Rapid Fire Reviews (LSD, Cage The Elephant, Lizzo)

Image result for lsd cover artLSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD

While it seems like the oddest of pairings on paper, Diplo, Labrinth and Sia have teamed up for a brief project under the name LSD. Diplo is one of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business, and adding the nearly boundless voices of these British and Australian balladeers seems like a recipe for success … except that save for the standout tracks that they pushed as singles, most of this seems like Diplo reverting back to the most basic of pop formulas that he knows so well in order to stretch this musical partnership to a full-length project. While the vocal acrobatics are always engaging and there are a couple high-octane surprises in the tracklisting, most of this project is painfully safe.

The a cappella opening of the project previews just how good it could have been, Sia and Labrinth’s voices working surprisingly well together despite how distinctive and instantly recognizable they are. I would have loved to hear a lot more tracks that fit more into this slower tempo to really hear them thrive, but Sia’s attacked uptempo EDM tracks before and still brings the energy to a couple of these tracks. One of the best on the whole project might be the first full-length song, “Angel In Your Eyes.” It’s a seriously quirky electronic track that sees Diplo introduce us to a disorienting and woozy world that the cover art and the supergroup’s moniker suggests, though it’s really the only time this theme seems to fit here. The childlike backing vocals, hyperspeed tempo and chopped up melodies that bound madly around the soulful main hook and Diplo’s bleeps and bloops really demonstrate his strength as a pop producer. The last beat switch is a great shift in energy as well.

One of the greatest aspects that keeps up throughout this project is actually the way that Sia and Labrinth frequently trade off who sings every aspect of the verses and chorus, so you always get to hear both voices on every melody the song has to offer. It’s a nice twist that you weirdly don’t hear too often on pop duets. The triumphant “Genius” is another pretty great track before the project drops off in quality. Diplo makes his synths sound absolutely orchestral as the two make grandiose claims sounding like some mad scientists. The way Sia says “he’s a genius” is something that won’t leave my head in a while, and those belted harmonies at the end only reinforce the vocal talent on display here.

The other big single “Thunderclouds” doesn’t fare quite as well. There’s not much to say about quite a few of these tracks, they’re essentially made to not stand out. The melody doesn’t jump out at me like some of the others here, Diplo distilling the dying remainders of big, happy and upbeat pop music into one last swan song by amalgamating every trend there is.

So many of these other tracks fall so quickly into these pop tropes, with repetitive lyrics and dated dance breakdowns. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it feels like this project was released so late, most of these tracks quite a few months old without many new ones coming on this release … anything new that we’re getting now really doesn’t measure up and seems like a lot less effort was put into these just to call it a full album. The track “Audio” seriously sounds like it comes from 2013, though it’s one that would have shut down the clubs back then. There must not be more than 50 words in the track, the rest taken up by one of those chill dance breakdowns that used to be in every pop song on the radio.

“Mountains” and “No New Friends” have some great elements mixed with a couple of melodic decisions which really don’t make sense, which is surprising considering the man behind the boards. The heavenly opening of “Mountains” sounds seriously promising, sounding like some kind of choral hymn as Labrinth reaches up into that famous falsetto, but then the track drops out into this tropical-house groove with some generic lyrics about moving mountains and a chaotic, badly mixed dance drop. When it tries to bring back the same choral sound for the second verse, it’s laughably out of place at that point. The carefree “la-la” chorus of “No New Friends” makes me want to get up and dance, but everything else about the track is pretty phoned in.

The project ends a little stronger with the tracks “Heaven Can Wait” and “It’s Time,” which are built to show off the strengths of the vocalists a little more. The former has a hook so perfectly tailored for Sia’s range, her playing off of Labrinth’s emotional vocals in the verses with some soaring notes that sell the chorus over some steel drums, while “It’s Time” takes a break from the frenetic pop jams for a minimal piano duet where the vocalists can really show off – it’s the kind of thing they should really be doing just about all the time.

Diplo is probably one of the greatest pop producers working right now, so it’s weird to hear what happens when his hitmaking instincts are still clearly there with a little less effort put into them. There’s a lot of great aspects to this project and I’d even love to hear the three work together in the future, but LSD is a seriously inconsistent exercise for now.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven Can Wait, Angel In Your Eyes, It’s Time, Genius

Least Favourite Track: Audio

Score: 5/10

Image result for cage the elephant new albumCage The Elephant – Social Cues

The alt-rock veterans are still going and making a huge impact in the music scene. With their fifth studio album, Social Cues, the band that’s always had the slightest bit of a hip-hop influence adapts their sound to a more modern context pretty perfectly, linking up with producer-of-the-moment John Hill, who has recently given hits to both established pop stars and indie bands looking to crossover – his biggest success being “Feel It Still.” This is a strong project from the group, combining their immediately memorable hooks and fuzzy guitar charm with some more modern percussion and compelling lyrics about mid-career contemplations in a struggling genre.

The opening 5 tracks of the project are a very impressive run, easily making a case for radio play with some seriously catchy hooks even when a lot of these tracks are driven by some almost garage-rock sensibilities instrumentally. They know it too – “People always say, ‘at least you’re on the radio’,” they sing on the title track “Social Cues” with a tinge of sadness as they sing of creative struggles and dealing with fame. The opening track might be the purest rock song of them all with some punchy guitar hooks, but tracks like “Social Cues” and “Black Madonna” remove the fuzzy filter on the vocals and make plays for arena-sized anthems. You’d think someone would have done it before, but it’s so interesting to hear a modern beat with prominent hi-hats played on a real drumset, or at least, one that can alter the sound and mute them like they do on the title track – although they go full computerized with the track “Night Running” later on to similarly great effect. “Black Madonna” is an absolute knockout of a song, continuing the themes of the previous track by sarcastically comparing the allure of fame to some kind of entrancing goddess as awe creeps into frontman Matt Shultz’s voice. It’s a pretty simple but effective instrumental, the bassline driving the track and building up to the intoxicating falsetto chorus.

“Night Running” features Beck and takes more of a dive into his darker, woozy sound with some reggae influence – quite a bit of this project actually reminds me of what made Twenty One Pilots’ recent project Trench so effective – their general sound is quite far removed from everything else on this level of popularity, but they’re not afraid to apply their trademark style to just about anything else and try out some new things. Some catchy synth piano leads us into the slow-burning “Skin and Bones,” which slowly builds up to a dramatic orchestral conclusion, but “House Of Glass” demonstrates exactly what I mean – it’s the shortest track here, but you wouldn’t realize that listening it since it goes to so many unexpected and experimental places and makes a lasting impression. Shultz’s vocals are rapped with a deadpan delivery before the chorus brings in some of the most distorted and chaotic guitars on the whole projects and some gang vocals shouting about an illusion. A virtuosic guitar solo caps the whole thing off.

Another great thing about this album is its structuring – even if there’s not a fully realized story from beginning to end, the band knows how to put tracks with similar themes together. After their discussions on fame in the first half, the way tracks like “Love’s The Only Way” and “The War Is Over” transition into each other and expand on some of the points brought up in the previous track keeps the listener engaged at all times, in this case Shultz finding a love that ends all of the negativity – or the “war” – that he sung about in the early goings of the album. The former especially is a pretty beautiful stripped-back and calming track with a great story behind it – the ode to love is intentionally written in a key higher than Shultz can sing comfortably, so that his brother who plays guitar in the band has to help him out on some of the higher notes – love’s literally the only way it can be performed. Ending the album on the absolutely heartbreaking “Goodbye” is quite the choice as well – Shultz could apparently only bring himself to sing a single take and you can seriously tell how much pain is behind his words as he sings of the end of his seven-year marriage, repeating “I won’t cry” and “it’s alright” unconvincingly.

The album is somewhat frontloaded, placing most of the best tracks in the first half as it loses a little steam towards the end, but most of these tracks have at least something to like about them. Tracks like “Dance Dance” and “Tokyo Smoke” have the same kind of enjoyable upbeat garage-rock strut that persists throughout the project, but they don’t distinguish themselves much from other tracks on the project, especially when most of them have some kind of instrumental surprise or genre-defying flourish that individualizes them.

This band has come a long way since “Ain’t No Rest for The Wicked.” Social Cues is a project that’s both surprisingly modern and true to their roots at the same time, with frequent surprises and no shortage of hooks that you’ll be absentmindedly singing along to in no time.

Favourite Tracks: Black Madonna, House Of Glass, Social Cues, Skin and Bones, Love’s The Only Way

Least Favourite Track: Dance Dance

Score: 8/10

Image result for cuz i love you album coverLizzo – Cuz I Love You

2019’s most explosive breakout star is finally ready to explode into the public eye with her third studio album, Cuz I Love You. Lizzo has already been somewhat of an icon in the LGBT community for years with her special brand of overwhelmingly self-affirming and confidence-boosting lyricism, but more and more people are realizing that the messages of inclusivity she preaches are so fun that just about anyone can get involved regardless of who they might be. Lizzo is a lot more than just a rapper, running through sparkly pop hooks, fully-belted R&B ballads and neo-soul, and even bringing her famous flute on board in a complete obliteration of genre conventions. Her off-the-cuff effortless charm is hilarious and she certainly has the talent to back it up.

Cuz I Love You is a project infused with Lizzo’s infectious personality, dropping quotable and fun rap lyrics while also translating her loud, unapologetic nature into passionate and impressively soulful R&B material. Thirty seconds into the opening title track, Lizzo has already sung a full-voiced a cappella soul belt, referenced a meme and giggled as she raps “what the f**k are f**kin’ feelings, yo.” “Cuz I Love You” is a doo-wop throwback with bouncy piano rap breaks and immediately introduces the listener to just how fun and dynamic Lizzo can be. Structured more like a series of fun dancefloor fillers than a cohesive album, the project still works because Lizzo’s all-out celebration of all aspects of her identity is genuinely inspiring – for example, she celebrates body positivity on “Tempo,” interracial love on “Better in Color” and enjoys the single life on “Soulmate.”

