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

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Gucci Mane – Evil Genius

Image result for gucci mane evil geniusAtlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s output since being relased from jail in 2016 has been so prolific that the timespan of just under a full year since his last project is an unusually long gap for him. It’s certainly given him some of his best sales in a while. He’s stated that he was trying to link up with the best personnel he could and make one of his “best projects ever”, but I’m not sure he accomplished that despite the time off. Evil Genius is one of the safest and by-the-numbers rap albums I’ve heard all year, Gucci toning down the more comical and cartoonish sides of his lyrics and delivery to fit into more of a generic trap mold. Across 17 tracks, it’s pretty difficult to tell most of them apart. One of the things that is most appealing to me about Gucci, especially on his features, is his effortless charisma and mic presence – most of that is lost here.

One of the reasons Gucci works so well as a feature is how different from most rappers his delivery actually is, adding to the variation in approaches on any given track – across this project, as usual he’s more laid back and yet possesses this kind of 21 Savage-esque coldness. One of my favourite Gucci tracks is actually his “Finesse The Plug Interlude”, where he delivers threats with a kind of cheerful shrug and high intonation. But carrying a full project by himself, his somewhat sleepy tone gets a little boring – especially when there’s no interesting instrumentals to keep him afloat.

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The two opening tracks “Off The Boat” and “By Myself” are pretty good examples of what’s wrong with this project – both of them have pretty every-day, bass-heavy and relatively empty trap instrumentals that you could hear anywhere else, and their lack of variation and relatively low energy make Gucci’s quieter flows blend in to the background and his sudden bursts of energy feel out of place. The latter ends with some comically over-enunciated words and a shouted playground chant of a flow over an incredibly minimal beat. My favourite track on here is actually “Father’s Day”, an interlude-length track with a spastic and upbeat instrumental from Metro Boomin where Gucci reaches his energetic peak on the chorus as he emphatically proclaims his status as the one who started a wave – just as I was getting into it on my first listen, it ended.

As expected, some of the features here add spice to what Gucci brings to the table and contribute to some of the better tracks. “BiPolar” is enlivened by some quicker hi-hats than usual from OG Parker, but especially Quavo’s melodic interjections on the chorus to enhance Gucci’s more static flow and keep the rhythm afloat. Kevin Gates’ in-your-face presence and quicker flow on the track “I’m Not Goin’” is a welcome addition, especially in comparison to Gucci’s awful singing voice on the chorus, and Youngboy NBA fulfills a similar role on the track “Cold Shoulder”, where Gucci actually gives a pretty great performance to match – the addition of a quick triplet at the end of a couple lines in the chorus is something that I could only expect from someone like him. This is one of the best beats on the project as well, some creeping low synth tones raising the stakes. Single “Wake Up In The Sky” with Bruno Mars and Kodak Black is Gucci’s peak aesthetic, and a fun enough track even if I wanted Mars to show off a little more. An effortlessly cool, laid-back track, all three artists dial their voice back to a too-cool-to-care, relaxed cadence and completely sell it.

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Most of these tracks feel like filler when they’re so short, Gucci rattling off one or two repetitive choruses with some low-effort verses in between before we immediately move on to another half-baked idea. The run from “On God” to “Lost Y’all Mind” gives me whiplash from how quickly these ideas are created and abandoned before anything is developed properly. Most of these tracks honestly aren’t too bad – “Lost Y’all Mind” might be my favourite track in the middle with that glitchy, melodic beat – but the fact that they sound so similar and end quickly like a couple focus groups went through a checklist and each presented their own version of a Gucci song makes me wish there was a little more variety and innovation across the board here. By the time we get to the end of the tracklisting I’m seriously tired of the excessive number of tracks with the same skillset being presented – tracks like “This the Night”, “Mad Russian”, and “Lord” are seriously uninspired and could easily have been cut.

There’s been a few average rap albums as the year comes to a close and it looks like there’s still going to be a few more – the genre’s seriously taken the year over, with high-profile releases coming almost every week. Evil Genius doesn’t do enough to make the personality of one of the most personality-driven rappers stand out from the rest, and it’s pretty disappointing as a result.

Favourite Tracks: Father’s Day, Lost Y’all Mind, Wake Up In The Sky

Least Favourite Track: By Myself

Score: 3/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

One of ascendant label 88Rising’s biggest artists, Joji, drops his debut full-length studio album BALLADS 1 which exhibits his unique, lo-fi approach to modern R&B, pop and hip-hop music. A former YouTube star famous for his surreal, absurdist comedy, you can certainly still sense some of his over-the-top personality in his lyrics, but Joji has done all he can to distance himself from his past as Filthy Frank and the comedy rap alias Pink Guy. Teaming up with some diverse collaborators, this is a very wide-reaching range of sounds, some of them more adaptable to his unhinged and emotional approach than others. Joji’s vocals are very raw and often a little off-key, and there are more than a few mixing and mastering issues here, but half the time it strangely fits, the nihilistic and moody aesthetic all clicking together in the right way regardless.

