Rapid Fire Reviews (2 Chainz, Maren Morris, Juice WRLD)

Image result for 2 chainz rap or go to the league2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Usually one of the most cartoonish and comedic faces in rap, 2 Chainz’s fifth studio album Rap Or Go To The League – apparently executive produced by basketball star LeBron James – sees him dial the punchline bars back and address some more serious issues, all while maintaining the vibrant personality we know him for. A lot of Chainz’s recent work has been seriously inconsistent, but this project is a huge improvement, showing sides of him that we’ve never seen before and varying his instrumentals a lot more. With the addition of a litany of great guests, there’s always something surprising around the corner on this project. It’s definitely his most well-rounded work yet, even if there are a couple moments where we’re reminded that 2 Chainz is far from the most technically gifted rapper out there.

The project opens with the lengthy and contemplative slow burner “Forgiven” which emphasizes the themes behind the album’s title, signifying to the listener that this isn’t exactly the same 2 Chainz we’ve gotten in the past. It opens with a recording of Chainz being announced in a basketball starting lineup before speaking from the perspective of his younger self reflecting on gun violence in his neighbourhood, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and thinking that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. A spoken word piece emphasizes the way others view the value of black people before the track ends with a police siren and a gunshot. It’s an incredibly heavy start to a 2 Chainz album, and it’s certainly some very compelling material especially coming from the less rhythmic, more confessional delivery Chainz is known for. Chainz’s heavier material is concealed by some fun instrumentals as the project goes on, transitioning to the beautiful soul sample of “Threat 2 Society” that continues retelling his upbringing.

The opening run of 4 tracks is very strong, especially the celebratory “Money In The Way” that combines trap hi-hats with an OutKast-esque horn section. It’s essentially a giant flex that exists outside the more mature themes of the project, but the unbridled joy that can creep into 2 Chainz’s delivery at times is one of the greatest things about him – it’s great to hear him on these more soulful instrumentals after going full minimalist trap recently. Young Thug and Travis Scott actually show up on the next two tracks, but they’re easily some of the weakest here because 2 Chainz’s personality should never be restrained by a basic trap framework – “High Top Versace” and “Whip” fit in most with what’s going on at the moment, and I had been enjoying Chainz switching it up more until that point.

2 Chainz seriously went all-out with his guests on this project, and most of them seriously elevate these tracks. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Kendrick Lamar’s lower-key appearance on the experimental and quirky trap banger “Momma I Hit a Lick”, but this has become my most played track on this project by far. I absolutely love how much these two switch up their flows and voices as the track goes on, it fits with just how weird that instrumental is. The track is such an exhilarating, trippy experience … when that unsettling extra synth comes in halfway through Lamar’s verse? Perfect. “Rule The World” with Ariana Grande is another excellent track, dropping right into Grande’s wheelhouse with a throwback 90s piano jam. Grande knocks the chorus out of the park and paves the way for Chainz to come in and complete the picture with some smooth bars as he dedicates the track to his wife, who he married last year. It’s great that these two have connected so well after the whole “7 Rings” controversy too – Chainz even introduces the track “I Said Me” with a sample of the original Sound of Music tune. We get a couple more great verses at the end from Lil Wayne and E-40 on the retro track “2 Dollar Bill” and even the odd combination of Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black on the track “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is” – even if that hook from Chainz drones on a bit.

Even with all the features, my favourite track of all on this project might be the solo track “NCAA”, which is essentially the perfect storm of goofy 2 Chainz lines, the themes of the album, and a huge adrenaline shot of an instrumental. “Who me?” 2 Chainz grins at the beginning. “I take this open beat”. Then it drops, and each line is more ridiculous – in a good way – than the last. The gang vocals of the chorus roar in, serving as both a criticism of the mentality Chainz introduces on the first track and the most genuinely thrilling moment on the whole project.

Rap Or Go To The League essentially brings together all the best things about 2 Chainz, and then adds a surprising degree of poignant political commentary on top of it all. There are certainly quite a few moments where his weaknesses as an actual rapper are exposed, but this is one of the most simultaneously fun and important rap projects in a while.

Favourite Tracks: NCAA, Momma I Hit A Lick, Money In The Way, Rule The World, Threat 2 Society

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

An image of Morris lying down on a bed of leaves while holding a pink flower, wearing a pink bikini top and yellow fur coat.Maren Morris – GIRL

The latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, Maren Morris’ sophomore album GIRL is here after breaking through to the mainstream with a Zedd collaboration. If Morris was going to pop, there were a lot of worse ways she could have done it. Superproducer Greg Kurstin shows up sporadically across this project, and someone like him knows exactly how to maximize the potential of Morris’ powerhouse vocals. She doesn’t abandon her country roots entirely either, with a couple of tracks still fully in that lane, but honestly Morris is most exciting here going in a pop/soul direction. Despite a few awkward lyrical shortcomings, GIRL for the most part evades the sophomore curse.

The opening title track is one of Kurstin’s, and it’s certainly a strong way to kick it off. Most of Morris’ instrumentation is still slightly twangy and guitar-driven, but the vocals on top of it are undeniably pop. We get a couple of pretty standard chord progressions here, but what we’re really being introduced here is the soulfulness in Morris’ vocals as she attacks some high notes and harmonies before dropping into an anthemic and uplifting chorus. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s not a lot that voice couldn’t carry. The real crossover fun starts on the next track, “The Feels”, featuring an old-school bouncy country guitar riff and an electric finger-snap pattern that’s used perfectly when the instrumental drops out for a full two counts, Morris storming back to hit a huge note that kicks off the chorus with a rapid-fire swung delivery. It’s about as perfect of a marriage between her two styles while keeping her infectious and playful spirit that I could have imagined. “Gold Love” is another one that does it pretty well, mostly a catchy, somewhat soulful pop track, but it features a brief country breakdown where Morris drops her vocals down for a quick break that keeps it interesting.

Most of the greatest tracks here are actually Morris going full soulful R&B diva, however. She’s got the vocals to flit through some seriously impressive vocal runs and a full range that not a lot of her country contemporaries do, and when they’re applied to something as direct as a track like the doo-wop inspired “Make Out With Me”, it’s pretty moving. Morris is out here to take exactly what she wants, and you can hear it through the power and conviction in her vocals – she attacks her biggest notes with some country gravel! The best track of all is “RSVP”, hiding in the back half of the album. The track also plays into the more sensual side of Morris’ vocal tone, simultaneously assertive and inviting, but the energy provided by the trap hi-hats and that layered, harmonized chorus that shows off the best parts of her high range make it an easy standout.

Some of the most overtly country tracks on here do fit in well with Morris’ energy, but I can’t help agreeing with the pop producers who initiated this change in feeling that the tone of her voice was meant more for another style. Of course, as the “yeehaw agenda” creeps further and further into pop culture, it’s a lot of fun to hear Morris collaborate with the Brothers Osborne, who have just about the most traditional country vocals going right now, but their juxtaposition feels a little too far removed, and when Morris is given huge vocal moments that require the heavier country instrumentation to stop it feels like they’re trying to hard to mix genres – it works better just hearing her natural accent on a melody more suited to her vocal style.

There are quite a few tracks where Morris and her collaborators are embracing a more country-based singer-songwriter storytelling style of lyrics as well that feels somewhat inauthentic. Morris clearly has a lot of fun portraying the disruptive, flirtatious party girl, and hearing her sing something like the starry-eyed, acoustic “A Song for Everything” makes my eyes roll just a bit. Although “Common”, her duet with Brandi Carlile, is pretty fantastic! Their harmonies together give me goosebumps, Carlile’s natural ruggedness and emotion anchoring Morris’ cleaner high notes. On the other hand as well, a track like “Great Ones” is a nice track with more poetic lyrical content as well – for whatever reason, I always love when country artists take a lyrical concept that’s typical to their genre, usually religion for Morris, and use it in an entirely different context. The last couple tracks on the project are a nice calm-down, especially “To Hell & Back”, a well-written country pop melody that once again frames some great areas of Morris’ voice.

