Rapid Fire Reviews (The 1975, Meek Mill, Rita Ora)

Image result for the 1975 a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

British pop-rock band The 1975’s third studio album is easily their most experimental and ambitious, diverting from the typical straightforward guitar-driven anthems to a diverse and discordant array of genres with central themes of attacking the political landscape and our dedication to social media and technology. I’ve often found that the band has tried way too hard to make a huge statement that isn’t really there in the past, but frontman Matty Healy gets his message across a lot better here for the most part. Despite a couple experiments that don’t quite work out the way the band wants them to and a fair share of fake-enlightened ridiculousness, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a respectable step forward. I certainly didn’t see anything like this coming from them.

After a brief intro, we’re dropped into the high-pitched guitar riff of “Give Yourself A Try”, perhaps the track which recalls their earlier material the most of any here. A driving rock song, Healy’s voice cuts through the distorted mix as he immediately dives into some pretty dark topics, addressing struggling with finding meaning as he transitions into his 30s, even comparing his life with a young fan who took her own. It’s hard to understand the lyrics at times here when the mixes are so loud. Healy’s voice gets a little buried at times, but most of what he says is very pressing and poetic. The track “Love It If We Made It” has found its way onto numerous year-end lists, Healy singing “modernity has failed us” among a series of blunt and disjointed statements including Trump quotes, depictions of extravagant riches and Internet lingo. Healy pushes his vocals to the brink here – he sounds overwhelmed, breaking down, the song’s title repeated in the chorus as a desperate plea of sorts. The accompanying music is pretty great too – I love the half-time switch-up introduced in the second chorus, adding a funk bassline and some pounding walls of shimmering synth chords.

Sprinkled throughout the tracklisting are these completely unexpected switches in sound. “How To Draw/Petrichor” is a sparse and cinematic track that spans nearly 6 minutes that consists of twinkling orchestral instrumentals and beautifully layered vocals from Healy, ultimately adding an almost drum n bass dance beat – it complements the technological theme well, the digital intruding. One of my favourite experiments the band makes here is the addition of choral, soulful backing vocals on the tracks “Sincerity Is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love”. The former is framed by some warm synth-piano chords and that accommodate the harmonies well, Healy toning down his vocals to an intimate and sincere level as he asks “why can’t we be friends?”, while the latter uses them to their full emotional effect, suddenly roaring in after an emotional soul ballad that goes full 90s R&B on the instrumental (there’s even a key change!). The track “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is another great experiment, essentially sounding like a classic 80s pop anthem – the chorus melody actually really reminds me of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, and it captures the same euphoric high, with some celebratory harmonized gang vocals on the hook.

There are certainly a few experiments in genre that don’t really work out as well, however. The acoustic, folksy ballad “Be My Mistake” is relatively simple and repetitive melodically, and Healy’s penchant for the overtly blunt drops a few ridiculous lyrics into the mix that are all the more evident due to the minimal instrumental. I really didn’t think I’d get a trap beat on an album like this, but there it is on “I Like America & America Likes Me”. Healy’s vocals on the track are processed through some kind of Bon Iver-esque machine, and the tonal contrast, especially as he keeps hitting the same wailing vocal melody in the chorus with an unpleasant amount of distortion on his voice, turns the track into a bit of a chaotic mess. “Inside Your Mind” is another slower track where Healy sounds like he’s putting on a different voice, over-enunciating his words, which just gives me the chills due to the creepy subject material of the track. Healy described it as “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much that you want to smash their head open to look” – except he takes it to a disturbingly literal level.

As the band has always been, most of this album is pretty self-indulgent, and when they start exercising some of their worst tendencies the project can go off the rails a bit. However, it’s almost as if the world has gotten so much more confusing and ridiculous that some of their typical ways to address it almost fit too perfectly where they didn’t before. This album is certainly nothing if not ambitious, and its high points are pretty incredible.

Favourite Tracks: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, Love It If We Made It, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), Sincerity Is Scary, How To Draw/Petrichor

Least Favourite Track: Inside Your Mind

Score: 7/10

Meek Mill – Championships.pngMeek Mill – Championships

Meek Mill’s Championships is his fourth studio album, and the rapper returns with as much unbridled energy as before. Never afraid to get deeply personal, the project contains quite a few detailed narratives of his experiences in jail, extending it to a criticism of the justice system at large after an FBI investigation into the inappropriate conduct of his judge. While his lyrics and storytelling are always a strength, the album is a bit of a mixed bag standing at 19 tracks and over an hour in length. Meek’s boastful tracks are always fun to listen to when he backs it up with the over-the-top, insatiable delivery that he possesses, but there are more than a few misses where things go on for too long, or a guest vocalist doesn’t quite deliver. Still, there are a fair share of tracks here that are enjoyable for vastly different reasons.

Meek sends a shot at “mumble rappers” on his Phil Collins-sampling “Intro” track, and if anyone is the exact opposite, it’s him. Meek’s voice is always at a full-voiced and expressive shout that’s assertive without veering into the abrasive 6ix9ine territory and assists in delivering both his earnest and emotional life stories and his braggadocio bars. Things pick up for the first time on “Uptown Vibes”, a track that Meek’s energy sends through the roof built on a melodic, Hispanic-sounding trumpet loop and a beat that switches back and forth from aggressive trap to reggaeton – Latin trap artist Anuel AA even shows up to add some Spanish flair to the track. This transitions into “On Me” with Cardi B, and I couldn’t think of a better combination – these two are equivalents in the vitriol with which they attack the mic, and the sinister instrumental allows them each to do what they do best, as unapologetic and unbothered as ever. As much as I can never stand Kodak Black’s voice, “Tic Tac Toe” is another adrenaline shot that introduces another great back-to-back with the track “24/7” with Ella Mai. There’s something about her silky-smooth classic R&B vocals on the chorus complementing Meek’s exuberance. Mai taps into her inner Beyonce, singing a bit of her song “Me Myself & I”, which the track samples.

