21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

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It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10

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BensBeat Top 50 songs of 2016

Despite the quality of the year itself, 2016 has been one of the best years of music I’ve ever seen. The next two posts are going to be dedicated to counting down the best of the best, starting with the Top 50 songs of the year. I’m aware that Run The Jewels just dropped an album, and while they won’t appear on these lists, I’ll have a review up for the first post of the new year. Without further ado:

Honourable Mentions:

  • Banks – Mother Earth
  • Calvin Harris – This Is What You Came For (Ft. Rihanna)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Roses
  • The Chainsmokers – Roses (Ft. Rozes)
  • Danny Brown – Ain’t It Funny
  • Lapsley – Hurt Me
  • Logic – Super Mario World
  • MAGIC! – Red Dress
  • Sia – Reaper
  • Tegan and Sara – Faint of Heart

50. Vic Mensa – Danger
Image result for vic mensa there's alot going onOn an EP full of politically-charged rap tracks, this more standard fare stands out due to Mensa’s passionate delivery.

49. Lindsey Stirling – Those Days (Ft. Dan + Shay)
Image result for lindsey stirling brave enoughViolinist Stirling’s blending of genres on her fantastic Brave Enough takes another surprisingly successful turn when she offers a guest spot to a country duo.

48. Solange – Borderline (An Ode To Self Care) [ft. Q-Tip]
Image result for a seat at the tableSolange’s soft-spoken contrast to her sister is enhanced by old-school hip-hop production from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and a message of perseverance.

47. JoJo – Mad Love
Image result for jojo mad loveThe title track of former child star JoJo’s return to the music industry after contract disputes features a doo-wop sound and effortless vocals.

46. D.R.A.M. – Broccoli (ft. Lil Yachty)
Image result for big baby dramThis was a huge hit for a reason – is there anything more addicting than that looping piano instrumental leading into the huge beat drop?

45. Skylar Grey – Come Up For Air
Image result for skylar grey natural causesGrey teams up once again with frequent collaborator Eminem, who earns a rare production credit for this striking ballad.

44. The Weeknd – Starboy (Ft. Daft Punk)
Image result for starboy the weekndNot the first collaboration between Abel and the robots on this countdown, we’ve all heard this song hundreds of times by now and still want to sing along.

43. NAO – Feels Like (Perfume)
Image result for nao for all we knowThe final track on rising R&B singer NAO’s debut album utilizes her very unique voice to its maximum sensual potential.

42. John Legend – Darkness and Light (ft. Brittany Howard)
Image result for john legend darkness to lightThe veteran soul singer unleashes a surprising collaboration with Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard and her production team for a powerful duet.

41. Rae Sremmurd – Black Beatles (ft. Gucci Mane)
Image result for sremmlife 2Who would have ever thought these two artists would have a #1 hit single in 2016? In the wake of the election, Black Beatles is the song we needed.

40. Kanye West – Real Friends (ft. Ty Dolla $ign)
Image result for life of pabloThe first song we ever heard from The Life of Pablo as a promotional single, the slow and reflective track has Kanye posing the relatable question: “How many of us are real friends”?

39. Bastille – Send Them Off!
Image result for wild world bastilleThe most energetic track from Wild World, Send Them Off! continues the band’s always impressive ability to write a huge chorus, complete with references to Othello and The Exorcist.

38. Fifth Harmony – Work From Home (ft. Ty Dolla $ign)
Image result for 7/27Although Camila Cabello has since left the band, we still have the earworm of the year to remember her by. This song will never get old.

37. Beyonce – Daddy Lessons
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce has always been a risk-taker, but nobody expected her to pull off a country song so well. By the time the horn section breakdown comes in, we’re all convinced.

36. Childish Gambino – Me and Your Mama
Image result for awaken my loveThe sprawling 6-minute intro to the experimental Awaken, My Love, the song begins with a peaceful choir loop before exploding into Gambino’s anguished cries for love.

