HAIM – Something To Tell You

Something to Tell You artworkCalifornia pop-rock sister trio HAIM unleash their sophomore album after a 4-year wait that felt much longer. After the spectacular debut Days Are Gone, and the many interviews the band gave where they stated that they were going to “tap into their inner Kanye” – that is, perfectionist – fans were expecting something big from this project. The band has also detailed a few instances of their writers’ block, and this plan may have suffered a bit.

Something To Tell You is still a strong project, but it is a clear step down from Days Are Gone for the amount of time it took to create. Luckily, the sisters’ music is still packed with rapid-fire rhythms, snappy harmonies and enough boundless confidence and charisma to keep me returning to the project multiple times. But as the genre of genreless pop they helped create expands ever wider, something a little more ambitious may have been needed to stand out from the pack.

The project was almost singlehandedly produced by Ariel Rechtshaid (Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen), who also contributed heavily to Days Are Gone and has since entered a relationship with Danielle Haim. He also appears alongside the three sisters in the writing column on each track. Backing him up on a few tracks are frequent collaborators Dev Hynes (Tinashse, FKA twigs) and ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij (Frank Ocean, Solange), so on paper there was absolutely nothing to worry about here. These are the best in the business.

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Something To Tell You opens with lead single “Want You Back”, which features a shimmering, glossy chorus as lead vocalist Danielle Haim deftly navigates through tongue-twisting phrases and her two sisters back her up with sugary sweet harmonies. It is everything that is great about HAIM, and many of the album’s opening tracks follow suit. All of the sisters are multi-instrumentalists, and it is nice to see the band leaning heavily on their own musical ability. Is any band with HAIM’s level of popularity still using this much guitar in their work?

The rhythms created by Este Haim’s slap bass and Alana Haim’s percussion drive all of these tracks, but HAIM’s greatest appeal of all might be hearing all three sisters come together in perfect harmony. It brings to mind some of Fleetwood Mac or Wilson Phillips’ best tracks. If anything, Something To Tell You brought this degree of their music even more. “Little Of Your Love”, the album’s best track, features an incredible moment in the bridge where most of the instrumentation drops out and the rapid-fire three-part harmony is brought directly to the forefront. The bouncy guitar hooks and pseudo-country flair of the track make it a unique gem on an album where many tracks slowly start to blend together.

Danielle Haim is still a rockstar in every sense of the word, and I love the way she quiets her voice down when she’s delivering her most passionate and heartfelt lines. The understated chorus of “You Never Knew” is one of the best here. “Walking Away”, the only solo Batmanglij track, is another standout due to its uniqueness, as HAIM drifts closer to R&B than they’ve ever been and build much of the instrumental through loops of their own vocals. HAIM’s live shows are always incredible, and I’m excited to see if they can pull the complexity of this one off.

There are some very strange musical decisions all over the project, and the lack of polish makes me think that the writers’ block may have been worse than we imagined. It feels like the band was rushing to finally get an album out in the world after so many years. What reason is there to suddenly snatch all of the building energy away from a great track like “Nothing’s Wrong” for a very quiet bridge and distorted vocals? “Right Now” was originally released as a beautiful, stripped-down version in order to promote the album, but now there is too much background clutter and white noise distracting from the simple but powerful melody of the track.

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One more than one occasion, a few transitions from verse to chorus never quite click the way they’re supposed to, which is strange for a band so focused on rhythm – “Ready For You” and “Walking Away” come to mind.

Ultimately, the most noticeable change from Days Are Gone is the new sparkling sheen of production that is placed over all of these tracks. Where their previous work felt so much more organic and real, like they simply put their raw recording session on the record, all of this just seems a little too perfect. HAIM is working with some of the greatest producers out – I can truly say I’ve almost never heard an idea that’s less than perfect from either Rechtshaid or Batmanglij. This decision, and the way these tracks seem to attempt to capture a big idea through repetition of one chorus line and never quite get there, is an uncharacteristic dip in the quality of their work.

HAIM has fallen head-over-heels into all of the pitfalls of a sophomore slump. Many of the aspects that made the band so great in the first place are still here in abundance, but the seemingly rushed nature of the logistics detract from what made Days Are Gone such a trailblazer.

Still – anyone who has seen the band live knows they are one of the most talented and exciting groups out there right now, and I hope I don’t have to wait another 4 years before they inevitably get back on track.

Favourite Tracks: Little Of Your Love, Walking Away, You Never Knew, Want You Back

Least Favourite Track: Found It In Silence

Score: 6/10

Jay-Z – 4:44

Image result for 4:44Decade-spanning rap superstar and one of the most successful musicians in history both critically and commercially, Jay-Z, releases his thirteenth studio album 4:44 as a response of sorts to wife Beyonce’s recent juggernaut Lemonade. After the fears that Jay-Z was losing his edge sprung forth after the uneven and disappointing Magna Carta Holy Grail 4 years ago, as the rapper unleashed retreads of the same boasts we’ve heard many times before, 4:44 plays out as his most introspective and personal work yet.