I’d love to see Morris work with an even wider range of more pop-oriented producers in the future, because this crossover is a pretty solid effort that could easily be expanded upon – I hope something from this project eventually catches on at pop radio! Morris’ soulful vocals are the shining centerpiece, with a couple outstanding tracks I’ll be returning to a lot.

Favourite Tracks: RSVP, The Feels, Make Out With Me, Common, To Hell & Back

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

Image result for death race for loveJuice WRLD – Death Race For Love

Juice WRLD, and the movement that he takes up de facto leadership of in the wake of some unfortunate losses, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical phenomena going on right now. His brand of melodic emo-trap, taking the energy and spirit of mid-2000s pop punk and funneling it into a modern hip-hop context, is a combination that I never could have anticipated having such a profound impact on so many listeners. After exploding into the mainstream with “Lucid Dreams”, Juice’s sophomore project is here – and apparently, he made it in only 4 days. With a length running well over an hour, I was dreading going into this project – more often than not, the melodramatics of the genre aren’t really for me – but Juice WRLD honestly pulls things off pretty well here. The album is still way too long and loaded with filler tracks and questionable lyrics, but Juice’s ear for melody and refreshing musical presence fills out Death Race for Love with more hits than misses.

The project opens with one of its strongest, “Empty” – Juice is honestly at his best when he leans furthest into the pop-punk direction his delivery is so clearly lovingly inspired by, rather than coming at it trying to make a hip-hop or a trap song first and foremost. We get this somber piano loop and a rather subdued section of hi-hats as Juice drops this catchy but overwhelmingly dark chorus on top, nailing that emo inflection in the process and just making me marvel at how well this collision of genres works. “I was put here to lead the lost souls”, he sings, and judging by the way people have received his work, he’s not too far off. These young artists who drop lyrics like Juice does have found a unique way to connect with people and open up about depression in an eye-opening and vivid way. The only track that does this pop-punk-with-a-trap-beat thing better might be the single “Robbery”, where Juice drops his catchiest and most heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery chorus yet over a legitimately beautiful twinkling piano instrumental. This genuinely could have been something like a Simple Plan song from the early 2000s, and it’s so fascinating to hear.

“Fast” is another one that people immediately gravitated to when this dropped, and it absolutely sounds like a smash hit. There’s a kind of glossy sheen on it that makes it sound like an inescapable Post Malone track, but Juice’s softer singing voice is honestly really nice to hear. I also really appreciate how Juice opts to switch things up a bit, it would have been easy to fall into one sound across a long and boring hour and 12 minutes, but there are a couple surprises like the tracks “Syphilis” and “Ring Ring” along the way. The former sounds like an XXXTENTACION tribute, Juice pulling off the hyper-aggressive scream-rap style a lot better than I would have expected, while the latter teams up with electronic artist Rvssian for a bass-heavy and filtered track with crunchy guitars and another great hook.

There’s a lot about Juice that might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I think I’ve listened to “Lucid Dreams” enough at this point to get it. Quite a few of these songs open and seem a little disjointed and messy, but then something about the melody Juice sings, or his cadence, or just how earnest about it he is, clicks together and sticks in your brain. A song like “HeMotions” (awful title aside) seems like an obvious skip at the start with his spacey and awkward “muddy emotions” hook that features an emoji reference in the first of a line of pretty bad lyrics across the whole project, but it seriously sneaks up on you as the beat adapts to fit it by the end of the track.

With a largely improvisational and overlong hip-hop album, there was bound to be quite a lot that falls completely flat. “Big” is the first huge miss on the project, and really makes it clear that a lot of this project was improvised on the spot while not completely sober. There are a lot of videos where Juice makes it clear just how impressive of a freestyler he is, but on these looser tracks his melodies go out the window, killing his biggest strength of all. He essentially becomes a below-average Auto-Tuned mumble rapper with a couple awkward moments trying to shoehorn too many words into a bar. Juice sometimes has a tendency to put some of his most off-putting lyrics directly in his choruses, and elongating that “gorgeous” in “Flaws & Sins” so much he sounds almost country is probably the worst offender here. Most of the 2nd half of the album is considerably weaker, with more than a few tracks where the charm that’s barely holding things together finally gives out and Juice’s lack of musical ability is really revealed – tracks like “Desire”, “10 Feet” and “Rider” are pretty headache-inducing and could easily have been cut.

Juice is a young and inconsistent artist still trying to find his footing, but its undeniable how many people he’s able to genuinely reach out to and comfort. It’s really looking like his is the next major wave in music going forward, and I’m sure he’ll only improve with time.

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Ariana Grande, Broods, Luis Fonsi)

I’ve been gone for a while but my school commitments are once again slowing down and I’ll be able to catch back up to the present with some quick posts here. I just completed my first year at journalism school and will be writing music reviews in major publications this summer! Here are my thoughts on some February albums:

Image result for ariana grande thank u next albumAriana Grande – thank u, next

It’s great to take a look at this album a couple months after its release, seeing just how much of a cultural impact it’s had. Ariana Grande is the pop star of the moment for a reason – she switched up her release schedule for a world reliant on streaming, dropping two stellar albums in the span of 6 months, and succeeded in turning the worst year of her life into so much success by shattering the fourth wall, being so human, vulnerable and incredibly specific about it and using her music as therapy for both her and her audience. Grande has flawlessly taken control of her narrative and become a pop star for the social media age – and oh yeah, the music is pretty great too.

“imagine” is a pretty perfect opening track, reminiscing on the perfection of her relationship with Mac Miller before delivering the crushing blow in the chorus – “imagine a world like that”. The track returns to her R&B roots more than almost any single she’s dropped since 2013, even bringing back her mindblowing whistle tones at the conclusion of the song. It’s a very touching tribute, but in terms of emotion that Grande was able to put into these tracks from her personal life, there’s nothing like “ghostin”. I honestly think this might be her greatest track of her career, even if I might not want to give it repeat listens because it’s just so profoundly sad. Opening with a sample of Miller’s song “2009”, the last song he ever performed live, Grande sounds like she’s on the verge of tears at all times as she sings about worrying that her grief over Miller’s death is hurting then-fiancé Pete Davidson. The track is beautifully somber and ethereal, Grande even referencing a couple of Miller’s lyrics from his love songs to her that make it all the more emotional.

The tracklisting has some of her classic upbeat, Max Martin-produced pop material as well, but a lot of it is now tinged with some depressing and self-destructive lyrics, like Sweetener’s dark cousin displaying the hidden underbelly of Ariana’s perspective on romance after her split from Davidson. “bloodline” and “bad idea” are both certified bangers, the former riding an enormous horn section in the chorus and the latter possessing a skittering trap beat and what is easily the catchiest and most radio-ready chorus here. However, both of them also see Grande at her most cynical as she throws the ideals of her previous albums away, denying the existence of true love and following through with an impulsive hook-up despite knowing it’ll likely make her even more emotionally distraught later. In between them is “fake smile”, which really sums up everything Grande is feeling perfectly – she finally puts down her façade, saying that after what she’s been through she can’t pretend that she’s feeling fine anymore. “F**k a fake smile”, she dismissively sings, the track dropping into a fantastic tropical groove as Grande once again turns her despair to a message of strength and persistence. The track “NASA”, as well, is the one that’s really been stuck in my head the most through all of this time, Grande drawing out that “staaaar, space” in one of the most powerful vocal moments here.