She puts some of her most pop-oriented tracks right up at the front and shows why she’s ready to break through to mainstream audiences. The second track “Like A Girl” sees her referencing some successful women in pop culture in her rap verses and a 90s-influened massive pop hook as she backs herself up with some shouted chants, cheering herself on in the way that only Lizzo can before a rhythmic switchup in the bridge where she takes full control, but “Juice” is the real shining centerpiece here. Lizzo’s music is essentially the perfect “getting ready to go out music”, strutting down the runway and proclaiming herself “goals” with a funky throwback instrumental and confident half-sung delivery. “Soulmate” continues the self-love theme with one of the most uplifting hooks on the whole project, a syncopated synthpop beat accentuating her flow as she sings “bad b*tch in the mirror like yeah I’m in love” with an audible smile on her face.

The most Lizzo song of all here might actually be “Jerome,” which blends together everything great about her into a song that’s simultaneously legitimately emotional and absolutely goofy, dropping into a waltz tempo as Lizzo introduces the track with a “Look, listen, shut up,” going for the Oscar and putting on her best melodramatic and theatrical voice as she instructs her man “take your ass home.” It’s so hard not to make this entire review quotes of Lizzo’s lyrics – everything she says is absolute gold, and her mixed vitriol and lingering affection for the song’s target generates some of her funniest and most relatable lines, all while demonstrating her ever-surprising talent with some seriously soulful falsetto notes at the track’s conclusion.

Lizzo’s got huge ambitions, and for someone who was dropping meme-raps like “Phone” back in the day, it’s always a shock to hear her legitimately pull them off. The next two tracks see her link up and hold her own with an idol of hers in Missy Elliot and go full Prince with the Minneapolis-funk inspired track “Crybaby,” where she completely abandons her rap persona and transitions fully into a soul diva.

The end of the project is just as strong, even if the lack of cohesion and Lizzo coasting through some of the less-organized off-the-cuff moments on sheer charm alone starts to become a little more evident as it hurtles towards its ending. “Tempo” is a great club track, but there’s not much about it that really comes together , while tracks like “Exactly How I Feel” and “Heaven Help Me” feel underwritten, just leaving a lot of space for Lizzo to show off her booming vocals without much attention paid to song structure – smooth Gucci Mane feature aside. Except for the fact that that sheer charm I mentioned is probably more powerful than just about anyone working in the game right now – you can’t possibly listen to Lizzo and not have a great time. It ends with the track “Lingerie,” a much quieter sensual track that moves through three different chord changes and leaves things off with the impression that Lizzo could seriously be a leading R&B artist if she wasn’t busy doing just about everything else as well.

Songs written for the primary purpose of being a feel-good anthem can often elicit eye-rolls, but Lizzo is both authentically herself and inclusive enough that it’ll make anyone want to join her party. She represents the perfect antithesis to the wave of sadness taking over popular music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Jerome, Juice, Soulmate, Better In Colour, Like A Girl

Least Favourite Track: Exactly How I Feel

Score: 8/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, Sara Bareilles, Khalid)

Image result for ventura anderson paakAnderson .Paak – Ventura

Only 5 months after his rap-heavy third studio album Oxnard, which kept a high level of quality but ultimately disappointed some fans searching for the feel-good charisma that coloured his breakout project Malibu, Anderson .Paak returns with the soul-based companion piece Thank goodness he did. The singer, rapper and BEST teeth in the game worked on both of these projects simultaneously with executive producer Dr. Dre, originally planning to drop them as a double disc but ultimately deciding to space them out. While I still did enjoy Oxnard quite a bit, like many I thought it wasn’t making the most out of Paak’s strengths. With this project, that perfect balance of his half-sung, half-rapped bouncy cadence and tongue-in-cheek lyrics returns in a huge way, alongside some seriously impressive straight-up soul cuts featuring some absolute legends. Not just anyone can sign to Aftermath, and it’s looking more and more like Paak might follow in the footsteps of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar before him.

The opening track “Come Home” immediately takes us back to the sunny shores of Malibu Beach, Paak unleashing his raspy singing voice over a lazily strummed guitar pattern and a recurring choral break in the music that immediately sets up the entire album as something grandiose. Not only that, you know it’s going to be good when you get Andre 3000 himself to guest on your opening track. He completely shuts it down with his feature verse, running through dizzying flows and internal rhyme schemes. Paak begs his love interest to return on the track, which segues nicely into the Smokey Robinson(!!!)-featuring “Make It Better,” a smooth slow jam that sounds like it could be directly out of the 70s. This is the kind of timeless-sounding song that anyone from age 8 to 80 could enjoy no matter when it came out. A seriously underrated part of Paak’s songwriting is the winking charisma he brings to his romantic bars, sounding like the most successful pick-up artist of all time and delivering it all with the giant, goofy grin we all know he has plastered on his face. Robinson provides some supporting harmonies, sounding incredible at 79 years of age and validating Paak’s foray into classic soul.

Robinson and Three Stacks aren’t the only legends on this project – we also see Lalah Hathaway, Brandy and even the late Nate Dogg. Most appear in small supporting roles, but it works all the same to show just how well a new artist like Paak fits amongst them. It’s very reminiscent of what labelmate Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, especially as the project ends in a similar way as Paak has a conversation with a recording of Nate Dogg. Hearing the two happily trade lines on “What Can We Do?” is a very touching tribute – honestly, I had never realized before just how huge of an inspiration Nate must have been to Paak.

Paak does rap a couple times on this project, honestly sounding better over these more complex soul instrumentals than the out-of-character harder hip-hop beats on Oxnard, but his experiments venturing further than he ever has before into soul music are the true standouts here. “Reachin’ 2 Much” is a near-six-minute neo-soul monster of a track with two distinct sections and mindblowing freeform work from the bass and synths in the back. The groove never lets up, and Lalah Hathaway only enhances it with her otherworldly scatting and polyphonic abilities. The scat influence continues on the next track “Winners Circle,” a catchy main riff leading into Paak’s laid-back refrain and rap verse where he brings back that “YES LAWD!” and a hilarious shot at the President. The political undertones continue on “King James,” where Paak delivers a verse from the perspective of Colin Kaepernick and praises LeBron James’ work on using his money on change-inducing projects.

The strength of the project continues all the way through, with later tracks “Chosen One” and “Jet Black” keeping up the unbridled energy that the first track kicked off with some more fusions of Paak’s rap verses and the classic soul elements that give the entire project a nice amount of cohesion.

The somewhat unstructured and freeform nature of the jazz and funk sound that Paak pursues here can make for a couple moments where he underwrites a bit and makes for a couple sections that feel a little empty, especially on the track “Yada Yada,” but regardless it’s always engaging when you hear how much fun he’s having. The Pharrell-produced track “Twilight,” as well, is one I enjoy a lot but it seems like it might have fit better on Oxnard, which some of Williams’ classic hip-hop tendencies.

Looking at Oxnard and Ventura together, it just becomes all the more clear how much of a multitalented force in the game Anderson .Paak is. I’m sure there’s people out there with wildly differing opinions on what exactly it is that he does the best, but what he’s proven time and time again is that he’s good enough to do just about anything at all.

Favourite Tracks: Make It Better, Reachin’ 2 Much, Winners Circle, What Can We Do?, Come Home

Least Favourite Track: Yada Yada

Score: 9/10

Image result for Sara Bareilles - Amidst The ChaosSara Bareilles – Amidst The Chaos

After being nominated for Album of the Year 6 years ago and then diving straight into Broadway with her original musical, Waitress, Sara Bareilles has been rather busy over the years, but enough chaos in the world has seemingly caused her to start writing once again. She’s said that Amidst The Chaos, her fifth project, was a direct response to the political climate of the USA, with more than a couple songs on the project containing some direct references to recent events – of course, mixed together with some of her classic romantic songwriting style. Bareilles’ vocals are as impressive as ever – she was on Broadway after all – and really succeed at carrying this project past most of its shortcomings, including some awkwardly shoehorned political commentary (though some of it is very powerful!) and Bareilles not making much of an effort to fit the project into any modern musical context and spark replayability, but this project is full of some pretty breathtaking tracks.

After a couple of slower romantic tracks to kick things off, things really pick up once we get to the single “Armor,” which Bareilles put out much earlier than anticipated as a response to the Brett Kavanaugh trial. Out of all of the political commentary on this project, this song is easily the most effective at getting its point across, a fiery low piano riff leading into a defiant chorus as she finds strength in the women around her and prepares for battle. The next track “If I Can’t Have You” is even better. Co-written with R&B veteran Emily King, Bareilles demonstrates that she truly has the kind of stunning vocal capabilities to deliver some old-school soul material – why doesn’t she do this more often? The harmonized backing vocals and piano chords actually give the track an almost gospel flavor as Bareilles delivers some of her most emotionally-charged delivery on the whole project, tossing out some surprising notes effortlessly and sounding like a Motown star. “Miss Simone” is another quieter showcase for Bareilles’ voice, this time showing off her lower range in the chorus … it really is shocking how dynamic and she can be at times. The track was written with country songwriter extraordinaire Lori McKenna, who adds some vivid detail only a country artist could to the ode to Nina Simone and how her music has always been there for her.

Out of all the times to be wowed by Bareilles’ vocals, though, the best one of all comes on the track “Wicked Love.” It opens as a bouncy pop cut, but this honestly might draw the most inspiration from her Broadway days, the feel-good major key nature leading up to an aching chorus with a beautiful high harmony and a repeated vocal run that just gets more impressive as it goes along, adding a couple more notes to the end each time she sings it. The closing track, “A Safe Place To Land,’ is another powerful political message. In a duet with the incomparable John Legend, the two offer some striking words from the perspective of families affected by the border crisis trying to find a shred of hope – and sound fantastic doing it.

The run of four tracks near the project’s end, from “Orpheus” to “Saint Honesty,” is where I start to lose a little interest in the album despite the fact that all four of them are pretty fantastic ballads. Bareilles’ style is great for a single, powerful experience, but there’s not much desire for me to return to tracks like this that are all somewhat similar. She’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but that one trick is absolutely spectacular.

The track “No Such Thing”, on its surface, sounds like a great romantic ballad on the subject of struggling to get over a breakup, which really showcases Bareilles’ range as she ascends a full scale to a stunning high note in the chorus … but she’s given interviews where she’s explicitly stated that the song is about missing Barack Obama, which adds a profoundly strange contextual twist to enjoying it. I get that the world is in a bit of a crisis, but her musings on her complete devastation here are a little over the top.