“What’s Free” is a 6-minute track that represents storytelling Meek at his finest as he recruits label boss Rick Ross and Jay-Z for some extended verses on the meaning of freedom. Meek attacks the judicial system with some slavery comparisons, while Jay-Z shuts the track down with some elder statesman knowledge about keeping his wealth secure and avoiding the injustices. The title track, as well, is a pretty poignant reflection from Meek on the system that holds him down over an extravagant and jazzy classic sample, speaking about his father’s death in a robbery, gun control, and simply trying to stay alive in the violent community. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” hits a similar mark with a soulful sample and political talk, but Meek’s technical ability as he rides over a pretty complex instrumental seriously impresses here.

This album definitely would have benefited from some editing down – at a certain point, these three and four-minute tracks with Meek running through lengthy verses of political material with his voice at a constant shout starts to feel repetitive and tiresome to get through – it’s why I enjoy some of the more fun tracks at the end of the tracklisting more than most of them here, I needed a bit of a break (“Stuck In My Ways” has a quotable chorus that you can’t help but love). Meek doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on his diverse instrumentals, all of what he’s trying to convey is done through his words first and foremost – which works, in shorter doses. Some more minimal tracks with heavy subject matter like “Respect the Game” and “100 Summers” come to mind. There was bound to be a few filler tracks here, and they mostly come when Meek loses sight of his strengths. “Almost Slipped” is the first of a couple tracks where Meek tries his hand at singing and only succeeds at coming across as an off-brand Ty Dolla $ign – why remove that immediate, percussive impact of your words? Even “Going Bad”, the much-publicized reunion with Drake after a series of diss tracks, is a pretty lackluster effort from both of them, Drake dipping back into his disinterested flow and a few off-key melodic embellishments while Meek sounds like he’s holding back just a little bit to fit with the lower-key instrumental.

Meek is a serious mic presence and a compelling storyteller, but he’s not the most consistent rapper of all time. There’s a great album hiding somewhere in this tracklisting, but Championships diverts away from what he does best too often.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck In My Ways, 24/7, Uptown Vibes, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies

Least Favourite Track: 100 Summers

Score: 6/10

Rita Ora Phoenix cover.pngRita Ora – Phoenix

It’s surprising that Phoenix is only Rita Ora’s second studio album – after label disputes with Roc Nation and signing a new contract overseas, where she’s always been a lot more popular, her sophomore release comes 6 years after her first. Although its clear that this is more of a collection of songs than a fully defined album, pulling from collaborations, movie soundtracks, and songs that are over a year old at times, for the most part Ora recruits an impressive legion of some of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business and succeeds at creating some pretty smart and engaging, if not relatively safe, pop music.

All these tracks were new to me, despite some of them being released long ago – and some being huge international hits away from this continent. Opening track “Anywhere” is one of these, but it’s a great way to kick off this album regardless. Produced by Swedish DJ Alesso, the track evades some of the clichés of the pop song bridge building into the instrumental EDM drop with a nice acoustic transition and Ora’s sincere vocal delivery. The way Alesso chops up her vocals in his electronic chorus is ridiculously catchy. This transitions into latest single “Let You Love Me”, which despite that recent lip-syncing mess at the Thanksgiving Day parade is another well-structured pop track drawing from a more EDM style. The way the music cuts out when she hits the climactic highest note in the chorus before dropping into the heavy percussion of the dance break section is a pretty exhilarating moment, and I’m still not tired of the trend of using those vocoder/Prismizer computerized harmonies either – they sound great at the tail end of the track.

Even when the songwriting and production isn’t as strong, it’s hard not to at least nod your head throughout the duration of the album. These are all uptempo, high-octane pop tracks anchored around the strength of Ora’s voice – she has a surprising amount of power for someone who sticks to the dance-pop lane. The high-energy chorus for a track like “New Look” is puzzlingly short, but it’s great while it lasts. “Your Song”, a track written with Ed Sheeran and his production team, is pretty sanitized and inoffensive, but there’s nothing in it that’s overtly bad – as we progress through the album, the innovation goes down and most of these songs turn into background music, but there’s something in Ora’s delivery that keeps me engaged anyway even if there’s not going to be any awards for creativity here. By the time we get to mid-album tracks like “First Time High” though, the formulas are applied worse and worse and the transition to the electronic drop here is a bit of a mess.

There are a few songs throughout that take me out of the immersion of the album – as innovative as Avicii was, “Lonely Together” was one of his weakest recent tracks, and its placement in such a prominent area here despite already being released on his own album both decreases the quality of Ora’s project and unnerves me a bit for capitalizing on an unfortunate situation. “Summer Love”, a track with UK drum ‘n’ bass collective Rudimental, is another track that was released on another album first and doesn’t fit with the sound of the album at all, completely throwing the flow off. Rudimental themselves have a pretty solidified style that doesn’t switch up much from track to track, and hearing the same reiterated beat that I’ve heard before isn’t as exciting anymore. On the other hand, for a track from a movie soundtrack, the Fifty Shades Freed song “For You” with Liam Payne is actually pretty good. The syncopated and overpowering synth line in the chorus and Ora reaching up to some full-voiced high-notes, as well as the way Payne’s lower register complements and supports Ora so well, continues the franchise’s musical hot streak.

After getting through controversial and clunky mega-collaboration track “Girls”, the album ends pretty strong as well – Julia Michaels’ vocals are always appreciated on “Keep Talking”, a track that she wrote, but closer “Hell of a Life” is a true highlight – I love how the main vocal hook is teased earlier in the pre-chorus and cut off, and the off-kilter guitar pattern is a nice rhythmic switch-up.

Phoenix is a weird amalgamation of tracks from a star with a troubled career trajectory (in North America at least), but there’s enough pop starpower on board to make a few great songs – still, a lot of it is bogged down by filler material.