From the start of her career, I’ve always wanted Grande to evolve into a Whitney Houston-esque figure due to the sheer technical ability she possesses, but after hearing these back-to-back albums, this is exactly where she belongs. She’s found her voice, and even when she’s not delivering the biggest vocal moments, she sounds incredibly comfortable and at home on this new blend of laid-back trap, pop and R&B. Tracks like “needy” and “in my head” have her perfectly in her element, not being pushed into any corners and sounding incredibly natural speaking the truth of her experiences.

Then, of course, there’s the 1-2-3 punch of singles that close the project. “thank u, next” was an enormous, undeniably powerful surprise, a gracious break-up anthem that preaches learning from the pain and coming out stronger for it, and it still easily stands out here as Grande’s inspiring modus operandi. “7 Rings” is now Grande’s most successful song, an essential perfection of the trap-pop formula that is the necessary flex after the courteous “thank u, next”.

It’s tough to decide which is Grande’s best work, but making something this cohesive that catapulted Grande to the forefront of the public consciousness in only 6 months easily puts thank u, next in serious conversation. Most importantly, this is Grande at her most authentic, and you can tell. This one’s for the year end list.

Favourite Tracks: ghostin, thank u next, NASA, bad idea, fake smile

Least Favourite Track: make up

Score: 9/10

Image result for dont feed the pop monsterBroods – Don’t Feed The Pop Monster

Broods, the New Zealand sibling pop duo and rare recipient of a perfect score on this website, release their third studio album Don’t Feed the Pop Monster and switch up their style in the process. Staying true to the album’s title, this latest project has less of the polished, clean 80s pop shimmer that coloured their last album Conscious and instead opts for a raw, sometimes experimental sound with more distortion. Bringing back superproducer and countryman Joel Little for a couple of tracks, the siblings’ knack for sharp pop songwriting is still here, but the success of the duo’s new sound is inconsistent.

The opening track “Sucker” could have easily been mistaken for a track on their last album, with the same pulsating synthbass notes and breathy lead vocal from Georgia Nott – until it goes in a completely different sonic direction once the chorus hits. The track doesn’t explode into an immediately memorable, celebratory pop hook like you’d expect it to, the rhythms of the percussion actually getting more complex while the synth chords distort. It’s clear that they were going for something a little more immersive and psychedelic with most of this album, I’m just not sure it delivers the same thrills I’ve come to expect from the band in the past, however listenable it remains. Most of these tracks are still pretty good regardless, they just don’t play to the band’s greatest strengths. The lead single “Peach” should have let us know that the band was going to take things to a weirder place – the track rapidly switches between multiple different sections that don’t complement each other particularly well, the tempo increasing with those annoying pitched-up vocals in the pre-chorus taking me out of it every time.

The tracks “Everytime You Go” and “To Belong” demonstrate even more ambition, each stretching over 5 minutes in length. The former is actually quite engaging, Georgia’s haunting higher register echoing sparsely around a driving and upbeat interlocking percussion section that switches up enough to keep me interested, but “To Belong” is one of those repetitive songs that pick a single motif and build the instrumental out around it for far too long. A couple of these tracks actually have more of a rock edge, featuring more traditional drum patterns and guitar chords at the forefront of the mix, and although the songwriting remains the same catchy pop material, the combination with a heavier instrumental doesn’t fit as well as their more synth-oriented material. Georgia Nott’s vocals are so beautiful in their breathy subtlety, and on tracks like “Dust” and “Old Dog” the best aspects of her voice are drowned out in the mix – even if the tracks themselves are still pretty excellently structured. The dreamy, almost doo-wop sound of the closing track “Life After” hits the perfect sweet spot in showing off her vocals – it’s a perfect way to send listeners off as her voice fades into the vintage crackle and an orchestra.

“Why Do You Believe Me?” might be my favourite track here, the instrumental taking a more minimal approach as we get these computerized yet complex harmonies from Georgia over some of the most traditionally warm and welcoming synthpop chords here and huge percussion fills – it sounds like you put an entire HAIM track through Prismizer. I don’t often like voices as perfect as Georgia’s being put through so many effects but the sound somehow fits with their spacier new material, returning even stronger on a track like “Falling Apart” – the call and response section towards the end of the track is another standout on the album. “Hospitalized” is another track that I can’t help but love and perhaps the best execution of some of the duo’s quirkier tendencies that they explored on the project – the chorus is delivered in a carefree and confident rapid-fire, the walking bassline going mad in the back as Georgia sings of her self-destructive nature, her vocals fittingly getting chopped up by the end.

If the score doesn’t match the review, it’s just because Conscious has set my expectations so high that even the perfectly solid pop album in front of me feels like a bigger disappointment than it should. There’s a lot that’s still far ahead of their contemporaries here. However, it’s strange that the duo doesn’t seem to like Conscious at all, not playing it at their shows. A lot of artists treat “pop” like a dirty word – what’s wrong with feeding the monster?

Favourite Tracks: Why Do You Believe Me?, Life After, Falling Apart, Hospitalized, Everything Goes (Wow)

Least Favourite Track: Peach

Score: 7/10

Image result for luis fonsi vidaLuis Fonsi – VIDA

It feels strange reviewing an album with “Despacito” on it in April 2019, but here we are. As we’ve seen over the past few years, Latin music has been slowly but surely securing its placement in the trendy sounds of the mainstream. Nobody came with a more Earth-shattering hit than the veteran Luis Fonsi, who finally has a full album to back it up after becoming a household name. Fonsi doesn’t break any new ground here, “Despacito” remaining one of the better tracks on this collection, but his powerful voice certainly surprises at times especially on a couple of the ballads.

“Sola” immediately drops into a familiar reggaeton sound and minimal, tropical-sounding acoustic chords, Fonsi coasting off the strength of his vocals despite there not being much to the song itself, what’s intended to be the catchiest part of the chorus reverting to a single, repeated note and syllable. “Apaga La Luz” fares a little better, switching up a couple of the rhythmic patterns with the guitar and bringing in a little bit of an electronic edge as the chorus drops despite the same reggaeton beat as Fonsi triumphantly reaches up into his falsetto as he delivers the title – meaning “turn off the lights”. While a couple of the most generic tracks open the project, there are also a couple gems to be discovered later.

Before “Despacito”, Fonsi was actually mostly known for his emotional and passionately delivered ballads, and there’s no shortage of tracks to uphold his reputation here. “Le Pido Al Cielo” is the first one on the tracklisting, and the track honestly sounds pretty timeless, like it belongs in a Disney movie or something. Fonsi’s voice is surprisingly pretty incredible, endlessly expressive and communicating the emotions of the song to me despite the language barrier. His higher range is what really sells the song though, showing off some impressively belted harmonies mixed perfectly into the back for a solid foundation. The chorus was strong enough already, but dropping back everything but the percussion for the finale puts the track over the edge. “Dime Que No Te Iras” is another, stripped back to just the piano to put Fonsi’s voice more in the spotlight, instead displaying some of the contrasting aspects as he alternates between a breathy, almost whispered vibrato and a full-voiced knockout chorus.

Fonsi brings out a roster of pretty engaging guests as well – fellow superstar Ozuna guests on “Imposible”, which is a pretty fun duet despite sounding essentially like Despacito 2 – it’s nice to hear the interaction between the raspier Ozuna and the full-voiced Fonsi. “Echame La Culpa” with Demi Lovato is almost as old as “Despacito”, but bringing someone else with this much sheer vocal power on board was a smart move, the two combining for some great tropical harmonies. “Calypso” is another summery track that offers more of the same, but it’s interesting to hear two cultures with similar sounds come together when the Jamaican Stefflon Don appears on the track.

