well between singing, rapping, acting, screenwriting, stand-up comedy … when he dropped the sprawling, genre-hopping “Me and Your Mama” it still came as a surprise. To pull such a shift in character off this well takes some serious ability, and Gambino joins the ranks of hip-hop artists who have stretched the confines of the genre to become something so much more in the process. He follows in the footsteps of fellow Atlanta artists OutKast in his ability to create powerful, brilliant music by injecting smaller aspects of hip-hop into other areas of music despite their perception as rappers.

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The album continues the great streak of funk and soul-influenced mainstream albums we’ve been getting this year, showing that Gambino has been studying his musical history in his ability to revive the intricate sound of artists like Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone, who he cites as major influences on the project. It is interesting that the production is still mainly handled by close friend and Community composer Ludwig Goransson, who worked on all his previous material as well, as these could easily be two different artists. Goransson is credited for playing an incredible number of instruments here, contributing to the production value that may be the best of the year.

The album is very atmospheric – it opens with 2 minutes of a repeating choral loop bringing us into the musical world. Gambino’s soul-piercing screams of agony in the middle third of “Me and Your Mama” are bookended by 2 instrumentals from 2 different musical worlds. It really is hard to process what we’re hearing here at times. Even though there is a running theme in the sound it is imbued with aspects from everywhere and anywhere – “Have Some Love” could be a gospel hymn and “California” could be a Young Thug song. The production resembles Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly at times in how complex it is, and like Butterfly, funk legend George Clinton is credited on “Riot”. Many tracks come equipped with freeform solos which close them out which can even be more entertaining than Gambino at times. I’d love to see the harpsichord solo which concludes “Zombies” being played.

On top of this layered funk production is the real surprise – Gambino’s vocals. His voice goes to so many strange places that many weren’t sure it was even him when the first two promotional singles were released, and the range he displays is very impressive. He knows how to capture an emotion perfectly just by altering his voice. His distress on “Zombies” as he’s being hunted by metaphorical ones makes you genuinely uneasy. “Redbone” is one of the best tracks of the year, featuring interlocking loops of 70s funk keyboards and guitar enhanced by Gambino’s aching falsetto. The passion in his delivery gives me chills every time, culminating in an amazing moment where he full-out yells “STAY WOKE” into the microphone before being cut off in the song’s return to its more chilled-out nature.

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While Gambino dropping punchlines full of pop culture references and basically acting like a solo battle-rapper was entertaining, and he’s certainly very talented at that as well, these songs mean something. “Baby Boy”, a poignant message to his newborn son expressing his desire to stay close to him despite his tumultuous relationship with his mother, is written with the sensibilities of a screenwriter to perfectly make you feel his words. The words of advice he gives to his son are revealed to be the same words given to him by his own parents 2 tracks later on outro “Stand Tall” – “Smile when you can”.

Since the album does involve throwing a lot of different sounds at the wall and seeing what sticks, it can tend to go off the rails sonically at times despite usually meshing very well. “Riot”, although brief, is quite disjointed as its title might suggest, putting too many different sounds in at once before ending abruptly. “Stand Tall” does the same thing, extending too long and jumping back and forth between one motif to the next. The short breaks in sound before something completely different is thrown in could really make the song 3 separate tracks.

While I do hope Gambino raps again sometime in the future, hopefully elements of this project can find their way into his music and this isn’t just a side experiment, because Awaken, My Love comes from another planet. To take such a huge artistic risk and follow through to this level of success and with this much certainty in direction is an incredible achievement. Every time I think Donald Glover can’t surprise me any more than he already does, he feels the need to prove me wrong.

Favourite Tracks: Redbone, Me And Your Mama, Baby Boy, Terrified, Zombies

Least Favourite Track: Riot

Score: 9/10