Favourite Tracks: Anywhere, For You (Fifty Shades Freed), Hell Of A Life, Let You Love Me

Least Favourite Track: First Time High

Score: 6/10

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Quavo – Quavo Huncho

QuavoHuncho.pngIronically named rap label Quality Control continues to drop overlong project after project, and Migos star Quavo’s debut kicks off what is apparently the first of 3 solo albums from the members of the group to be released in rapid succession. It’s been easy recently to get burnt out on the Migos sound and formula, and Quavo more or less adheres to it here. Surprisingly, there are still a couple fun moments to wring out of it here: Migos have developed into rap superstars for a reason, and it’s because they really know what they’re doing. If they hadn’t oversaturated the market, I might enjoy this project a lot more than I do. While many pegged Quavo as the breakout star from the group due to his more versatile, melodic flow, it’s become a lot clearer to me over the years that he’s easily the least talented of the group both rhythmically and lyrically. A solo project without the other two members to spice things up had me worried, and while most of this 19-track project is uninspired filler as expected, there are still a couple of enjoyable moments scattered here and there where Quavo holds his own more than you’d think.

The opening track “Biggest Alley Oop” might actually be the album’s best, built on an eerie, slightly distorted choral vocal sample of ‘la-la-la’s and some kind of woodwind instrument with an element of Middle Eastern flair – it’s definitely a sound we haven’t heard them use before, and producer 30 Roc takes a few opportunities to break up the straightforward trap rhythms as well with some well-placed moments where the music cuts out. Quavo’s flow over the track honestly sounds more like one of his fellow Migos here with some speedy triplets, and his off-the-wall ad-libs are always fun. From there, we kind of fall off a cliff until the album’s second half. Less than a minute into the next track “Pass Out”, Quavo has literally resorted to bars full of nothing but “skrt” and moaning “grandmaaaaa….” in his background Auto-Crooned vocals. The production is honestly still pretty great on the track and on most of them here, but Quavo sounds unenthused most of the time here, like he’s putting this out as a contractual obligation.

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Quavo’s flow has always been more sparse than his groupmates, and on the more empty instrumentals here there just isn’t enough to carry the track here without the other huge personalities to play off of – “Give It To Em” is a huge example of this, as Quavo leaves way too much empty space over a somber piano instrumental. Most of these tracks are a shorter track without a fully fleshed out concept, Quavo bringing the bare minimum to the table lyrically and doing the same flows we’ve heard elsewhere. Most of the project’s most enjoyable moments are provided by guests, but even some of these tracks feel kind of unfinished, like they put together a random Quavo verse and a leftover verse a featured artist sent over. Drake looked to continue his feature hot streak on “Flip The Switch”, but one of his lower-key deliveries is juxtaposed with one of the most crowded trap instrumentals here, and Quavo’s final verse brings the quality way down.

Tracks like “F**k 12”, “Keep That S**t” (despite how unintentionally hilarious his matter-of-fact delivery on the track is) and single “Workin Me” are painfully repetitive without enough of a new twist on the trap instrumental that we can sometimes expect from a Migos track to keep my interest. There are simply far too many tracks here that serve no distinctive purpose from each other – it’s hard to even pick out the worst ones, they’re just simply … there. “Swing” and “Big Bro” are two examples where trying to do something different didn’t really work, the former another tired dancehall cut that features ex-Fifth Harmony member Normani and Nigerian artist Davido that goes on for far too long and the latter a truly strange and contradictory track where Quavo tries to position himself as a knowledgeable J. Cole-esque figure that doles out advice on the irresponsible lifestyles he romanticizes on every other track on the album here.

Most of the appeal of Migos is these three enormous personalities playing off of each other, and some of that still manages to shine through here, especially when he’s helped out by some of the better moments from behind the boards here. Tay Keith provides a pretty fun beat on the track “Shine” as Quavo’s sung hook complements the shimmering synth chords well. Some of the weirder experiments here really pay off as well, like the track “Champagne Rosé” that legitimately features Madonna (and a disjointed, brief verse from Cardi B for some reason). The Queen of Pop’s vocals are high-pitched and heavily Auto-Tuned, and she sounds like some kind of robotic doll on the track – but the fact that something like this exists is so crazy that it actually works. Her hook is maddeningly catchy all the same. Pharrell and Migos have proved a great combination in the past, and they link up again. for the erratic party track “Go All The Way”, which sounds like some early 90s dance crew material with Quavo’s filtered, repeated “NO CAP” ad-lib and Pharrell’s video-game inspired bleeps and bloops – it’s a complete anomaly which stands out in the tracklisting.

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Some other highlights are Travis Scott’s melodic hook on the psychedelic track “Rerun”, which really elevates the whole song, and “Lamb Talk”, one of Quavo’s most hilariously over-the-top moments on here where he delivers some energized ad-libs on a track dedicated to his car.

Essentially, Quavo Huncho is exactly what you’d expect it to be. We still get moments where we’re reminded just why he was pegged to be the breakout star from the beginning, and an overwhelming amount of content that just isn’t as exciting as it used to be. I hope the more technical Takeoff and Offset can deliver some more interesting solo projects.

Favourite Tracks: Biggest Alley Oop, Rerun, Go All The Way, Champagne Rosé

Least Favourite Track: Give It To Em

Score: 5/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Cardi B, Kali Uchis, Pentatonix)

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngCardi B – Invasion of Privacy

2017’s breakout star Cardi B finally releases her debut studio album, and while it certainly isn’t anything groundbreaking, she delivers 13 very solid tracks loaded with the hilarious personality we’ve come to love, a bevy of great guest spots and some surprisingly impressive technical skill. Invasion of Privacy is just about the best debut album I could have expected Cardi to make – she continuously defies her status as a meme or a one hit wonder.