The opening track “Attention” is a pretty good indication that most of the project is pretty hastily thrown together – Joji’s vocals are more off than on most of the tracks here, and you can tell due to the minimal pop-piano backing track, while the distorted bass that rumbles in halfway through is far too loud and throws off the mix completely. Still, underneath all of the mess, there’s a pretty catchy melody there. The next track “Slow Dancing In The Dark”, on the other hand, is so beautiful it seriously caught me off guard from this meme master of an artist. The explosion of those digital, 80s synths and the lighter, cascading textures as he hits the climactic note in the chorus is one of the craziest musical moments of the year – it’s a completely unique spin on the moody alt-R&B ballads that have coloured the charts recently. “Come Thru” is another great track in the same vein here, some plaintive synth piano-notes and sparse percussion knocking on the off-beat backing up an Auto-Tuned falsetto melody – everything about the song is just barely off-kilter, and it fits the emotional tone of the track for that reason.

Joji additionally attacks sounds of more traditional synthpop and trap here, and while showing he has a great command of melody and song structure, the vocals and mixing can let him down on the more minimal or derivative tracks. Joji duets with kindred spirit Trippie Redd on “R.I.P.” – the two are similar in that they sacrifice vocal performance for authentic and raw emotion, often to an extreme degree. I’m not going to argue that he sounds great on upbeat pop tracks like “Can’t Get Over You” and “No Fun”, but the carefree nature of his vocals, especially when he starts throwing some deceptively sadder lyrics into these standout, bouncier mixes, creates something that is recognizably Joji. The aching falsetto on a track like “Why Am I Still In LA”, especially over such an arrhythmic, lurching and distorted instrumental that verges on noise rock, is a truly haunting and affecting moment, the sudden musical explosions mirroring his clearly genuine anguish. Most of this album isn’t exactly what you’d call replayable, but it’s something I’ll remember for a while.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Dancing In The Dark, Can’t Get Over You, No Fun, Why Am I Still In LA, Come Thru

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

Cover of Not All HeroesMetro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Trap producer extraordinaire Metro Boomin drops his first solo album after having his name attached to numerous collab projects over the past few years. Possibly the most recognizable music producer by name at the moment, you can likely credit most of the rise of trap as a popular genre to his influence, particularly his early work with Future. After threatening retirement … or at least, just a break of some sort … in the midst of his hit songs dominating the charts, Metro returns rather quickly with a collection of tracks that are a little more low-key for his style, but still play into his trademarks of murky and menacing basslines and the odd soul sample thrown into the mix. Metro is a bonafide hitmaker, but I can’t help but feel most of these tracks don’t have the same kind of immediately iconic and innovative techniques that help him spice up the genre that you can find on most of his hits. He still gets some great performances out of his collaborators – 21 Savage steals the show on every feature here – but this is the first time I’ve heard Metro beats and felt just a little bored.

People are drawn to Metro’s instrumentals because they put something unexpected into the formula – usually, something that sparks a trend that everyone else ends up following. More often than not here, it feels like he’s being safer than ever, and even following some trends himself. The first two tracks, “10AM/Save The World” and “Overdue” both have elements of soul sampling in them, but the first track is split into two distinct sections, Metro briefly showing his flipping talents after a by-the-numbers opening track featuring a sleepy Gucci Mane feature that doesn’t capture his usual charisma. “Overdue” splices a sample through the whole track, exciting me with those opening moments of that delicate and breathy vocal performance, but it continues to cut in and out after the beat drops despite being the aspect that complements it the most and saves it from a pretty average performance from Travis Scott.

As for chasing trends, Metro deviating from his sound proves to be a pretty bad idea in his attempts to make a Latin pop track with Wizkid and J Balvin on “Only You” – it’s blander than he’s ever been, and far from his area of expertise. Most of these tracks could easily blow up – those hi-hats hit as hard as Metro’s ever have, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like something only he could have made anymore. “Dreamcatcher” harnesses a great hook from Swae Lee and a fun Travis Scott verse, but it doesn’t have that same level of excitement. The back half of the album could essentially be found on any hit trap project this year.

There are still quite a few sparks of creativity across the board here. “Don’t Come Out The House” is a constantly switching-up track that sees him team up with 21 Savage and re-embrace his eerie horror-movie influenced sound, Savage hilariously leaning into his over-the-top nefarious persona with a whispered flow. 21 Savage’s other solo track “10 Freaky Girls” is the best sample flip here, taking inspiration from the 90s synth-piano textures of a lesser-known Whitney Houston track as Savage continues to deliver some hysterical punchlines and an upbeat, present flow. Those brief, weird scream sounds are such an interesting touch, and the horn section is one of those unexpected embellishments that only Metro could throw in halfway through and have work so well. “Space Cadet” is ridiculously fun, featured artist Gunna going full Young Thug with some off-the-wall vocal inflections and an audible smile on his face as he makes boasts over some shimmering synth chords and appropriately galactic bleeps and bloops.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a perfectly serviceable trap project from a man who understands the genre better than most, and in most scenarios, it’ll still enliven a room – I just have high expectations for Metro after his unstoppable run of tracks that were both wildly popular and creative.