Over production from frequent collaborator No I.D., Jay-Z contemplates all aspects of his life and legacy, apologizing for his infidelities, criticizing himself for his extravagant past, and re-evaluating his relationships with his family and friends.

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The legendary No I.D., responsible for many of Jay-Z’s biggest hits in the past, takes production credits for the entire album and revives sample-based hip-hop for now. He draws from artists like Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. Production on Jay’s albums has always sounded pristine and luxurious, and it doesn’t stop here. While perhaps not reaching the heights of the greatest beasts on even something like Magna Carta, the subtext behind many of the samples allows the instrumentals here to do their job very well.

Opening track “Kill Jay Z” represents a transition, or killing off, of Jay-Z’s arrogant, boastful persona. The voice he uses on the remainder of the album, who we might call Shawn Carter, is then able to emerge. The song’s beat is a modified version of a trap beat over a cascading piano sample, and it is representative of the harder sound of the first half of the album. This first half is much stronger, as Jay-Z brings back his lyricism and personality over some great and impactful samples from No I.D. – samples that Jay himself supposedly suggested to the producer to build a track around.

As Jay-Z begins speaking about his regrets of spending his money in places like strip clubs instead of investing it for the majority of his career on “The Story of O.J.”, you can truly see the change in his mentality that the events of Lemonade incited. “Smile” is another great track, set to a Stevie Wonder gospel-sounding sample. In the climate of rap Jay-Z came from, nobody would be able to to do something like praising his mother for coming out as a lesbian late in life and telling her to “smile through all the hate”, letting a speech from her close out the track.

Jay-Z’s many apologies are believable and tearful, and they really are very moving from someone you might not expect to deliver such a profound emotional impact. “4:44” is the track where he most directly addresses his wife’s allegations of infidelity, opening the track “I apologize, often womanize, took for my child to be born [to] see through a woman’s eyes”. As a soul sample from Hannah Williams wails “I’m never gonna treat you like I should”, and Jay begins to let emotion creep in his voice as he contemplates what his children will think of him on the day they eventually fully understand his actions, it becomes the most powerful track on the whole album.

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4:44 is clearly much more about the message being delivered than making a perfect project in a musical sense – the album was supposedly still being recorded and finalized less than 48 hours before its release, and contains references to very recent events confirming this. This is fine for the diehard Jay-Z supporter, but I typically am looking for something to surprise me musically. This hastiness begins to make itself clear as the album transitions into its second half, as the samples becomes less meaningful and more repetitive and Jay-Z’s delivery becomes less impassioned and inspired.

The exception is “Bam”, where he states he is abandoning the “pretty Shawn Carter s**t” of the previous tracks and brings back his old persona to remind himself that he needs some ego sometimes. But even here, his flow is a little disjointed. For a song with these huge horns and a Damian Marley feature, he brings the fire in his voice to match but isn’t as comfortable on the beat as tracks in the first half.

“Moonlight” is the sleepiest track of all, as Jay-Z shows his age by criticizing new school rappers, believing them to be sending the culture backwards. He makes a reference to the Best Picture fiasco at the Oscars – “Even when we win, we gon’ lose”. Over an overused sample of the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La”, it is the wrong message to send on an album where many other aspects are so progressive.

4:44 is for longtime listeners who care deeply about Jay-Z’s personal life and where he stands as his impressive career winds down. Although it does not offer as much as I’d hoped in the way of thrilling me with its musical aspects or Jay’s delivery, the rapper has certainly re-affirmed himself as a strong public presence and an absolute, undeniable legend. There are some absolutely incredible moments on here I didn’t think he still had in him. Now can we revive the Jay-Z persona with this intelligent lyricism again on the next one?

Favourite Tracks: 4:44, Smile, Kill Jay Z, The Story of O.J., Caught Their Eyes

Least Favourite Track: Moonlight

Score: 7/10

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 8/10

Imagine Dragons – Evolve

ImagineDragonsEvolve.jpgPop-rock band Imagine Dragons, 2 years removed from their sophomore album Smoke + Mirrors which failed to spawn any successful singles, hit back at the radio airwaves with their third full-length studio album, Evolve. Frontman Dan Reynolds has stated that the album’s title refers to a shift in their sound, which certainly hasn’t occurred to such a degree that I’d name an album after it.

These tracks are following the same formula that made “Radioactive” and “Demons” big hits. However, their newfound reliance on established pop producers, rather than producing their instrumentals themselves, sees them making an evolution of sorts to become more similar to modern-day Maroon 5. Ultimately, outside of a select few tracks which crackle with the energy that drew people to the band in the first place, Evolve is painfully generic and feels like a lifeless shell of the band.