Cardi’s biggest strength – likely the reason she blew up as quickly as she did – is her unapologetic, honest personality and she is just what you expect on this project, being open about her rags-to-riches upbringing on opening track “Get Up 10” and being brutally honest about her feelings towards a certain member of the Migos. There’s something strangely empowering about hearing Cardi deliver lyrics that can be incredibly explicit, confident or carefree that most others wouldn’t dare. She builds herself up in the most hilarious ways, channelling the self-aggrandizing energy she injected into that iconic “Bodak Yellow” hook with tracks like “I Do”, featuring a celebratory SZA speaking on the pair’s many successes, and “Money Bag”. Even though the latter is all but a carbon copy of Cardi’s biggest hit, her lyrics still make it incredibly fun – her abrasive New York accent puts an extra, percussive, vitriolic punch onto every one of her boasts. The album does actually contain some sonic diversity as well.

“I Like It”, a Latin trap banger, is the most fun song here and features the two biggest artists in the genre in J Balvin and Bad Bunny. The interpolation of the Pete Rodriguez classic track on the sample with such an aggressive trap beat was creative enough to make it an instant hit. “Ring” and “Thru Your Phone” see the instrumental take calmer, more R&B direction, but the fire doesn’t leave Cardi’s voice as she speaks about her partner’s infidelity. Kehlani’s hook on “Ring” is absolutely beautiful, and Cardi’s delivery makes her sound believably deeply hurt. We are getting Cardi with no filter across this project. For all the people writing Cardi off as a joke act due to her ridiculous persona, her technical skill always impresses me. To hit every word of these faster tracks while pregnant in her Coachella performance solidified Cardi as someone who deserves all of the successes she has. She keeps up with Takeoff’s incredible verse on “Drip”, while the chorus of “Bartier Cardi” is an absolute tongue-twister of lyrics.

To pull off the album as well as she did is something of a surprise since, well, one of the main reasons we love Cardi is her embrace of her flaws – polish isn’t her strong suit. There are a few tracks on here that could have been improved with a bit more work, but the idea is there. “Be Careful” is a track that certainly grew on me from my first listen, with a catchy Lauryn Hill interpolation, but Cardi’s flow leaves a bit to be desired. As well, Chance the Rapper’s characteristically adorably happy feature on “Best Life” doesn’t really fit at all – it’s the song with the least punch on the project, with more of a melodic and meandering instrumental that doesn’t really accommodate the assault on the mic from Cardi.

There’s something inexplicably magical about the injection of confidence that Cardi’s music provides, even when I don’t come from anywhere close to the same walk of life as her. The success couldn’t be happening to someone more genuine, and Invasion of Privacy proves that.

Favourite Tracks: Bodak Yellow, I Like It, I Do, Ring, Money Bag

Least Favourite Track: Best Life

Score: 8/10

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis – Isolation

Rapidly rising Colombian star Kali Uchis recruits one of the most impressive lists of collaborators I’ve ever seen for her debut album Isolation, blending her voice suited for contemporary R&B with her own cultural elements of reggaetón and bossa nova. Although Uchis’ vocals are not always the strongest or most distinctive, Isolation is an album that is built through complex and dynamic instrumentals featuring numerous instruments and a full orchestral sound, Uchis’ pleasing and airy tone just a universal complement that allows her many star producers to easily build a great track of any genre around. Appearing across the album are Thundercat, DJ Dahi, Brockhampton’s Romil, Steve Lacy, Sounwave, Gorillaz, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Greg Kurstin, BadBadNotGood and more.

The albums’ opening two tracks introduce the listener into Uchis’ unique musical niche perfectly, the intro “Body Language” a calmer track with a samba bassline transitioning into “Miami”, the site where this traditional sound becomes modernized with some trap hi-hats complementing the reggaetón guitar chords. Uchis obliterates people’s misconceptions of her in the track, stating that despite her appearance she can be a powerful, dangerous figure capable of achieving her aims. Uchis’ team not only provide her with lush instrumentals, but some seriously catchy melodies as well. Steve Lacy’s hot streak continues with “Just A Stranger”, Uchis and Lacy himself layering their vocals to create an anthemic and rhythmically sound chorus over a fun funk instrumental. Uchis is at her best when she taps into her Colombian roots, singing in Spanish on “Nuestro Planeta” and breezes through upbeat, danceable Latin instrumentals on “Your Teeth In My Neck” and “Tyrant”. It’s great to hear such a modern take on a style that isn’t incredibly prominent in popular music, despite the recent explosion of Spanish music into the mainstream. The melodies here are strangely familiar, keeping in line with their reggaetón roots, yet at the same time they’re nowhere else to be found in 2018.

Uchis’ greatest vocal showcase comes on the track “Flight 22”, a downtempo track that veers closer to bedroom pop with dreamy, twinkling keys and a string section backing up her impressive range. Her sensual vocal inflections remind me of Amy Winehouse, named as a large inspiration behind the track. More often, however, Uchis’ vocal tone is best utilized as the smooth, malleable aspect to fit over any style of instrumental. “Dead To Me” is the most chaotic track here, featuring cascading electronic blips and a high-speed breakbeat over the omnipresent funk bassline, Uchis’ calm tone making it seem as if she handles the complex musical world with ease – and she’s confident and assertive enough in her delivery that she doesn’t need to go all out to make her point. I always love albums that make the most out of their sequencing to tell a story, and the albums’ later interludes “Gotta Get Up” and “Coming Home” serve as transitional pieces, completing the gaps between the surrounding tracks and completing a full narrative. Gorillaz’ manic track “In My Dreams”, where Uchis runs through a whimsical dreamscape before waking up to negative realities, and the Tyler, The Creator-featuring single “After The Storm” shine in the latter half.

The main takeaway from this album is Uchis’ incredible consistency. It’s not always this difficult to pick out a least favourite track. Her command of some seriously complex instrumentals seems effortless at all times, and we could be witnessing the start of something very exciting.