Favourite Tracks: 10 Freaky Girls, Space Cadet, Don’t Come Out The House, Dreamcatcher

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

Iconic and influential Swedish pop singer Robyn makes her comeback – it’s been 8 years since her last solo full-length project, Body Talk, though she has dropped an EP and a brief collaboration with equally experimental electropop duo Royksopp in that time. Listening to this new project, Honey, it’s easy to see just how much of the current landscape of experimental electropop owes its existence to some of Robyn’s earlier work, discarding the pop formula at the time and injecting a new degree of emotional catharsis to some upbeat, synth-infused tracks – it’s the earliest form of what singers like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Tove Lo do now. The project consists of only 9 tracks, but each of them are a fully established, shimmering dance-pop world that shifts and changes with a very warm and full sound. It’s easy to think that this project is dated, and a few of these longer tracks do get slightly tiresome after a while, but Robyn is still doing some pretty incredible things in the pop music world.

Most of the emotion Robyn is able to convey is truly due to her voice, which is more than holding up. A breathy yet powerful soprano, it’s the perfect instrument to triumphantly soar over the pulsating disco-influenced synths that are frequently backing her up. The opening track “Missing U” is a pop song from another time, Robyn hitting a catchy and straightforward pop rhythm over a booming synth bassline and a quickly oscillating higher-pitched synth texture that never goes away even when it falls out of key with the rest of the track, but it works perfectly as both a driving force anchored to the thumping percussion and something that’s just out of place to line up with the lyrical themes. “Because It’s in the Music” is even more transcendent, containing what’s easily one of the greatest pop choruses of the year. Robyn slowly ascends up the scales with a huge degree of emotional conviction as she sings about defines most of her career – a song that simultaneously makes you want to move … and cry. One of the most evidently disco-influenced tracks here, Robyn’s vocals are light as air as some orchestral stabs and a persistent funk bassline build her up to her bigger moments.

Most of the project comes across in this ethereal, very full-sounding dreamscape and a lot of that is due to some pretty impressive harmonies. Even a minimal track like “Human Being” comes alive when she drops some old-school pop triads onto the chorus. The title track “Honey” is a high-octane track that sees Robyn doing a high-speed syncopated rhythm on a single note before the hi-hats kick the track into a higher gear of energy – all of these tracks are a pretty masterful exercise in the slow build that ultimately turns into an all-out pop celebration, but all the same it’s a celebration for people to exorcise their personal demons getting swept up in the driving rhythms. I love that robotic vocal sample and bongo drums on the absolutely bizarre Disclosure-esque track “Between the Lines”, and the project closes on a strong note as well with “Ever Again”, one of the most unapologetically pure pop tracks here that cycles through a few fun added instruments keeping up the driving main riffs of the backing track.

A lot of this project is straight out of a different time, and not the kind where we’re paying homage to the past by doing the slightest things to bring it into the modern world either – there are a couple times here when adjusting your 2018 ears to what’s being delivered here is a huge leap. “Beach2k20” is essentially an old-school house music track, Robyn not doing much more than spoken word over a repetitive samba instrumental that extends further than anything else here. “Baby Forgive Me”, as well, falls into more of a traditionally European-sounding area associated with an earlier time, feeling a little empty – although Robyn’s haunting vocal delivery on the track is great.

A couple diversions aside, the greatest aspects of this project are exactly what pop music was designed to be in the first place – a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that takes over and lets you escape from whatever you’re thinking about and join something bigger than yourself. There’s not much of that anymore in the instant-gratification streaming era.

Favourite Tracks: Because It’s In The Music, Between The Lines, Missing U, Honey, Human Being

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Post Malone, Janelle Monae, Leon Bridges)

Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

Breakout artist of the year Post Malone plays it safe on his first album since exploding into the mainstream, offering over an hour of the same admittedly very addictive and fun formula that made “Rockstar” one of the year’s biggest hits. Malone is a master at making the kind of bland, inoffensive music that can be played in the background at almost any kind of function due to it’s ability to transcend genres. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to hate. However, listening to a full project, the formulae begin to make themselves far too clear, and while Malone does offer some surprises in terms of the strength of his singing voice and hooks that are too much fun to ignore, Beerbongs and Bentleys is a bit of a chore to get all the way through.