Most of the rest of the tracks here don’t offer much to comment on – most sounds that explode into the public consciousness quickly ultimately develop a formula that becomes easy and effective to follow and this is no exception. Tracks like “Poco A Poco” and certainly get me to nod my head, but there’s almost nothing that distinguishes them from most of the other Latin tracks that blow up. “Tanto Para Nada” might be the best of the more generic bunch, a slower-paced song that suddenly drops a trap beat and a ridiculously catchy guitar pattern onto the chorus.

VIDA is more dynamic than I expected it to be after the runaway success of a single song, as Fonsi partially succeeds in delivering something more than 11 more Despacitos. The guy has been at it for a long time and there’s certainly a lot about him to like, but most of this is too safe to truly excite.

Favourite Tracks: Le Pido Al Cielo, Dime Que No Te Iras, Despacito, Tanto Para Nada

Least Favourite Track: Sola

Score: 6/10

BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2018

Music in 2018 can be mostly defined by the continued rise in prominence of hip-hop, taking over from rock as the most listened to genre for the first time. As both a rather limitless, rule-free form creatively and a way to express protest, almost every genre drew elements from hip-hop this year. We also got a huge number of high-profile releases as the album form slowly evaporates and artists become more prolific. A Spotify playlist of this list is linked at the bottom of the article!

Here are my favourite songs from the huge tide of great music we got this year.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – a lot (Ft. J. Cole)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Party For One
  • The Carters – SUMMER
  • The Decemberists – Sucker’s Prayer
  • Denzel Curry – SWITCH IT UP | ZWITCH 1T UP
  • Johnny Balik – Honey
  • Lil Wayne – Dedicate
  • Migos – Narcos
  • ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Saudi & Kendrick Lamar – X
  • Vince Staples – FUN!

50. Mac Miller – 2009

Image result for mac miller swimmingThe last song Mac Miller ever performed live, his look back on his career and personal growth over some uplifting piano chords took on an added level of meaning after his passing.

49. Hozier – Nina Cried Power (Ft. Mavis Staples)

Hozier recruits one of the greatest to pay tribute to artists who recorded impactful protest songs throughout history, backed up by some soulful choral vocals.

48. Twenty One Pilots – Morph

Image result for twenty one pilots trenchThe band finally perfects their manic genre-mixing, creating a rollercoaster of a track that flawlessly shifts through eerie rap verses, an 80s pop chorus and even some tropical house elements.

47. The Internet – Hold On

Image result for the internet hive mindA 6-minute slow burn, Steve Lacy’s instantly recognizable guitar work is entrancing throughout as Syd’s soothing vocals complete the picture.

46. Maggie Rogers – Light On

HIIAPL Maggie Rogers.jpgSuperproducer Greg Kurstin strikes again with an exciting rising star, as Rogers blends her near-gospel sensibilities with a more traditionally structured pop track.

45. Hayley Kiyoko – Curious

Image result for hayley kiyoko expectationsFeaturing a pretty perfectly structured pop chorus, Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals stuck with me throughout the whole year.

44. Amy Shark – The Slow Song

Image result for amy shark love monsterAmy Shark’s incredibly specific yet overwhelmingly relatable lyrics, in combination with her blend of hip-hop influenced beats with her softer singer/songwriter tone, reach their peak on this emotional ode to looking out at that one person across the dance floor.

43. Anderson .Paak – Cheers (Ft. Q-Tip)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardOn the closing track of  .Paak’s Oxnard, he teams up with the capable Q-Tip to reminisce on good times with their recently departed friends – Mac Miller and Phife Dawg – over some hard-hitting synth-funk chords.

42. Pusha T – The Games We Play

Image result for daytona pusha tI could never get tired of the griminess in Pusha T’s vocal delivery. His energy is in top form here, dropping non-stop bars of  vivid imagery and clever wordplay.

41. Joji – SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK

Image result for joji ballads 1A complete evolution from the former absurdist comedian, Joji’s take on the current trend of moody alt-R&B features some absolutely beautiful and explosive digitized synth tones that support his emotionally charged delivery.

40. BROCKHAMPTON – NEW ORLEANS

Image result for iridescenceThe rap collective opens their first major label studio album with a bang. The off-the-wall group trade some equally bombastic verses over a supercharged instrumental.

39. Nao – Another Lifetime

Image result for nao saturnRecorded after a breakup, hearing this much genuine emotion in Nao’s usually calm and collected vocal tone is incredibly moving as she sings about the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime connection.

38. Bas – Purge

Image result for bas milky wayOne of my biggest growers this year, the Dreamville rapper’s speedy flow and switch-ups are top-notch as he easily navigates through an entertaining and soulful sample flip.

37. Ariana Grande – God is a woman

Image result for sweetener coverWhen I saw the video for the first time I became convinced that this would slowly grow into one of Grande’s most memorable career songs years down the road. The choral ending of this track is truly transcendent.

36. Kero Kero Bonito – Make Believe

Image result for kero kero bonito time n placeOne of the most similar tracks to their earlier work on the experimental pop collective’s latest, heavier project, Sarah Bonito’s adorable voice is at its best over some colourful and animated synth tones.

35. James Bay – Pink Lemonade

Image result for james bay album coverAn energetic retro-pop track featuring Bay’s new, more upbeat style over some crunchy guitars and a conclusion with some seriously catchy harmonized chants.

34. BTS – Paradise

Image result for bts love yourself tearWestern pop music watch out – the K-pop invasion is coming over quickly. The wildly popular boy band applies some aspects of 90s West Coast hip-hop to this track.

33. Jack White – Corporation

Image result for jack white boarding house reachA lengthy, mostly instrumental monster of a track – I was so happy to observe White doing something so  innovative and different with the rock and roll format. This is White at his most theatrical, embodying some sort of deranged preacher.

32. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – Reborn

Image result for kids see ghosts“Keep moving forward”. The centrepiece of the spectacular Kids See Ghosts album, Kanye West and Kid Cudi lean on each other for support as they discuss their respective mental health issues.

31. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel

Image result for dirty computerFeaturing a guitar riff produced by Prince himself, Janelle Monae proves she’s the closest living artist with this slick and sensual synth-funk track.

30. J. Cole – Kevin’s Heart

Image result for kod j coleOn an album where J. Cole talks about the dangers of giving yourself over to various addictions, love proves the strongest drug of all as Cole embodies a character struggling with fidelity – with a fun videogame-esque beat and some serious technical skill to back it up.

29. Lauren Jauregui – Expectations

Image result for lauren jauregui expectationsThe ex-Fifth Harmony member sounds like a young Alicia Keys over a minimal beat that places the spotlight on her impressive and emotional vocal showcase. How great would her boyfriend Ty Dolla $ign sound on this soulful track??

28. Blood Orange – Saint

Image result for negro swanThe producer extraordinaire goes in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, offering a complex and jazzy musical world amplified by some great gospel-tinged harmonies – “doing the most”, as the album’s powerful theme puts it.

27. Charlie Puth – Empty Cups

Image result for charlie puth voicenotesThe song that never left my head all year, this is just a smartly structured, bouncy 90s R&B chorus from the classically trained pop singer who really surprised me this year.

26. Mitski – Nobody

Image result for mitski be the cowboyIndie-pop singer-songwriter Mitski’s voice already sounds like it belongs to another era, and the near-disco, overly energetic flavour of the instrumental here, in stark contrast with Mitski’s lyrics nearly losing her mind due to loneliness, completes the retro-pop image.

25. Cardi B – I Like It (Ft. Bad Bunny & J Balvin)

Image result for cardi b invasion of privacyLatin trap exploded into the mainstream this year, and none harnessed it better than Cardi B, recruiting two of the genre’s biggest stars. Cardi’s aggressive flow never fails to enliven me, and that sample flip is a great added touch.