Favourite Tracks: Flight 22, Dead To Me, Tomorrow, After The Storm, Just A Stranger

Least Favourite Track: Killer

Score: 9/10

Pentatonix - Top Pop Vol 1.jpgPentatonix – PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol. I

A cappella success story Pentatonix returns to their roots of covering some of the most popular songs of the year after a switch in members saw them acquire a new bass vocalist. While it can get rather easy to grow tired of the group with their quantity over quality approach, many of their arrangements utilizing the same tricks despite their torrid release pace, it’s pretty impressive that they can breathe new life into something like a “Despacito” / “Shape of You” mashup. This kind of material is what made them famous in the first place, and there are still a few flashes of greatness here to remind us why.

We open with Charlie Puth’s “Attention”, a track that was basically meant for a cappella from the beginning that showcases new bass Matt Sallee prominently early on. The extra syncopated melody that doesn’t exist in the original added to the 2nd verse is a great touch, and the half-time section and jazz chords that close the arrangement make for their most ambitious exploits across the whole project. The two mashups on this project are both highlights, showing that the group is at their best when at their most creative. It’s tough to make an album of covers of extremely played out songs and continue to hold interest. Their combination of “New Rules” with Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” works shockingly well, and the first three notes, each vocal part building on the next, that hit in the breakdown get me every time. Kirstie Maldonado sounds fantastic singing in her more comfortable language on “Despacito x Shape Of You”, even switching a few lyrics in Sheeran’s hit to Spanish. Maldonado is the strong suit across the board, carrying a lead vocal of Julia Michaels’ “Issues” pretty flawlessly. Songs like “Issues” and Kesha’s “Praying” are pretty impossible to do badly regardless, and the group rise to the occasion covering these great tracks.

Too often, the group doesn’t do much to alter the structure of the original song, thinking that the tricks that we’ve heard before will suffice. “Finesse” is basically a carbon copy of a song that was already pretty sparse instrumentally due to its new jack swing influence – more interesting vocal percussion acrobatics might have been interesting here, while their approach to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” adds in Kevin Olusola’s cello yet again, losing the spirit of a cappella as they structure in a huge, empowering build-up in the same way they’ve done in the past. The other thing that annoys me about Pentatonix studio albums recently is that they’ve stopped trying to hide how much of these finalized studio arrangements aren’t performed live, adding in layering and other computer-generated processes in post-production. “Stay”, a predominantly electronic song, features the same loop of Alessia Cara’s pitch-shifted vocal run that would be impossible for a human voice to replicate. It’s harder to tell for sure judging by Mitch Grassi’s shockingly high vocal, but I think I was able to distinguish Maldonado singing underneath her lead vocal as well.

Pentatonix are obviously ridiculously talented, but I still think that their album of original music was their best work yet. The novelty of these A-list covers has worn off over time, and I want to hear what they are able to do without the constraints – the mashups here prove their creative ability.

Favourite Tracks: Attention, Issues, New Rules x Are You That Somebody?, Despacito x Shape Of You

Least Favourite Track: Feel It Still

Score: 6/10

Migos – Culture II

Culture II.pngAtlanta rap trio Migos return with the sequel to the album that catapulted them to superstardom, which extends to a gargantuan hour and 45 minutes in length and recruits some high-profile guests as they flex their newfound muscles in the industry in the way only they can.

While the project is very excessive, not varying as much as it certainly should for such a long runtime, the album frequently surprises you by how much the Migos still have a firm grip on the sound that they helped popularize, their technical skill elevating them to another level amongst the scores of trap-rappers today and still finding ways to surprise the listener despite the oversaturation of the group and its individual members. Sure, the album is a chore to get through, but Culture II is full of sure-fire hit singles.

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Can we just talk about “Narcos” for a second? This might be my favourite song associated with the rap trio yet, displaying their ridiculous personalities and quotable lyrics (“Magnifico!”), technical skill and a more innovative beat than usual all in the same place. I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t explode – it’s set over a great Latin-sounding guitar sample that actually originates from Haiti, Offset settling into that chorus perfectly while Quavo provides the melodic hook and Takeoff absolutely demolishes the final verse in a technical showcase. This is the interplay between the trio’s strengths working at its absolute finest.

Speaking of innovative instrumentals, Migos are at their best on this project when they deviate from their formula and still succeed at displaying their chokehold on the pulse of current hip-hop music. They recruit Pharrell on single “Stir Fry”, apparently a leftover beat from T.I. in his prime, and demonstrate their versatility on the more Neptunes-esque production, adapting their flows to more of a swung tempo for a rare moment of deviation from the norm. Also, none other than Kanye West appears on the 21 Savage-featuring “BBO”, which still has a trap beat provided by co-producers – but West’s flipped brass section sample is still refreshing for the group.

Although we’ve heard the least from Takeoff since the Migos takeover, he is the star of this project, often trusted with the final verse and displaying some serious technical skill. We’ve heard everything the other two can do at this point, and the increased role for Takeoff is still giving us some new surprises. There’s too much content on this album to fit into a short review, but some other highlights include Post Malone’s hook on “Notice Me”, and the great piano instrumental, actually produced by Quavo himself, on “Crown The Kings”.

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Major production contributor DJ Durel recently confirmed that Migos only spend 45 minutes at most on each song – and you can tell that they’re basically on autopilot here (They even have a song with that title on this project!). When you’ve defined an entire cultural movement, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but listening to 24 tracks straight is tiring, especially when you begin to recognize the same tricks they use on many tracks. The lyrical themes become increasingly thin and repeated, a chorus of repeated lines such as the disappointing Drake-featuring “Walk It Talk It” or a carbon copy of an earlier song like the “Deadz”-emulating “Open It Up” leaving me wondering why the album wasn’t cut down to the pristine effect of the trap masterpiece that was the original Culture.

