James Blake – Assume Form

Image result for assume formEclectic UK experimental pop/R&B singer and producer James Blake’s 4th studio album Assume Form has been anticipated for a while, as he continues to expand his discography by appearing on the projects of just about everyone who matters, whether it’s Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean or Travis Scott. I was surprised to see people in hip-hop communities so ready to post their thoughts on this album – Blake’s vocals are slow-paced, chilling and emotional – but he has made a name for himself as both a counterpoint to and a legitimizer of hip-hop music as an art form to be taken seriously, even if his sound is pretty far removed from it. He brings Metro Boomin and Travis Scott aboard here, but he also brings people like acclaimed flamenco breakout star Rosalía and the powerful, cathartic vocals of Moses Sumney. It’s an album with its twists and turns, and it doesn’t all click quite perfectly, but Blake delivers an ambitious, complete project here.

The title track that kicks off the album is a disjointed, glitchy mix of some absolutely beautiful musical segments, mostly orchestral and hip-hop percussion – it sets the tone for the rest of the project pretty well. There are always these exciting motifs, but Blake might snatch them away just as fast and whisk you down some other incongruous musical corridor suggesting you should just enjoy them while they last. It’s tough to say that I’d come back to a lot of these tracks, but it’s certainly a new kind of sonic experience. Those classic James Blake withering falsetto harmonies are present across the board and stronger than ever as well.

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Up next are the back-to-back Metro Boomin tracks, and it’s pretty fascinating to hear these two pioneers from different worlds blend their styles together. “Mile High” features Travis Scott, and minus Metro’s trademark skittering hi-hats, it removes the typical dark atmosphere of a trap cut and replaces it with these vivid, glacial synths and Blake’s yearning, emotional tone. The fact he somehow made Scott sound like he fit right in is a testament to how much Scott’s sound dominates the current musical conversation – but Blake knows exactly how to warp it just enough to put his own personal spin on it. The next, “Tell Them”, is a lot more traditional trap, but it puts the incredibly natural soul and rasp of Sumney on top, inverting the genre in the complete opposite way. In a world where we’re clearly getting tired of the Migos formula, this is just what we needed to kick off 2019.

Speaking of guests, Rosalía is such an unexpected yet logical addition to Blake’s world on “Barefoot in the Park”, the two voices intertwine perfectly, similarly understated but Rosalía’s breathiness nicely supporting Blake’s more forward, nasal approach. The addition of some more traditionally flamenco production when Rosalía sings the verses in Spanish is a great touch as well.

While it’s not as mindblowingly experimental as a couple of other tracks here, there’s something to be said about the strength of Blake’s ear for a simple great pop melody as well, which he applies on more straightforward tracks like “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” but perfects on the gorgeous “I’ll Come Too” later on in the tracklisting, a romantic track built on a looped sung “ooh” melody and the shimmering violins coming in quietly on top of the mix when he sings his most emotionally charged lines. “I’ve got nothing to lose with you”, he sings, throwing his voice around a little bit but sounding so blissfully happy in the process.

The second half of the project kicks off with the rhythmically off-kilter “Are You in Love?” that combines these soothing, 90s-esque synth-piano chords with this rubbery tone in the forefront that just skitters up and down the scales recklessly, the twinge of uncertainty reflecting Blake’s lyrical questioning of a partner’s authenticity.

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The experimentation goes off the rails a little bit at times here, the ambition of a couple tracks going in a different direction than I was expecting them to. He generates something completely new, but it somehow turns out different than a “something new” that I see as a logical evolution of where things are at the moment. “Into the Red” is one of these songs. It begins with some layered harmonies and orchestral production, but this abrupt cut introduces a twangy guitar melody which seems completely out of step with the rest of the track, especially as it builds back up with some absolutely stunning moments at the end as Blake just extends these high notes as these warm orchestral chords build – I just can’t get fully into it when this repeated riff that sounds like it’s from some kind of country music parody is playing on top.

“Where’s The Catch?”, a track with the inimitable Andre 3000, doesn’t really come together either, Andre delivering yet another technically spectacular verse as some upbeat production comes in behind him, but Blake’s surrounding contributions don’t match him in intensity, the repeated hook falling off the pitch and slowing down the tempo as soon as Andre finishes.

It’s easy to see why so many high-profile artists call on this guy who still hasn’t cracked the top 10 on the Billboard album charts – there’s not many who can execute a fully realized vision as well as he can. Despite a couple of off-kilter diversions, this album goes many different places but is still unapologetically James Blake.

Favourite Tracks: I’ll Come Too, Tell Them, Barefoot In The Park, Mile High, Are You In Love?

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

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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

Brockhampton – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgHip-hop/R&B supergroup (or “boyband”, according to leader Kevin Abstract) Brockhampton, fresh off the success of their Saturation Trilogy last year, have had one of the most meteoric rises in popularity in recent memory. Formed through interactions on a Kanye West fan forum, the group certainly emulates his flair for the experimental, blending together abrasive, complex instrumentals, introspective and personal lyricism, and calmer singing performances. Their fourth (but debut major label) album, iridescence, kicks off yet another trilogy as their frantic release pace continues. While it’s easy to pick out the clear best and worst contributors in the 14-member group and there are a few experiments that don’t quite connect, the project throws a gauntlet of novel ideas and adventurous choices at the listener – and surprisingly, most of the chaos comes together to create a degree of cohesion I’d never expect. The group moves seamlessly past the departure of main mic presence Ameer Vann, removed from the group after sexual misconduct allegations. Brockhampton aren’t perfect, but in today’s musical landscape, they’re a very exciting and dynamic force.

The project opens with the blistering track “NEW ORLEANS”, featuring a relatively simple yet endlessly energetic repeated siren blare punctuated by the occasional tribal ad-lib and crunching percussive bass as four of the group’s best rappers each offer their own, uniquely competent verse. One of the greatest things about Brockhampton is just how different the strengths each of their members can bring to the table can be, working together regardless. Joba immediately stands out from the pack on the opener with his distinctly high-pitched tone and double-time flow before Merlyn Wood’s layered, more aggressive approach closes the track that drops us head-on into the sensory overload that is iridescence (Can we just talk about how much Merlyn demolishes the short interlude “WHERE THE CASH AT” as well?). The transition into the soulful piano and backing gospel choir of “THUG LIFE” is absolutely flawless, the two really sound like a single song. We’re frequently whiplashed back and forth between the calmer and more abrasive sections of the album, but the transitions are so well-executed that it just feels like the exhilarating rush of a single project with surprising twists and turns.