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In the past, very little outside influence went into an Imagine Dragons album, the writing and production credits all being almost entirely handled by the members of the band. While they retain primary writing credit on each, they produce none of the tracks here, essentially restricting the non-Reynolds band members to play the simple pop charts that are handed to them, maybe trading something like a real drumset for an electronic one in the process. They bring in producers like Mattman & Robin, who take about half of the tracks here and are perhaps best known for producing DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean”, which can tell you a lot about the direction Imagine Dragons are heading in here. Alex Da Kid (X Ambassadors, Skylar Grey) and Joel Little (Lorde, Broods), who is really too good for this, appear briefly as well.

Imagine Dragons have proven in the past that their driving, almost tribal rhythms are essential to their best tracks and this continues here, as the highlights of the project all have a strong focus on this. “Whatever It Takes”, Joel Little’s track, sees Reynolds delivering impressively quick vocals before an infectious beat and rapidly cascading synths kick in and the song explodes into its chorus. The song sees them bring back some semblance of musicality instead of blindly following the same structure of steadily building up to an overly dramatic chorus.

“Believer”, as well, is an above-average single for the band and it is easy to see why their mainstream viability has returned along with it. The drum pattern and the delivery of vocals in rapid triplets exude a kind of animalistic energy, and for once, that huge chorus is actually warranted. But after these two tracks, the album takes a huge nosedive.

Now that Imagine Dragons have swung in more of a pop direction than ever before, Reynolds’ powerful voice of a rock frontman sounds quite out of place at times. Opening track “I Don’t Know Why” features perhaps his loudest growls over a pretty synth pattern in the pre-chorus. It is far more than the track demands and crosses over into headache-inducing territory.

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Adherence to pop formulas is not a good look for them, and their decreased input into the creative process is quite evidence. A band like Maroon 5 always had underlying pop sensibilities, but at least Imagine Dragons were a little bit edgier for a commercially successful group. Many of these tracks feel like they are leftovers for pop artists’ albums, with cookie-cutter pop choruses copy and pasted onto each track. “Rise Up” literally feels like exactly this has happened. The abrupt shift in energy as the chorus comes back in after an uncharacteristically quiet bridge, Reynolds unexpectedly yelling in your ear, is so misplaced I broke out laughing in public.

These producers have boiled down the previous works of the band to their most basic defining aspects and spread them as thin as The Chainsmokers do, catering to the more oblivious members of their audience. The album is only 39 minutes long, but it feels like it takes much longer to get through as you endure copy after copy of the same song, essentially a very watered-down “Demons”.

“Yesterday” is a contender for the worst song I’ve heard all year, as the tempo slows down to a snail’s pace even as the massive drumbeats and Reynolds’ overblown vocal deliveries persist.

Imagine Dragons were never the most innovative or exciting act, but at least their artistic vision was clear. Now that they have lost that strong sense of selfhood, more and more voices guiding them on which way to go, the result just feels like lowest-common-denominator pablum for people who can’t quite make the jump to real rock music. This is not an evolution, but a reversion to a more primitive form.

Favourite Tracks: Whatever It Takes, Believer, I’ll Make It Up To You

Least Favourite Track: Yesterday

Score: 3/10

DJ Khaled – Grateful

Grateful by DJ Khaled cover.jpgOnly 11 months removed from the release of his last album, Major Key, DJ Khaled is back with a new purpose. Clearly fully embracing his status as the biggest walking, talking meme alive, Khaled delivers a double album that takes everything about Major Key and makes it bigger, and oftentimes, a lot more ridiculous than it needs to be.

The album is 23 tracks and runs for approximately an hour and a half, as Khaled and many of his collaborators appear to phone it in and provide quite a few obvious filler tracks. Major Key saw Khaled taking full advantage of his new public profile and making a clearer, focused effort, but outside of a few appearances of Khaled’s uncanny ability to be perfectly tapped in to exactly what music purchasers didn’t know they needed, Grateful is a disorganized mixed bag.

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Khaled albums have always been all about the collaborators, and Grateful boasts what might be his most impressive list yet. Despite the bigger names, Khaled still struggles with using his collaborators in the most effective way, as they are unevenly distributed across tracks and many could benefit from more recognition of what is working and what is not over each instrumental. Many of music’s biggest stars appear in the album’s early goings, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Drake and Justin Bieber, while hot rappers of the moment such as Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott, and Future appear multiple times across the album’s many, many tracks.

One interesting development on the project is Khaled stepping up more than he ever has before as a producer – Many of his contributions are rather generic takes on the popular trap sound, but he shows that he actually has some musicality and delivers some great chords on tracks like “Billy Ocean” and “Unchanging Love” as well. Still, many of the album’s best tracks were the ones he wasn’t involved in.

