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

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

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NxWorries (Knxwledge and Anderson .Paak) – Yes Lawd!

Image result for yes lawd anderson paakQuickly rising funk sensation Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge, known for his jazz and soul-sampling beats, combined their talents on this 19 track album that never feels like it overstays its welcome. Often hilarious, the album captures the era of 60s and 70s soul music in a way no other modern artists have been, continuing the vibes Anderson brought to us on his fantastic debut album earlier this year, Malibu. Knxwledge’s beats are layered with gospel vocals and brass instruments, serving as the perfect accompaniment to Anderson’s raspy, passionate and unique vocal delivery.

While the album does provide its fair share of creative and energizing musical moments, the shorter track lengths (few are longer than 3 minutes) often make the album feel more disjointed than it needs to be, frequently switching from one sound to the next instead of letting these great ideas develop further. But really, criticizing such a fun album is ridiculous.

Image result for nxworries

Having seen our fair share of collaborative projects recently, has there really been a better match than these two? Their styles, in different variations of the same realm of music, complement each other perfectly, and you can tell how much they love working together from the joy and humour in the music they create together. Anderson .Paak turns up the relatability and storytelling here, one of his greatest talents as an artist. He makes you live his experiences by pouring every inch of himself into his vocals. But instead of taking us through the streets of Compton like he did frequently on Dr. Dre’s last project, he brings us stories of romance. His diverse abilities are brought to the forefront here too: when he isn’t reviving the spirit of James Brown, he executes a pseudo-rap flow on songs like “Get Bigger/Do U Luv” and “Suede” that works perfectly on the instrumental hip-hop producer Knxwledge’s beats too.

Knxwledge most recently worked on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, bringing his retro flavour to standout track “Momma”. His ear for beats is flawless on Yes Lawd!, offering a wide and still extremely cohesive array of beats which are tailored perfectly to the vocal Anderson delivers on each track. He really does succeed at capturing the sound of an entire era, just as Bruno Mars has been doing with his recent comeback singles. Could this sound be making a welcome resurgence? “Can’t Stop” is a pretty incredible instrumental track, the only one of its kind, which offers laid-back funk sounds of prominent bass, vocoders and piano.

Some of the songs on this project are so good I could probably write a review of this length on them. Instead of writing notes on the music, I was dancing around my room. In any case, some of the highlights include “Scared Money”, which includes a perfect melodic chorus from Anderson, less raspy than usual but perfect for the specific track. The instrumental loops more of Anderson’s harmonized vocals, and a sampled disco guitar  which sounds strangely like the melody of “The Hustle”. This is a hypnotic track which transports you back a few decades. “Lyk Dis” sees Anderson lost in the moment of passion, singing blissfully about his partner over shimmering synths and a steadily swung, knocking beat. The harmony on final chorus line “Everything you do, oh when you do it” makes me scrunch up my face every time. More instantly danceable and hip-hop influenced tracks “Link Up” and “Suede” come from a previous EP by the duo, but still fit into this album perfectly. And a special mention must be given to “Jodi”, which barely exceeds a minute and is criminally short. The doo-wop influence and funk bassline are absolutely beautiful, and Anderson’s brief lines yearning for Jodi, “A friend of mine” are very real.

Image result for anderson paakAnderson .Paak is a master of soul

Another interesting aspect is the humour presented in the form of half-skit, half-songs on the project. It is rare that humour is executed well on an album without taking the listener out of the experience and interrupting the flow of the album briefly, and they manage to pull it off here. Offering something like “H.A.N.”, a gospel sermon praying for certain individuals who are of annoyance to Anderson, provides a goofy concept which is still wrapped up in the overall sound of the album, turning the humour into a complement rather than a distraction.

Certainly, some tracks could have been cut from the album – you can easily tell when Anderson is into the song, and he sounds less so on some of the tracks filling up the middle like “Khadijah” and “Starlite”. Although the album is never tiresome to listen to, songs flowing into each other perfectly, a cut down album of the very best of the best would be even more of a pleasant surprise. However, the fact that these two talents got together and worked so extensively to bring this sound back from the dead, and did it so well, is an incredible achievement in and of itself.

Yes Lawd! brings hip-hop and R&B music reliant on soul samples back in a way that hasn’t been done since Kanye West’s early work. This is an incredibly cohesive project, and if you are a fan of any style of music under the large soul umbrella I can not recommend this enough. The execution is flawless, and one can only hope this collaboration was more than a side project.