24. Kim Petras – Heart To Break

Image result for kim petras heart to breakAn all-out bubblegum pop extravaganza. Petras hits some seriously impressive notes on the chorus, but the whole song moves along with this irresistible driving energy that’s hard to ignore.

23. RL Grime – Take It Away (Ft. Ty Dolla $ign & TK Kravitz)

Image result for rl grime novaI was sent to another dimension the first time I heard the drop on this track. Those deafening, steadily growing synths and well-placed silences makes it feel like someone is repeatedly firing up some kind of generator. Ty Dolla $ign is always more than capable on the mic as well.

22. Kacey Musgraves – High Horse

Image result for golden hour kacey musgravesThe country artist’s poppiest song yet, we all know someone like this song’s subject. Musgraves blends the slightest of country aspects in the instrumental with an 80s dance beat and some sharp harmonies.

21. Robyn – Because It’s In The Music

Image result for robyn honeyThe Swedish pop savant has always found the perfect way to encapsulate the feeling of crying on the dance floor, partying the pain away, and this track is no exception. The track feels like an escape, easy to get lost in the inviting musical world.

20. Ella Mai – Trip

Image result for ella mai album coverThe piano-heavy R&B track brings a classic sound back in a big way, Mai’s effortless and silky-smooth vocals commanding your attention. Something about that staccato phrasing in the hook makes the track irresistably catchy.

19. Anderson .Paak – Tints (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for oxnard album coverTwo of the most charismatic artists in the industry link up for this paranoid and humorous funk track where .Paak just wants some privacy. I absolutely love songwriter Tayla Parx’s contribution to the harmonized outro – her discography this year alone is incredible.

18. Janelle Monae – Screwed (Ft. Zoe Kravitz)

Image result for dirty computerA call for a final party before the bomb drops, this might be the most overtly political track on an already defiant and revolutionary album. The track’s title serves as a poignant double entendre, Monae sounding like she’s having the time of her life in the studio over some shiny guitar riffs.

17. Nas – Cops Shot The Kid (Ft. Kanye West)

Image result for nasirThe cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot-

16. DRAM – Best Hugs

Image result for dram that's a girls nameThe most lovable guy in the music industry is back to steal your girl – the one with the incredible hugs – and criticize you for letting her get away. My most listened-to song of the year, it’s the combination of ridiculousness and legitimately great musicality that only DRAM can pull off.

15. Camila Cabello – Consequences

Image result for camila album coverOof. This song hit me right in the feels from the first time I heard it, a sparse piano ballad where Cabello offers some deeply personal lyrics about the end of a relationship where her trust was broken beyond repair. The orchestral version released as a single just brought the tears back in full force.

14. Denzel Curry – SUMO | ZUMO

Image result for denzel ta13ooThe sheer force with which Denzel screams that second introductory “OKAY?!” signals just what kind of a punishing track lies ahead. Heavy bass rattles as the horrorcore rapper goes to work with his dexterous flow. Charlie Heat is one of the best rap producers in the game.

13. SOPHIE – Faceshopping

Image result for oil of every pearl's un-insidesI’m just now realizing that I shouldn’t have put these two tracks beside each other. Another track out to unleash a full frontal assault on the listener, the experimental producer’s work is constantly disorienting, yet connected by a recognizable, pop-influenced thread, represented here by a rhythmically spoken – and likely sarcastic – ode to materialism.

12. Troye Sivan – Dance To This (Ft. Ariana Grande)

Image result for troye sivan bloomAnother track with an unreasonable amount of plays on my personal Spotify this year, Ariana Grande tones down her usually powerhouse vocals to match the subtle yet powerful approach of Australian pop artist Troye Sivan. A perfect slow dance song straight out of the 80s, that synth hook that introduces the song makes it a grower.

11. Childish Gambino – This Is America

Image result for this is america artworkEven without the brilliant and viral music video associated with the track, Childish Gambino’s views on the state of the world presented through the intentionally inane and distracting lens of trap music is still one of the most important statements of the year – even if I wish the standalone song still had those gunshots in it.

10. Kali Uchis – Flight 22

Image result for kali uchis isolationKali Uchis has often stated that she draws heavy inspiration from Amy Winehouse, and it’s never more evident than on this track. A downtempo track that verges on dreampop, the twinkling keys and string section highlight her smooth and sensual vocal inflections.

9. Pusha T – If You Know You Know

Image result for pusha t daytonaI knew I was in for something mindblowing with the Daytona album when this was the opening track. Featuring some of the most quotable lines of the year and a crisp, chopped-up guitar sample from Kanye West, Pusha T is absolutely out for blood on this one and he doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

8. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

Image result for thank u nextAriana Grande has been having a horrible year – and this was the most brilliant way possible to address it in song form. Recorded only a few months after her Sweetener album, Grande speaks out about how she’s learned from the pain and come out better for it, thanking each one of her ex-lovers for the person she’s become. But of course, we still need that dismissive and cathartic “next”.

7. Travis Scott – SICKO MODE (Ft. Drake)

Image result for astroworldThe fact that this disjointed, endlessly creative track became a #1 hit single is nothing short of amazing. Most of Travis Scott’s latest work is as chaotic and disorienting as the amusement park it’s inspired by, and this endlessly fun rap track shifts through 3 completely different segments as Scott keeps things lively with an energetic flow. For all the average work he’s put out this year, Drake absolutely steals the show with his verse.

6. Kanye West – Ghost Town (Ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kid Cudi & 070 Shake)

Image result for ye album coverIt’s impossible not to feel something when new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake arrives on the outro of the track with her repeated and earnest mantra about freedom, breaking free from the pack. I can only imagine the experience singing it live with a crowd. The classic soul sample flip provides an excellent backbone to the track as well, West delivering some of the best singing he’s done in his career on his verse.

5. Kacey Musgraves – Rainbow

Image result for kacey musgraves golden hourI’ve always loved the complete purity in Kacey Musgraves’ vocals – she definitely has one of my favourite voices in the industry right now. The closer to her excellent Golden Hour is a lower-key track that highlights just how much emotion she can put into it as well, and it never fails to make me tear up just a little. A bittersweet track, Musgraves sings to someone who is incapable of seeing all the love they have around them.

4. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

Image result for rina sawayama cherryThe best pure pop song of the year, the always eccentric Rina Sawayama once again recruits experimental producer Clarence Clarity for an upbeat and endlessly layered track where Sawayama can’t contain her desire. Her dedication to taking the sound of early 2000s pop and modernizing it in a huge way is so engaging, those chords so familiar but twisted in such a new way as well. Every instrumental aspect of this track is a maddeningly catchy hook in and of itself.

3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – 4th Dimension

Image result for kids see ghostsWhere does Kanye find these samples? One of the most creative sample flips I’ve ever heard, this was easily the standout on one of the year’s best albums as West completely refigures a Christmas song from the 1930s for his own purposes, isolating the part of the track that has the most untapped energy and applying a driving, tribal rhythm overtop. Kid Cudi doesn’t often spit a purely rap verse, but he more than keeps up with West here.

2. Amy Shark – Don’t Turn Around

Image result for amy shark love monsterIt’s shocking how singer-songwriter Amy Shark can describe such a detailed, specific scenario in her songs that still comes across as so relatable, to the tune of some smartly written pop melodies. Shark keeps getting into situations where she’s forced to see her ex, simultaneously imagining a future whirlwind reconnection and frantically telling herself to just let it go. Some of my favourite lyrical content of the year, Shark’s unassuming vocal delivery fits the picture while her strummed acoustic chords are warm and easy to return to.