Despite being frequently grouped amongst the hip-hop community, I see Post Malone as more of a singer with pop and even country elements that uses the popularized structure – and vernacular – of trap music in order to attracted a widespread audience, situating himself perfectly in the middle of multiple diverse worlds. It’s a pretty respectable business plan, and the hooks across the board here show that Malone has more of a grasp on how to write a catchy, marketable chorus than anyone. Someone who has risen to popularity this quickly and completely has to be doing something right. With producers like Frank Dukes and even Scott Storch on board, Malone’s team help him as much as they can, allowing his melodic instincts to shine. Dukes’ “Rich & Sad” is built over a bed of plaintive, falsetto human vocal samples and synth-bass that make his repetitive hook work. Repetition works when the grasp of melodic ability is so strong – “Psycho” is somehow a great track despite it containing little more than two alternating musical phrases.

Quite a few of these songs go a bit too far into the territory of being catchy, inoffensive background music and never really pick themselves off the ground, the instrumentals too empty. A track like “Spoil My Night”, laughable lyrical content aside, has lost all of its energy in the middle of the Swae Lee feature, the trap hi-hats dropping out in favour of the moody, watery creeping synth instrumentals that dominate most of Malone’s sad trap cowboy routine. The lyrical content ultimately wears thin on an 18-track album, Malone delivering the same generic lines about partying with some ridiculous metaphors and references. It also reveals that Malone doesn’t have much artistic ambition of his own, existing as the most readily available amalgamation of all the current trends across the music industry. None of this music forces itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness. Listening to song after song of hooks built to be the soundtrack designed to keep a party going and nothing more gets exhausting. The album could easily have been cut at the surprisingly decent ballad “Stay”, the 12th track – there are 6 more afterwards consisting of the same ideas that we’ve heard expressed elsewhere with so much more musicianship, polish and charisma.

It’s tough to talk about individual tracks across this album, because there is almost nothing that distinguishes each instrumental from the next, Malone singing a different, intoxicating and repetitive hook over each one. And while this works incredibly, impressively well in the right situation, an album length just reveals Malone’s lack of ambition.

Favourite Tracks: Better Now, Psycho, Rich & Sad, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Over Now

Score: 5/10

Image result for dirty computerJanelle Monae – Dirty Computer

R&B artist Janelle Monae takes a detour away from her android character Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis Suite album series in order to drop a poppy and poignant look at the plight of minorities through the lens of technology that she is so fond of using. With a slew of great collaborators and Monae’s exuberant declarations of self-assertion in her lyrical content, juxtaposed with instrumentals that would make mentor Prince proud, Dirty Computer is sure to be one of the year’s – or the decade’s – greatest albums.

The album is introduced to us with the opening title track, featuring Monae’s calm and smooth alto tone introducing the concept of the album with backing harmonies and instrumentation from the master of harmonies himself, Brian Wilson. The accompanying “emotion picture” depicts a society in which minority groups’ identities are seen as a computer virus, their memories removed and “cleaned” up. The majority of the album consists of tracks depicting experiences that needed to be removed from Monae’s memory, a full-out celebration of all the things that make her unique in an embrace of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality through an exuberant funk-pop shimmer. Monae has said she was very influenced by Prince, who she knew well, across this project and it definitely shows – especially on lead single “Make Me Feel” that lifts the same funk guitar chords from his hit “Kiss”. Many of these tracks are carried by rattling hi-hats and a funk bassline, Monae applying her very capable vocal abilities in a completely unapologetic shout, usually dropping at least one rap verse onto each song.

Dirty Computer is an extremely sexual album in a world that suppresses it, especially for someone like Monae, and her matter-of-fact statements on its unavoidable presence and importance on tracks like “Pynk” are just as confidence-inducing as her braggadocious rap track “Django Jane” where she runs through her many achievements and declares herself the greatest of all time. “Screwed” is an absolute show-stopper of a song, fuelled by handclaps and shiny guitar riffs that sound like a double-time HAIM track. It’s the most immediately catchy melody and the most overtly political song here, using the title as a double entendre calling for a final party before the bomb drops – “everything is sex, except sex, which is power”. The album itself feels like this party at times, not letting the listener take a breath once as it continues to deliver high-octane pop tracks with an overarching message of universal love.

Many of the instrumentals’ funk elements here remind me of Pharrell Williams’ early work, and Williams shows up on the rap track “I Got The Juice”, Monae’s delivery at an all-out energetic scream as the hi-hats crash into each other perfectly, her chopped vocals in the background. My favourite track of all might be “I Like That” however, one of the calmer ones here that lets us hear the prettier side of Monae’s singing voice, carried by an incredibly catchy musical phrase looped by backing vocals as she speaks on her intentional diversion from the norm. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs, and I like that” has to be one of my all-time favourite lyrics. The whole thing culminates in “Americans”, a gospel-influenced track that sees Monae slip into the character of various individuals blindly dedicated to outdated ideals of the what the American flag signifies before the bouncy, singalong chorus simply declares “Love me for who I am” with some beautiful harmonies. As the refrain echoes, a reverend’s voice starts a speech calling for the rights of various marginalized groups, some that Monae belongs to and some she does not.

Dirty Computer and its accompanying visual are incredibly powerful, brilliantly conceptual stuff, and it might be the most important sociopolitical message delivered through music next to “This Is America” this year. I’ll be surprised if anything comes out this year that knocks this from my top spot.