I might have gotten a little too excited for this album based on the two excellent singles “Wild Thoughts” and “I’m The One”, and they still stand tall on this jumbled tracklist. A flip of Santana’s “Maria Maria” with a megastar like Rihanna is something that only the culturally tuned-in mind of Khaled could come up with, and the results could not be anything other than an undeniable hit. And where is the fun-loving spirit and personality infused into every aspect of “I’m the One” on the rest of the album?

While Khaled has clearly just attempted to capitalize on his meme potential hitting the ceiling with the birth of his son, it is easy to forget how much quality music he has actually provided us with over the years, and the album actually starts picking up that energy again at the tail end of the tracklisting of all places. The run from “Iced Out My Arms” to “Unchanging Love” are some of the most melodic, creative tracks here with strong performances from everyone. I have to give out a few feature shoutouts as well – Nicki Minaj continues her hot streak and knocks her “I Can’t Even Lie” verse out of the park, Alicia Keys sounds great as always and 21 Savage and Migos bring it to “Iced Out My Arms”.

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Where nearly every song on Major Key had a memorable hook, quotables for days and at least one guest making the absolute most of their appearance on the track, many of these tracks just feel like a bunch of compiled leftovers. Leftover beats, leftover verses and leftover ideas. Too often a track is built around a hook that sounds like it was improvised on the spot overtop of a trap beat that I’ve heard a hundred times before. Travi$ Scott is really not the hook man Khaled seems to think he is, and his ability to sound off-key while still using Auto-Tune ruins all 4 tracks he’s on.

Not only this, but the mixing and mastering of the album is pretty noticeably unfinished on quite a few occasions, most notably “It’s Secured” – the levels are completely unbalanced. This album was clearly rapidly thrown together without any regard for organization – I hate to think what didn’t make the cut, if anything.

There are so many unfinished and terrible ideas on this project that it’s hard to think of a few to list, but some of the most egregious things include “I Love You So Much”, a track seemingly for Khaled’s son and his son alone in which Chance the Rapper legitimately raps the alphabet amidst Khaled’s proclamations of his son’s “genius”, a track featuring Future and Yo Gotti barely paying attention to basic structures of rhythm that was so much of an afterthought they couldn’t give it a better title than “That Range Rover Came With Steps”, and the sheer idea of putting Kodak Black on anything and thinking it’ll make it better.

There really are some good or even great aspects of almost every track here, but the nature of Khaled albums, loaded with collaboration, leaves too much opportunity for some less focused part of a song to bring it way down. Grateful was “executive produced” by Khaled’s infant son, supposedly meaning that only the perceived positive reaction of Asahd allowed a track to be featured on the album. You can tell. Congratulations Khaled, you played yourself.

Favourite Tracks: Wild Thoughts, Billy Ocean, I’m The One, Unchanging Love

Least Favourite Track: That Range Rover Came With Steps

Score: 5/10

Big Boi – Boomiverse

Image result for boomiverseAtlanta rapper and former OutKast member Big Boi has released his third solo album and his first in 5 years. His previous project, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, never really lived up to the widespread critical and commercial acclaim of his debut, but this project here is certainly a swing back in the right direction. Musically, Boomiverse is a complete mixed bag which holds it back from becoming truly great, but this is a fun collection of songs for a variety of occasions. It is all held together by some great features and of course, Big Boi’s calm and dexterous flow that always served as the contrast to Andre 3000’s chaos.

There is a wide range of collaborators on this album, which likely contributes to how all over the place it ends up being. Big Boi recruits quite a few of his old friends, turning to established rap producers such as Organized Noize, Mannie Fresh and even the legendary Scott Storch, who lends a beat to “Order of Operations”. But for crossover appeal, he also brings in modern-day producers known for making more commercial bangers such as DJ Dahi, who contributes what might be the poppiest song of his career on “Mic Jack”, 808 Mafia’s TM88, and even the combination of Dr. Luke and Cirkut, pure pop hitmakers, on “All Night”.

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On the mic, we have old OutKast collaborators like Sleepy Brown and Killer Mike, who predictably knocks it out of the park on all 3 tracks he appears on here, as well as other southern rap stars young and old – Gucci Mane, Pimp C, Curren$y. Snoop Dogg comes out of hiding to deliver a spectacular verse on “Get Wit It”, while pop hooks from Adam Levine, Eric Bellinger and LunchMoney Lewis swing things back the other way. When you thought the genre hopping was getting out of hand, we get “Chocolate”, a completely misguided electronic dance track that Big Boi still somehow manages to save with his personality.

The main appeal of Big Boi’s music is his technical ability and overall demeanor, which can really tie together such a wide variety of instrumentals. Big Boi’s voice is the universal solvent of rap music. Who knew he would be able to make a whole project with an indie band like Phantogram? Still, he’s at his best on the more standard rap tracks, especially when they have a little extra aspect of something creative.