Image result for brockhampton 2018The group can be so hyperactive at times that you get caught off guard by the poignant and personal lyricism from a few of the members, especially with something like Kevin Abstract’s verse on “WEIGHT”, speaking openly about his struggles with accepting his sexuality as the track explodes from the orchestral opening into a drum-n-bass breakbeat as other members discuss other “weight” hanging on them since the fame, delving into topics like depression, substance abuse and artistic pressures. It’s a shifting, changing odyssey of a track, Joba’s chopped and frantic vocals sounding like the inner voice in his head as more of a boom-bap beat re-energizes the track as it rushes towards its conclusion.

The back half of the project is just as strong. “J’OUVERT” is a monster of a track, establishing an eerie ambience that’s perfect for both Matt Champion’s deep-voiced snarl and Joba’s erratic and panicked delivery as he builds up to a full-on horrorcore-esque scream on his verse. Inspired by a street festival in the Caribbean and producer Jabari’s Grenadan heritage, the brief motifs of celebratory percussion and horns, as well as a patois sample from Grenadan artist Lavaman, that fight through the industrial muck to be heard just enhance the madness even more. Kevin Abstract and quiet standout Dom McLennon take some of the more direct approaches on the project as they rhyme over a Beyonce sample on “HONEY”, displaying some impressive flows before the 2nd half picks up even more with a half-time hi-hat beat and beautifully layered vocals – it’s just a random moment of instrumental tacked onto the end of a song that might be the best musical moment on the album.

A few times, Brockhampton throws way too much at the wall and the track slowly starts to disintegrate and fall apart as it goes on. “BERLIN” begins as another great punishing, minimal experimental hip-hop track that almost reminds me of a Die Antwoord song with bearface’s falsetto rap chorus and grinding industrial bass before the track awkwardly shifts through a few calmer phases, closing out with what seems like an improvised synth solo as the huge percussion hits return. The group try to blend completely disparate sounds together, one lingering behind and fading out as a new one enters, and the handoffs aren’t always as perfect as the transitions between songs here. “DISTRICT” is another one that you can’t help but nod your head to with that glitchy, distorted synth line in the background, but the disparities between the various members begin to make themselves clear.

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It’s hard to know exactly what I want to be different on these tracks, since there are so many different elements at play here. At times, it feels like the disparate approaches of the members succeed to varying levels on one instrumental, and I want more changes to suit their individual styles, but the group can’t always figure out exactly how to maximize the potential of all of their members at the same time. The explosive tonal shift in the outro here is an example, being completely unexpected and awkward. At the same time, I can’t fault the group for experimentation – there aren’t many people who are trying out the kinds of crazy ideas here with this rate of success at making them work. I find myself impressed by the sheer audacity to try laying these ideas down even during the weaker parts of the project, enjoying them anyway. The final three tracks of the album slow things down, the softer sides of Brockhampton’s talents taking over, but the return of the London Community Gospel Choir at the close of “SAN MARCOS” over an introspective acoustic guitar loop is an emotional peak that not just everyone can reach.

A lot of people are very excited about Brockhampton for good reason – there’s almost nothing about them, from the construction of the group, to the topics they address, to the sonic adventures they take us on, that isn’t a complete breath of fresh air in hip-hop and music in general. With more focus, they have the potential to contribute to some all-time classics.

Favourite Tracks: SAN MARCOS, HONEY, NEW ORLEANS, J’OUVERT, WEIGHT

Least Favourite Track: TAPE

Score: 8/10

6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter

Lowkey alt-R&B crooner 6lack (yes, pronounced “black”) unleashes his sophomore project East Atlanta Love Letter after the success of his Grammy-nominated debut Free 6lack. Not changing up the formula that worked out for him in the past, 6lack still represents yet another of the scores of alt-R&B artists that rose to popularity in the wake of The Weeknd’s unlikely ascent to pop superstardom, many artists emulating the nihilistic lyrics, somber, moody instrumentals and intentionally emotionless and desensitized delivery of some heavier topics that he helped popularize in the early 2010s. While there isn’t much we haven’t already heard before on this project, the main thing that distinguishes 6lack from his contemporaries is the gravel in his voice and his very open approach to relationships in particular in his lyrics, especially after recently becoming a father. Still, most of this 14-track project fails to capture my attention, lingering in the hazy alt-R&B sludge.

The track “Unfair” opens the project, a shorter track in which 6lack emotes about two parties failing to see eye to eye on their desires in a relationship with some Auto-Tuned falsetto notes, the track opening with some frigid synths and watery piano notes before the telltale trap beat picks up in the second half – 6lack is back to the same tricks, and this track definitely establishes the atmosphere of the project. There are times here when his producers come through and craft an engaging instrumental around his unique voice and we get some pretty fun trap-flavoured material – the track “Loaded Gun” is another trap-piano cut from producer Bizness Boi where 6lack comes across like a more charismatic Bryson Tiller on the mic with a quicker, slightly melodic flow, the instrumental cutting out at the right times for his gravelly voice to shine through. He even demonstrates some pretty great harmonies on the track. The same producer returns on another upbeat track in “Let Her Go”, which is an equally catchy trap instrumental where 6lack’s hooks don’t really match up – the repeated note in the chorus doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason, and neither do his lyrics where he is indecisive over whether he would regret leaving the mother of his new child for one of the “distractions” on tour.

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6lack’s singing voice is at its best on the track “Sorry”, and it shows that he really does have potential with the right kind of approach – the track is only slightly different instrumentally, but this time the piano is accompanied by more prominent orchestral swells, the percussion sounding like more traditional R&B which frames his vocals better. J. Cole’s appearance taking over the second half of “Pretty Little Fears” is another highlight of the album – Cole has really retuned in a huge way, and he elaborates on the world 6lack builds with a calmer verse proclaiming his love for his wife with some genuinely heartwarming lyrics, a nice break from 6lack’s outlook.

Most of the project is a chore to get through, however. I thought an appearance from Future on the longer title track would inject some energy into 6lack’s meandering vocalizations over sparse percussion that colours most of the tracks here, but Future actually adapts to 6lack’s style instead. The two trade lines, even repeating some of each other’s motifs and verses as they both attempt some complex vocal runs through their Auto-Tune machine that just ends up sounding like a mess … that thing can’t make just anything at all sound good! Too many of the tracks here end up sounding the same, the instrumentals mostly comprised of isolated trap hi-hats and orchestral-themed creeping and moody soundscapes. When 6lack brings more of his hip-hop side to the table, injecting some energy into an instrumental like that can be a lot of fun, but we mostly just get the over-indulgent and melodramatic singing material that he can’t pull off as well as most of his contemporaries.