1. Janelle Monae – I Like That

Image result for dirty computerMy favourite track off of Dirty Computer, it represents the culmination of all the powerful statements of self-assertion Monae delivers across the project. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs” might be my favourite song lyric of all time. Monae might not be for everybody, but she couldn’t care less – deviation from the norm is exactly where she belongs, and if she’s the only one on board with what she’s putting forward, then that’s perfectly fine. Monae sounds effortlessly cool on the track, delivering some impressive vocal runs and even a rap verse addressing a school bully, and the repeated backup vocal line is just the perfect set of soulful chords that keeps me returning. Keep doing what you do best, Janelle.

That’s the music that got me through this year, stay tuned for my Top 25 albums of the year on Friday, when we’ll say “thank u, next” to the music of 2018.

Check out this list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/6abpgfxueTZr6FspGVIHyE

Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngFormer YouTube sensation and retro-pop rising star Troye Sivan evades the sophomore curse with his second studio album Bloom, a celebratory and confessional look at Sivan’s powerful self-expression as he details his approaches to relationships as a gay man set to the kind of pop music that inspired him growing up. Working with some of the best writers and producers in the business right now, Sivan’s honest and raw vocal delivery sells the more minimal and understated tracks, while the rest are an energetic yet captivatingly sensual pop extravaganza.

We’re immediately transported into the kind of deeply personal lyricism we’re going to get throughout the project on opening track “Seventeen”, in which Sivan reflects – with the slightest hint of regret – on having his first romantic experience through online dating at a young age with an older man. Like most of tracks here, the instrumental isn’t comprised of much more than moody, lush and cinematic synth lines that frame Sivan’s vocals in a kind of ethereal, dreamy way – save for the briefly explosive chorus where some syncopated percussion evokes an earlier era of pop music. Sivan’s descriptions of his relationships here is often viewed through a kind of idealistic sense of wonderment and discovery, and the sound of the music itself reflects this perfectly.

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Sivan’s similar single “The Good Side” has already landed on my midyear list for 2018, and examines the other side, after a relationship has come to an end, with a similarly ambiguous outlook and minimal instrumental produced by Ariel Rechtshaid. The track is a lengthy slow-burn, Sivan’s vocals at the forefront – and he doesn’t even have to do much to sound great, pouring so much emotion into every syllable. Rechtshaid’s small instrumental embellishments that pop up throughout the track do so much to paint the atmospheric world of the song, Sivan’s lyricism at its best as he details his techniques for moving on from the end of a relationship, thankful for the life he’s able to live as a famous musician, but still reminiscing on the good times and wanting to reconcile things. Troye is feeling guilty that he got “the good side” of the breakup. Sivan’s vocals reach their emotional peak on the track “Postcard”, a somber piano ballad where he duets with Australian folk singer Gordi. Sivan vividly describes a specific instance of a failure to respond to a postcard as the first instance of doubting the longterm success of a relationship. Those tiny breaks in his voice at the bottom of his range mean so much to the overall delivery, and the harmonies on the chorus when both singers finally come together are one of the most beautiful moments on the whole project.

Sivan gets more upbeat as well, as many heralded opening single “My My My!” at the start of this year. It’s a smartly structured chorus, with a persistent bassline and immediately anthemic delivery from Sivan as his vocals are layered to sound larger than life. One of the real crown jewels of the album, however, is the Ariana Grande duet “Dance To This”. The track took a long time to grow on me, but it really sneaks up on you as one of the catchiest tracks of the year. It’s yet another instance of Sivan embracing a less-is-more mentality, not pushing his vocals on us too much but drawing the listener in with that breathy, almost whispered chorus line. Grande is always a welcome addition to any track, and the two both drop into the sensual part of their range that they’re each known for, complementing each other incredibly well. The bassline is very percussive, and brings that factor of danceability they speak of to what would otherwise exist as a pretty calm and understated track. That repeated synth hook in the background sticks in your head as well – I doubt I’ll ever get tired of listening to this one.

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“Bloom” is another track that leans fully into the late-80s dancepop sound, featuring some vibrant building synth chords and a syncopated guitar riff as Sivan harmonizes overtop, once again speaking of the excitement of a first love. So much of the strengths of this album comes from the production value, which, like Sivan’s voice, is never overly flashy or too prominent, but fits the mood of the descriptive lyrics perfectly. The driving percussion on the track mirrors the kind of building anticipation that Sivan speaks of. The album loses a bit of steam as it starts to wind down to its conclusion, but there’s still some strength to every track here. Tracks like “Plum” and “Lucky Strike” are slightly redundant in sound at that point of the album, but still possess some pretty flawless dance-pop choruses, while “Animal”, which Sivan describes as an “80s stadium love song”, is a great way to ease listeners out of the project with another slow build Rechtshaid instrumental.

Bloom is one of those rare albums for me this year where I can find something to like about every track here, making the selection of a least favourite very difficult. Sivan has a very engaging mic presence, seemingly without even trying too hard to have one, and his lyrics are some of the most compelling of the year while bringing back a great retro sound with an excellent degree of cohesion.

Favourite Tracks: The Good Side, Dance To This, Animal, Seventeen, Postcard

Least Favourite Track: My My My!

Score: 9/10

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverVirtuosic R&B-pop princess Ariana Grande’s 4th studio album, Sweetener, might not be her best work yet – but it’s certainly her riskiest and most groundbreaking. With production shared between the omnipresent Pharrell Williams and old friends Max Martin and Tommy Brown, who we haven’t seen since her soulful debut, it’s the work of the former that truly distinguishes it from the rest of her work. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop beats weren’t something I could have ever foreseen working with Grande’s dynamic and powerful instrument as well as they do at times here, and while there certainly is the odd time the experimentation falls flat, Sweetener stands as Grande’s most sonically cohesive album. Along with the unashamedly joyful declarations of love in the lyrics that you can’t help but smile at, it’s an exciting step forward in her career.

While I’ve still been holding out hope for Grande to go full Whitney Houston on us and deliver some R&B power ballads, I’ll take her diverting from pop formulas and adapting more to the current hip-hop influenced state of R&B as well. The first track that truly blew me away on the project is it’s 4th song, “R.E.M”, reportedly a repurposed Beyonce demo, and Grande really does step into her role as a kind of Beyonce figure here. “You’re such a dream to me”, she sings, lowering her register and singing with what might be the calmest voice we’ve ever heard her use, getting lost in the dreamscape. She absolutely commands the instrumental, stopping it and pushing it into different sections with spoken asides and the occasional “shh”. There’s an incredible moment where Grande turns into a full a cappella group for a second, layering some notes in the middle of a verse out of nowhere. This immediately contrasts with the power of next track, “God is a woman”, which still stands out as the album’s best. The song perfectly blends Grande’s vocal power with immediately career-defining lyrical themes and the modern, upbeat sound she aims for. Her quick, confident delivery in the verses slowly builds up to some of the most impressive vocal moments of her career in its final minute, unexpectedly layering her vocals into a full choir to repeatedly proclaim the title as she riffs into the stratosphere in the forefront.

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Pharrell’s production is frequently the most interesting thing about Sweetener, pushing Grande into some unfamiliar territory where she excels all the same. Williams himself appears on “blazed”, which features a rapid-fire slap bass and quickly darting jazzy synths. For the first time, we’re not focusing completely on Grande’s voice, and she quickly proves that she can shine above a more chaotic instrumental as well, jumping out in the mix with some sudden impressive and layered harmonies and a lower-key delivery that contrasts the unique instrumental well. He and Grande both bring their more fun-loving sides to title track, “sweetener”, where Williams provides some booming percussion and synth melody reminiscent of her earlier, more cutesy work that lays the framework for a repetitive hook immediately made for dancing and a joyous, celebratory hook – it’s pure happiness in a song. Williams continues to introduce sounds I never expected on a Grande project on “successful”, built on some kind of low-pitched brass instrument, old-school hip-hop shuffling beat and a steel drum, of all things. The beat switches infuse the track with energy, and Grande sounds perfectly at home anyway as she celebrates her successes with a wink on the hook. That repeated “issa surprise” hasn’t left my head since.

