Gucci Mane – Evil Genius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: By Myself

Score: 3/10

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BensBeat Top 25 albums of 2016

2016 was absolutely stacked with high-profile album releases. Somehow, it seems like everyone who matters managed to drop an album, and here are the best of the best:

Honourable mentions:

  • A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
  • DJ Khaled – Major Key
  • DJ Snake – Encore
  • Dragonette – Royal Blues
  • Fifth Harmony – 7/27
  • Logic – Bobby Tarantino
  • Savant – Vybz
  • Skylar Grey – Natural Causes
  • Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
  • The Weeknd – Starboy

25. Aphex Twin – Cheetah EP
Image result for cheetah epThe mysterious EDM producer drops the inaccessibility of his previous work, switching up his style to more closely follow the path of modern techno. 4/4 time is not something normal for Aphex Twin. Still, he imbues his boundless creativity into a few lengthy tracks.

24. Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine
Image result for the divine feminineAnother case of a complete change in style, Miller isn’t making music for parties anymore. The rapper’s influence from featured artists Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar and girlfriend Ariana Grande shows here, as he delivers a jazz and soul-influenced project which is much more complex and extravagant.

23. D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M
Image result for big baby dramLook at that cover art. The album sounds just like that. The man can do anything, and the resulting project is a blend of traditional soul music, upbeat hip-hop and humour. D.R.A.M. clearly thinks his deep, silky voice is hilarious, and uses it to make fun of the form at times.

22. Bastille – Wild World
Image result for wild world bastilleThe band expands to stadium status, as they create a balance between staying true to the pulsating synthpop sound that made the band a household name, and expand their influences to continue to innovate as they’ve done in the past. Frontman Dan Smith’s voice is impressive, and buoys many huge singalong choruses.

21. NAO – For All We Know
Image result for for all we know naoThe rising R&B singer with a unique voice brings the UK sound of electro-funk to the masses with her debut album. In the wake of her work with Disclosure, the production sounds somewhat similar. However, her voice is the true star of the show.

20. Banks – The Altar
Image result for banks the altarBanks turns up the energy on her sophomore album, turning away from her slower ballads to more upbeat and trap-influenced R&B tracks. Her voice, simultaneously breathy and lilting and somewhat menacing, draws us into her dark world and blunt lyrics.

19. Alicia Keys – Here
Image result for alicia keys hereThe veteran presence in the world of R&B shows us that the voice is still there in a major way, but on this project she has something to say. Over production from husband Swizz Beatz, which gives the project more of a hip-hop edge, Keys makes many affecting political statements.

18. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Image result for malibu anderson .paakThe only artist to appear on this countdown twice, the funk mastermind who was introduced to us on Dr. Dre’s Compton album explodes into the public eye. The genre-spanning debut effort is kept afloat throughout by .Paak’s confident presence and infusion of funk and gospel sensibilities into all that he does.

17. Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman
Image result for dangerous womanThe technically outstanding pop singer harnesses her own creative direction for the first time and presents a blend of innovative pop hits and returns to the old-school R&B form she showcased on her debut album. No longer is her voice buried in overproduction, and her personality shines through on the character-driven work.

16. Lindsey Stirling – Brave Enough
Image result for brave enough lindsey stirlingThe EDM violinist who became popular through YouTube is now a fully established force in the music industry. Bringing on a wealth of guests from different musical worlds, she somehow ties it all together with her unique style of violin playing and pounding electronic beats.

15. Vic Mensa – There’s Alot Going On
Image result for there's alot going onThe brief, personal and politically charged EP sees often misguided rapper Vic Mensa return to form, offering his energetic and passionate take on issues like police brutality and the Flint water crisis before explaining his defeat of personal problems with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. Welcome back.

14. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love

Image result for awaken my loveDonald Glover takes his creativity to another level as he presents one of the biggest stylistic shifts I’ve ever seen. The project is atmospheric and beautiful, Gambino injecting his hip-hop sensibilities into soul and funk music, creating songs that mean something for the first time and displaying his impressive singing voice.

13. Lapsley – Long Way Home
Image result for long way home lapsleyThe complete grasp of artistry Lapsley has harnessed at the young age of 20 is incredible. The singer, DJ and producer combines all her talents in her debut album that sees her full and soulful Adele-style vocals accompany trippy and atmospheric production.

12. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
Image result for untitled unmasteredThis collection of B-sides that didn’t make the cut on masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly is  still better than almost all the rap releases this year. Lamar’s creativity and technical skill are through the roof, and listening to him is always a pleasure.

11. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Image result for heavn jamilaWoods’ debut album is a statement, and not necessarily a bold one – which serves as its underlying strength. The R&B vocalist adopts a stance of hope for the future and embraces her own identity on the project, creating some breezy and fun R&B numbers that answer the anger with positivity.

10. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
Image result for yes lawdThis collaboration between Anderson .Paak and soul-influenced hip-hop producer Knxwledge gives the more old-school funk side of .Paak the correct instrumental landscape to shine. A large number of shorter tracks make the album feel like a joyful exploration and homage to an era of music.

9. Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION: Side B

Image result for emotion side bAnother collection of B-Sides from a spectacular album, Carly Rae Jepsen continues her pop music renaissance with the best writers and producers in the business (Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid, Greg Kurstin) on her side. Side B continues the all-out sugar rush of its parent album and contains some simple but deceptively smart songwriting.

8. Solange – A Seat At The Table
Image result for a seat at the tableA more soft-spoken and understated component to her sister’s bombastic artistic statement Lemonade, Solange’s message rings true in the same way. Over hip-hop influenced beats, her observations of the state of the world are communicated through breathy and beautiful harmonized vocals.

7. Francis & The Lights – Farewell, Starlite!
Image result for farewell starliteOne of the biggest creative statements I’ve seen since Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus, Francis uses his Prismizer vocal manipulation program to create an entirely new sound. His distorted, harmonic and ambient vocal style is brief, happy and upbeat, and ties together conceptually in the story of the rise and fall of a relationship. Francis is here to stay.

6. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Image result for coloring bookChance The Rapper is quickly becoming one of the world’s greatest creative forces. Finally breaking through to widespread public consciousness, his brand of positivity and gospel-influenced hip-hop and R&B music creates an incredibly endearing album. Chance delivers track after track of fun party tracks like “No Problem” and profound messages of perseverance like “Same Drugs”.

5. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Image result for the life of pabloKanye’s “living breathing changing creative expression”, an album that he continued to update and perfect months after its release, is just another way that the most forward-thinking mind in the music industry continued to prove his excellence. While not perfect in the way a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be, The Life of Pablo finds beauty in the chaos.

4. Broods – Conscious
Image result for conscious broodsNew Zealand-born indie pop brother-sister duo Broods teams up with Grammy-winning producer Joel Little to deliver the best pop album of the year. Consisting of clean-cut and punchy rhythms and anthemic choruses, Georgia Nott’s powerful vocals lend a pulsing energy to the entire project. Very cohesive in sound, Broods have found a melodic synthpop formula that works perfectly for them.

3. Bruno Mars – 24k Magic
Image result for 24k magicThis is what an artist relishing in the fact that he is at the top of his game sounds like. The boisterous and extravagant persona that came across on “Uptown Funk!” continues here, as Mars takes us through a tour of the popular sounds of 80s and 90s funk R&B, showing his mastery of the material and having a lot of fun in the process. There are so many things to love here you almost forget that he’s by far the best male singer to grace the radio waves.

2. Beyonce – Lemonade
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce is on another planet. After surprise-dropping a visual album in 2014, she took it one step further with the accompanying  Lemonade musical film, one of the greatest shows of artistry and creativity I’ve ever seen. The messages regarding the state of the world through the lens of infidelities in her marriage presented through poetry in the film carry through to her music, which spans genres and features some unexpected high-profile collaborations. Of course, Beyonce is still the star of the show – what else did you expect? Her vocals are still mindblowing, and they span 12 individual songs that each encapsulate an emotion annotated in the film perfectly.

1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Image result for blonde frank oceanAfter a wait so agonizing it became an Internet joke, Ocean’s release of this sprawling and interconnected work reveals it was definitely worth it. An incredible number of genius artists join forces on this project – Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Pharrell, Kanye, James Blake, Rick Rubin… the list goes on – and the resulting music is immaculate. The majority of the album is set over minimalistic production involving acoustic guitars and synth piano, giving Frank’s dynamic and outstanding voice complete control. But while this minimalism occurs, the songs shift and change, both within themselves and in transitions to the next – sometimes incredibly jarringly and sometimes so smoothly you don’t realize the song has changed. The album was clearly ordered deliberately despite its chaos, themes presenting themselves at different areas of the album. Soon enough, the chaos begins to make sense. This is the most complete, thought-out and well-executed release since To Pimp a Butterfly, and I’ll let producer and frequent collaborator Malay close it out: “Art cannot be rushed. It’s about making sure the perfect aesthetic for the situation has been reached, to do that, takes constant tweaking, trial and error”. Take all the time you need, Frank.