The back half is essentially all filler, even featuring some issues with mixing and mastering that are too obvious to ignore – especially regarding Offset’s awkward feature verse bringing the Migos flow to an environment that doesn’t accommodate it in the slightest on the track “Balenciaga Challenge”. The choice of tracks “Switch” and “Nonchalant” as singles instead of anything in the first half is a truly strange decision. The presence of a Drake-esque knocking hi-hat beat (produced by one of my favourites in pop producer Joel Little) on the former is definitely a nice change of pace, but the melodies still come together awkwardly, like he’s just slightly off-key in a few places, and the effect placed on his vocals make it sound like he’s singing underwater – it’s a very rare miss for the New Zealand producer.

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“Disconnect” is another track that sounds like they were going for a hit with some of 6lack’s most melodic hooks on the project, but the tempo of the song is a complete snail’s pace and since 6lack has far from the greatest singing voice in the world, it’s hard to get through. The final four tracks are essentially the same alt-R&B slow ballad copy-pasted and it’s tough to find individual things to comment on. I did enjoy the concept of closing track “Stan”, flipping the narrative of the Eminem classic to speak on his own pursuit of a fan, while Khalid’s feature on the track “Seasons” is as underwhelming as most of his solo work.

East Atlanta Love Letter doesn’t have much going for it in the way of showing 6lack’s personality, artistry or originality, falling short of the successes of his debut project. It’s clear that this trend and this genre are here to stay for the foreseeable future – would it hurt anyone to switch it up in the slightest?

Favourite Tracks: Pretty Little Fears, Loaded Gun, Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Nonchalant

Score: 3/10

Drake – Scorpion

Scorpion by Drake.jpgCanadian singer, rapper, walking meme, marketing genius, and – gasp – FATHER, Drake, only 16 months removed from his previous project More Life, releases yet another bloated project where the biggest artist in the world sees fit to deliver the bare minimum, attempting to coast through on charm. Scorpion certainly has more highs than More Life did, largely thanks to the production work from primary OVO sound man Noah “40” Shebib and some experienced classic hip-hop producers that tap into an era of samples and sharp rhythms, but Drake himself is once again simply going through the motions of exactly what people expect from him. As he does, he drops the odd brilliant or terrible line or melody into the mix, often directly adjacent to each other, but for the most part Scorpion upholds Drake’s reputation as the guy who always stops at “good enough”. This is interspersed with some frustrating responses to Pusha T’s attempted career demolition where he contradicts himself – both trying to act tough and place himself above the situation on differing tracks. But, of course, it’s so hard not to like the guy when he’s on his game.

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Scorpion is divided into two equally inconsistent sides, one leaning more hip-hop and the other R&B. The hip-hop side opens with some pretty standard Drake fare, “Survival” and “Nonstop” both featuring his monotoned, disinterested voice over some dark, moody instrumentals. The latter is clearly supposed to be a hype track, but it only appears so because Drake punctuates his low-effort delivery with even sleepier ad-libs – which I think is the opposite of what an ad-lib is supposed to do. He turns into an accidental caricature of himself on the whiny “I’m Upset”, complaining about trivial issues in an uninteresting way. The first half works better when Drake combines his strengths, improving on an otherwise bland instrumental on a track “Elevate” by alternating between raps and a catchy sing-song flow.

The producers steal the show here, however. Of course, before the two camps were sending shots at each other, Drake was once a young Kanye West fan and many of these beats sound more like “Old Kanye” than ever. “Emotionless” is an absolute standout, Drake rapping over a chopped vocal sample of Mariah Carey’s classic “Emotions” and gospel piano chords from the legendary No ID, some energy creeping back into his voice as he acknowledges his son for the first time on an album clearly updated with additional discussion on the subject. Drake pulls a Taylor Swift marketing move, flipping the narrative, embracing the role he’s been given, and expanding on his position. Boi-1da drops a sample of some soulful Marvin Gaye chords onto “8 Out of 10”, Drake’s sing-song, syncopated flow sounding like it’s directly off of Graduation. Another Boi-1da beat, “Mob Ties”, despite some pretty terrible punchline bars, continues to show that Drake can excel when people other than his team of yes men come around – the eerie, high-tempo synth stabs and very prominent hi-hats are conducive to the erratic, threatening persona he presents. Never staying consistent though, tracks like “Can’t Take A Joke” and “Is There More” that close out the first side bring it back down to the basic hip-hop beats and straightforward, phoned-in delivery.

Side B is a bit less structured, and it honestly works better for him – it’s fun to hear Drake messing around a bit in the studio, his R&B vocals calling back to the endearing cheesiness of male R&B in the 90s. Single “Nice For What” has always been a great blend of Lauryn Hill and New Orleans bounce, and it shows that Drake’s ear for a catchy melody might be his greatest asset. The track “In My Feelings” is pretty ridiculous in concept, Drake naming a different girl in each chorus as he calls out to them “do you love me?”, but that melody never leaves your head, and eventually, it just becomes hilarious and you can’t help but love it. The genuine comedy continues on “After Dark”, a tribute to slow jams of the 90s that features a smooth feature from Ty Dolla $ign and Drake absolutely selling the sleazy ladies’ man angle over some dreamy acoustic noodling.

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The side also features some interesting new sonic directions from Drake, which is very welcomed on an album with so much filler. “Summer Games” features some of Drake’s warmest vocals over a persistent, throbbing synth line and a steadily building tribal percussion rhythm that shows the versatility of his instrument … if he so chose to use it. The side still isn’t without it’s shortcomings – tracks like “Peak” and “Ratchet Happy Birthday” don’t quite click, Drake’s meandering melodies not lining up with much, both punctuated with too-prominent annoying effects – a synth line, or Drake’s “BRRRRR”. “Jaded” is boring in comparison, while “Don’t Matter To Me” throws aside the creation of an enjoyable, coherent song for the sole purpose of proving that Drake has the money to throw at the acquisition of previously unheard Michael Jackson material.

Scorpion is Drake’s best album since he decided to go the route of bloated projects for the sole purpose of increasing his streaming numbers with 2016’s Views. The duality between the sides keeps the listener engaged as Drake steps into his fatherly role with some compelling tales. Still, the glimpses of just how much more it could have been remain pretty infuriating. Drake’s inconsistency continues, but if that scathing Pusha T diss track couldn’t deter his continued rise, I’m sure he won’t mind what I have to say.