It’s far from being all about Pharrell, though – “breathin” looks like a likely single candidate and is easily her most impressive purely pop track since “Into You”. Another intoxicating slow build, the first prechorus is electric as she makes some impressive vocal jumps and we wait for the track to explode. The beat drops heavy, the track cutting out at just the right moments, and we even get a roaring guitar solo overtop of it all. The combination of the two hooks at the end completely sells it. “better off” places Grande’s vocals front and centre in the mix, and it’s the closest she’s come to sounding like Yours Truly. An emotional ballad, this time Grande isn’t mourning a lost love, but standing up for herself and exiting a toxic situation. It fits in with the overall maturation displayed across the whole project. Oh yeah, and “no tears left to cry”? Still an amazing opening single.

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Of course, anyone going into a Grande album not looking primarily for her famously impressive vocals is looking in the wrong place, and there are a few times on this project where it does disappoint slightly as a specifically Grande track due to the more experimental work on the project. Single “the light is coming” never got the best reception, and while the infectious energy of the track has grown on me, the repetitive, spoken hook seems pointless for someone with so much vocal power, while Pharrell’s work on the track mirrors some of his recent N.E.R.D. work. The track “borderline”, as well, feels out of place removed from the other Pharrell cuts in the tracklisting, featuring a 20-second uninspired verse from Missy Elliott and really the only lack of an immediately catchy hook here.

By the time we close with “get well soon”, an instrumentally minimal track where Grande regathers herself mentally in the wake of the Manchester tragedy that occurred at her concert that ends with a moment of silence, it’s clear that Grande has taken time to move forward in a space that makes her happiest. The emphatic declarations of love and personal gain feel genuine, and her forays back into the genre that inspired her from the beginning are a natural step forward. Grande is still one of the most consistently impressive megastars.

Favourite Tracks: God is a woman, breathin, R.E.M, better off, sweetener

Least Favourite Track: borderline

Score: 8/10

Nicki Minaj – Queen

Image result for nicki queen coverRap superstar Nicki Minaj continues to adapt and thrive, dropping her most rap-heavy album yet, Queen. Her fourth full-length project, we see Minaj raising her defenses a bit and reverting back to her classic hip-hop tactics of biting lyricism and an always surprisingly technically proficient flow. In a world quickly becoming more accommodating to the presence of more than one wildly successful female rapper (there are 4 of them in the Billboard Top 5 at the time of this posting), Minaj reminds us why she was regarded as such a powerful force to begin with. Despite the messy rollout that accompanied the project, the best tracks here are equal parts infectiously energetic and unflinchingly tough, the two sides that have always made up her appealing persona. At 19 tracks, not everything comes together and there’s certainly some filler and material that sounds slightly dated, but the highs are fantastic.

The album opens with “Ganja Burns”, a fantastic track that places the listener in the world of the album immediately. Drawing slightly from the dancehall wave that Drake kicked off, Minaj drops a deep-voiced speedy flow that navigates through the prominent, clicking percussion perfectly and immediately sends a shot at Cardi B 30 seconds in. Her dramatic singing on the chorus adapts to the hazy acoustic guitar loop, reminding us that pop Nicki isn’t gone either – just before she starts completely annihilating her foes, as she hits us with the one-two punch of “Majesty” and “Barbie Dreams”. The former features none other than Eminem, who delivers his greatest feature verse in years, Minaj keeping up with him over the menacing siren of a low, buzzing synth – an upbeat piano chorus from Labrinth tries to interject before she cuts him off midway with more vitriol. This doesn’t compare to her coming for THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY on the next track, set to the classic instrumental of Biggie’s “Dreams” as she sends some comical, absolutely savage shots at almost every relevant rapper, outlining the reasons why none of them will see her in the bedroom – it really establishes herself as more of a classic hip-hop figure than we anticipate, and her lyricism and delivery is top notch here.

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“Chun-Li” still holds up as well, a track that perfectly plays into her over-the-top, cartoonish nature – Minaj embraces the cheese to full extent, and it works. Minaj succeeds at some of her rarer forays into pop territory here as well – the Ariana Grande-featuring “Bed” is a serviceably catchy, chill tropical pop song featuring production from Actual Reggae/Dancehall Artist Supa Dups, but “Come See About Me” really stands out. A legitimately heartfelt piano ballad, I’ve never heard Minaj’s singing this passionate, her vibrato hitting in just the right places before building up to a powerful, harmonized chorus.

The album definitely sags in the middle, quite a few of these tracks lacking the direction and energy that Minaj needs to excel – at the end of the day, most of her appeal really does come down to that expressive delivery. “Thought I Knew You”, a track with The Weeknd, doesn’t seem to know what exactly it wants to be, Minaj and Abel trading brief sections of awkwardly varying lengths, his sing-rap style not fitting at all with the poppier instrumental here – and Minaj’s stuttered chorus sounds pretty low-effort as well. “Chun Swae” extends to 6 minutes in length, Swae Lee’s lilting high-pitched delivery getting grating – though there really are some great elements of the track – that first verse is seriously technically impressive, Minaj extending a rhyme scheme to ridiculous length and then dropping into her fastest flow on the project. The features do let her down on more than one occasion here, Future delivering what might just be his worst verse of all time on paint by numbers trap cut “Sir”.

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It’s a shame that Minaj herself seems to be playing into the idea that there can only be one female rapper at the top of the game here with some of her lyrical references, since it makes a few of these tracks feel like she’s going through the motions to reassert herself in a variety of areas, and the last thing she can afford to lose is the amount of fun it always seems like she’s having. Her last-minute addition of 6ix9ine hit “FEFE” to the end of the tracklist is a move of an artist undoubtedly more interested in her numbers than her music – it shouldn’t matter if she gets this #1, and she really might not – this rap-centric album was an opportunity to prove herself through her talent more than her brand, and the segments where she does this more than she has in years are the parts that stand out. Tracks like “LLC” and “Good Form” stand out in the middle for being upbeat, characteristically quirky and off-kilter, dynamic and technically proficient.

Ultimately, Queen is a mixed bag that might possess both some of Minaj’s best and worst tracks of her career, with slightly more of the former. After seeing her take more of the pop direction over the last few years, her reminder to us all that she’s much more of a rapper than many give her credit for was certainly very welcome, but she might have lost a bit of the spark trying to do too much here.

Favourite Tracks: Come See About Me, Majesty, Barbie Dreams, Chun-Li, LLC

Least Favourite Track: Sir

Score: 6/10

Mac Miller – Swimming

Image result for mac miller swimmingAfter taking a complete stylistic left turn on his previous album The Divine Feminine, Mac Miller returns two years later with a similar jazz-rap and funk sound that sees him singing more and taking the style even further into neo-soul territory. Dedicated to then-girlfriend Ariana Grande, Miller’s sudden metamorphosis from the goofy frat-rap persona into the soulful romantic on Divine produced his most enjoyable music yet. His fifth album, Swimming, finds Miller in recovery after having lost the inspiration for the sound that coloured his previous work in the wake of his public split from Grande. While the lyrical content of the project is very compelling – Miller trying to learn to rely on himself, rather than someone else, to mend the personal issues that contributed to the split, the music itself can often feel like a more subdued, less fun version of his previous album.