Favourite Tracks: I Like That, Screwed, Make Me Feel, Americans, I Got The Juice

Least Favourite Track: Take A Byte…? I guess?

Score: 10/10

Image result for leon bridges good thingLeon Bridges – Good Thing

Texas retro-soul and blues singer Leon Bridges takes a bit of a step back from his triumphant debut Coming Home, falling prey to the sophomore jinx and turning to pop producer Ricky Reed for the majority of the album. As a result, the poppier tracks here are actually the album’s best, Reed losing his way at producing the classic sounds that Bridges’ smooth vocals fit so cleanly over. Still, even if many of these tracks don’t stick as well as many of his past endeavours, it’s always a delight to hear a voice like Bridges’ – there aren’t many people making albums this popular that sound like him, and his simple love songs call back to an earlier era of songwriting.

The opening track “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” is the kind of music that bridges should be making all the time, the opening flurry of sound almost like a montage transporting us back in time like a cinematic flashback. The song places his vocals front and center, strings echoing in the background as he hits the best part of his upper register in the chorus, the slight rasp that makes his vocals distinctive complemented by some great high harmonies. The majority of the tracklist makes it all too clear that this was an album produced by a guy who has worked with people like DNCE and Maroon 5 recently. Quite a few of these tracks are loose, upbeat tracks where Reed attempts to replicate the vibe of a blues or jazz song, instrumental solos often taking up the empty space, but eliminates the complexity often found in the instrumentals for a straightforward rhythmic pattern that makes the music more accessible for the many people who made this the top-selling album of the week. It becomes less about Bridges in complete command of his element, and it makes his more subdued style of delivery less likely to stand out on tracks like “Bad Bad News” and “Beyond”. Bridges excels when the instrumental molds to his direction, rather than the other way around.

“Shy” is another great track that sees the return of the vocal harmonies and jazzier chords that aren’t as present elsewhere, Bridges slowing the track down and commanding attention with his dynamic vocal presence and charisma. Of course, Reed is still one of the better mainstream pop producers, and this shows on the danceable, all-out pop tracks “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “You Don’t Know”. Bridges’ voice is versatile enough to be believable as a John Legend-esque pop vocalist, sounding like the GOOD Music artist on the former especially, vocoder harmonies backing him up on the kind of early guitar-funk pop bounce that’s quickly becoming popularized. The problem lies when these poppier elements aren’t mixed as well with elements from Bridges’ musical territory, awkwardly shoehorning in modern sounds where they shouldn’t be, like the percussion on a track like “Forgive You” that clashes with the acoustic guitars.

Bridges is a great vocalist that’s always a breath of fresh air in the landscape of what’s popular right now, but the team up with Reed here doesn’t make much sense and holds it back from being a truly great project – I trust he’ll be back with a vengeance on his next.

Favourite Tracks: Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand, Shy, You Don’t Know, If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Mrs.

Least Favourite Track: Bad Bad News

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Chris Stapleton, Miguel, Big Sean)

Image result for from a room volume 2Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 2

Country/soul superstar Chris Stapleton releases the second half of his From A Room series, following the excellent Volume 1 early this year. Despite mostly restraining himself from the explosive moments and outlaw country lyrics on this second half, opting instead for safer, pleasant balladry, Stapleton’s vocal talent is unmatched not only in his genre, but across most of the music industry, and his ability to convey emotion in his delivery continues to ring throughout this follow-up.

Stapleton continues to bring his wife, Morgane, on board to back him up with some pretty incredible harmonies – it’s tough to match up to the vocal presence Stapleton delivers, but she’s more than up for the job. He continues to show his versatility as well, diving directly into the heavier guitars of southern rock on a track like “Hard Livin’” while stripping things back to show the soulful side of his vocals on “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”. Back to back tracks “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” are the highlights here, the former showcasing Stapleton in country storytelling mode as an impressive display of speedy guitar riffs back him up, playing a character once again as he taps into the mindset of a farmer and his undying love for the land that had been passed down for generations. The latter, however, taps into an almost doo-wop style instrumental as Stapleton does what he does best, communicating complete dejection and heartbreak though his vocal delivery. The song honestly doesn’t contain much lyrically, but when Stapleton sings the few words he does here he absolutely makes them count – “What’s love but just some confusion we don’t need?”, he sings, his voice perfectly stretched to its emotional breaking point.