Favourite Tracks: Nice For What, After Dark, Emotionless, Talk Up

Least Favourite Track: Is There More

Score: 6/10

Jorja Smith – Lost & Found

Image result for jorja smith lost and found21-year old rising UK R&B singer Jorja Smith, more widely known after collaborations with mega-rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar, releases her debut album Lost & Found, a subdued and minimal experience that shows off her unique tone. I’ve seen comparisons to everyone from Lauryn Hill to Erykah Badu to Amy Winehouse, but Smith honestly reminds me most of early career Rihanna in terms of the sound of her voice. Leaving the popular garage and grime trends of her home nation that coloured her earlier music behind, Smith sounds a lot more assured of her artistic direction, even if the music isn’t as immediately exciting as it could be.

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The title track which opens the album is framed by sparse piano, lazy, chilled-out background guitar embellishments and steadily knocking R&B percussion, Smith not even descending onto the track in full for a minute and a half while she unleashes some muted falsetto vocal runs. This kind of improvisational quality is applied over the course of most of the project, Smith placing her voice front and center and showing us all of the things that it can do. It’s a smart choice – her tone is entrancing at times, she has a huge, capable range that frequently surprises and the right amount of sweetness in her delivery to balance out the sharper edges she naturally possesses with a voice lower than most popular female singers. “Teenage Fantasy” is one of the best vocal showcases here, apparently written when Smith was only 16 – it’s a smartly written chorus that lets her hit a sweet spot at an essential time, her voice at its most passionate and abrasive before dropping back to her smooth, breathy quieter delivery in a great contrast. She shows off her falsetto in the catchy chorus of “February 3rd”, explaining the concept behind the album’s title over some jazzy piano chords.

Smith’s meandering approach to the project – you always know when one of the tracks of an album is dubbed “(Freestyle)” – turns it into an intimate and engaging experience to get lost in, but it also means that none of the tracks end up sticking to the listener – I have a hard time remembering which of these tracks are which since they aren’t especially distinctive, mostly containing Smith’s vocal acrobatics over a jazzy instrumental that doesn’t want to intrude on what she’s doing in the front. A few of the choruses aren’t as structured as they should be and could have benefited from more experienced producers – something like “On Your Own” falls off the melody line before it turns into a satisfying musical phrase. Despite her vocal experimentation, she often sticks to formula here and follows about the same structure on quite a few songs here with the way she executes her delivery. For an artist with a voice so dynamic, I wish she had included some more upbeat tracks, or at least some varied instrumentation here to break up the monotony a bit.

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“The One”, for example, is a track that really benefits by standing out from the pack instrumentally, with an orchestral intro that explodes into Smith’s layered harmonies over a more tropical vibe like the ones she was introduced to us over on Drake’s “More Life”. It’s one of the fullest instrumentals here, slowly adding more and more elements as it progresses to a beautiful outro as the percussion gets more complex over the same orchestral strings. “Blue Lights” is another very unique track, the percussion more up front than most of the other tracks over a watery synth-piano line that reminds me of old Nintendo video game music, like a boom-bap “Dire Dire Docks” – it samples a song from grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal, explaining its more hip-hop sound.

Smith is a classically trained vocalist and clearly very experienced, I just wish there was more variation across this project to make me give the whole album repeated listens. The high points on this project are some of the best lo-fi R&B tracks we’re likely to receive this year, and for an artist so young there’s only up to go from here.

Favourite Tracks: Blue Lights, The One, Teenage Fantasy, February 3rd, Lifeboats (Freestyle)

Least Favourite Track: On Your Own

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tinashe, J. Cole, Bishop Briggs)

Tinashe - Joyride (Official Album Cover).pngTinashe – Joyride

Joyride is a project that frequently underrated R&B artist Tinashe has been promoting since 2015, delayed multiple times as it was apparently held back by label deman 2016’s Nightride album was a catchy, ethereal teaser, but it may have ended up being better than the final product. The label intervention is evident across this project, Tinashe’s quieter style frequently offset by obvious attempts to land her another radio hit with awkward rap features (one fittingly being Offset himself) and production from pop hitmakers like Stargate. The album is a directionless mixed bag, but she still manages to shine in the few occasions where she’s allowed to do what she wants here.

Tinashe has always been at her best on more throwback production styles, rather than the more marketable and upbeat party tracks that take up most of the space on this album. Sometimes the two styles are mixed together and the juxtaposition is too much, like on title track “Joyride”, which places a loud “la-la-la” melody and huge beat overtop of the orchestral and spacey synths and strings that she is more known for, which fail to accommodate the constant high energy of the rest of the track. The pure pop tracks fare a little bit better – I’m not going to lie and say “No Drama” doesn’t get stuck in my head for days at a time – but it’s far from the artist I know she can be, she’s a better singer than this basic melody over a trap beat. “Me So Bad” is the most blatant attempt at a trend-riding track that never would have made it onto a Tinashe project with creative freedom, the lyrics doing little more than pointing to her looks with a pretty inexcusable French Montana feature and a beat that manages to take the worst elements of both the tropical and dancehall trends at the same time. The last few tracks on the album never quite come together, the scores of writers in the credits becoming evident as the commercial aspect overrides artistry, the hint of a trap hi-hat echoing on even the slowest tracks. What in the world is that disjointed Future verse??

It would be a much different story if the whole album was filled with tracks like “He Don’t Want It”, the closest thing we get to the highlights of Nightride like “C’est La Vie” and “Ghetto Boy”. Tinashe uses both ends of her vocal register, the breathy falsetto verse introducing the more powerful chorus. I love when most of the elements of the track are made of Tinashe’s dynamic vocal abilities, and the ethereal backing harmonies complete the picture here. It’s great to hear elements of a trap beat without the same rhythms we’re all familiar with from all-star hip-hop producer T-Minus as well. Follow-up “Ooh La La” is an homage to the early-2000s R&B that Tinashe would have thrived in, with a pretty fun flip of a sample from Nelly’s “Dilemma” and calmly picked guitar melody reminiscent of “Suga Suga”, while an unexpected collaboration with Little Dragon on “Stuck With Me” is a fantastic surprise, Tinashe and Yukimi Nagano’s voices occupying that perfect space of having a similar tone that’s just distinct enough to distinguish the individuals.

The way Tinashe’s career has been handled is one of the most consistently depressing things about the music in Here’s hoping she goes independent and drops some old-school R&B gems on us.