“Kill Jill” is an absolute knockout of a banger featuring fellow Atlanta larger-than-life mic presence Killer Mike and a menacing Young Jeezy on the hook. The beat has trap elements, but it also samples Japanese hologram sensation Hatsune Miku quite heavily. “Mic Jack” is another great track that features a poppier, bouncy instrumental and an Adam Levine feature, but we still get a rapid-fire flow with that deep voice that brings to mind OutKast tracks like “The Way You Move”. Sleepy Brown, who of course was featured on that track, just so happens to appear on this one briefly as well.

OutKast was almost more about the interplay between the two characters than the spectacular music they were creating, and Big Boi by himself is still a fun enough personality that when he delivers a straight pop track like “All Night”, complete with a piano sample that would make D.R.A.M. proud, it’s still enjoyable to hear the veteran artist having so much fun making music.

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Boomiverse could have benefited from more organization, perhaps a reordering of tracks or better selection of what ultimately made it onto the project. Placing a pop-rap track like “Mic Jack” in between the two most unapologetically Atlanta tracks in “Kill Jill” and “In the South” doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it would serve better next to the Dr. Luke track “All Night”. Many of these tracks aren’t bad at all, but the lack of cohesion in the album takes a lot away from the listening experience.

A few of the pop tracks here are a little awkward, not quite figuring out how to shoehorn the hook in or contrast it well with Big Boi’s all-out assault on the mic, like Eric Bellinger’s hook on “Overthunk”. As well, Big Boi doesn’t even try to pretend like he’s making any sorts of new developments in his career, and as a result we get a few tracks that come across very dated. We need to leave things like Sleepy Brown’s talkbox hook on “Freakanomics” in the 90s where they belong, regardless of how great Big Boi’s verses are.

You’ve almost got to listen to this project out of respect for all Big Boi has done, and even though it’s becoming clear that he’s turned this into a science and he’s coasting a little bit, he’s still just as technically proficient, hilarious and fun-loving as ever before, and it makes for a pretty good listen. Now where, for the love of god, is that Andre 3000 solo project?!?

Favourite Tracks: Kill Jill, All Night, Mic Jack, Freakanomics

Least Favourite Track: In The South

Score: 6/10

Lorde – Melodrama

Lorde Melodrama album cover 2017 03 02.jpgAlternative pop artist and former teen sensation Lorde drops her sophomore studio album, nearly 4 years removed from winning a Grammy at the age of 16 for “Royals”. The extensive time Lorde has put into perfecting this album has been well-documented, and the resulting concept album of sorts, chronicling the story of a single house party, can certainly reside in the same area as her stellar debut, Pure Heroine.

Lorde’s transition to adulthood is reflected in her lyrical themes, and the accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world are brought out here by one of the strongest songwriters in the game. While the project does take a few experimental risks that don’t pan out exactly as planned, this is another very strong, ambitious and beautifully written effort from the rising star.

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The project opens with single “Green Light”, a song which Max Martin, who knows a thing or two about songwriting, deemed “incorrect songwriting”. He was likely referring to the abrupt shift as the song transitions into its chorus. This should only tell you about the fearless decisions Lorde and her songwriting and production partner Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers) have in store for the rest of the project. Melodrama is pop music, to be sure, but it’s a dark, twisted and constantly surprising take on it.

Many of these tracks are anchored by nearly whispered and rapid-fire vocals from Lorde over a variety of instrumentals – the muffled and pulsating synths on tracks like “Homemade Dynamite”, horns on “Sober”, “Writer in the Dark” sounding like a Kate Bush song, or bare piano on “Liability”. Still, Lorde’s personality is so distinct that the project remains incredibly cohesive. Some pretty great artists appear for additional production credits too, including Frank Ocean collaborators Frank Dukes and Malay, and future-bass DJ Flume.

Lorde’s greatest asset is her songwriting, and despite her many other strengths, it’s not even close. She has now perfectly captured exactly what it is like to be both 16 and 20 years old. There’s something special about hearing a young pop artist, venturing even closer to a radio sound than before, delivering complex and meaningful lyrics that end up being this powerful. Lorde introduced herself to us by criticizing the recycled themes of popular music, and she continues her quest to find meaning in the tumultuous experience of youth here. This culminates in excellent closer “Perfect Places”, where she smacks the romanticized images of teenage partying to the ground.

Lorde extends this strength in songwriting to the melodies that she and Antonoff create. These are two musicians who both really know their way around a chorus. Just try to get that “Homemade Dynamite” hook out of your head – that’s some pop magic. The most enticing thing about Lorde, and what makes her a truly special artist, is her capability to simultaneously embrace the finer sciences of crafting a pop song that fills a dancefloor, all the while analyzing the societal implications of doing just that.

Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. “Writer in the Dark” sees her master her instrument in a way we haven’t seen before, contrasting the anger and cynicism of her matter-of-fact lower register with the passion and vulnerability of her upper register.