While the cover song on Volume 1, “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, was perhaps its best track, the covers that begin and end Volume 2 are perhaps its weakest points, as Stapleton taps into some overly sentimental material with cheesy lyrical content that contrasts the rugged outlaw character he attempts to portray. Both tracks detail the value he places in his friendships and relationships, but lack the lyrical depth and complexity I’ve come to know him for, remaining on some baseline metaphors. Volume 2 is still a very solid collection of tracks, but most of these songs through its middle aren’t as immediately impactful as their predecessors. Still, Stapleton is at the top of his genre.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody’s Lonely Tonight, Scarecrow In The Garden, A Simple Song, Midnight Train To Memphis

Least Favourite Track: Friendship

Score: 7/10

Image result for miguel war and leisureMiguel – War & Leisure

Miguel’s fourth studio album continues his streak of connecting on his lofty ambitions of R&B psychedelia and strong songwriting, taking a slightly more political angle than usual but maintaining that devilish grin you can feel through his delivery when falling back on the Prince-emulating sensual slow jams he is known for. Miguel’s vocals are assured and confident, the lavish instrumentals behind him contributed by established veteran R&B producers like Happy Perez and Raphael Saadiq layering on top to create a sonic world to get lost in.

After introducing us to the album with “Criminal”, a slower track featuring some laidback musings from Rick Ross, the party begins with “Pineapple Skies”, which pays homage to a long legacy of soul music that Miguel adopts flawlessly. The track borrows some instrumental elements from Marvin Gaye’s classic track “Sexual Healing” while acknowledging the legacy Prince left behind in its lyrical content detailing the purple sky above them. Miguel settles into the upbeat groove of the project, and you can almost envision him doing the suave choreography present in his live performances as he breezes through the chorus with a “backslide … everything gonna be alright”. Miguel is a master of the extended metaphor, declaring “there’s a war on love” at the start of “Banana Clip” before an impressive number of comparisons of his devotion to a soldier at war, while delivering one of the most unique song concepts of the year on “City of Angels”, imagining a post-apocalyptic future where Los Angeles was eviscerated by bombs while Miguel was out of town, as he laments not being there to die together with his girlfriend, lost to the attack. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but his tender vocals absolutely sell it.

While he’s sung in Spanish before, another interesting direction the project takes is “Caramelo Duro”, sung almost entirely in his native language – I didn’t think it was possible for Miguel to sound more at home in the sonic landscape he commands, but he is completely in his element here. “Come Through and Chill” is another excellent track, based around a calming acoustic guitar loop while Miguel shares the mic with J. Cole, returning to form with two great feature verses as the two invite the listener over with a wink. War and Leisure is easily one of the best R&B projects this year, refreshingly relying more on authentic-sounding instruments while Miguel steps comfortably and convincingly into his role as psychedelic lothario.

Favourite Tracks: Pineapple Skies, City Of Angels, Told You So, Caramelo Duro, Banana Clip

Least Favourite Track: Wolf

Score: 9/10

Image result for double or nothing big seanBig Sean & Metro Boomin – Double Or Nothing

All-star trap producer Metro Boomin releases yet another collaborative project, this time with a much more unlikely guest in Big Sean, who he slightly alters his beats for to adapt to his speedier flow. Double Or Nothing is some of Metro Boomin’s best work this year, interpolating some beautiful choral and orchestral elements, but most of the time Big Sean’s inconsistency lets the project down.

Metro Boomin opens strong on the track “Go Legend”. Regardless of the repetitive hook from Travis Scott, the track is carried by a modified trap hi-hat pattern on top of a legitimate orchestral piece complete with swelling violins and twinkling piano that accentuates Sean’s slightly deadpan delivery. The first half of the project is much stronger, Sean staying focused and showing the technical ability we know him for. Hearing Metro’s aggressive beats with a more technical, lyrically-focused rapper is an interesting exercise, even if Sean’s approaches eventually become half-baked. “Big Bidness” and “Pull Up N Wreck” are both grandiose, cinematic rap tracks, 2 Chainz and 21 Savage delivering great, lower-key verses contrasting Sean’s confident boasts, while “Who’s Stopping Me” just continues to show Metro Boomin’s versatility, sampling the guitar pattern from a Brazilian song and bringing the Spanish lyrics back in the chorus. Sean himself declares it “the best beat thus far” on the track, adapting his flow to the swung, Latin flavour and offering the kind of quotable lyrics that only Sean could come up with.

As the album goes on, Sean’s lyrical content here crosses the line past the kind of goofy punchline rap that we accept because of his confident delivery to some pretty inexcusable lines that not even his big personality could save, taking you out of the song quickly. “So Good”, regardless of being Metro Boomin’s most derivative beat, fails miserably at being the kind of sensual anthem Sean’s whispery delivery would suggest due to line after line of middle school-quality punchlines that are too egregious to be effective. You need at least some degree of metaphor there, Sean. Even his flow seems a little off on some of these filler tracks, somehow becoming more conversational when speeding up and attempting to cram as many syllables as possible into a line with a tenuous connection to the song’s rhythm.

He continues to insist on singing on “Savage Time”, a tactic which hasn’t been anywhere close to being good since his first album 6 years ago, while simply sounding checked out on tracks like “Even The Odds” and “In Tune”, extending a single lyrical concept to the entire length of a song, filling in the blanks with different bars each time to tedious effect. While Metro’s production can frequently revive the energy of these tracks, he might be better off sticking to trap artists.