Favourite Tracks: He Don’t Want It, Stuck With Me, Ooh La La, No Drama

Least Favourite Track: Joyride

Score: 5/10

JColeKOD.jpgJ. Cole – KOD

North Carolina rapper J. Cole bounces back in a huge way after 2016’s disappointing 4 Your Eyez Only with his 5th studio album KOD, a concept album of sorts that sees him discouraging forms of substance abuse that have affected him and those he observed in the past by through some Kendrick Lamar-esque play with the embodiment of opposing characters and points of view. While Cole doesn’t really do anything groundbreaking here musically, he escapes criticism by tying it perfectly into the theme of the album, stating that the addictive, repetitive hooks and trap beats resemble the drugs he speaks of. Plus, what I was really missing from Cole was the fire in his delivery, and that’s fully returned with this more modern, upbeat style.

“There are many ways to deal with pain … Choose wisely”, echoes a voice throughout the album. The tracklist is divided about half and half, sometimes on the same song, as Cole portrays either himself making the wise choices in the present or a character addicted to or dependent on one of the many “drugs” he describes, both literal and more abstract, like money, power or love. Opening track “KOD” lets listeners know early that Cole has snapped out of the trance that dominated his previous album, offering a rapid-fire triplet flow and booming bassline. The popularized Migos flow shows up quite a bit across this project, but it’s still great to hear Cole’s take on it since his voice and delivery can be one of the most engaging in the industry when he wants it to, always with a sarcastic wink and a jovial bounce. Cole produced nearly all of the beats on this project without any assistance, raising the impressiveness again. My favourite beat of all though is attributed to T-Minus, on standout track “Kevin’s Heart”. Cole makes his dexterous flow sound easy mainly due to the chilled out, 8-bit video game-style instrumental that makes everything sound more impressive on an intoxicating half-time tempo.

Perhaps the fact that I’m so drawn to Cole’s repetitive tracks like “Motiv8” and “ATM”, where he portrays a character dependent on an unstable source of income, proves his point. These cheap thrills really are easy to turn to, rather than paying attention to what he’s saying on the more lyrical tracks. While they do veer a bit into the same sluggish tempos he employed earlier, tracks like “Brackets” and “Once an Addict” revive Cole’s elite storytelling ability to tell some tales of how his community and his own life are affected by what he describes. Cole’s advice across the board is never preachy because he is quick to acknowledge that he himself had fallen prey to it as well – he tells a heartbreaking tale of both he and his mother turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with the abusive stepfather that has turned up in many tracks across his career, offering genuine advice to personal friends and younger rappers on “Friends” and “1985” about falling prey to all the various drugs of life, admitting his message isn’t “the coolest” in an endearing way.

One of the main themes that frequently seem to hold a Cole album back is his singing, which he almost always relies on more than he should. It makes a few hooks here more awkward than they should be, such as on “Photograph” where he never quite clicks into the beat perfectly. His Kill Edward character’s pitch shifted delivery also muddles his words and throws the pitch off on tracks like “The Cut Off”, but it still adds to the message of the song, the addicted Edward sounding lost and troubled, out of step with the rest of reality.

KOD delivers an important message in a very smart way, Cole bringing back his relatable character and storytelling ability to spread awaren Luckily, by exploring characters Cole can do this and deliver some upbeat, fun tracks at the same time. He boasts about his versatility contributing to his longevity over trend-hoppers on closer “1985”, and KOD backs up his point.

Favourite Tracks: Kevin’s Heart, ATM, FRIENDS, KOD, BRACKETS

Least Favourite Track: The Cut Off

Score: 8/10

Image result for church of scars bishopBishop Briggs – Church of Scars

British alt-pop musician Bishop Briggs’ debut studio album Church of Scars comes in the wake of the success of her 2016 single “River” on alternative and rock radio due to her trademark growl and heavier approach to poppier melodies. Her songs have been used in commercials, also contributing to her steady rise, and this album makes it easy to see why. Her formula across these brief 10 tracks becomes incredibly evident and safe, reminding me of Imagine Dragons’ latest project Evolve in terms of the build-up to an explosive chorus over some soul chords that she employs in every song. While her vocal power is undeniable, Church of Scars loses its element of surprise immediately.

Briggs blends elements of the past and present across the whole album to varying degrees of success, mixing rock and blues instrumentation with modern trends of pop music such as electronic synthlines and hip-hop influenced percussion, a computerized water-droplet beat quickly snapping the old-soul sound of Briggs’ vocal delivery into the more modern era in opening track “Tempt My Trouble”. While this track serves as one of the most immediately catchy offerings, even it falls into the repetitive techniques that plague most of the tracklisting. Briggs’ voice really does have a lot of potential, and I could see her imbuing it with the genuine emotion that the power behind it deserves to make some powerful content, but she settles for Chainsmokers-style thematic lyricism around a seemingly randomly generated noun and melodies that stay in a safe position in order to build up to the reveal of the only trick she has – the overriding of a vaguely electronic blues-rock template with her growling, explosive vocal wails.

Her blends of styles often come across as trying too hard. I feel like I write the word “trap” in every review I write nowadays, but the plaintive acoustic background of a song like “Lyin’” sounds ridiculous with those persistent hi-hats at a time when we hear them everywhere, and whoever did the backing vocals doesn’t help the track much either, sounding too anthemic and angry for the instrumental since an explosive rendition of the chorus is apparently a necessity for each and every track regardless. “White Flag” shows that the vitriol she spits into every syllable doesn’t work as well with rapidly delivered vocals, the rhythm of the chorus lagging behind. As the album goes on, we lose any hope of being moved by Briggs’ power, since we expect her to be yelling at us by the end of every song, knowing not to trust the quieter acoustic introduction.

There really are quite a few promising elements here, such as the industrial and menacing horn section on “Wild Horses”, but an attempt at an EDM-style chorus breakdown changes the tempo in such a miniscule way that it becomes irritating, throwing off my rhythm. It all comes together best on “Hallowed Ground”, which incorporates a gospel organ and horn section breakdown that switches things up instrumentally for a break in the monotony.

Briggs has a lot of raw talent, but she relies much too heavily on a formula attempting to place her in the modern musical context that she doesn’t really need. With a better team around her, I hope she can convert the energy she possesses into more creative, well-structured song material.

Favourite Tracks: Hallowed Ground, River, Tempt My Trouble

Least Favourite Track: The Fire

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Weeknd, Kacey Musgraves, Hayley Kiyoko)

MyDearMelancholy - album by The Weeknd.jpgThe Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy,

Canadian pop/R&B superstar The Weeknd releases a 6-song EP a year and a half after the successes of Starboy that sees him return to a sound that many fans have been missing. My Dear Melancholy, is much darker than we’ve heard him get in a while. While it’s difficult for Abel to completely shed his pop sensibilities at this point, this EP is as close to Trilogy as we’re going to get, the production more open and allowing his vocals and lyrics to shine. This is the version of The Weeknd that kickstarted the entire genre of alt-R&B, and he recruits a list of great collaborators to make it happen.