There are a couple tracks that have some instrumental choices that just seem completely off to me, but maybe that’s just a product of the fact that there aren’t many people using the same kind of singer-songwriter style of live instrumentation who are still selling as well as Bareilles. One of these is actually on the opening track “Fire,” which kicks into this upbeat, almost country-sounding acoustic strumming on its prechorus that is so raw it throws off the rhythm of the song a bit as we hear the fingers squeaking over the strings. It also contrasts with Bareilles’ softer vocals, intentionally smoother to make way for the impressive moment of harmony at the chorus’ end. “Eyes On You” is another track with a very powerful concept that’s undermined by some strange instrumental decisions. Bareilles wistfully recounts the struggles of real-life people she met at a meditation class, naming each one, before the track suddenly kicks into a higher gear with a very present rock drumbeat that takes me out of its reminiscent, thoughtful nature.

Sara Bareilles is probably both one of the most impressive songwriters and the most capable voices in the game right now, so its easy to see why she has continued to stay so relevant to music consumers even after being gone for so long. This is an important project, so even if it doesn’t have much staying power, it’s still a great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Wicked Love, If I Can’t Have You, Armor, A Safe Place To Land, Miss Simone

Least Favourite Track: Eyes On You

Score: 7/10

Image result for free spirit khalidKhalid – Free Spirit

It’s clear with the current trends – the way the vast majority of people consume music is changing as a result of Spotify – and here we have the newly crowned king of streaming, Khalid, with his sophomore full-length project. Spotify’s curated algorithmic playlists to fit a certain “vibe” encourage less exciting music, music that’s designed to be played in the background and not paid attention to with nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary to draw focus and potentially incite a request to skip it. Songs that don’t force themselves to the forefront of your mind generate more streams, and the perfect embodiment of this phenomenon is Khalid. While this project is a bit of an improvement on his sluggish debut, its hour-long length still devotes quite a lot of time to slow-burn, filler tracks with cliched lyrics, fitting nicely into what sounds like a computer-generated alt-R&B algorithm. I can’t get over the fact that one of the featured artists is named, oh-so-perfectly in all caps, “SAFE.”

Any project that starts with a track called “Intro” that’s the same length as all the rest of the tracks you know is bound to get a little self-indulgent. Khalid’s voice is essentially the universal solvent of music right now, existing in a nice happy middle ground between The Weeknd, Post Malone and Auto-Tuned falsetto rappers like Swae Lee, and most of these tracks are designed to be a bit of an empty space for him to show it off. It’s definitely serviceable, it’s just that the melodies and lyrics that go along with it are all vaguely reminiscent of other big hits. I bring up another wildly popular artist in Post Malone, the two are truly equals in tapping into exactly what draws attention right now and amalgamating it into one sound – which I suppose is admirable in a way.

The thing about Khalid is most of the time listening to his music, I find myself mindlessly nodding my head along without really paying attention to it at all or trying to formulate an opinion on It’s so easy to get caught up in the trap of not paying serious attention to it, his soothing vocals essentially dropping my senses down into this lowered state. The beats are fun and engaging while they last, but there’s nothing at all memorable about most of these tracks. A song like “Bad Luck” that kicks off the project is structured like a smash hit single and is sure to soundtrack numerous high school parties to come, but most people would probably be hard-pressed to hum it or recite the words if asked. The next track, “My Bad,” is of course soundtracked by an irritatingly similar minimalist guitar riff and sparse hi-hats. Most of this project sounds like filler, Khalid slowly slinking around in his falsetto with a basic chord progression, a strong focus on a simple pop drumbeat and usually some kind of guitar-based pattern that makes it impossible to tell these tracks apart. Every so often you get a track like “Hundred,” that stands out for the wrong reasons, coasting on this creeping synth-bass and almost nothing else as it extends about two minutes too long with a repetitive hook and Khalid’s most obnoxious “suffering from success” bars.

The final three tracks on the album were clearly meant to be Khalid emotionally touching on some big picture issues of anxiety and depression, but his lyrical approach approaches Logic “1-800” levels of cliched and shallow – it’s hard to believe that Khalid is actually suffering through what he sings about. The lyrics don’t improve much elsewhere on the project, tracks like “Free Spirit” and “Twenty One” essentially coming across as teen and young adult-bait, with the same kind of Chainsmokers-esque tired messaging he had on his last project about living in the moment, man.

With 16 tracks and the definitive sound of the moment, however, a couple of these tracks were bound to stick somehow, and most of that is thanks to the collaborators Khalid invites on board. The two biggest singles here, “Better” and “Talk,” are actually some of Khalid’s best songs of his career, especially the latter produced by acclaimed deep-house duo Disclosure. Reliable hitmakers Stargate are responsible for “Better,” which drops into one of the truly memorable hooks on the project and an accompanying low-key trap groove, but “Talk” is what I’ve been hoping for all along, Khalid proving that he can thrive doing something even slightly different. Riding this fizzy 80s electronic synthpop instrumental, he finally gets to show off what he can do on a bit of a quicker tempo, delivering some great harmonies, but the tiny sparkles and quirks of the instrumental are what really gets my attention. I really enjoy that it transitions into “Right Back,” a track in a similar mindset that continues to satisfy my desires for Khalid on some more rhythmic material, speeding up his flows on a tried-and-true chord progression that brings to mind what made recent soulful hits like “Sorry Not Sorry” and “No Problem” so good. If he’s going to be derivative, at least do it like this.

“Outta My Head” welcomes John Mayer, and his guitar has a similar effect making the track rhythmically interesting, while the track “Bluffin’” veers closer to blue-eyed soul than he ever has in another successful experiment. Wouldn’t it be great if he tried things like this more often? He really does have the voice to make quite a lot of different things work.

I usually record scores of how much I enjoy each track as I listen, but Free Spirit is honestly so boring that I zoned out and forgot to do it, making giving out a score to this project more difficult. While there are a couple individual tracks that I do enjoy, as a whole Khalid represents too much of a worrying turn in the way music is consumed.

Favourite Tracks: Talk, Bluffin’, Outta My Head

Least Favourite Track: Free Spirit

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Nav, Yelawolf, Billie Eilish)

Nav - Bad Habits.pngNav – Bad Habits

A signee to The Weeknd’s XO label and one of the first Punjabi artists to make it this big with North American audiences, Nav’s Auto-crooned trap melodies have been getting more and more attention leading up to the release of his sophomore solo project, Bad Habits. Of course, there have also been no shortage of memes, whether it’s from his poorly mixed contributions to other people’s music or the fact that, at times, it appears that Nav is simply along for the XO ride and has no idea what he’s doing, seemingly zoning out during his public appearances and performances. The unfortunate part is that I’d believe it – once again, Nav is perfectly happy to simply adapt every trend he sees around him and apply his grating, nasal vocal delivery to them as he creates carbon copies of a trap sound that’s already starting to get tiresome. At 16 tracks, this project is hard to get through when he offers nothing that I haven’t already heard done better.

You forget just how much of why Nav’s music can be so unenjoyable is directly attributed to his voice and delivery – the project’s opening track, “To My Grave,” actually has a pretty great beat featuring a triumphant horn section that makes you anticipate what you’re going to get on this project immediately. Until Nav comes in with that shaky, Auto-Tuned falsetto, nasal sound and generic trap lyrics that aren’t saying much of anything and pulls all the focus away. One of the biggest criticisms of his collaborative project with Metro Boomin was that Metro wasted some of his best beats on someone like Nav, and that continues here even though most of the producers on this project are actually a lot less well-known. You really get the sense that Nav must just be a close friend of some member of the XO team, and either has delusions of grandeur or really good connections to have gotten to the spot he has. Half the time on this project it doesn’t even sound like he’s invested in being a musician, like he’s only recording these tracks for the clout and can’t wait to get out of the studio and onto Instagram where he can really make an impact.

Nav sounds bored out of his mind on tracks like “Taking Chances,” one of the many tracks here with more of a creeping, alt-R&B beat that exposes Nav’s awkward songwriting and making him sound all the more sluggish. It’s hilarious when Meek Mill hops on the next track “Tap,” because I couldn’t think of two people with more completely different energies. Meek opens the track with his spastic and excited cadence, then Nav comes on and sucks all the air out of the room, barely staying on the beat. Most of the features here aren’t even that great, but they sound incredible in comparison because it’s such a breath of fresh air to not be hearing Nav’s voice anymore – except of course for the usually reliable The Weeknd, who drops one of his worst hooks of all time onto the track “Price On My Head,” finally finding the notes that are too high for him after pushing the boundaries all these years.

The track “Tussin” with Young Thug is a decent track thanks to Thug and that fun trap-piano instrumental … though it doesn’t mean that Nav doesn’t still completely kill the energy during his verses, even if his singing is probably at its best here. The trap beat on the next track “Snap” is nothing innovative or new, but it’s upbeat and fun and present in the mix, which is enough for it to be one of the better tracks here as well. And while it’s far from an engaging song musically, hearing Nav actually earnestly expressing something that isn’t a trap cliché on “Why You Crying Mama” draws attention and is effective simply because it’s so surprising to hear that he has real emotions. “Stuck With Me” is the only hook on the project that I remembered playing through the album a second time, so again it meets the very low bar for a standout track.

Other than that, though, I really don’t have the energy to try to talk about distinguishable things about most of the other tracks in the back half of this project, everything really starts to blend together in a faceless, soulless wave of modern hip-hop trends.

I’m sure you’ve already read a lot of people criticizing this very line, but Nav saying “what’s the game without me” in a contemplative tone on the track “I’m Ready” is absolutely laughable – truly, what is Nav without the game? He’s never offered something that someone in his immediate circle hasn’t already done in his entire career.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck With Me, Snap

Least Favourite Track: Tension

Score: 1/10

Yelawolf Trunk Muzik III.pngYelawolf – Trunk Muzik III

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town r- wait, sorry, wrong country-tinged rapper. The Alabama rapper and Eminem protégé since signing to Shady Records in 2011 has always embraced elements of the country lifestyle in his work, even if his music stays pretty solidly in the hip-hop lane (with a couple diversions into heavier rock music). Now 39 years old, Yelawolf has been a huge force in the underground game for a while and has released numerous projects in the last couple years. Trunk Muzik III is the first in the series to get the full studio album treatment, and serves as his 5th While Yelawolf’s faster flow is seriously impressive and can usually elevate a track on its own, he’s frequently brought down by some awkward musical combinations of genre and the usual curse that quicker rappers fall victim to – sacrificing lyricism in the name of flow. This project is southern hip-hop through and through, and while it’s usually rather inconsistent, there are a couple highlights to remind us what caught someone like Eminem’s attention in the first place.