Favourite Tracks: Who’s Stopping Me, Pull Up N Wreck, No Hearts No Love, Go Legend

Least Favourite Track: So Good

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rap Collabs, Kelly Clarkson)

Super Slimey cover.jpgFuture/Young Thug – SUPER SLIMEY

On this collaborative project, two of Atlanta’s most genre-defining rappers come together to continue to assert their dominance over some good old-fashioned trap beats. Future’s straightforward approach and Young Thug’s quirky eccentricities are an interesting contrast that frequently sinks or swims as a result of the instrumental. Thug works well on Future’s hard-hitting beats, but Future has a harder time crossing over into Thug’s jovial and airy world. While the project seems rapidly thrown together at times, as there are some mixing issues present, it’s a lot of fun to hear these two superstars playing off of each other.

If nothing else, the project immediately reminds you just how punishingly hard Future can go as it drops into the first wailing siren and hi-hat roll of “No Cap”. It is one of the most disgustingly grimy instrumentals this year and producer Southside quickly brings us into his world. It’s the shortest track here and ends far too quickly, emphasizing the slapdash quality of the mixtape, but it’s an incredible shot of energy. Southside’s other two beats here, “Three” and the Offset-featuring “Patek Water” are equally impressive as he shows why is the most accomplished producer on the project.

Solo tracks here, especially Young Thug’s “Killed Before”, which is creatively built from a bass-heavy trap beat and a tropical acoustic guitar loop, are often better executed than the collaborations, as the two never quite click perfectly. Bringing together one of the most consistent and one of the most endlessly creative rappers doesn’t mesh, they are better excelling in their own lanes. At times, someone like Future sticks to his formula so much that a lower-effort project like this sees him becoming derivative as well. For two established hook men, you’d think there would be more sticky hooks here than there are – the project is more like a streamlined trap experience than clearly defined ideas. Of course, there are bound to be more than a few incredibly fun moments in that experience, and the project is still a necessary listen for a trap fan despite its shortcomings.

Favourite Tracks: Three, Patek Water, Killed Before, No Cap

Least Favourite Track: 200

Score: 6/10

Kelly Clarkson - Meaning of Life (Official Album Cover).pngKelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life

Kelly Clarkson, now on her eighth studio album and under a new label, has been speaking recently of her desire to return to her American Idol roots, straying from her pure pop sound and coming back to the realm of R&B/soul music. She certainly has the voice to do so, and Meaning Of Life has become one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Despite the first third of the album being standard pop fare that fails to excite (why does a singer of this caliber deliver a lead single in “Love So Soft” where she stays on a single note?) we soon get into Clarkson’s incredible passion projects as the album continues to get better and better through the middle.

The album doesn’t pick up until “Whole Lotta Woman”, a confident and sassy half-rapped track reminiscent of Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic. But Clarkson’s true power comes in tracks like “Medicine”, “Cruel” and “I Don’t Think About You”, where she gets to show off her technical ability and R&B sensibilities. “Cruel” especially stands out as an old-school R&B track where Clarkson demonstrates some incredible range and more soul than we’ve heard from her in years. Her reassertion of that incredible chorus an octave higher over the groove of the funk bassline shows some serious emotion as well. Her voice is dynamic and capable, running through whistle tones, more subdued and sensual tracks like “Slow Dance” and the full-voiced belt that comes up on the more upbeat piano jams and huge ballads. Clarkson compared “Medicine” to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” and dedicated the album to Aretha Franklin – these are the lofty vocal aspirations she has here, and for the most part, she delivers.

“I Don’t Think About You” is an incredibly powerful track as the instrumental is reduced to just piano chords, directing all the focus to Clarkson’s vocals. As she sings about her newfound confidence and happiness in the wake of a destructive relationship and throws some gospel harmonies on top, we build into a chorus where she progressively hits higher and higher notes at a crucial point to spine-tingling effect. The ordering of the album is slightly concerning, opening and closing with its safest tracks and misguided political angle on “Go High”, but Clarkson’s new soulful tone is a very welcome surprise and should introduce the singer to an exciting new chapter in her storied career.

Favourite Tracks: Cruel, I Don’t Think About You, Slow Dance, Medicine, Don’t You Pretend

Least Favourite Track: Heat

Score: 8/10

21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin - Without Warning.png21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin – Without Warning

21 Savage and Migos’ Offset team up with top tier trap producer Metro Boomin to deliver a horror movie-inspired project on Halloween. It’s almost impossible not to compare it to SUPER SLIMEY, but Without Warning is a much more well planned out and unique project, as Metro Boomin continues to be the only man keeping trap fresh with his constant reinventions and the diametrically opposed styles of Offset and 21 Savage complement each other surprisingly well. Where Offset brings out complex flows and those goofy ad-libs we know and love, 21 Savage’s menacing deadpan gets straight to the point. While 21 can frequently get annoyingly monotone, his ruthless and desensitized lyrics and persona are right at home over Metro Boomin’s eerie sounds here, especially with someone like Offset to play off of.