There are far too many filler tracks on here to proclaim the successes of the project’s highest highs – I will never listen to this album in full again, simply picking out my favourite tracks and forgetting about the rest. Not that the album doesn’t go as hard as you’d expect it to at all times, but for so many tracks, when the beat or the hook is just a bit subpar in comparison to its counterparts, songs quickly become expendable.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting something that even closely resembled an album after the nearly endless stream of Migos content we’ve received since “Bad and Boujee” hit #1, but in comparison to the original Culture this plays as more of a mixtape quality project. It’s not enjoyable as an album at all, but it’s still absolutely impossible to deny that Migos energy and the interplay between the members that sparked the whole resurgence of a genre. Culture II is just fun enough throughout.

Favourite Tracks: Narcos, Stir Fry, Notice Me, Crown The Kings

Least Favourite Track: Flooded

Score: 6/10

BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2017

2017 saw a lot of music spin in a political direction, and while we didn’t necessarily receive the high-concept masterpiece I’d been waiting for after last year’s Lemonade and Blonde, we still bore witness to a lot of pretty incredible firsts. Here are my top 50 songs that got us through the tumultuous year:

Honourable Mentions:

  • Charli XCX – 3AM (Pull Up) [Ft. MØ]
  • Ed Sheeran – Perfect
  • Demi Lovato – Daddy Issues
  • St. Vincent – Smoking Section
  • blackbear – chateau
  • Galantis – Love On Me (Ft. Hook n Sling)
  • Bleachers – Goodmorning
  • Lil Yachty – Better (Ft. Stefflon Don)
  • Halsey – Eyes Closed
  • HAIM – Little Of Your Love

50. Gorillaz – Saturnz Barz (Ft. Popcaan)

Image result for gorillaz humanzGorillaz try their hand at dancehall, Damon Albarn’s softer tones bouncing off Popcaan’s patois over an instrumental that sounds like it’s fresh from an eerie carnival ride.

49. Bonobo – Surface (Ft. Nicole Miglis)

Image result for bonobo migrationThe downtempo EDM DJ brings Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis aboard, her beautiful, folksy voice carrying the atmospheric track.

48. Fifth Harmony – Deliver

Image result for FIFTH harmonyThe band shows they’re still capable of making great music as a quartet, imbuing this classic R&B track with a retro flair and bouncy piano instrumental.

47. 21 Savage – Bank Account

Image result for issa albumOver the course of the year I’ve come to appreciate 21 Savage as a comedic presence, and I’ll never forget the crowded bus I broke out laughing upon the first time I heard him count up how many M’s he had in his bank account in his deadpan voice.

46. Kelela – LMK

Image result for kelela take me apartKelela brings her electronic take on alt-R&B and impressive lower vocals to a more laidback track from her album.

45. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life (Ft. The Weeknd)

Image result for lust for lifeThe 2 nihilistic stars fire up their perfect collaborative partnership once again, contemplating the things that make life worthwhile as they sit perched on the edge of the Hollywood sign, deciding not to jump off.

44. Tove Lo – shivering gold

Image result for blue lipsThe Swedish songstress finally reaches the level of pop euphoria we knew she had in her, her voice soaring to new limits as the punchy synths explode behind her.

43. Kelly Clarkson – Cruel

Image result for meaning of life kellyClarkson wanted her latest project to return to her R&B/Soul roots, and no track shows more of what she’s capable of than this one. Sounding like a classic Motown record as the horns blare, she shows her impressive range, singing the chorus in 2 different octaves.

42. Miguel – City of Angels

Image result for miguel war and leisureThe most creative song concept of the year, Miguel sings this heartfelt ballad to his lost romance when LA was destroyed by bombs while he was away from his girl in Venice Beach.

41. N.E.R.D. – Lemon (Ft. Rihanna)

Image result for no one ever really diesHearing Rihanna deliver such a flawless rap verse over Neptunes-style production in the year 2017 was something never could have anticipated, but I’m so glad N.E.R.D. are back with their take on experimental hip-hop.

40. Kehlani – Piece of Mind

Image result for sweetsexysavageKehlani’s harmonies are at their absolute best on this breezy R&B track that sees her putting the negative feelings she had regarding her self-image in the past, taking some time for herself.

39. Poppy – Let’s Make A Video

Image result for poppy computer albumThe best manifestation of the mysterious Poppy character, taking on the role of a bubbly vlogger with a darker undercurrent. And oh yeah, the song is pretty good too.

38. Alvvays – Dreams Tonite

Image result for antisocialitesThe indie-pop quartet goes back in time for a vintage sound on this project, mastering the slow build with this track. Frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals progressively layer as she envisions romance with a passing stranger.

37. Camila Cabello – Havana (Ft. Young Thug)

Camila (Official Album Cover) by Camila Cabello.pngI knew this would be a hit as soon as I heard it, the ex-Fifth Harmony member bringing her authentic Cuban flair to Frank Dukes’ intoxicating and sensual instrumental. The upcoming album sounds promising.

36. SZA – The Weekend

Image result for sza ctrlOne of the biggest growers of the year, SZA brings us into relatively unexplored territory with this bluntly honest song from the position of a side girl treating romance like a timeshare.

35. ODESZA – Boy

Image result for odesza a moment apartElectronic duo ODESZA puts listeners in a trance with their shimmering instrumentals that inexplicably give off this sense of wonderment, and do so at their best on this more upbeat track from A Moment Apart.

34. Tennis – Fields Of Blue

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyAlaina Moore’s gentle, soothing vocals are irresistible on this blissful ode to romance. Her husband’s catchy guitar pattern backs her up as she harmonizes with herself perfectly.

33. Chris Stapleton – Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning

Image result for from a room volume 1The country/soul vocal powerhouse offers his stripped-back cover of a Willie Nelson song, letting the emotion in his voice tell the whole story in the most heartbreaking song of the year.

32. Kendrick Lamar – FEAR.

Image result for damnThe nearly 8-minute centerpiece of Lamar’s album DAMN. explaining the concept behind the single-word, high-concept track titles, he delivers three powerful verses here detailing his fears at ages 7, 17 and 27.