While I talk about country-rap making a resurgence years after Yelawolf ventured into the territory, another thing that’s huge right now that you can partially credit to Yelawolf is the resurgence of hardcore aspects in the mainstream from people like 6ix9ine – the way Yelawolf yells at the top of his voice as the album opens seriously reminds me of him. “TM3” is a pretty great opening track that really demonstrates just how great Yelawolf’s flow is over a rumbling bassline that never lets up and a crunchy electric guitar riff. It’s a nice way to get immersed in Yelawolf’s world and probably one of the most impressive technical showcases on the project. It’s been interesting to see how rappers who pride themselves more on their flows and “old-school” rap sensibilities have adapted to the omnipresence of trap music – the best ones usually find a way to incorporate the aspects of it that are undeniably fun while still offering enough variation to maintain their individual artistry, and that’s exactly what Yelawolf does on the track “Catfish Billy 2,” diving into the Migos flow a couple times but breaking away from it for a standout chorus that’s immediately memorable and very fun to rap along to due to that crazy internal rhyme scheme – I even love the way it abruptly cuts off after the final chorus, leaving it ringing in your mind.

It seems like Yelawolf puts in efforts to make his serial tracks always high quality – the piano instrumental and Pimp C sample on “Box Chevy 6” is great too. The soul sample and his calmer demeanor on “Drugs” is another great turn for Yelawolf that allows for more focus on what he’s saying alongside of that catchy fast flow, Yelawolf speaking on his complicated relationship with addiction after his family more or less introduced it to him. The heartfelt track “Addiction” takes this further as Yelawolf contemplates all that he’s lost due to it and his own struggles with beating it. Even on some of the weaker tracks here, Yelawolf’s flow is always a highlight and it’s always engaging to listen to him splice those syllables.

A huge part of Yelawolf’s music has always been more of an embrace of the “Slumerican” lifestyle and the hardcore partying tracks that go along with it, Yelawolf edging closer to his aggressive, screaming flow with less of a focus on his rapping abilities and more of a focus on getting the people who are listening absolutely ready to tear the place apart – these kinds of tracks are where the enjoyability of the project falls off a cliff for someone who’s just sitting and listening to this on the couch. He and featured artist MGK do rap quickly on a track like “Rowdy,” but it’s clear that the true focus is on that aggressive hook and there was less effort put into the structure, just using it more as a party trick than something meaningful. Other songs like generic trap cut “No Such Thing As Free” and “We Slum” are similar.

There are a couple of tracks here that are a strangely inconsistent combination of some of the best and worst aspects of what Yelawolf does that just leave me a little confused. On the chorus of “Special Kind of Bad,” Yelawolf drops into this genuinely stunning, smoky singing voice that he’s never really displayed like this before, with some engaging lyrics, but everything else about the track is pretty unlistenable … I don’t understand why this was placed on a track like this where the rest consists of Yelawolf’s awkwardly sexualized lyrics and hardcore, slower flow, and whatever that modulated effect on his voice was at the end. He actually sings for most of the next track, “Like I Love You,” as well, but the lyrics are similarly far too blunt to be effective. The structures of tracks like these are pretty incredible, they’re just let down by one strongly negative aspect that brings them way down. The hook of “Trailer Park Hollywood,” the no-name features on “All the Way Up.”

The last 5 tracks on the album are all very strong and display the natural skills that Yelawolf has. While a lot of these tracks are brought down by inconsistencies, this is a respectable effort from a veteran in this lane.

Favourite Tracks: Catfish Billy 2, Drugs, TM3, Box Chevy 6

Least Favourite Track: Special Kind of Bad

Score: 5/10

Eilish sits on the edge of a white bed, in front of a dark background. She wears white clothing, while smiling at the camera.Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Another post, another huge, culturally shifting project that I’m reviewing a couple months after the fact. Looking back on something like this after it’s remained in contention for the #1 spot on the album charts every week since it’s been released is quite the experience. Also, let it be known that I called it, giving one of my rare 10/10 scores to the then-15-year-old Eilish who had released her first EP only two weeks before. Watching her dominate pop culture has been surreal for someone who’s been there from the beginning, and Eilish has now fully arrived with her debut album that takes her eerie concepts and unsettlingly adorable vocal delivery to the next level with a series of immaculately produced tracks, thanks singlehandedly to her brother Finneas (the layering on her voice, though!). The public have spoken – they’re looking for something completely new in a world of peak trap, and this is it.

After a brief intro, the project opens with the stunning track “bad guy.” This song absolutely blew me away the first time I heard it, and now it’s a global smash hit, which is pretty incredible for a song that sounds like this. The minor-key harmonies and layering on her voice sounds like it’s directly out of some kind of Halloween movie, that persistent, menacing bassline interacting with the higher-pitched synth hook and not much else. If there was a way to introduce us to Eilish’s character across the full project, there’s not a much more perfect one. “Duh“. Eilish and Finneas’ absolute command of the best spots of her voice and how to layer them in the most haunting and effective way is a standout tactic across the whole project, and it only serves to make both the bangers and ballads much better. “when the party’s over” might actually be my favourite song on the entire project, and it’s the one that uses the layering the absolute best. Eilish’s range as she ascends during the verses is something to behold, and the ocean of her many vocal tracks supporting the whole thing is an absolute treat for the ears with every tiny nuance and new harmony. The bridge is so powerful and moving, Eilish pouring her heart out about loneliness. “i love you” is another dramatic ballad that pulls a little too strongly from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but her vocals are strikingly beautiful in a similar way.

There are so many little details of Eilish’s music that serve to make the world she’s singing about so much more vivid, especially to a headphone user, since they’re so buried in the mix you’d miss them unless you were really paying attention – as you should be. Whether it’s the sounds of the party as Eilish’s friends slowly kill themselves via substance abuse on “xanny,” that unsettling scraping on the absolute punch-to-the-face of a track “you should see me in a crown” or the ambulances arriving after she climactically jumps off the roof on the heart-wrenchingly tragic track “listen before I go,” (did I mention how powerful – and worrying – it is for a 17-year-old to be singing about all of this?) Eilish makes the biggest effort to make sure her tracks are a cinematic experience. The sound seems to be tailored to the headphone-based experience as well, Finneas’ basslines always at the forefront of the mix and a unique effect where Eilish’s voice rapidly cuts in and out turn her into what I can only describe as an ASMR popstar. The music is designed to give you a physically positive response.

A common criticism of Eilish’s music is how similarly she approaches each one of her tracks from a vocal standpoint, her quiet, near-whisper of a voice a constant across the project, but the way she makes it fit in on all of these different instrumentals is the truly impressive part. “all the good girls go to hell” features a beat that sounds almost as if it’s directly out of the 90s G-Funk movement, but that intense vocal centers it and turns what should be a party track into something much more sinister with her religious themes, like what Jordan Peele did with “I Got 5 On It” in the Us trailer. “wish you were gay,” on the other hand, is another favourite track with a completely different approach, opening like a doo-wop ballad from the 60s as Eilish’s smart songwriting comes into play with the wordplay centered on numbers, before the chorus brings some modern electronic aspects in. When the music cuts out in the climactic bridge and that paper-thin vocal sings “I’m so selfish,” you feel her emotions at their peak when her vocal is at its quietest.

My absolute favourite albums are always deliberately structured to tell a story, and Eilish clearly appreciates the art of creating an album in the same way, as evidenced by the closing track “goodbye.” It’s not much of a track on it’s own, but the way it takes the listener on a reverse journey of the narrative of the album as Eilish sings a line from each of them in reverse order, ending with the original and overarching proclamation, “I’m the bad guy,” is a great way to wrap it up. There are a lot of great little lyrical references to preceding tracks as well.

There are a couple decisions that prevent the project as a whole from being as perfect as her debut EP, like the baby voice on “8” and lack of variation in the slower tracks that bring the project to its end, but this is the kind of self-assured debut you could expect from an artist who’s going to be here for decades to come.

Favourite Tracks: when the party’s over, wish you were gay, bad guy, all the good girls go to hell, listen before i go

Least Favourite Track: 8

Score: 9/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (2 Chainz, Maren Morris, Juice WRLD)

Image result for 2 chainz rap or go to the league2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Usually one of the most cartoonish and comedic faces in rap, 2 Chainz’s fifth studio album Rap Or Go To The League – apparently executive produced by basketball star LeBron James – sees him dial the punchline bars back and address some more serious issues, all while maintaining the vibrant personality we know him for. A lot of Chainz’s recent work has been seriously inconsistent, but this project is a huge improvement, showing sides of him that we’ve never seen before and varying his instrumentals a lot more. With the addition of a litany of great guests, there’s always something surprising around the corner on this project. It’s definitely his most well-rounded work yet, even if there are a couple moments where we’re reminded that 2 Chainz is far from the most technically gifted rapper out there.

The project opens with the lengthy and contemplative slow burner “Forgiven” which emphasizes the themes behind the album’s title, signifying to the listener that this isn’t exactly the same 2 Chainz we’ve gotten in the past. It opens with a recording of Chainz being announced in a basketball starting lineup before speaking from the perspective of his younger self reflecting on gun violence in his neighbourhood, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and thinking that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. A spoken word piece emphasizes the way others view the value of black people before the track ends with a police siren and a gunshot. It’s an incredibly heavy start to a 2 Chainz album, and it’s certainly some very compelling material especially coming from the less rhythmic, more confessional delivery Chainz is known for. Chainz’s heavier material is concealed by some fun instrumentals as the project goes on, transitioning to the beautiful soul sample of “Threat 2 Society” that continues retelling his upbringing.

The opening run of 4 tracks is very strong, especially the celebratory “Money In The Way” that combines trap hi-hats with an OutKast-esque horn section. It’s essentially a giant flex that exists outside the more mature themes of the project, but the unbridled joy that can creep into 2 Chainz’s delivery at times is one of the greatest things about him – it’s great to hear him on these more soulful instrumentals after going full minimalist trap recently. Young Thug and Travis Scott actually show up on the next two tracks, but they’re easily some of the weakest here because 2 Chainz’s personality should never be restrained by a basic trap framework – “High Top Versace” and “Whip” fit in most with what’s going on at the moment, and I had been enjoying Chainz switching it up more until that point.