One of the best things about this project is that it clearly is not a throwaway mixtape – the transitions here are incredibly well-executed, especially as “Nightmare” is introduced by 21 closing the preceding track by repeating “It’s a nightmare on elm street”. Metro Boomin’s work here is chilling, as wolves howl in the background and he programs his synths to sound like the wind whistling through the trees or the unsettling ambiance of a horror film. Adding his trademark hi-hats makes these beats exhilarating – On “Run Up The Racks” he extends a hi-hat roll longer than I’ve ever heard, nicely accentuating 21’s simpler flows on his solo track.

While 21 is so far into his character it becomes almost hilarious, Offset displays a side of himself here we don’t really see with Migos – while it was always clear that he’s the most technically skilled of the group, his flow switches and speedy deliver here is seriously impressive. “Ric Flair Drip” is the solo track that shows he could be just as much of a superstar as Quavo, while “Mad Stalkers” shows the best contrast between the two. 21 comes in with the hook after a particularly speedy string of syllables and metaphors from Offset, not mincing his words and issuing threats in that inhuman drawl. If Offset is the Joker, 21 Savage is Bane. The combination is deadly.

Favourite Tracks: Ric Flair Drip, Mad Stalkers, My Choppa Hate N****s, Run Up The Racks, Ghostface Killers

Least Favourite Track: Darth Vader

Score: 8/10

YG – Red Friday

West Coast gangsta rap revivalist YG returns with a brief collection of songs which didn’t make the cut on Still Brazy, his acclaimed album from earlier this year. Although YG continues to bring the high-energy tracks we’ve come to expect from him, and reunites with some key collaborators, some of this material falls much shorter in the creativity department. At times, it is easy to see why some of these songs were left off the album — especially with the unique story attached to the project.

YG is only distributing a very limited number of physical copies of the EP, each costing $100. The project stands more as a novelty associated with the Black Friday craze than a legitimately assembled collection of songs, though there are still a few great tracks here. Though especially in the wake of creating a song that resonated with people as much as political protest song “FDT”, YG seems to be simply going the motions of what creates a standard West Coast banger here.

Image result for yg

The sound of the EP is still classic YG, offering melodic and bombastic West Coast beats while he continues to do what has made him famous overtop of them – the loud, in your face flow associated with old-school gangsta rap. The tone is very celebratory, fitting in with his more party-oriented tracks rather than the social commentary which has recently been getting more critical attention. Notable collaborator DJ Mustard, who was a major part of YG’s debut album My Krazy Life, is back here after differences kept the pair apart, and contributes some of the project’s best beats.

As a matter of fact, the instrumentals here are easily the best element of the project. YG brings back this West Coast retro sound very well, and in a world where many rappers are going as experimental as they possibly can, deviating from frameworks, not many people are left still doing what YG is doing at this caliber. While the features here vary in their success, rapidly rising star 21 Savage steals the entire project with his turn on “I Be On”, amplifying considerably what is an otherwise mediocre track and demonstrating why everyone wants him on their song right now. Despite the abundance of party tracks here, YG is still at his best when talking political – the only time he really brings up any of the issues he mentions on Still Brazy is on the best track here One Time Comin’. Over a monstrous beat resembling a police siren, he addresses the trepidation he feels around the police while still delivering a catchy hook.

When it comes down to it, however, this is still an album full of leftover tracks. Although many of these tracks do succeed in being hard-hitting enough to get one’s head nodding, the similarities of the tracks and inability to bring anything new out of the tried-and-true LA gangsta rap framework become overwhelming on even a project this brief. This does not measure up to the strength of his previous two albums at all, and for a project worth $100 should have been better.

Image result for yg

The main issue here stems from lazy songwriting, especially in the hook department. These songs were cut for a reason, and as featured artist Mitch, who may or may not be the guy who caught a body ’bout a week ago, imitates somewhat of a drunken Travis Scott on “I Know”, or YG delivers an uninspired and generic trap hook without any variation in his voice, the strength of the beat stops mattering. YG’s cadence can get grating at times – like fellow rapper Meek Mill, a lot of the energy of his tracks comes from his loud and unapologetic attack on the mic. It does involve a lot of yelling, and it works if it’s used in the right way, but a lot of the time it isn’t here. Delivering repetitive hooks at this same level of volume isn’t the most pleasant listening experience. To bring 21 Savage’s great verse back into the conversation, his more laid-back style fit the beat of “I Be On” much better.

YG has all but mastered his craft, and demonstrated it on his full-length studio albums. While Red Friday serves as somewhat of a blemish on his wildly successful work, its status as an EP and novelty release surrounding Black Friday allow it some breathing room. But unlike fellow Californian rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered, YG’s B-Sides pale significantly in comparison.

Favourite Tracks: One Time Comin’, I’m A Thug Pt. 2, I Be On

Least Favourite Track: I Know

Score: 5/10