35. Flume – Never Be Like You (ft. Kai)
Image result for flume skinWhile the instrumental tracks on Skin were often clunky, Flume’s first introduction to the radio waves brought his innovative future bass sound to wider attention.

34. Broods – Are You Home?
Image result for broods consciousThe razor-sharp rhythm and harmonies from vocalist Georgia Nott over her brother’s catchy instrumental contribute to a standout from one of the year’s best pop albums.

33. Frank Ocean – Pink + White (ft. Beyonce)
Image result for blonde frank oceanWhat did you think would happen if you put Frank Ocean, Beyonce and Pharrell Williams in a room together? The bouncy string instrumental and Frank’s soaring vocals shine.

32. DJ Shadow – Nobody Speak (ft. Run The Jewels)
Image result for the mountain will fallThe veteran DJ’s return featured a collaboration with the abrasive and unapologetic rap duo that saw El-P punching bears and Killer Mike robbing Peanuts characters.

31. A Tribe Called Quest – Black Spasmodic
Image result for we got it from here thank you for your serviceThe best track on ATCQ’s long-awaited comeback album features an island-style instrumental and a standout verse from the late Phife Dawg.

30. Chance The Rapper – Same Drugs
Image result for coloring book“Same drugs is not about drugs”, Chance tweeted one day. The subtly beautiful melody sees Chance stretch a Peter Pan reference into a plea to stay positive after losing childlike innocence.

29. Kanye West – Famous (ft. Rihanna)
Image result for life of pabloYou know it had to be on here. Despite Kanye’s now most-infamous line that reignited his feud with Taylor Swift, you can’t deny how great that flip of reggae classic “Bam Bam” to close out the track is.

28. Bruno Mars – Too Good To Say Goodbye
Image result for 24k magicMars’ vocals are at their absolute best on the closing track to his brief 24k Magic album. The track has apparently been around since his first album, and he finally perfected it.

27. Mac Miller – Dang! (ft. Anderson .Paak)
Image result for the divine feminineThe collaboration with newfound funk sensation .Paak sees Mac Miller abandon his goofy frat-rap past for a complex horn-laced instrumental and passionate delivery.

26. DJ Khaled – For Free (ft. Drake)
Image result for major keyA collaboration with OVO producers and essentially a Drake song that Khaled got to put his name on, it’s the best track to come out of their dancehall obsession.

25. Drake – Feel No Ways
Image result for viewsHere he is again, but this time on a beat by none other than Mr. Kanye West that sounds like a leftover from Graduation. Sometimes Drake’s charm is more than enough.

24. Lapsley – Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me)
Image result for lapsley long way homeMasterfully flipping a sample of The Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator”, the 20-year old singer and producer sounds like a mini-Adele lamenting her long distance relationship.

23. Lady Gaga – Million Reasons
Image result for lady gaga joanneThe powerful acoustic ballad shows that despite some frequent uncertainties in direction, Gaga still has the raw talent to knock it out of the park.

22. Beyonce – Don’t Hurt Yourself (ft. Jack White)
Image result for lemonade beyonceBeyonce is out for blood on this collaboration with rock musician White, seeking vengeance on her unfaithful husband over a surprisingly heavy instrumental.

21. Ariana Grande – Into You
Image result for dangerous womanThe best single yet from one of the industry’s best technical singers. From the soaring chorus to her innovative vocoder use as the track closes out, it should have been a much bigger hit.

20. Fifth Harmony – Write On Me
Image result for 7/27Over a tropical house beat from rising EDM star Kygo, the group displays the individual talents of their members in a more R&B-influenced track.

19. Carly Rae Jepsen – Higher
Image result for emotion side bEven Carly Rae’s B-sides are in the running to be called the best pop song of the year. The producers and writers she has on her side are the industry’s best and this one will get stuck in your head for weeks.

18. Frank Ocean – Solo
Image result for blonde frank oceanOcean is completely emotionally vulnerable once again on this track, examining various aspects of what it means to be alone before unleashing an impressive string of vocal runs in the chorus.

17. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled 02
Image result for untitled unmasteredWhat was it about B-sides this year? This leftover from my favorite album of all time had people quoting “Get Top on the phooone!” all over the internet. The last verse is a technical clinic.

16. D.R.A.M. – Cash Machine
Image result for big baby dramJust watch the video and try not to smile. It’s hard to not love this guy, who acts like a complete goofball over a Ray Charles piano loop. Fun fact: he made the cash machine sound effect with his own voice!

15. NxWorries – Scared Money
Image result for yes lawdThis collaborative project between Anderson .Paak and soulful producer Knxwledge was a great idea, and their styles interact perfectly on this track that sounds like an updated version of The Hustle.

14. Alicia Keys – Work On It
Image result for alicia keys hereAnother great Pharrell Williams beat, Alicia Keys proves she’s got one of the best voices in the world with her impressive delivery and thoughts on working through marital difficulties.

13. Solange – Cranes In The Sky
Image result for a seat at the tableThe most impressive culmination of Solange’s artistic statement on the racial climate of America, her beautiful breathy vocals detailing the ways she tried to forget about the inescapable discrimination.

12. Jamila Woods – Holy
Image result for jamila woods heavnFrom another very politically charged album, Chicago artist Woods teams up with The Social Experiment’s Peter Cottontale and finds the escape Solange couldn’t in religion.

11. Rihanna – Love On the Brain
Image result for rihanna antiI never saw this one coming. As soon as she stepped out onto the Billboard Music Awards stage and performed this song I was instantly reminded how much talent our biggest pop star really has.

10. Travis Scott – Pick Up The Phone (ft. Young Thug and Quavo)
Image result for birds in the trap sing mcknightFrequently inconsistent artist Scott still manages to give us one of the most fun songs of the year, featuring a watery steel drum instrumental and endlessly quotable verses. “It’s lit!”

9. The Weeknd – I Feel It Coming (ft. Daft Punk)
Image result for starboy the weekndThe instrumental here is classic Daft Punk, as The Weeknd channels the spirit of Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson to bring us one of the best pop songs in recent memory.

8. Broods – Freak of Nature (ft. Tove Lo)
Image result for broods consciousThe incredibly affecting duet between Georgia Nott and Swedish alt-pop artist Tove Lo tackles personal struggles with mental illness as their soaring vocals rebound off each other effortlessly.

7. Bruno Mars – Versace On The Floor
Image result for 24k magicIn an album full of throwbacks to previous sounds, this 90s R&B track stands out. Bruno still describes it best: “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.”

6. Beyonce – All Night
Image result for lemonade beyonceThe calm after the storm in the Lemonade narrative, Beyonce forgives her husband and continues on. The bouncy rhythm of the chorus and the sample of the horns from OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” sell this song.

5. Childish Gambino – Redbone
Image result for awaken my loveWho knew Gambino had this in him? The best product of this complete musical U-turn, his falsetto vocals over a Prince-esque classy funk instrumental still give me chills. The moment he yells “STAY WOKE” is the best musical second of the year.

4. Chance the Rapper – No Problem (ft. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne)
Image result for coloring bookI don’t think I played any song more than this one this year. Chance’s lighthearted threat to major labels is simply a party from front to back. The craziest part is that the gospel choir in the instrumental isn’t a sample – that was done live!

3. Frank Ocean – Self Control
Image result for blonde frank oceanLike three mini-songs in one that flow into each other perfectly. Once again, Frank is lonely. “Keep a place for me”, he sings. “I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing”. By the time the outro comes on and Frank’s increasingly layered vocals start lamenting about that other guy, it almost brings a tear to your eye.

2. Kanye West – Ultralight Beam (ft. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and Chance The Rapper)
Image result for life of pabloThere’s something new to discover to love about this song every time you hear it. First of all, Kanye is barely on it, offering some words praying for peace before letting his collaborators continue the prayer. And between Chance’s incredible verse, Kelly Price’s apparently one-take vocal showcase communicating with God, and preacher Kirk Franklin’s sermon at the end, Kanye’s message rings clear. The deafening gospel choir closes out the track with the echoes of their words: Faith. More. Safe. War. It might be West’s best work yet.