2 Chainz seriously went all-out with his guests on this project, and most of them seriously elevate these tracks. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Kendrick Lamar’s lower-key appearance on the experimental and quirky trap banger “Momma I Hit a Lick”, but this has become my most played track on this project by far. I absolutely love how much these two switch up their flows and voices as the track goes on, it fits with just how weird that instrumental is. The track is such an exhilarating, trippy experience … when that unsettling extra synth comes in halfway through Lamar’s verse? Perfect. “Rule The World” with Ariana Grande is another excellent track, dropping right into Grande’s wheelhouse with a throwback 90s piano jam. Grande knocks the chorus out of the park and paves the way for Chainz to come in and complete the picture with some smooth bars as he dedicates the track to his wife, who he married last year. It’s great that these two have connected so well after the whole “7 Rings” controversy too – Chainz even introduces the track “I Said Me” with a sample of the original Sound of Music tune. We get a couple more great verses at the end from Lil Wayne and E-40 on the retro track “2 Dollar Bill” and even the odd combination of Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black on the track “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is” – even if that hook from Chainz drones on a bit.

Even with all the features, my favourite track of all on this project might be the solo track “NCAA”, which is essentially the perfect storm of goofy 2 Chainz lines, the themes of the album, and a huge adrenaline shot of an instrumental. “Who me?” 2 Chainz grins at the beginning. “I take this open beat”. Then it drops, and each line is more ridiculous – in a good way – than the last. The gang vocals of the chorus roar in, serving as both a criticism of the mentality Chainz introduces on the first track and the most genuinely thrilling moment on the whole project.

Rap Or Go To The League essentially brings together all the best things about 2 Chainz, and then adds a surprising degree of poignant political commentary on top of it all. There are certainly quite a few moments where his weaknesses as an actual rapper are exposed, but this is one of the most simultaneously fun and important rap projects in a while.

Favourite Tracks: NCAA, Momma I Hit A Lick, Money In The Way, Rule The World, Threat 2 Society

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

An image of Morris lying down on a bed of leaves while holding a pink flower, wearing a pink bikini top and yellow fur coat.Maren Morris – GIRL

The latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, Maren Morris’ sophomore album GIRL is here after breaking through to the mainstream with a Zedd collaboration. If Morris was going to pop, there were a lot of worse ways she could have done it. Superproducer Greg Kurstin shows up sporadically across this project, and someone like him knows exactly how to maximize the potential of Morris’ powerhouse vocals. She doesn’t abandon her country roots entirely either, with a couple of tracks still fully in that lane, but honestly Morris is most exciting here going in a pop/soul direction. Despite a few awkward lyrical shortcomings, GIRL for the most part evades the sophomore curse.

The opening title track is one of Kurstin’s, and it’s certainly a strong way to kick it off. Most of Morris’ instrumentation is still slightly twangy and guitar-driven, but the vocals on top of it are undeniably pop. We get a couple of pretty standard chord progressions here, but what we’re really being introduced here is the soulfulness in Morris’ vocals as she attacks some high notes and harmonies before dropping into an anthemic and uplifting chorus. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s not a lot that voice couldn’t carry. The real crossover fun starts on the next track, “The Feels”, featuring an old-school bouncy country guitar riff and an electric finger-snap pattern that’s used perfectly when the instrumental drops out for a full two counts, Morris storming back to hit a huge note that kicks off the chorus with a rapid-fire swung delivery. It’s about as perfect of a marriage between her two styles while keeping her infectious and playful spirit that I could have imagined. “Gold Love” is another one that does it pretty well, mostly a catchy, somewhat soulful pop track, but it features a brief country breakdown where Morris drops her vocals down for a quick break that keeps it interesting.

Most of the greatest tracks here are actually Morris going full soulful R&B diva, however. She’s got the vocals to flit through some seriously impressive vocal runs and a full range that not a lot of her country contemporaries do, and when they’re applied to something as direct as a track like the doo-wop inspired “Make Out With Me”, it’s pretty moving. Morris is out here to take exactly what she wants, and you can hear it through the power and conviction in her vocals – she attacks her biggest notes with some country gravel! The best track of all is “RSVP”, hiding in the back half of the album. The track also plays into the more sensual side of Morris’ vocal tone, simultaneously assertive and inviting, but the energy provided by the trap hi-hats and that layered, harmonized chorus that shows off the best parts of her high range make it an easy standout.

Some of the most overtly country tracks on here do fit in well with Morris’ energy, but I can’t help agreeing with the pop producers who initiated this change in feeling that the tone of her voice was meant more for another style. Of course, as the “yeehaw agenda” creeps further and further into pop culture, it’s a lot of fun to hear Morris collaborate with the Brothers Osborne, who have just about the most traditional country vocals going right now, but their juxtaposition feels a little too far removed, and when Morris is given huge vocal moments that require the heavier country instrumentation to stop it feels like they’re trying to hard to mix genres – it works better just hearing her natural accent on a melody more suited to her vocal style.

There are quite a few tracks where Morris and her collaborators are embracing a more country-based singer-songwriter storytelling style of lyrics as well that feels somewhat inauthentic. Morris clearly has a lot of fun portraying the disruptive, flirtatious party girl, and hearing her sing something like the starry-eyed, acoustic “A Song for Everything” makes my eyes roll just a bit. Although “Common”, her duet with Brandi Carlile, is pretty fantastic! Their harmonies together give me goosebumps, Carlile’s natural ruggedness and emotion anchoring Morris’ cleaner high notes. On the other hand as well, a track like “Great Ones” is a nice track with more poetic lyrical content as well – for whatever reason, I always love when country artists take a lyrical concept that’s typical to their genre, usually religion for Morris, and use it in an entirely different context. The last couple tracks on the project are a nice calm-down, especially “To Hell & Back”, a well-written country pop melody that once again frames some great areas of Morris’ voice.

I’d love to see Morris work with an even wider range of more pop-oriented producers in the future, because this crossover is a pretty solid effort that could easily be expanded upon – I hope something from this project eventually catches on at pop radio! Morris’ soulful vocals are the shining centerpiece, with a couple outstanding tracks I’ll be returning to a lot.

Favourite Tracks: RSVP, The Feels, Make Out With Me, Common, To Hell & Back

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

Image result for death race for loveJuice WRLD – Death Race For Love

Juice WRLD, and the movement that he takes up de facto leadership of in the wake of some unfortunate losses, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical phenomena going on right now. His brand of melodic emo-trap, taking the energy and spirit of mid-2000s pop punk and funneling it into a modern hip-hop context, is a combination that I never could have anticipated having such a profound impact on so many listeners. After exploding into the mainstream with “Lucid Dreams”, Juice’s sophomore project is here – and apparently, he made it in only 4 days. With a length running well over an hour, I was dreading going into this project – more often than not, the melodramatics of the genre aren’t really for me – but Juice WRLD honestly pulls things off pretty well here. The album is still way too long and loaded with filler tracks and questionable lyrics, but Juice’s ear for melody and refreshing musical presence fills out Death Race for Love with more hits than misses.

The project opens with one of its strongest, “Empty” – Juice is honestly at his best when he leans furthest into the pop-punk direction his delivery is so clearly lovingly inspired by, rather than coming at it trying to make a hip-hop or a trap song first and foremost. We get this somber piano loop and a rather subdued section of hi-hats as Juice drops this catchy but overwhelmingly dark chorus on top, nailing that emo inflection in the process and just making me marvel at how well this collision of genres works. “I was put here to lead the lost souls”, he sings, and judging by the way people have received his work, he’s not too far off. These young artists who drop lyrics like Juice does have found a unique way to connect with people and open up about depression in an eye-opening and vivid way. The only track that does this pop-punk-with-a-trap-beat thing better might be the single “Robbery”, where Juice drops his catchiest and most heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery chorus yet over a legitimately beautiful twinkling piano instrumental. This genuinely could have been something like a Simple Plan song from the early 2000s, and it’s so fascinating to hear.

“Fast” is another one that people immediately gravitated to when this dropped, and it absolutely sounds like a smash hit. There’s a kind of glossy sheen on it that makes it sound like an inescapable Post Malone track, but Juice’s softer singing voice is honestly really nice to hear. I also really appreciate how Juice opts to switch things up a bit, it would have been easy to fall into one sound across a long and boring hour and 12 minutes, but there are a couple surprises like the tracks “Syphilis” and “Ring Ring” along the way. The former sounds like an XXXTENTACION tribute, Juice pulling off the hyper-aggressive scream-rap style a lot better than I would have expected, while the latter teams up with electronic artist Rvssian for a bass-heavy and filtered track with crunchy guitars and another great hook.

There’s a lot about Juice that might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I think I’ve listened to “Lucid Dreams” enough at this point to get it. Quite a few of these songs open and seem a little disjointed and messy, but then something about the melody Juice sings, or his cadence, or just how earnest about it he is, clicks together and sticks in your brain. A song like “HeMotions” (awful title aside) seems like an obvious skip at the start with his spacey and awkward “muddy emotions” hook that features an emoji reference in the first of a line of pretty bad lyrics across the whole project, but it seriously sneaks up on you as the beat adapts to fit it by the end of the track.

With a largely improvisational and overlong hip-hop album, there was bound to be quite a lot that falls completely flat. “Big” is the first huge miss on the project, and really makes it clear that a lot of this project was improvised on the spot while not completely sober. There are a lot of videos where Juice makes it clear just how impressive of a freestyler he is, but on these looser tracks his melodies go out the window, killing his biggest strength of all. He essentially becomes a below-average Auto-Tuned mumble rapper with a couple awkward moments trying to shoehorn too many words into a bar. Juice sometimes has a tendency to put some of his most off-putting lyrics directly in his choruses, and elongating that “gorgeous” in “Flaws & Sins” so much he sounds almost country is probably the worst offender here. Most of the 2nd half of the album is considerably weaker, with more than a few tracks where the charm that’s barely holding things together finally gives out and Juice’s lack of musical ability is really revealed – tracks like “Desire”, “10 Feet” and “Rider” are pretty headache-inducing and could easily have been cut.

Juice is a young and inconsistent artist still trying to find his footing, but its undeniable how many people he’s able to genuinely reach out to and comfort. It’s really looking like his is the next major wave in music going forward, and I’m sure he’ll only improve with time.