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“Liability”, as well, is still not only the album’s best, but an early contender for my favourite song of the year for many of the above reasons. Little more than a brief piano loop, Lorde hits her emotional peak with her most beautifully written melody yet as she takes a look at herself in the wake of a breakup, cursing herself for the burdens her fame and her personality places on her partners.

Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here, making a house party sound like a magical, transcendent experience on who you are as a person. She succeeds for the most part, but this has always proven to be a very difficult task for quite a few artists. Luckily, most of the lesser-faring experimental ideas all congregate on a single track, “The Louvre”. Featuring sparse instrumentation and a spoken hook, there just isn’t really enough here.

Her reprises of two songs – an Antonoff favourite tactic – is a little excessive as well, but in the context of the story, they are absolutely necessary. And after all, Lorde is a storyteller above all else.

Lorde takes the refreshing perspective on the world she offered in Pure Heroine, and imbues it with an elevated sense of ambitious artistic vision. Even if it isn’t as concise as her debut, it’s a lot more impressive that she pulled this one off to a level of quality this high. This just might be a legendary career.

Favourite Tracks: Liability, Homemade Dynamite, Perfect Places, Writer in the Dark, Green Light

Least Favourite Track: The Louvre

Score: 9/10

Katy Perry – Witness

Witness artworkIn a world where the idea of the “pop girl” is holding less and less weight, the mainstream sound shifting to a more urban area, trend-setter and record-breaker Katy Perry drops her fifth studio album, Witness. It is her first in nearly four years, surprising fans with her new appearance, politically geared messages and new ventures in sound on singles like “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”. Perry certainly takes a lot of risks on Witness, and seeing her venture out of her comfort zone is very welcome, even if a few of them are more successful in concept than in execution.

Unfortunately, the other half of the album is weighed down by bland, filler pop tracks that sound like they were recorded years ago. We couldn’t expect Perry to be completely experimental now, could we? Still, this album ends up being better than I anticipated, and there are some standout tracks which rise far above the rest.

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Perry ventures down more of an EDM path over the course of this album than she has in the past, often letting synth piano hooks or pounding basslines dictate the flow of the track in the chorus rather than her vocal melodies. She does recruit some interesting collaborators to bring these aspects out – Trip-hop duo Purity Ring appears on more than one occasion, standout track “Swish Swish” was masterminded by deep house DJ Duke Dumont, and the closing track is credited to indietronica band “Hot Chip”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Perry album without Swedish pop wizard Max Martin, who is in charge of about half of the tracks here.

There are a lot of misguided decisions on this project, to be sure, but when Perry hits, she hits hard. I never thought a Katy Perry song would give me chills, but here is “Roulette”. A dancefloor synth bassline slowly creeps in behind a breakbeat building up to a perfectly structured chorus. Perry’s range is in its sweet spot here, and the little alterations made along the way, like cutting out the music for a bit on the second chorus, only make it better. This actually kicks off a fantastic three-track run: “Roulette” is followed up by “Swish Swish”, which might be the best single of Perry’s career, and eerie ballad “Deja Vu”.

Really though, how much fun is “Swish Swish”? That SNL performance, with the dancing backpack kid, really brings out the insane energy of this track visually. Dumont’s deep house instrumental, Perry ruthlessly dishing out shots and Nicki Minaj delivering a hilarious, characteristically incredibly feature verse complete the dance floor banger. When Perry’s voice hits its emotional peak, her songs come across better, which is why it is unfortunate how disingenuous her current era seems. Some of the later tracks stand out as well for this reason: “Save As Draft”, in particular. It is one of the slowest tracks on the album, EDM influence being removed while Perry convincingly emotes about her inability to communicate in her relationship.

“Hey Hey Hey” is the biggest manifestation of the problems which affect the album as a whole. Perry has always attempted to have some sort of quirky edge to her lyrics, making outdated references or strange similes and metaphors to fit her fun-loving persona. It’s rarely worked, and I’m not sure why it continues here. All it does is make her look like an out-of-touch aging act trying to fit in with today’s culture. “You think that I am fragile like a Fabergé”? God…

The instrumentals of quite a few of these tracks don’t help rid her of that image much either. Some of the EDM aspects are simply completely outdated – the enormous breakbeat and wobble bass that backs “Power” hearkens back to the days when dubstep was inescapable, and the distortion on Perry’s vocals detracts from the song even further. “Mind Maze” is another inexplicable decision, as she is coated with excessive Auto-Tune for seemingly no artistic or meaningful reason.

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“Bon Appetit” as a whole is pretty inexcusable. Much like rival Taylor Swift’s track “Bad Blood”, it sounds almost as if the melody of its chorus was made up on the spot. The completely blatant and pervasive food metaphors and puns running throughout and repetitive instrumental only make things worse. There are so many times over the course of this album where Perry still opted to play it safe, which is confusing given how successful her artistic reaches on tracks like “Roulette” and “Swish Swish” were on the same album. Much of the second half- tracks like “Tsunami” and “Pendulum” – just devolve into the same tired pop tropes she’s been trying to push for her whole career.

