Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

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“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

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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