Opening track “Call Out My Name” became the biggest track to come from this project, and it’s easy to see why. It rides a similar vibe as “Earned It”, a song that served as somewhat of a transitionary period from one style to the next, but the passion with which he delivers that soaring chorus, his haunting pitch-shifted and distorted vocals repeating the refrain behind him, is what sells the track. We can tell that Abel is back in that tortured emotional place that allowed him to deliver his best music. Lyrically, we’re back to the nihilistic and debaucherous artist that knowingly lives a lifestyle that is mentally and physically damaging – there’s some pretty dark content on here inspired by real life events, and the creeping, grim soundscapes of Trilogy infused with parts of the synth beats and Daft Punk-esque production on tracks like “Try Me” and “Hurt You” is an interesting place to put them. The Weeknd’s persona has always been incredibly fascinating to me, and this is him at a complete juncture of an artist, almost like a career retrospective over 6 tracks.

Abel has an impressive list of producers here – Frank Dukes and Skrillex hold things down on the pop side, while Yeezus auteur Gessafelstein and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo himself appear as well. Dukes and Skrillex’s “Wasted Times” is the poppiest instrumental here, a skittering, glitchy breakbeat that drops into an EDM-style breakdown with pitch shifted vocals – but Abel’s rhythms and state of mind are pure Trilogy, repeating “I ain’t got no business catching feelings”. The calming falsetto outro shows just how much we forget how great his vocals can be, something he displays in full on heartbreaking closer “Privilege” – the track, combined with “I Was Never There”, contains some truly compelling and deeply disturbing references to Abel’s substance abuse in dealing with pain. “Hurt You” might be my favourite track of all, a great combination of his old and new styles as Abel delivers a catchy falsetto melody over the same kind of old-school dance breakbeat as we hear on hits “Starboy” and “Pray For Me”.

There have been rumours that there will be forthcoming EPs, possibly playing off of the comma in the title of this one. If this is the case, The Weeknd knows exactly what he is doing and I’m very excited for a more commercially viable 2018 update of Trilogy.

Favourite Tracks: Hurt You, Call Out My Name, Wasted Times

Least Favourite Track: Try Me

Score: 8/10

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegKacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Critically acclaimed country-pop artist Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album sees her trade in her cynical and witty lyrics for an incredibly adorable celebration of her new marriage that sees the world in a much more positive light. Musgraves’ warm and inviting vocal delivery has always been one of my favourite singing voices in the entire music industry, and hearing it on some more personal material here is very affecting. Musgraves’ music has never truly been pure country, and she takes some of her most ambitious cross-genre leaps yet on this project that showcase her crossover potential. With Golden Hour, Musgraves has delivered a stunning opening trilogy of albums.

The entire album is infused with a sense of wonderment that creeps its way into Musgraves poignant lyrics, previously used for biting satire but now settling into “I’m alright with a slow burn, taking my time let the world turn” as she sings sweetly on the opening track. Backed by little more than a pop-country acoustic guitar pattern, the track eventually swells into a string section bridge and uplifting backing vocals. Musgraves accepts that she can’t maintain her previous position as a holier-than-thou sass machine and steps back to marvel at the beauty she can find in the world, and it’s amazing to witness. Musgraves’ instincts to write a great pop melody are still top notch, as emphasized by single “Butterflies” and especially standout track “Lonely Weekend” – the charming country background of most of these songs simply provides an interesting instrumental twist to these sensibilities. “Butterflies” is characterized by a mixture of twinkling, poppy piano chords and the acoustic, slide guitar patterns that appear across Same Trailer, Different Park. The softly delivered honesty in her vocal performance easily welcomes harmonies, and they strengthen her heartfelt declarations. When the music drops back and she reaches into her falsetto to deliver “You give me butterflies”, it’s too cute to handle.

Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting – it should have been tough to convince us of her belief in this completely new view of the world, but the way she pours genuine emotion into every note and word makes us feel every aspect of her love for her husband. Even when tracks like “Oh, What A World” are relatively samey, Musgraves’ awestruck persona is captivating. Her classic wordplay is still present on “Space Cowboy” – which still gives me chills, and “Happy & Sad” brings back the creeping cynicism as she anticipates the inevitable end of “the time of [her] life” through the greatest harmonies on the project– it’s still the same Kacey. The most interesting track, however, is “High Horse”, a disco-influenced track that marks a completely new direction – it’s pretty incredible that she manages to keep some country aspects in the background and pull it off so well, judging by the huge 80s dance beat, synth bassline and adorably kitschy harmonies in the forefront. Closing track “Rainbow” is such a beautiful, earnest love letter that it still almost makes me cry a month later, but this review is getting too long.

I wish I had space to talk about every single track on this album, they are all perfect in their own, tiny, personal way. Musgraves’ subject matter finally matches the extremely pleasant tone of her voice, and the result is an album that successfully blocks out all the bad in the world for 45 minutes.

Favourite Tracks: High Horse, Lonely Weekend, Rainbow, Space Cowboy, Happy & Sad

Least Favourite Track: Wonder Woman

Score: 10/10!

Hayley Kiyoko - Expectations.pngHayley Kiyoko – Expectations

Dreampop artist and outspoken LGBT activist Hayley Kiyoko finally releases her debut studio album after a string of EPs, and for the most part connects with a series of upbeat, danceable pop tracks. While her songwriting could likely benefit from the hitmaking spark of someone like a Max Martin, a few melodies and chord progressions often going a different way you expect them to, in general Expectations lives up to them, especially once single “Curious” signals a seismic shift into the much more fun second half of the project.

Quite a few of these tracks ride over energetic synth basslines and ethereal, dreampop harmonies. Despite the lack of recognizable contributors to the project, the production across the board carries the project where Kiyoko’s vocal performance lacks a distinct sense of personality and artistry. After a world-establishing overture featuring the sounds of the beach, we drop into “Feelings”, a pristine pop track that takes a central melody and plays with it in as many ways as it can, dropping into a half-time trap section and a Prismizer-esque vocoder section near its back half. It’s a very well-written and catchy track that shows just how much Kiyoko still has room to grow as she gains a more mainstream audience. This is the kind of stuff a lot of people could quickly and easily latch onto. Single “Curious” is the centrepiece and is sure to be one of the greatest pop tracks released all year despite its January release date. The synth swells leading up to the tiny pause before the infectious chorus drops electrifies the track with energy, and Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals are something to behold – that bassline reminds of a Fifth Harmony track on steroids.