And just as a final, weird nitpick – Perry tends to write lyrics so that she needs to emphasize the wrong syllable of a word in order to fit with the song’s rhythm. This persists here, infuriatingly.

Witness is ultimately an uneven and oftentimes contradictory compilation of tracks that shows promise to be so much more. Perry has a lot of people on her side, and it’s not like she isn’t a talented singer. Something better really should have come together here.

Favourite Tracks: Swish Swish, Roulette, Deja Vu, Save As Draft

Least Favourite Track: Mind Maze

Score: 5/10

SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlTop Dawg Entertainment signee SZA, their solitary female artist, finally unleashes her long-delayed debut album on the world. We last heard from her in 2014, on the EP Z, which reached for lofty heights with its neo-soul style and atmospheric soundscapes but was ultimately too underproduced to be exciting. Now with a few more years to hone her craft, SZA’s debut is certainly a surprising breath of fresh air. While her previous work didn’t offer a lot of insight into her life or personality, here she adopts a very confessional tone that could only be compared to what Frank Ocean was doing on his recent masterpiece Blonde. As the album progresses, she takes us on a sexually charged and brutally honest ride through her relationship struggles. This is exactly what a burgeoning talent finally coming into her own should sound like.

SZA, like most of her labelmates, keeps as many of her collaborators as possible within the TDE family. Some of TDE’s lesser-known in-house producers show up here, as well as label rappers Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar. Surprisingly, it is Travis Scott who delivers the best feature verse on “Love Galore”, elevating himself over Rashad’s sleepy verse and Lamar’s turn on “Doves in the Wind”, in which he references a certain female body part 20 times. Lamar is there more to add to the dry humour of the song than to add a technically amazing guest verse. Pharrell Williams is the only big producer here, and he sets the tone perfectly with the opener “Supermodel”.

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On this opener, SZA recites some rapid-fire lyrics over a sparse guitar instrumental, addressing the problems she faces with her own self-image in the wake of being cheated on. Her melody is all over the place, her lyrics rarely rhyme and her phrasing doesn’t follow a typical structure. But the thing is — it’s more human than anything else I’ve heard this year. These are real issues and emotions, and when she reveals, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” in a sudden burst of rage, you’re on her side.

The confessional and straightforward nature of her lyrics, many of them addressing female sexuality in a very open and refreshing way, carry the project far above any of the lingering issues from projects like Z. SZA lets the listeners eavesdrop at her bedroom window, and hearing things we aren’t supposed to hear is intriguing. It’s even better that her ex-boyfriend, as well, apparently didn’t know about the aforementioned line until the album dropped.

It’s easy to get lost in this album – SZA’s delivery really manages to hook you and draw you in to what she is saying like no other. She’s talking to us like a trusted best friend, and we want to hear the next part of the story. “Normal Girl” is another very compelling track, as SZA speaks on her desire to be more conventionally ladylike in order to have a better chance at maintaining a relationship. Punctuating all of these truth bombs are some pretty beautiful high harmonies, synth basslines and trap hi-hats that help accentuate SZA’s quicker delivery on tracks like “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”.

The biggest critique of SZA’s earlier work was a simple one – that she was boring. While she’s improved her lyrical aspects tenfold, a few of these instrumentals still call back to those earlier days. Many of them are minimalist, clearly inspired by tracks like Frank Ocean’s recent “Ivy”, but they are not as dynamic as Frank’s end up being, often looping endlessly. This might be fine if SZA had more to offer vocally, to give the track a few more “wow” moments – but she often opts for a scathing burn or a rhythmic, rambling stream of consciousness to make up for the lack of a big note or vocal acrobatics. Her delivery is a lot more like a rapper’s.

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“Drew Barrymore” is a great example of one of these slow guitar instrumentals  which is saved when she kicks the chorus off with a beautiful high note – “Warm enough for ya?” – as the drums explode and guitar builds slowly. The instrumentals are frequently very similar, nearly an afterthought on this album. This makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between some of the lesser tracks here, as one song flows into the next and you wait for something to snap your attention back. Usually, it is one of those lyrics that makes you do a double take. The fact that this specific aspect of the project is the thing consistently doing this makes it a very unique listening experience, and is one of the main reasons why this album is so innovative.

For a few years, it was looking like SZA might be one of the members of TDE with the least to offer. She has now made it clear why the decision to sign her was made, and since this is technically considered her debut studio album, the quality and artistic vision she presents here is very impressive for a debut. There are still some lingering issues, but like she says on the album’s closer – she’s still just “Ms. Twenty Something”.