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Offset, Lil Pump, Hozier)

Offset Father of 4.jpgOffset – FATHER OF 4

The third and final member of the ultra-popular rap trio Migos to release their own solo project as we wait for Culture III, Offset actually takes the opportunity to do something you don’t often see the group doing: opening up and getting emotional. The album delayed due to relationship drama with Cardi B, Offset has quite a few tracks here acknowledging his mistakes and reflecting on himself, as well as zooming the lens out a little further and giving some insight and storytelling tracks into his upbringing and his relationships with the rest of his family. FATHER OF 4 does suffer from filler and long album syndrome as well as the lack of the other Migos to play off of, but has its fair share of surprises as well. Offset exists in a kind of commercially viable middle ground between his groupmates, possessing parts of both Quavo’s charisma and Takeoff’s technical ability.

Of all the things you might have expected a Migos-affiliated album to open with, it might not have been a somber orchestral arrangement, contemplative piano and Offset’s heartfelt ruminations on the births of his 4 children, addressing each of them by name and apologizing for the times he wasn’t there. The track gives a pretty good indication of how the rest of the album is going to go – while Offset might have the least natural musical instinct of the three Migos, his Auto-Tuned flow here never quite finding that catchy pocket or fitting with the song, what he’s saying is genuinely captivating, and that’s the part that makes FATHER OF 4 really work. The next track, “How Did I Get Here”, features J. Cole and finds the two reminiscing on making it out of the cycle of crime to find success. It certainly doesn’t reach the same level of depth as the last one, falling back into some more Migos-esque bars, but at least it’s about something – again, something that’s pretty rare for the trio. Cole really elevates the track with a much more aggressive delivery.

Honestly, for all the oversaturation Migos have had recently, you still can’t deny the energy of their greatest bangers, and Offset certainly delivers a few of them here, even if I do miss some of the complementary voices as the tracks go on. “Lick” rides a nice flute sample and fuzzy bassline and sees Offset switch up the Migos flow for a catchy chorus. Offset’s speedier flow is infectious, and there’s something about that “woo! woo! Offset!” adlib that sets me off every time, and the busy trap beat of “Made Men” and driving, slightly eerie synth line of “Wild Wild West” certainly allow him to show off his greatest skills. But undeniably the best classic Migos trap banger on the project is a collaboration with none other than Offset’s wife on the track “Clout”, featuring a dramatic piano loop and an absolutely hilarious and personality-driven verse from Cardi as Offset reflects on the clout-chasing culture they are caught up in.

One of the most surprising tracks on the whole album is “North Star” with Cee-Lo Green, which begins like a pretty standard trap cut before some acoustic noodling creeps in and the track gets spacier and moves into some creeping, ethereal synths that reminds me of something like the awe-inspiring nature of an ODESZA track – the perfect arena for Green to enter with some absolutely incredible and theatrical vocals, building on Offset’s paranoid bars with some powerful lines about perseverance. Backed by a gospel choir, it gives me chills every time and the fact that it came from a Migo is amazing. “Don’t Lose Me” is another compelling look into Offset’s emotions, opening with a clip from his public apology to Cardi and proclaiming that he wants to be with her for life.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Migos album without its fair share of tracks that serve only as uninspired filler and sound like they were made in a couple minutes – because they probably were, as the Migos will readily admit. Tracks like “Tats On My Face” and “Underrated” are some of the hardest on the project, but fall very flat since we’ve heard so much similar material from them already. There are a couple more tracks at the end that are loaded with features from all over the industry, but even they can’t quite liven it up after track after track of the same Migos flow – Travis Scott sounds especially lethargic on “Legacy”.

Ultimately, I’m glad that we did get these three projects from each of the Migos members, as it did allow them to display their greatest strengths. As always though, they’re better together. If we’re measuring them against each other, I’d say Takeoff’s project takes the crown, but this one’s right behind.

Favourite Tracks: North Star, Clout, Made Men, Wild Wild West

Least Favourite Track: Legacy

Score: 6/10

Lil Pump - Harverd Dropout.pngLil Pump – Harverd Dropout

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about 18-year old viral sensation Lil Pump? Perhaps known even more so for his antics on social media than his music, even after racking up nearly a billion views on his single “Gucci Gang”, Pump fully embraced his status as a living meme as soon as he strut down that hallway next to Kanye West in a Roblox costume. Harverd Dropout is his second studio album, and it’s been pretty universally panned, but to be completely honest – I have a lot of fun with Lil Pump’s music. It might be some of the most mind-numbing material out there, but the sheer enthusiasm with which he embraces the persona he puts out – just the way he delivers the line “I’m a millionaire, but I don’t know how to read”, adding a cheery “nope!” as an ad-lib on the track “Be Like Me” as an example – makes it hard to hate the guy. Fine, fine – it’s objectively terrible music. But there’s a lot of terrible music that isn’t anywhere close to being this fun.

Lil Pump’s “ooh!” (and the usually accompanying “huh??”) is one of the most visceral, inexplicably energizing ad-libs I’ve ever heard. There’s something so gleefully ignorant and flippant about it, and it’s the perfect way to punctuate Pump’s ridiculous lines – my favourite of which might be Pump, with an audible giant grin, saying “I gave lean to a newborn baby” on the track “ION”. The first two brief tracks “Drop Out” and “Nu Uh” both see Pump flexing about dropping out of school (now he’s richer than your mom) over some garish 8-bit synths and a breakneck tempo that brings out the most hyperactive sides of his youthful vocals. And of course, this drops right into “I Love It”. The fact that this track hit top 10 is absolutely hilarious to me. Pump and Kanye both knew exactly what they were doing with this track, and everything they do on it falls right in the perfect uncanny valley between serious and jokey. It’s the same reason “Old Town Road” is so huge right now, and “I Love It” is so genuinely maddeningly catchy that it can’t be seen as just a joke in the same way.

Honestly, some of the most taxing moments on the project actually come when feature artists are invited into Lil Pump’s world, since nobody exists on the same level of absolute memery as him. The closest thing we get is goofball 2 Chainz on the track “Stripper Name”. Pump actually tries to be more serious to match their average contributions instead of the other way around, and his complete lack of ability as an actual musician gets exposed in the process. The two features from members of the Migos on the tracks “Fasho Fasho” and “Too Much Ice” are so phoned in, and the repetitive beats that Pump frequently raps over aren’t as fun when Pump doesn’t have any of those trademark outlandish quotables overtop. The latter just … really hurts my brain. It’s all a little too loud. Lil Wayne’s verse on “Be Like Me” really isn’t that bad, but it’s easily the longest track here and it’s clear they were trying to get a real single out of Pump. He just doesn’t work in a traditional song structure; Pump is fully a product of the short attention span generation.

It’s really a very strange balance with Lil Pump – much like making something catch virality on the internet – there’s a very fine line here between headache-inducingly terrible and absolutely hilarious. It really makes it hard to give the project a score, or even write up serious criticism on it. Take the track “Vroom Vroom Vroom”. It really is little more than Lil Pump making a series of car noises. And maybe it says something about me, but I can’t help but smile when I listen to it. Can I, a music reviewer, even call it music? Debatable. The man drops Fortnite bars on “Off White”. He knows what he’s doing, and it’s not making music.

Lil Pump isn’t real. He’s a character, and a pretty funny one at that. I equate his music, quality and enjoyment level wise, to something like what The Lonely Island was making back in the day. And while no one was arguing that was high art, and it certainly had its fair share of huge misses, it was still pretty enjoyable. I’m looking forward to what in the world this guy is going to do next. ESSKEETIT!!!!!!!!!!

Favourite Tracks: I Love It, Drop Out, Racks On Racks, Butterfly Doors

Least Favourite Track: Too Much Ice

Score: 🤑/10. Man, I don’t know. Let’s just say 6/10, I guess.

Hozier - Wasteland, Baby!.pngHozier – Wasteland, Baby!

It’s been about 5 years since a deep-voiced Irishman invaded pop radio with an unlikely hit single about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and Hozier has finally returned with his second studio album, Wasteland, Baby! After an introductory EP that gave us the impactful and moving protest song “Nina Cried Power”, which landed on my top tracks of the year list, and the mellower track “Shrike”, the full album is a reminder of everything that we loved about the disruptive force in the mainstream music scene in the first place. Standing at 57 minutes in length, it’s hard not to see through Hozier’s formulas at times. A couple of these tracks sound a bit like a copy-and-pasted “Take Me To Church”, but there is still essentially no one else successfully occupying his lane. Most of the singer-songwriter types from 5 years ago failed to adapt, but Hozier still sounds fresh as ever.

After the fiery opener, the project drops into the track “Almost (Sweet Music)”, which, if we’re connecting these tracks to his older material, is this album’s “Jackie and Wilson”. I still think that’s Hozier’s greatest song, so I don’t much mind the adherence to formula here. Hozier’s voice is pretty unparalleled in its expressiveness. Set over some sunny acoustic chords, when those soulful backing vocals come in to support him in the second verse it’s hard not to get lost in this ode to music itself – Hozier is essentially running through a list of his favourite songs in the lyrics. Hozier has mastered this inexplicable thing in quite a few of his songs, this kind of eerie feeling as he sings some powerful, larger-than-life lyrics in a minor key. “Movement” displays this perfectly as he sings about the effect his partner’s love has on him, but even as he’s celebrating it he sounds almost a little scared of it, an all-encompassing thing about to take over his body and make him do involuntary things – that’s the vibe that almost all of Hozier’s big-concept songs give off. It’s a pretty good formula to follow. The longer track “No Plan” is another soulful jam session that keeps a strong start going. I love that fuzzy lead guitar, reminds of a Black Keys song.

As the project progresses and we hit the middle section, we get an opportunity to focus a lot more on that beautiful tone with a series of calmer songs beginning with the dramatic and minimal “As It Was”. This track sounds almost like something out of Lord of the Rings as Hozier seems to be singing about a love that persisted through some unknown dark and evil fog: “the otherness came”, he ominously sings. It’s an absolutely chilling song. “Talk” is another pretty strong track by the delivery of those background “hey-yeaaaaa”s alone.