31. Harry Styles – Sign Of The Times

Image result for harry styles albumThe expansive, cinematic rock ballad from the former OneDirection member shocked the world with its quality – I love a slow build, and this is one of the best I’ve ever heard. The emotion at the end gets me every time.

30. St. Vincent – Pills

Image result for masseductionSt. Vincent calls on actress and ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne to deliver a singsong, nursery rhyme chorus about over-reliance on medication to get through the day, the distorted instrumental produced by none other than TDE’s Sounwave.

29. Paramore – Hard Times

Image result for after laughterThe first we heard of Paramore’s shift in sound, the lead single perfectly encapsulates the 80s-pop revival they mastered across the project as soon as those first tropical chords hit.

28. Jhene Aiko – Overstimulated

Image result for trip jheneWhile it’s tough to pick out individual tracks from such an interconnected musical journey like Jhene Aiko’s Trip, this track offers the most immediately memorable melody, delivered in the dreamy, psychedelic way only Aiko can.

27. Ed Sheeran – Galway Girl

Image result for divide edCreatively interpolating some traditional Irish fiddle melodies into a beat more grounded in the world of hip-hop, Sheeran’s rapid-fire delivery and constant ability to write an inescapable chorus make this a standout on ÷.

26. Kesha – Praying

Image result for rainbow keshaOne of the most powerful pieces of songwriting this year, Kesha aims this track at producer Dr. Luke, relishing in proving him wrong through her success – all while displaying the incredible vocal talent we never saw in the past.

25. Billie Eilish – my boy

Image result for don't smile at meDon’t let her playful tone fool you – this menacing track sees 15-year old Eilish telling some hapless soul to “go trip over a knife”. That initial beat switch is incredible.

24. Miguel – Pineapple Skies

Image result for miguel war and leisureDedicated to Prince, this track sees Miguel step into a long line of sensual soul men with ease, dancing across the surface of the track that samples Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”.

23. Lana Del Rey – Tomorrow Never Came (Ft. Sean Ono Lennon)

Image result for lust for lifeIn a duet with John Lennon’s son, playing the instrumental on one of his father’s vintage instruments, Lana Del Rey taps into her old soul persona and delivers a heartbreaking ballad that could easily pass for a classic Beatles song.

22. Jay-Z – 4:44

Image result for 4:44The best apology Jay-Z could have ever hoped to make. This response to the allegations of infidelity in Beyonce’s Lemonade shows Jay-Z stripping back the confident rap persona to deliver some conversational, confessional lines on just how much he messed up.

21. Lorde – Perfect Places

Image result for melodramaThe closing track to the expansive Melodrama sees Lorde continue to perfectly sum up the experience of those close to her in age, as she’s done throughout her career. The track offers a takedown of the modern party, criticizing those who see it as some kind of mystical haven where anything might happen.

20. Charli XCX – Dreamer (Ft. Starrah & Raye)

Image result for number 1 angelOne of the most confident tracks of the year, Charli XCX opens her first project of the year with a commanding strength of the trap-influenced instrumental, her vocalizations possessing a percussive quality that just helps the track as a whole hit you like a freight train.

19. Mura Masa – 1 Night (Ft. Charli XCX)

Image result for mura masa coverCharli had a great year, and here she assists one of the most promising young talents in the EDM scene with a catchy and carefree chorus over his trademark chime instrumentals and tropical flavour.

18. Jidenna – Bambi

Image result for jidenna the chiefLike if you threw a trap beat on an old standard. Jidenna embraces his Nigerian heritage by paying homage to the popular highlife genre and speaking from the perspective of a polygamous chief who really only wants one of them.

17. Kendrick Lamar – LUST.

Image result for damnOne of Lamar’s most unnerving tracks, the creeping guitar pattern and almost monotone delivery of his verses fits the track’s overarching theme well. DJ Dahi’s reversed instrumental and Lamar’s trademark shifts in perspective make this a standout on DAMN.

16. N.E.R.D. – 1000 (Ft. Future)

Image result for no one ever really diesPharrell summoned some kind of ancient, mystical energy here. This song makes me want to set something on fire. The skittering breakbeat, distorted synth bass, and frenzied rallying cries to start a riot, with a pretty great Future verse thrown into the mix, caps one of the most experimental songs of the year.

15. Future – Mask Off (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for future album coverI’ll never forget the first time I heard the beat drop on this flute instrumental – I felt like I was levitating. Producer Metro Boomin puts you in a trance with this one, and the remix featuring Kendrick Lamar just revs up the energy of the track even more with a spectacular verse where he declares “I am Prince”.

14. Demi Lovato – Cry Baby

Image result for tell me you love me album coverWith her recent, poppier output before this album dropped, I almost forgot that Lovato is one of the greatest vocalists in the music industry right now. Returning to her powerhouse R&B ballads, “Cry Baby” is the biggest vocal clinic of the year.

13. Carly Rae Jepsen – Cut To The Feeling

Image result for cut to the feelingAnother year without an album release, and another of the year’s best tracks regardless. This movie-soundtrack gem was another cut from her outstanding E•MO•TION, and that soaring chorus is just another exercise in Jepsen pop escapism – it fits the formula too, LOOK IT UP, NO I’M NOT A CARLY RAE CONSPIRACY THEORIST!!!

12. SZA – Drew Barrymore

Image result for sza ctrlOne of the biggest vocal moments on SZA’s confessional Ctrl, the chorus is introduced with some quick drum strikes before she explodes into that beautiful high note on “Warm enough for ya?” The rhythmic guitar pattern behind it never leaves your head either.