Favourite Tracks: Scared Money, Link Up, Lyk Dis, Suede, What More Can I Say

Least Favourite Track: Livvin

Score: 9/10

Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine

Image result for mac miller the divine feminineMac Miller takes a complete sonic left turn on this project. He abandons the goofy frat-rap which cluttered many of his past releases for a take on smooth and romantic hip-hop music, taking more of an influence from alternative R&B and jazz. Miller actually showcases his singing voice for the first time on many songs on this album, and the results are surprisingly great. New partner Ariana Grande’s influence is all over The Divine Feminine, from the string section-backed introduction (which is begun by Grande stating the album’s title over of a flurry of her giggles) to the catchy hooks scattered throughout. Although Miller still can’t avoid throwing in some cringeworthy lines here and there, this is a stunning improvement over all of his previous work. Here’s to hoping that this is an evolution of his sound, rather than an experimental side project.

While Grande is certainly quite present on the album — she is the subject matter of most of its songs, after all — it would appear that Miller’s biggest influence for going ahead with this idea was Kendrick Lamar’s sprawling opus To Pimp A Butterfly. He doesn’t exactly make much of an attempt to disguise this, either. Many of Lamar’s main collaborators appear on the album, including Bilal, Cee Lo Green and producer Tae Beast, while Lamar himself appears on the hook of closing track “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty”.

Image result for mac miller

Tracks like “Stay” and “Skin” are dominated by a freeform saxophone player, and Miller actually drops a few references to the album sporadically in his bars. Being heavily influenced by Grande and Lamar, two of the most talented artists in the music industry at the moment, is shown to have had an overwhelmingly positive effect.

As someone who could never get into his music before, seeing Miller flex his creative muscles is fantastic to see. Some of its more experimental qualities make it stand out among the pack. Two of its songs, for example, exceed 8 minutes in length and never get boring. “Cinderella” and the aforementioned “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty” are musically interesting enough, more so because of the instrumental than Miller, to carry a song for this length. “God Is Fair” closes the album out with an extended solo done by none other than Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Robert Glasper — the fact that he now fits on a Mac Miller album is quite hilarious — before the story arc of the album is wrapped up nicely by Miller’s grandmother telling the story of her relationship with her husband in a similar vein to Grande’s briefer implementation of the same thing on her 2013 track “Daydreamin”.

“Cinderella”, on the other hand, is so excellent it deserves a paragraph all to itself. Certified club banger craftsman DJ Dahi tones it down a bit here, but not so much as to lose his recognizable sound. The instrumental itself is rather basic, but good enough to be enjoyable for the entire 8 minutes all the same. He places a speedy, drum-n-bass influenced beat over a smooth, looping piano line, creating a perfect environment for not only Miller, but surprise show-stealing feature Ty Dolla $ign as well. Ty’s raspy voice on the extended hook really is the song, displaying impressive vocal runs while singing convincingly  about how he’s been “waiting all year for this moment” – the chance to be with a certain girl.

Image result for mac miller ariana grandeMiller and girlfriend Ariana Grande

The album is not entirely perfect. Some ideas go a bit off the rails, but do not detract too much from the album as a whole because it all ties together conceptually. Intro “Congratulations” could have been shorter, rather than extending to a full 4 minute track. Mac’s extremely laid back delivery works well with the string arrangement for a while, but ultimately the delivery he provides with his lovestruck act gets boring in the context of a full song. “Soulmate”, as well, shows too many ideas colliding. The song is too cluttered to be effective, both musically and idea-wise – the beat switch leading into the track’s second half is uncharacteristically poorly executed.

The highs, however, are extremely high. Previously released single “Dang!” recruits R&B/funk singer Anderson .Paak for a breezy and infectious dance number, complete with a bright horn section (which hilariously blares in time with Miller’s rhythm on the line “I just think that’s some bulls**t”) and chanted breakdown. It serves as a much better hip-hop counterpart to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” than Macklemore’s “Downtown” ever could. “My Favourite Part”, featuring the omnipresent Grande, sees Miller going into full soul singer mode to accompany Grande’s effortless vocals on a smooth downtempo song produced by Miller himself.

Standing at 10 tracks but never feeling too short, The Divine Feminine is a giant leap forward for Mac Miller. The fact that the project originated as an even shorter EP before being extended to album length slightly worries me, as it shows that Miller likely viewed this only as a side project. However, since the results were this excellent, I can only hope that it will be met with enough widespread acclaim that Miller might consider continuing down this path. At least sing on the next album, Mac!

Favourite Tracks: Dang!, Cinderella, My Favourite Part, Skin, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Soulmate

Score: 8/10