And so concludes BensBeat list week 2016. It’s been a spectacular musical year, and I’m excited to see what 2017 brings us.

Bruno Mars – 24k Magic

Image result for 24k magicEarlier this year, Bruno Mars gave an interview in which he essentially stated that he was unable to stop listening to his own music because of how good it was. With the release of 24k Magic, I now understand exactly what he was talking about. I almost didn’t need to give this one a re-listen before writing: I’ve already listened to these songs enough times to know their every nuance. Mars’ extended lapse between the release of his last album, 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, was alleviated in part by his casually jumping onto one of the most successful songs of all-time, Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!”, where he established the new, boisterous and extravagant persona which would carry over to his own work.

24k Magic is the perfect exercise in “less is more”: it stands at a very brief 9 tracks, but each of them is packed to the brim with the sound of an artist relishing in the fact that he is at the top of his game — and he fully knows it. While it certainly piggybacks off of formulas associated with the popular sounds of 80s and 90s funk and R&B, not making altogether much of an artistic statement, Mars is so many miles ahead of his contemporaries in his field at consistently creating quality, fun music that the project easily stands out as his best work, and one of the year’s best listening experiences. As soon as he issued a triumphant “Pop pop, it’s showtime!” we all knew that Mars was ready to unleash a full blown assault on the music industry.

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Production of the entire album is handled by Shampoo Press & Curl (Philip Lawrence and Mars himself), the remaining members of superstar production team The Smeezingtons after Ari Levine’s departure. Scattered across the tracklist are secondary appearances from other established producers like The Stereotypes, Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie, but the stunningly uniform and cohesive sound of the album can likely be mainly attributed to Mars, demonstrating another end of his immense spectrum of talent. Mars summed it up perfectly in a way that only he could, describing the album as “Slow-dancing at the Valentine’s Day banquet with the girl you have a crush on, and the DJ spins ‘Before I Let You Go,’ by Blackstreet. And the s**t is magical, and you think about it for the next eight months.”

Anyone who has heard one of Mars’ songs before knows that his vocals are obviously at the top of the game, but what we have known since “Uptown Funk!” dropped is that Mars has so much charisma that he doesn’t even need to use them. Single “24k Magic” and “Perm” follow in these footsteps, Mars proving he’s the coolest guy on the planet over some James Brown-esque instrumentals while barely singing a note. Even though the sound of the album is so uniform, he gives us so many different aspects of what we love him for – anyone concerned his passionate ballads were a thing of the past in the wake of the singles were reassured with the presence of songs like “Versace On The Floor” and “Too Good To Say Goodbye”, Mars displaying his impressive vocal range over the soundtrack of a 90s slow dance. Despite his range of talents, Mars’ voice at its full potential remains the most impressive part of his work, and these songs truly stand out for this reason. The passion in his voice as he hits the highest notes of closing track “Goodbye” make the breakup ode especially heartbreaking.

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The other side of the project is just Mars enjoying the luxuries of his life and having fun – and the sound of these jubilant tracks immediately put a smile on your face. You can tell how much Mars loves what he does, especially now that he has reached a level of success to stop catering to pop radio and make the music he truly wants to make. He’s clearly meant for this style rather than the pure pop tracks which established his stardom like “Just The Way You Are”.

The soulful sound of the album gives Mars every opportunity to flex his musicality – he takes every opportunity he can to add a nice harmony, for example. The bridge in particular of almost every song provides a great musical moment when he breaks formula from the rest of the song and lets his vocals take over – one of the best moments on the whole album has to be the bridge of “That’s What I Like”, when the beat is simplified and he hits some beautiful sharped notes before it comes back in full force with some trap hi-hats for the grand finale. “Calling All My Lovelies”, which sees Mars go full lothario, has a great one as well – “I told myself I wasn’t gon cryyy…..”

I could sing the praises of 24k Magic long past the length of a standard review, the music is layered and complex enough to continue finding great things about it on every repeated listen. The bottom line is this — it’s as if Mars has finally realized just how great he is, and our ears are all truly thankful for this.

Favourite Tracks: Too Good To Say Goodbye, Chunky, Calling All My Lovelies, Straight Up And Down, Versace On The Floor

Least Favourite Track: Perm

Score: 10/10