11. Tyler, the Creator – 911/Mr. Lonely (Ft. Frank Ocean & Steve Lacy)

Scum Fuck Flower Boy cover.jpgTyler continues to deal with the realization of his sexuality in the most Tyler way possible on this track – with a series of complex metaphors and tortured internal monologues. He details his compensation for his loneliness and confusion with some disheartening lines on filling the void with materialism, answered by a crowd yelling “OHHHH” like he just dropped the bar of the year. It’s a beautiful analysis of the trouble with assumptions and expectations.

10. Paramore – Rose-Colored Boy

Image result for after laughterIn addition to that infectious bassline, this song turns all the focus to Hayley Williams. Her vocal command of this track is impressive, showing just as much – if not more – power when she chooses to turn up the intensity by being quiet rather than delivering a huge note. I awarded my favourite musical second of the year to Childish Gambino last year, and this year it is the moment where Williams unexpectedly drops down to that quieter lower harmony at a crucial moment in the final chorus.

9. Julia Michaels – Issues

Image result for julia michaels nervous systemOne of the most incredible new voices of the year, I fell in love with former superstar pop songwriter Michaels’ quirky vocal inflections and surprisingly dark lyrical content. Another great slow build, that beautiful string instrumental is ultimately complemented by a distorted bassline and stratospheric harmonies. Despite its popularity, this track still gives me chills.

8. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe title track of folk artist Father John Misty’s satirical, sarcastic takedown of everything 2017 – politics, religion, reliance on technology, nothing is left unscathed by Father John Misty’s hideously dark sense of humour on this track. By the end, he proclaims the doom of humanity while laughing at the ridiculousness and irony concealed in the ways we tore our own civilization apart. He concludes “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got”. Indeed.

7. Rina Sawayama – Cyber Stockholm Syndrome

Image result for rina sawayama rinaThis brilliant callback to the sound of early 2000s pop music delivers the catchiest chorus of the year while being the most successful experiment in the experimental pop genre. Sawayama sings of the futility of romance in the digital age, while the sheer volume of producer Clarence Clarity’s twinkling, layered synths make you feel like you’ve entered another dimension where nothing matters but the sound you’ve been completely immersed in. “Flying high speed across the distant galaxy”, she sings in the most chaotic segment, and that’s basically the effect.

6. Calvin Harris – Slide (Ft. Frank Ocean & Migos)

Image result for funk wav bounces vol 1Has any song ever sounded more like summer? Calvin Harris’ latebreaking foray into funk instrumentals was a resounding success, and inviting the nonchalant delivery of Frank Ocean onto such a sunny, bright instrumental was the best feature he could have grabbed. Offset’s verse is absolutely ridiculous on here, his triplet flow at its bounciest before conceding the track back to Frank for its final chorus where Harris introduces another layer of guitar that sends it into maximum joyous overdrive. It’s even more impressive that every instrumental aspect of the track was played by Harris himself!

5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow

Image result for bodakThis track dropped on us like a bomb, and no end-of-year list would be complete without it. The Love and Hip Hop star’s abrasive New York accent and confident lyrics absolutely obliterating her foes are the best thing to happen to hip-hop in a long time, and she achieved the first solo number one hit by a female rapper since the inimitable Lauryn Hill. If you’ve never yelled the chorus to this song at the top of your lungs, preferably in the midst of a large crowd of people, I’m quite confident in saying you haven’t lived your life to the fullest. The best part is, Cardi B is surprisingly technically proficient – you need some serious ability to deliver that 2nd verse!

4. Lorde – Liability

Image result for melodramaThis stark piano ballad is easily the most emotional song of the year, and it doesn’t even clock in at 3 minutes. Lorde reaches all the way down to the bottom of her range, her voice breaking and crackling for maximum emotional effect as she sings of her inability to maintain relationships with others due to her fame and all that is associated with it, unable to enjoy the joy that she finds with people while it lasts because she’s already anticipating the pattern that will lead to its end. Producer Jack Antonoff knew just the right chords to capture this vulnerability, and their live performances where they sit back to back on the piano bench are something to behold.

3. Kendrick Lamar – DNA.

Image result for damnLamar’s delivery is more urgent than ever on the hardest beat he’s ever rapped over. I wish I could go back and hear the beat switch as the track shifts into its second half for the first time again – I absolutely lost my mind as his performance shifts into a second gear as his delivery speeds up and his tone becomes angrier. Partially a shot at Fox News, partially a celebration of the prestige of his kingly ancestral heritage, this song is just 3 solid minutes of Lamar demonstrating why he’s the best rapper alive with the technical performance of the year. To keep the beat over such an unconventional and sparse instrumental in the track’s second half is nothing short of superhuman.

2. Billie Eilish – idontwannabeyouanymore

Image result for don't smile at meThis is a perfect storm of things I’m a complete sucker for in a single song – the juxtaposition of innocent-sounding vocals with darker subject matter, a 3/4 time signature, soaring soprano harmonies and vocal layering – it’s all here. The emotional depth Eilish shows at 15 speaking about her personal insecurities, told with such sweet-sounding vocals as she examines the problems that make things so difficult for women in this regard, is one of the most moving listening experiences of the year. The resignation in her voice as she delivers her final lines to the mirror, “I don’t wanna be you anymore”, shows a promising future ahead for the young songwriter.

1. Tennis – In The Morning I’ll Be Better

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyThe perfect exercise in simplicity this year, lo-fi dreampop duo Tennis continue to pay homage to 70s pop music with this harmonized and softer-toned track in which Alaina Moore sings about sublimating the energy contained in romantic passion into spiritual betterment of oneself. Like their inspirations, Tennis revolves more around musicality than lyricism, delivering the purest essence of simple human emotions with just a few words, but Moore’s voice is what truly draws you into the track. Soft and unassuming yet playful and inviting, she is the perfect fit for this style of music, and she demonstrates her impressive range on this track in particular, pleadingly delivering the song’s title in the song’s climactic outro as she reaches for the higher end. The bass guitar riff and twinkling piano melody complete the year’s best song.

Check out the list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/7gvb5F1jj6tWpXsKIt2JKi