We’re introduced to the album with “Come Back To Earth”, a completely sung track over some orchestral strings and a funk bassline as Miller brings listeners into the emotional state of the album, still clearly affected and looking for a way to get out of his own head, but looking ahead to an optimistic future. This transitions into “Hurt Feelings”, produced by the unusual team-up of J. Cole and Dev Hynes, who I wish brought a little bit more to the table than the extended, moody synths and standard hip-hop beat that frame Miller’s return to more of a rap angle. It’s not the most exciting track, but hearing him describe his active attempts to prevent himself from getting stuck in a rut of depression and move forward continues the theme of the album and gives it more of a hopeful spin than I expected going into the project. Swimming truly picks up on the third track, “What’s The Use?”, which reminds me of Divine Feminine standout “Dang!” with Anderson Paak. Thundercat provides his always incredible contribution to the bassline as Miller picks up a faster flow and one of the catchiest sung choruses here that features backing vocals from Syd and Snoop Dogg. The ease of Miller’s nonchalant flow over a smooth funk instrumental was one of the biggest pleasant surprises in his career progression, and it’s similarly danceable and fun here.

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“Ladders” is another great funk-influenced track here, Miller’s flow at his brightest and most forward, sounding his happiest as the synths pulse in and out and accentuate his flow. The guitar on this track almost reminds me of some old-school Justin Timberlake material, and when the brass section roars in for an instrumental bridge it puts it over the top. It’s the most complex and involved instrumental here. “Small Worlds” reminds me of the shimmering dreamscape of The Divine Feminine more than anything here, as he makes his most obvious lyrical references to Grande as he sheepishly owns up to his faults over some pretty beautiful harmonized vocals, immersing himself briefly in that perfect fantasy world for just another second. DJ Dahi and Steve Lacy team up for another upbeat standout on “Jet Fuel”, where Miller acknowledges the damage he does to himself and his interpersonal relationships due to his drug and alcohol use.

Miller’s singing has never been the best, and it gets more of a focus than ever here to detract from the experience. I understand that he was trying to be emotionally vulnerable with it, but when the instrumentals are emptier than before, driven by some simpler funk loops and giving Miller more space to shine, it exposes that he doesn’t have to voice to carry the style all on his own. It’s fine as a contrast to another part of the song, but trying to carry whole songs with his lower, flimsy vocals can tend to lose the message of the tracks here. I see a lot of people gravitating to single “Self Care”, but Miller’s falsetto chorus and sliding vocal transitions in the interludes are simply not delivered well enough to make the longer track length worth it, despite the pretty decent verses.

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Quite a few of these tracks just never really catch my attention and end unceremoniously, Miller keeping the sound that I enjoyed so much earlier but staying in the murkier lower ends of things and not reaching the euphoric heights of his other tracks in the same style, not latching onto a meaningful motif or melody. The emotion behind it is obviously different, but for all of Miller’s talk of getting out of the stage where he’s “Swimming” in his overwhelming sea of feelings, you’d think the music would reflect this hopeful angle more often. Tracks like “Perfecto” and “Wings” don’t pick themselves up off the ground musically, the instrumentals getting stuck in the watery, creeping synths and sparse percussion, Miller’s off-key choruses not doing much to help the situation despite the strength of his rapping.

Getting lost in Miller’s inner thoughts over the course of this album is a very engaging experience, especially after we saw the aftermath of what he sings about here plastered all over the internet, but if he was going to try to recapture the sound that made his last project work so well, more alterations other than an attempt to make this the sad version could have been made to improve it overall.

Favourite Tracks: Ladders, Small Worlds, What’s The Use?, Jet Fuel

Least Favourite Track: Conversation Pt. 1

Score: 6/10

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 8/10

Cashmere Cat – 9

Image result for cashmere cat 9Norwegian producer and DJ Cashmere Cat’s highly anticipated and frequently delayed debut album has finally arrived, in the wake of well-received production credits for some huge artists such as Kanye West and Ariana Grande. The high-profile appearances continue over the course of 9‘s brief runtime, as the guest vocalists attempt to adapt to the constantly shifting world Cashmere Cat outlines. People are drawn to his music due to his very experimental take on pop, sounding like the kind of thing that might be dominating the airwaves in some kind of dystopian future.

This album consistently subverts expectations, as Cashmere Cat lets his creativity run wild. However, this is not always a good thing. For the most part, this is some truly captivating and hypnotic work, but seeing as he has been fraternizing with some artists at PC Music, their trend of being so out-there that they forget the actual song lying underneath can pervade here as well.Image result for cashmere cat

Cashmere Cat’s music is full of small nuances that become an unlikely centerpiece. The tiniest electronic blip of the ringing of a bell can mean so much in the context of a Cashmere Cat song. The sound he has constructed, that could only be representative of himself, is shown in full force on 9. He seems to have a great time toying with expectations. Where you think a huge electronic drop is coming, he falls back into a calming pattern of strings or soft, beautiful synths. Where you think there might be a dominant pop chorus there is electronic distortion and chopped up vocals. He seems to have been heavily inspired by Francis and the Lights’ use of Prismizer here, as Francis himself appears on “Wild Love” and similar effects are applied to many other artists’ vocals.

Cashmere Cat seems to have been restrained to a very small degree by the presence of co-producer and pop mastermind Benny Blanco on every track here. However, the presence of experimental individuals like SOPHIE and Evian Christ is much more understandable. There are a wealth of high profile collaborators here, including massive pop stars like The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, and rising artists like Kehlani, Camila Cabello and Jhene Aiko, who sounds most like herself on closer and standout track “Plz Don’t Go”.

I really do have to commend Cashmere Cat’s creativity here. There are sounds on this project that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams to not only be part of a song, but work effectively. He definitely has a great ear and is capable of creating some truly beautiful and mesmerizing pieces of music, something that is not often characteristic of his genre. His trademark creeping synths and melodic blips provide a perfect musical background to the many layers he applies to his guests’ vocal work.

“Quit”, his third collaboration with Ariana Grande, might be the best song here, throwing a sonic wall at us as Grande’s vocals reach their pleading peak before dropping back into a subdued electronic chorus that attacks us with contemplative synths and quiet bells rather than a big bass drop. Cashmere Cat seems to work best with R&B artists rather than the pure pop singers he brings on board. Ty Dolla $ign has never sounded more soulful than when he is backed up by the pulsating synth chords and descending symphony of bells on “Infinite Stripes”, the Prismizer harmonies bringing out the dimension in his voice you never knew was there.

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Sometimes, however, Cashmere Cat’s creativity goes so far that these songs are not particularly enjoyable as a song per se, but rather an atmospheric world. “Wild Love”, at its base, is really not much more than The Weeknd crooning the song’s title, ascending and descending the scales over a simple beat and what sounds like more layers than Francis and the Lights has ever used in his career. It’s all way too much, especially with the inexplicable use of a spring sound which is slightly off beat throughout. “Love Incredible” is similarly disjointed, as Camila Cabello’s vocals are chopped up and distorted, and the energy of the song goes through so many abrupt shifts that the actual underlying thread of song structure is lost.

The title track “9 (After Coachella)” is an enigma. The song opens with featured vocalist MØ delivering the catchiest chorus on the entire album, before the reason for PC Music producer SOPHIE’s actual feature credit is revealed with a drop full of clunky metal noises. The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of the most obnoxious and terrible things I’d ever heard on a song, but upon further listens I’ve admittedly been a lot more appreciative of it when I’m in the right mood.

Cashmere Cat is showing us the future of pop music on 9, and for the most part, it looks bright. While the album as a whole supposedly went through many revisions and personnel changes, contributing to its disjointedness, is a very enjoyable journey through the weird and wonderful world of Cashmere Cat.

Favourite Tracks: Quit, Infinite Stripes, Victoria’s Veil, Plz Don’t Go, 9 (After Coachella)

Least Favourite Track: Wild Love

Score: 7/10

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”.

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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