There are certainly a couple tracks here that don’t quite hit the same level of gravitas that I come to expect from a Hozier song, or serve as a tonal counterpart to an earlier track that doesn’t hit quite as hard. The chorus of the track “To Noise Making (Sing)” is seriously awkward, replacing Hozier’s usual strong lyricism with the repetition of a single word, and the way the backing vocals in a nasal higher octave are mixed louder than Hozier’s own voice is a strange choice. By the time we get to tracks like “Be” and “Sunlight” at the end of the album’s runtime and we start to hear the same crunchy effects on the guitar and the same tactics of extending those higher, choral notes in the background that we’ve heard elsewhere in the album, I start to wonder if it needed to be this long. Nonetheless, Hozier’s voice is always a treat to listen to regardless. “Would That I” is a great, emotionally delivered track that breaks up the monotony at the end as well.

The opening run of 4 tracks on this thing alone is enough to make me wonder why I’ve seen some of the more mixed reviews on this project floating around on the internet. Hozier is a refreshing presence in the world of mainstream music and I sincerely hope he’s not gone for as long until the next one.

Favourite Tracks: Nina Cried Power, Movement, As It Was, Almost (Sweet Music), No Plan

Least Favourite Track: To Noise Making (Sing)

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y, Avril Lavigne, Betty Who)

Image result for Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y - 2009Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y – 2009

Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has been seriously prolific coming out with projects over the past couple of years, and he’s back in a team-up with veteran rapper Curren$y. The two previously joined forces for one of the best songs on Khalifa’s last album Rolling Papers 2. The dynamic between the two still holds up here, but 2009 mostly falls victim to the curse most rap collaboration tapes do. Most of the project sounds like it was conceived rather quickly, the song lengths rather short and ending before they really get going. Khalifa is charming as ever at times and Curren$y brings a surprise amount of technical skill, but can we stop with the trend of these rushed hip-hop collaboration projects?

The project opens with the track “Garage Talk”, and I’m starting to be very convinced over the last couple projects that Wiz Khalifa is at his best when he’s pulling from older-school techniques – he drops a great, animated verse on the 90s-influenced track “The Life” as well – There’s something about his slower flow, blunt delivery, and personality-infused bars that doesn’t fit in with the pretending-not-to-care generation of new school SoundCloud rappers – though he tries to a lot more often than he should. The beat here is an endlessly fun boom-bap loop that Wiz and Curren$y both play pretty straight as they tap into that bounce. And then of course we immediately drop off a cliff into the hazy smoke clouds of “10 Piece”, Curren$y opening the slowly creeping instrumental slurring his words a little off the beat. Khalifa fares a little better, but the instrumental doesn’t fit his livelier mic presence. A lot of the project unfortunately falls into this lower-key vibe, and I guess I should come to expect it from them at this point. When the subject matter essentially revolves around one thing, can I blame the two for adapting their sound to a chilled-out smoke session? For everyone else, though, it’s not enough to be compelling or exciting. The next track, “Benz Boys”, is similar, misusing a Ty Dolla $ign feature as he fades into the background.

It’s unfortunate as well that most of the best tracks on this project are also some of the shortest. Curren$y isn’t on top of his game for most of this project, but he definitely finds his groove on the beat of “Eastside”, which livens up the contemplative synth lines with a quicker hi-hat pattern, though each rapper only drops a single, short verse. The next track “From The Start” is even shorter, and it’s easily the best instrumental on the whole project, calling back to the G-funk era with a rubbery bassline and some soulful female vocals thrown into the mix. Why did they give so much more time to their sluggish weed raps? Wiz Khalifa exists in such a strange place for me – Curren$y at least knows his role, but Khalifa’s delivery seems so much better suited for goofy rap tracks that don’t take themselves too seriously. If he doesn’t know where his true strengths lie, why does he always drop these tiny moments displaying them?

Most of the tracks at the end of the project don’t do much to surprise either – the track “Getting Loose” is probably one of the closest attempts to a modern-sounding rap track here, but the hook from Problem is delivered like he’s half-asleep, offsetting the one time across this whole project Curren$y actually sounds like he’s trying, while “Stoned Gentleman” is just as lethargic as you might expect. “First Or Last”, yet another fun old-school track that references Ricky Bobby and complements Khalifa’s best sensibilities, is the highlight as the album winds down.

I essentially stole my rating system from Anthony Fantano, and if this was one of his videos I would probably slap that huge red NOT GOOD across the screen for when there’s not even enough substance to the album that he can even bother to give it a score. Too many of these ideas don’t come together, or are simply too sleepy to be interesting. Get fun again, Wiz!

Favourite Tracks: Garage Talk, From The Start, First Or Last

Least Favourite Track: 10 Piece

Score: 3/10

Image result for avril lavigne head above water coverAvril Lavigne – Head Above Water

The quintessential Canadian pop-rock singer, Avril Lavigne has released her first album in 6 years after being absolutely memed to death for some of her past material and going through a struggle with Lyme disease. Seeing this album perform so well commercially was a nice sight to see after all that Lavigne has been through over the years, but is it any good? Lead single “Head Above Water” was met with a lot of pleasant surprise online, and most of the project follows a similar, more subdued singer-songwriter angle. While some of the lyrics relating to her real-life health struggles can be genuinely moving and emotional, past a couple particularly inspired tracks most of the album unfortunately falls back into awkward songwriting and bland and outdated instrumentation.

Let’s talk about that lead single, though! “Head Above Water” is a dramatic and emotional ballad with high stakes that Lavigne absolutely sells with her genuine delivery – it’s clear that this was written in the midst of a seriously terrifying time for her. The way the orchestral aspects swell in make the track very reminiscent of something like Kesha’s comeback single “Praying”, another singer mostly written off as a joke that comes back with a knockout ballad about a difficult subject. The track found a lot of success on Christian radio, Lavigne calling out to the divine to save her from an early death. Some of those lyrics are incredibly harrowing. While most of the rest of the tracks on the album follow a similar overall vibe, many of them also introduce a lot more elements of traditional pop music and sound like they’re stuck in the past. We immediately transition to the track “Birdie” after this, which sounds similar except for the introduction of these Imagine Dragons-esque booming drums and a shimmering synth line that sounds like it’s straight out of 2009. It’s almost as if hearing what Lavigne is capable of on the opening track it feels wrong hearing her on some more dumbed down material. It sounds like the track refers to similar events, but refers to it in much more ambiguous terms and a caged bird metaphor we’ve heard in endless pop tracks.

Then of course we get to the track “Dumb Blonde” with Nicki Minaj … yikes. I have no idea how this got approved in 2019, and she even released it as a single recently. Featuring one of those obnoxious shouted chants of a chorus that was fun for a little bit 15 years ago (including Lavigne just … fully enunciating the words “I am a freaking cherry bomb”), the drumline percussion and brass section bring to mind another time entirely. Why is someone trying to remake “Hollaback Girl” in 2019? I don’t understand. I can’t help but think this might have been a lot better as an EP, especially when the back half of the project falls into older pop tropes like the “yeah-yeah”s on “Souvenir” and some seriously terrible lyrics on tracks like “Goddess” and “Bigger Wow”.

There are quite a few moments here where it’s clear that Lavigne’s producers were trying their hardest to bring back an older star and insert her into the current musical landscape as well, but those don’t quite work either, being too derivative of other works. “Tell Me It’s Over” is a pretty well-written song and should work relatively well as a doo-wop/soul pop ballad – Lavigne’s vocals are seriously soulful! – but the instrumental is just far too close to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” to ignore, and the trap beat that they shoehorned in there is pretty laughable and doesn’t fit the tone at all.

The greatest strength of this project is the constant reminders we get of how impressive a singer Lavigne actually is after the years of … whatever she was doing in the early parts of the decade. Quite a few of these tracks have this beautiful layering effect where her high notes are at the forefront, but a supporting vocal a full octave down is mixed in pretty perfectly as support. The tracl “I Fell in Love with The Devil” is a great example of the vocal showcase, and the bridge where the layers become more evident and get chopped up is one of the best moments on the project. “It Was In Me” is another track that breaks through emotionally despite its datedness – it really sounds like Lavigne’s older track “Keep Holding On”, but it really works as a kind of career retrospective, speaking about finding little fulfillment from the fame and fortune and learning to believe in herself and her musical abilities through the tough times.

A lot of these tracks really do have aspects of something great, just held back by one different misguided thing on each one of them. If nothing else, it’s great to hear Lavigne sounding so good after all this time, but in terms of the current musical conversation it doesn’t really fit.

Favourite Tracks: Head Above Water, I Fell In Love With The Devil, It Was In Me

Least Favourite Track: Dumb Blonde

Score: 4/10

BettyBettyWhoAlbumCover.pngBetty Who – Betty

Synthpop artist Betty Who’s 3rd studio album and first since departing from RCA Records, wanting to release music at a faster pace than the label deal would let her, mostly brings back the same personnel that made The Valley so great and delivers another solid project full of upbeat and sugary, if not the most innovative, pop tracks. She’s been releasing singles since January 2018, but the final product here is pretty cohesive and meets expectations of the sheer sense of fun that her pure pop approach has delivered in the past – it just sounds almost a little too similar to her previous work.

The shorter track “Old Me” kicks things off and drops us directly back into Betty Who’s world, following a tried-and-true yet undeniably joyous and funky twist on traditional pop formulas. A bouncy bassline slinks around some higher-pitched synths and Who’s harmonized and summery vocals before the 90s piano chords kick in and the synths cascade for the chorus. I wish this track was so much longer, but its an absolutely excellent way to draw listeners in as it transitions to “Do With It”, as Who finally succumbs to the trends and puts some trap hi-hats on her song. She has enough of a unique approach to make it a lot of fun though, her excellent ear for harmonies appearing again in the build-up to the chorus, the music cutting out and featuring her a cappella harmonized chords. In a world where genres are quickly becoming a thing of the past, there aren’t many artists left who are so obviously gifted for making retro-pop but Who is certainly one of them. It’s a nostalgic feeling that makes it hard to legitimately criticize since it’s almost formulaically engineered to put a carefree smile on your face.