Favourite Tracks: Drew Barrymore, Garden (Say It Like Dat), Normal Girl, Broken Clocks, Supermodel

Least Favourite Track: Pretty Little Birds

Score: 7/10

Bleachers – Gone Now

Bleachers-gone-now-cover.jpgEx-fun. guitarist and superstar pop producer Jack Antonoff returns with his side project turned full project’s sophomore album, Gone Now. In contrast to debut Strange Desire (2014), Bleachers delve a little deeper into a musical niche here, specifically the arena rock of the 1980s that slowly began to become nearly synonymous with pop. For the most part, this works out for the better. Antonoff has proven time and time again that he has an innate knowledge of how to craft melodies which become instantly anthemic, and his scarce but excellent and diverse choices of collaborators here help the album reach higher heights than their somewhat uneven debut.

The musical landscape surrounding Antonoff is still a little muddled and over-the-top, and his insistence on revisiting the same musical motifs on many tracks over the course of the album is awkward at best. But when that huge chorus on a song like “Everybody Lost Somebody” drops, you forget about all of that and want to be a part of that crowd yelling along with him.

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Antonoff’s musical influences are clearly out in the open over the course of this project. His arena-sized choruses, elements of piano rock and gruff yet tender voice bring to mind artists like U2, and, perhaps most evidently, fellow New Jersey singer Bruce Springsteen. An incredibly successful producer and songwriter himself since the disbanding of fun., Antonoff links up with some of the industry’s best for an impressive and talented team behind the soundboard, still retaining primary credit on every aspect.

3 of the world’s best songwriters in Julia Michaels, Lorde, and Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars) appear to co-write, while a diverse and accomplished team of producers show up in some unexpected places. Fellow Grammy winner Greg Kurstin, who recently contributed greatly to Adele’s 25, appears on two tracks, while a pair of hip-hop producers, OVO’s Nineteen85 and TDE’s Sounwave, both known for working almost exclusively with a single artist in Drake and Kendrick Lamar respectively, somehow fit right in with the 80s pop-rock sound.

As soon as opener “Dream of Mickey Mantle” unleashes a huge breakbeat and gang vocals explode “Rolling! Thunder!” you know you’re in for a few moments of well-written pop bliss. Antonoff is a Grammy-winning producer for a reason – these are the most energetic choruses in the game, daring you to join in and scream them as loud as possible. Antonoff is making music closer to the magic of fun. at their best than ex-bandmate Nate Ruess is.

Many of these tracks are backed by bluesy piano melodies and fuzzy synths – and while there is not a lot of variation (“Lets Get Married” immediately brought to mind Strange Desire track “You’re Still A Mystery”), this is more complex music than you hear in the pop genre most of the time. It’s all very sugary and cheerful in the best way. Bleachers’ lyrics are often empowering when positive and crushingly relatable when negative, but always with a tinge of hope that things will get better.

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“Hate That You Know Me” is the beautiful result of four of the leading figures in quality pop music – Antonoff, Kurstin, Michaels and Carly Rae Jepsen – all entering a studio together. Jepsen’s backing vocals elevate the sugar rush to another level…it’s just a brilliantly written pop chorus. Julia Michaels always knows how to flip a lyric and juxtapose the positive and negative aspects of a situation in a poetic way. But this is Antonoff’s album more than anyone else’s, and the sense of musicality he brought to fun. is felt throughout. “I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise” opens with his breathtaking layered multipart harmonies, a beautifully simple fireside folk melody at its centre, before running through all of the album’s many motifs once again in its second half.

The album certainly lulls a bit in the middle – these songs are all brief little tidbits of happiness, but putting them all next to each other makes you realize the similar tactics Antonoff uses to pull on your emotional heartstrings. “All My Heroes” never really builds up to anything in the same way many of these tracks do, while the too-prevalent 808 drum machine that introduces the overly earnest “Let’s Get Married” seems rather out of place here. While Antonoff is such a lovable, goofy guy that there isn’t much he could to to seem too upbeat and happy, “Let’s Get Married” might be it.

Antonoff’s revisiting of musical motifs, a theme on Strange Desire, re-appears here, and while the actual melody of them are often quite good, it begins to become a bit of a cop-out when he sings that “Goodmorning/goodbye to my upstairs neighbour” bit on 4 separate songs. The sheer fact that he can do this at all speaks even further to the interchangeability of many of the instrumentals here.

Still, great pop music is harder to find than you would think, and Antonoff is one of the few who really knows what he is doing. He has this down to a science, and his timely and intelligent choices of collaborators shows just how much he is tapped into the ever-changing pulse of the music industry. Sometimes you just need to let the weird-looking guy with the round glasses sing a happy song and cheer you up.

Favourite Tracks: Hate That You Know Me, Everybody Lost Somebody, I Miss Those Days, Foreign Girls, I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise

Least Favourite Track: Let’s Get Married

Score: 8/10