The last 5 tracks of the album are pure pop magic as well, especially “Palm Dreams”, a bit of a 2000s-pop throwback perfect for summer which features pitch-shifted vocals and an almost new jack swing percussive feel, inviting listeners to an electrofunk party. “Wanna Be Missed” uses a trap hi-hat to its utmost rhythmic potential, complementing a baseline swung synth melody and earth-shattering bass as the intense chorus kicks in, while “Let It Be” is a great closer – a calm-down of sorts with a quieter instrumental that can still support a huge singalong chorus. It’s one of the best written pop melodies here, minor notes in just the right places.

Expectations can feel slightly generic at times, especially as so many of Kiyoko’s contemporaries are rapidly expanding the boundaries of just what pop music can entail – most of these tracks possess the same kind of basic structure, the same chords building up to a more explosive, percussive chorus. A track like “Sleepover” never really gets going, featuring the same synth-bass stabs as the preceding tracks without as strong or energetic of a melody. The back to back mashup tracks “Mercy/Gatekeeper” and “Under the Blue/Take Me In” continue to lose the energy and direction of the project before “Curious” snaps us back in – there are a few weird melodic decisions and abrupt shifts between ideas across the whole saga, as we wait for the pop sugar rush that we know she can deliver to kick back in.

Expectations is a very solid debut pop project that doesn’t shy away from bringing something like a bisexual duet with Kehlani to the attention of the mainstream audience. When it connects, it’s high-octane fun – there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

Favourite Tracks: Curious, Let It Be, Palm Dreams, Feelings, Wanna Be Missed

Least Favourite Track: Under the Blue/Take Me In

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (blackbear, Fabolous/Jadakiss, Cyhi The Prynce)

Image result for no dope on sundaysCyhi The Prynce – No Dope On Sundays

GOOD Music rapper Cyhi the Prynce’s debut project has been delayed for years amongst label disputes, dropping a few promising verses on label boss Kanye West’s tracks along the way. No Dope On Sundays is the sound of an artist who has been waiting to express himself in the cohesive album format for a long time, stretching long past an hour in length as Cyhi exercises his old-school style on extensive verse after verse. Cyhi is not the most dynamic or engaging rapper in the world, his delivery is very laid back – his skills are clearly there, but such a long project without much variation causes me to lose interest quickly. There are certainly highlights here, however.

Some of Cyhi’s best moments come when he is able to play off of his guests – the title track “No Dope On Sundays” has a great choral sample from a late-60s psychedelic rock track, which transitions into a second half featuring producer Lex Luger’s trademark aggressive hi-hats and pianos and a verse from Pusha T, whose style most closely mirrors Cyhi’s. At its best, No Dope On Sundays is a reminder of the style of rap Kanye West popularized in the mid-2000s, heavily based on samples and focusing on gimmick-free, straight lyricism. “Murda” is the standout here, breaking up the monotony with a reggae sample from Ini Kamoze, Cyhi capitalizing on the laidback vibes perfectly. And of course, Kanye himself shows up on “Dat Side”, delivering a perfectly … well, Kanye verse. The quotable hook has Cyhi showing more personality than the rest of the project combined. Cyhi’s storytelling excels when you’re engaged enough to pay attention, even dropping a few clever one-liners and punchlines. A few spoken-word transitions reference Biblical passages, as Cyhi describes the juxtaposition of his life in the church and on the streets of Atlanta growing up.

Many of these tracks run far too long, quite a few extending past the 5-minute mark. Listening to the same instrumental, calmer than most rap beats of today, for so long without much variation in the vocal delivery can get tedious, especially on such a lengthy album. There are quite a few beat switches mid-track to keep things interesting, but these could have been organized better, often changing the energy completely. The hooks here could have been improved as well, too frequently delivered awkwardly by an auto-tuned Cyhi in the same cadence as his raps and failing to excite. Pitchfork’s review stated perfectly that Cyhi does “too much and too little at the same time”.

Favourite Tracks: Murda, Looking For Love, Dat Side, Nu Africa

Least Favourite Track: Don’t Know Why

Score: 6/10

Image result for blackbear cybersexblackbear – cybersex

Singer, rapper and producer blackbear’s second project this year is another solid collection of energetic and electronic spins on the current alt-R&B sound, as blackbear himself takes a step back on the production and invites a slew of guests, demonstrating his solidification of a place for himself in the music industry. While there is a lot less here of blackbear focusing on his greatest strengths, the project failing to reach the heights of digital druglord, cybersex is carried by blackbear’s quotable lyrics, still ruthless and overconfident, and innovative instrumentals.

blackbear only produces two tracks here, and while the others he invites on this project succeed at emulating his style most of the time, the instrumentals on some of these tracks can tend to divert back to generic trap territory at times, especially when blackbear opts to rap instead of sing on tracks such as “bright pink tims”. You should be able to tell a song is blackbear’s – nobody else is really in his lane of blending together EDM-style instrumentals and alt-R&B vocal sensibilities, and when his producer’s ear for melodies is lost these tracks become too derivative.

blackbear makes songs you want to sing along to – the braggadocio he imbued his first hit, Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”, with likely played a huge part at transitioning him into the superstar he is today, and when you combine these confident and carefree declarations with something like the underlying guitar riff and catchy melody on a track like “playboy s**t”, blackbear’s personality sells it easily. He almost sounds like he’s laughing while delivering these lines – “woke up rich”, “shout out to my wrist”. For the most part, the guests on this project deliver, blackbear found some kindred souls here – 2 Chainz and T-Pain don’t take themselves too seriously either, while Machine Gun Kelly delivers a feature verse much more engaging than his recent pop exploits. Some older rappers like Cam’ron and Rick Ross don’t connect as well, but this is still clearly blackbear’s project despite a guest appearing on every song, his unique spin on things rising above.

The project shines at its brightest when the production veers its closest to EDM, as the combination of genres is still a breath of fresh air. Blackbear’s glitchy vocals on tracks like “anxiety” and “down 4 u” as the digitized synths bleep, bloop and swell behind him is a unique listening experience that I’d be surprised if the larger world of alt-r&b didn’t catch onto sooner. “anxiety” in particular invites close collaborator and fellow producer FRND, and his final beat switch-up is euphoric. Blackbear is all about juxtapositions – “everybody dies and love is fake as f**k”, he sings over the most cheerful acoustic instrumental he could find on the hilarious “Thursday/froze over (interlude)”. This is a rising star in the industry.