Continuing with the strong start, “Just Thought You Should Know” sees another angle that we haven’t really seen from her – she’s got the 90s high-octane dance tracks down, but this sounds just like those slower, passionate boy band tracks that still manage to hit the same kind of pop euphoria, and she pulls it off pretty perfectly complete with the retro percussion sounds in the mix. Later in the tracklisting we get some more of the slight innovations that keep the project interesting. I really enjoy what she’s going for on “Language”, a much lower-key track that coasts on the strength of Who’s rhythmic delivery more than a sparkly, distracting instrumental, presenting a quieter tropical vibe instead. “All This Woman” is another one that easily stands out for being unique, sounding like an old Justin Timberlake track with its Spanish guitar picking and jazzier harmonies – oh yeah, and that bridge that completely rips off “Cry Me A River”. Oops. It’s a compelling track regardless, even if the Timberlake similarities are pretty impossible to ignore on later track “The One” as well. “Between You & Me” is another standout, taking a similar 90s pop chord progression but coming at it with acoustics instead, showing off the sweeter parts of Who’s voice.

There are a couple moments where it falls just slightly short of what Who achieved on The Valley – particularly a few tracks where the instrumentals start to feel tiring listening to 13 straight songs of breakneck tempos. They’re still a lot of fun, but when Who doesn’t come as hard with her vocal delivery the high-speed and energetic feel of the track doesn’t feel as earned. On “I Remember” she goes for a breathier, seductive angle but the click-clack of the percussion is going by at warp speed and it doesn’t really fit. “Marry Me” kind of feels like a filler track only 5 songs in as well, it feels like we got the same kind of syncopated piano chords on a better structured song only a few songs ago. Most of these tracks would work fantastic on their own regardless, it’s just in the album format that they fall flat. Once we get to tracks like “Ignore Me” and “Whisper” at the end, the similarities start to show.

Betty is another strong project from the Australian singer that’s only really held back by listening to all of the songs in a row. Really, there’s not many more people with a better ear for pop music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Just Thought You Should Know, Old Me, All This Woman, Language, Do With It

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Boogie – Everything’s For Sale

Image result for everything's for saleWest coast rapper Boogie has been generating a lot of anticipation for his debut studio album since signing to Eminem’s Shady Records label – which is a pretty exclusive deal to get! Everything’s For Sale has arrived, and despite drawing some pretty obvious inspiration from his rap contemporaries on a few tracks, the project manages to put Boogie’s storytelling ability, which has the potential to be on par with some of the current greats, on full display. Boogie’s nasal, Chance The Rapper-esque delivery and his frequently underwhelming singing voice bring down the musicality of the project more often than not here, but it’s easy to see what Eminem saw in him – Boogie’s lyricism is vivid and compelling, and with a better team surrounding him as he grows, this project could mark the very beginnings of something exciting.

Opener “Tired/Reflections” is bookended by recordings of people criticizing Boogie’s “conscious” content, saying they’re tired of hearing it and want to escape into something more meaningless and fun. Boogie drops into a spoken word verse over an introspective guitar instrumental and some orchestral chords. He details his need to get the content that he does out, with some poignant observations on how his realistic descriptions of his own lived experience of racism and violence can just as easily be twisted and interpreted stereotypically. It’s the kind of track that quiets down the other aspects so you can really focus on what he has to say, and these are the ones that excel on this project.

Image result for boogie rapper

“Lolsmh” is another pretty original concept that Boogie takes a deep dive into and honestly reminds me of some Kendrick Lamarian storytelling techniques. Placing the omnipresence of social media, its effect on his own mental health and its propensity for others to leave their morals at the door in pursuit of fame under the spotlight, Boogie goes in for 4 minutes of straight verse with a dejected and confessional tone of voice and dropping lyrical gems and astute observations left and right. The theme continues on the track “Live 95”, as Boogie plays a character finding self-worth in what he obtains from his social media presence before dropping into a verse as himself searching for the same thing. Despite a recent influx of money, he still associates his worth with his poorer upbringings that constituted most of his life.

Quite a few of the more upbeat, more traditionally radio-oriented tracks on this project actually had the potential to be just as good as the more lyrical ones here if he had gotten someone else to sing the hooks – Boogie’s singing voice is seriously not good, and he uses it a lot. He tries to do these Weeknd-like quick trills on almost every track where he sings and the awkward breaks in his voice where he can’t complete them throw the rhythm off. A track like “Silent Ride” is structured to be the catchiest track here with a trap instrumental and some well-written internal rhymes in the hook, but I can’t get through that raspy, nasal delivery on the hook to fully enjoy it.

It only gets worse when he tries to apply it to more alt-R&B oriented tracks like “Skydive” and “Swap Meet”, where he dips in and out of an off-key falsetto and lacks the ability to keep a slower, completely sung track engaging. “Skydive” actually does have a pretty fantastic instrumental that sounds like it was influenced by Latin guitar patterns. It’s backed up by some rumbling bass ratcheting up the intensity, but Boogie sounds completely detached on the sung hook. It goes to show just how much he doesn’t fit with the style when the derivative 6lack outshines him at the end of “Skydive II”.

Image result for boogie rapper

In terms of Boogie’s less conscious tracks here, “Soho”, a collaboration with up-and-comer JID, is easily the best despite its shorter length. Featuring a quotable chorus and beat that combines some modern and old-school production styles, the two speed up their flow and dismiss fake friends.

Eminem himself appears on the track “Rainy Days”, Boogie’s voice at peak Chance the Rapper on a pretty catchy, soulful hook and spastic, paranoid verse before Eminem comes in with what might be one of his worst feature verses in a long time, and there’s been quite a few that haven’t been up to par recently. His speedy, robotic flow doesn’t match the slowly creeping beat at all and loses all semblance of musicality, not to mention that his dad-jokes and puns are as groan-eliciting as ever. At least now Boogie can say that he easily outrapped one of the greats on a track.

The final 4 tracks constitute Boogie addressing a couple more distinct topics over the course of some shorter song lengths, closing out the project on a high note as we’re reminded about his best asset. Trumpeter Christian Scott enhances Boogie’s stories surrounding relationship drama on “Whose Fault”, while “Self Destruction” is another standout as he interpolates Mac Miller on the hook and injects some energy back into his voice.

All in all, Everything’s For Sale can be a frustrating listen at times due to its inconsistency. There’s one aspect of his work that Boogie does exceptionally well, but everything else is lagging slightly behind average. There are a couple times where it does click together here, but I’ll be anticipating the improvement that I know he has the potential for in the future.

Favourite Tracks: Lolsmh, Tired/Reflections, Soho, Self Destruction, Live 95

Least Favourite Track: Swap Meet

Score: 6/10

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.

Image result for bad bunny

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

Kodak Black – Dying To Live

Kodak Black – Dying to Live.pngKodak Black delivers yet another late-year high-profile rap release with his sophomore full-length studio album Dying to Live. Last year’s Painting Pictures was easily one of my least favourite albums of the entire year, which is why it’s surprising that there are as many enjoyable tracks on this new project as there are. Kodak is still decidedly unmusical, distracting from the process with his grating and nasal voice and tending to fall off the beat at times, but he’s saved quite a few times here by some spectacular instrumentals and an embrace of his quirky and quotable side on some more fun, upbeat tracks. There’s still a plethora of misguided decisions and drawn-out introspective cuts that fall flat, as well as a few occasions where it becomes nearly impossible to separate the art from the deeply troubled artist, but at least it’s far from the complete unlistenability of his last project.

The opening run of 5 tracks are easily some of the album’s best and a seriously surprising rise in competence from his past works. Opening track “Testimony” takes a religious turn as Kodak exorcises his demons. He takes up a catchy Auto-crooned melody over an engaging and contemplative beat that introduces this unique funk-inspired synth tone halfway through – it reminds me of one of Zaytoven’s soulful piano melodies. “Identity Theft” keeps up the throwback vibes going with some seriously old-school percussion noises, a syncopated electric piano rhythm, and an Asian-inspired flute melody – it’s one of the best beats I’ve heard all year, and Kodak rises to the occasion with some funny lines here and there.

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It transitions pretty seamlessly into “Gnarly” with Lil Pump, which should be added to every New Year’s Eve party playlist with its immediately sticky hook, fun-loving delivery from both artists and hazy, ethereal synth textures. And of course, we all love the steel-drum instrumental so good it became a meme before the track’s release on “ZEZE” – Offset delivers a pretty great verse, but it’s the beat that keeps me engaged throughout. The track “This Forever”, despite an engaging spacey trap instrumental from London on da Track, emphasizes just how much Kodak is getting helped out by the beats here when it cuts out for a second and he just loses the flow completely.

Things get a lot more inconsistent after the opening run. Single “Take One” is another one where Kodak can’t quite measure up to the beat – on multiple tracks here, Kodak just sounds awkward in the moments where the heavier percussion cuts out for a second, like something’s just barely off rhythmically when it isn’t drowned out by the tempo of the hi-hats. “Transgression” is another innovative instrumental, anchored by what sounds like a pitched sample of someone shouting excitedly embellished with some soulful piano chords, but the same thing happens. When Kodak tries to divert from the formula, things get even more misguided. The track “MoshPit” essentially sees him adapt to the melodic style a featured artist Juice WRLD over a more cheerful, pop-rap oriented beat, and I just can’t listen to Kodak’s singing voice – or Juice’s ridiculous lyrics on his verse, for that matter – for the whole duration of a track when there’s not much to support him.

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The final two tracks “Needing Something” and the grammatically incorrect “Could Of Been Different” are even more inexplicable. “Needing Something” has this R&B slow jam beat, but Kodak honestly sounds like he came in a full beat early and never realized, the hi-hats hitting at the wrong time in his flow. He attempts a double-time flow on the closer and has nowhere near the level of musicality he needs to pull it off, the track just sounding like a jumbled and arrhythmic mess. However, it might be the tracks where you’re reminded of just who Kodak is that are the most off-putting. The tracks “In The Flesh” and “From The Cradle” are laden with sexual boasts, but it’s his lines on the latter about impregnating his exes so they stay with him – especially when he says they “deserve it” – that too easily bring up Kodak’s criminal charges. The track “Malcolm X.X.X”, where he actually compares deceased rapper and fellow abuser XXXTENTACION to Malcolm X, complete with interspersed Malcolm speeches, is another pretty shocking one.

I’ve still got to give credit where it’s due, however, and despite a few blatant exceptions this project is a huge step up from his last studio album. I wish I could listen to an instrumental version of it – this could be a legitimately great project with a better rapper at the helm.

Favourite Tracks: Gnarly, Identity Theft, ZEZE, Testimony

Least Favourite Track: Could Of Been Different

Score: 6/10