Favourite Tracks: anxiety, playboy s**t, down 4 u, e.z., i hope your whole life sux

Least Favourite Track: glo_up

Score: 7/10

Image result for fabolous jadakiss friday on elm streetFabolous/Jadakiss – Friday On Elm Street

This collaborative album between two hip-hop veterans has its share of impressive instrumentals and interplay between the two rappers, but certainly contains a lot of filler and more dated ideas. In addition, the horror movie-inspired project (Fabolous corresponding to Freddie, and Jadakiss, Jason) featuring one jovial and one sinister rapper correlates a little too much to Offset and 21 Savage’s “Without Warning” earlier this year, not executing the concept quite as well.

“F vs. J Intro” is an impressive track, the two rappers embodying their chosen horror-movie villain and delivering a verse structured like a battle-rap, the two comparing their body count and throwing in some nice punchlines over some eerie chimes and a hard-hitting beat. The theme continues more loosely for the rest of the project, the instrumentals frequently tinged with a haunting quality that someone like the gravelly-voiced Jadakiss is right at home stalking through. Some classic producers like Swizz Beatz, C-Sick and The Weeknd’s go-to man in Ben Billions appear here. These two embody the East Coast sound, and they match each other bar for bar over these energetic instrumentals. We’ve been seeing quite a few rap collaboration projects this year, and they’ve all been choosing their sparring partners well. “Soul Food” is just as its title suggests, flipping a sample nicely as the two reminisce on their longevity in the game.

A few tracks see the two stuck in the past, especially on something like the Swizz Beatz produced “Theme Music”. With the rise of trap, Swizz’s style has never seemed further from the cultural zeitgeist, basing the track over a few loose, skittering hi-hats and a repetitive, but calm Marvin Gaye sample – the rappers never really settle into a constant flow for this reason, the song having so much more empty space than we typically hear anymore. The ideas run out closer to the album’s end – French Montana collaboration “All About It” isn’t much more than a repetitive hook and an attempt to throw a trap beat on a synth instrumental that sounds like something T.I. would use in 2008. Friday On Elm Street is a pretty great listen for fans of the two older rappers, as they certainly prove they’ve still got it, but it might have been better at EP length.

Favourite Tracks: Soul Food, F vs. J Intro, Principles, Stand Up

Least Favourite Track: Theme Music

Score: 6/10

Kelela – Take Me Apart

Image result for kelela take me apartR&B singer Kelela’s debut album, released 2 years after the critically acclaimed Hallucinogen EP, scales back her sound into the moody and avant-garde scene of alt-R&B to offer up a truly haunting and innovative sound. Said to be heavily influenced by Bjork, Kelela’s vocals are frequently backed up by glitchy electronic beats, using her characteristically low alto register to tap into a darker side of romance.

Take Me Apart is an incredibly ambitious project that doesn’t always connect. It is certainly not as immediately attention-grabbing as her previous work, but there are many things to be very excited by, especially as this is only a debut album.

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The project does have some very innovative instrumentals, mostly provided by an unexpected combination of experimental electronic artist Arca and the award-winning and consistently incredible Ariel Rechtshaid. As we are in a time where we’ve reached “peak trap”, it  feels like some of these beats are the next step in the equation, what it will sound like in the future. We have the rolling hi-hats and 808 bass, but they are more sparse over instrumentals that fill up all the space of the track, shifting, changing and building.

Kelela builds an overall air of genrelessness here, with a sonic surprise almost every time the track shifts over – I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear something like the poppier synth chords of “Waitin” so early on in the tracklisting. Still, Kelela manages to bridge the gap between sounds with her strong vocal performances, quick to carve out her own clear artistry in a sea of rising similar artists.

Emotionally potent and possessing a very impressive range which she frequently utilizes to decorate these tracks with beautiful higher trills, Kelela’s approach to romance is hopeful, cynical and tinged with darker overtones. She gets writing assistance from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft on “Jupiter”, and her deeply personal lyrical musings are equally engaging as Croft’s work.

Opening track “Frontline” is one of the strongest, bridging the gap between Kelela’s older and newer approaches perfectly. The lengthy track speeds through a few different sections, as we get an introduction to the full capabilities of her voice in a slower segment before exploding into a Beyonce-esque chorus with some quick rhythms and heavy percussion.

“LMK” follows along the same lines, driven by a strong boom-bap beat and catchy handclaps. Kelela delivers her catchiest – and sassiest – chorus line yet before the song falls away into a softer-toned electronic paradise that could be mistaken for a Cashmere Cat track and a spoken-word breakdown. In her lyrics, she presents a familiar situation – desperately wondering what her partner is looking for, while hiding behind a well-presented façade of not caring either way. By the time she starts hitting those whistle notes to close out the track, we’ve explored the full range of the many impressive things Kelela is capable of. This is how we bring all the vastly different sounds presented here together in a way that makes sense.

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One of the things I liked the most about Kelela’s past work, especially on the  Hallucinogen EP’s best songs, was her snappy rhythms and soaring choruses. Here, she takes a step back into slower, unassuming alt-R&B on about half of these tracks. The style does succeed at putting the spotlight on her unique and impressive voice, but creates a disconnect between her vocal style and instrumental. A song like “Enough” is a perfect example of Kelela’s execution coming up short of her ambitious goals, her slower vocals in the verses failing to contrast well with the explosive, tribal beat and crowded chorus.

While the album is a consistently engaging and surprising sonic experience throughout, I found that upon my second listen while writing the review I remembered almost nothing about it. Many of Kelela’s innovations are almost too subtle – enough for a quick double-take but not enough to distinguish one track from the other.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were times when I found tracks like “Take Me Apart” too crowded, as the track quickly shifts between an almost drum-n-bass percussion line and quickly echoing synth pattern to a segment full of interlocking and overlapping backing vocals. The strange decisions on this album continue as two of its best tracks in “Jupiter” and “SOS”, each featuring Kelela tapping into a smoother tone in her range and offering up some classic 90s R&B sounds, both don’t even reach two and a half minutes.

Despite its quirks, Take Me Apart winds up being rather similar to a lot of alt-R&B projects out right now, and that can drag it down at times. However, on almost every track here there is an extra flourish of vocal ability, or a futuristic instrumental, that shines a light on how special of an artist Kelela might still become.

Favourite Tracks: LMK, Better, Frontline, S.O.S., Jupiter

Least Favourite Track: Enough

Score: 7/10