1. Francis & The Lights – Friends (ft. Bon Iver)
Image result for farewell starliteThis is what happens when a handful of my favorite musicians in the world get together. Backing up Francis’ innovative vocal stylings with his Prismizer program is production from Kanye West, DJ Cashmere Cat, pop wizard Benny Blanco, Ariel Rechtshaid (Carly Rae Jepsen, HAIM) and Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. Francis and guest Bon Iver’s harmonies layer on top of each other with incredible complexity as they sing about the hope to remain friends after a relationship comes to an end. It inspired Chance the Rapper’s “Summer Friends”, many great artists have named it their song of the year, and it just so happens to be mine too.

And there we have it. This Wednesday, my top 25 albums of 2016 will be posted!

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love

Awaken, My Love!.jpgDonald Glover is having a good year. After creating one of the most critically acclaimed new shows in Atlanta, his casting as Lando Calrissian and becoming a father, the man of many talents sens his musical style to another dimension entirely on his latest project Awaken, My Love. He abandons the braggadocio and punchlines and the surprisingly well-sung pop hooks that characterized his rap career for something more closely resembling the spirit of Prince reincarnated. Shades of this creative side of him came out on concept album Because The Internet, but this is on another level.

While we already knew that Gambino could pull off almost anything well between singing, rapping, acting, screenwriting, stand-up comedy … when he dropped the sprawling, genre-hopping “Me and Your Mama” it still came as a surprise. To pull such a shift in character off this well takes some serious ability, and Gambino joins the ranks of hip-hop artists who have stretched the confines of the genre to become something so much more in the process. He follows in the footsteps of fellow Atlanta artists OutKast in his ability to create powerful, brilliant music by injecting smaller aspects of hip-hop into other areas of music despite their perception as rappers.

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The album continues the great streak of funk and soul-influenced mainstream albums we’ve been getting this year, showing that Gambino has been studying his musical history in his ability to revive the intricate sound of artists like Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone, who he cites as major influences on the project. It is interesting that the production is still mainly handled by close friend and Community composer Ludwig Goransson, who worked on all his previous material as well, as these could easily be two different artists. Goransson is credited for playing an incredible number of instruments here, contributing to the production value that may be the best of the year.

The album is very atmospheric – it opens with 2 minutes of a repeating choral loop bringing us into the musical world. Gambino’s soul-piercing screams of agony in the middle third of “Me and Your Mama” are bookended by 2 instrumentals from 2 different musical worlds. It really is hard to process what we’re hearing here at times. Even though there is a running theme in the sound it is imbued with aspects from everywhere and anywhere – “Have Some Love” could be a gospel hymn and “California” could be a Young Thug song. The production resembles Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly at times in how complex it is, and like Butterfly, funk legend George Clinton is credited on “Riot”. Many tracks come equipped with freeform solos which close them out which can even be more entertaining than Gambino at times. I’d love to see the harpsichord solo which concludes “Zombies” being played.

On top of this layered funk production is the real surprise – Gambino’s vocals. His voice goes to so many strange places that many weren’t sure it was even him when the first two promotional singles were released, and the range he displays is very impressive. He knows how to capture an emotion perfectly just by altering his voice. His distress on “Zombies” as he’s being hunted by metaphorical ones makes you genuinely uneasy. “Redbone” is one of the best tracks of the year, featuring interlocking loops of 70s funk keyboards and guitar enhanced by Gambino’s aching falsetto. The passion in his delivery gives me chills every time, culminating in an amazing moment where he full-out yells “STAY WOKE” into the microphone before being cut off in the song’s return to its more chilled-out nature.

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While Gambino dropping punchlines full of pop culture references and basically acting like a solo battle-rapper was entertaining, and he’s certainly very talented at that as well, these songs mean something. “Baby Boy”, a poignant message to his newborn son expressing his desire to stay close to him despite his tumultuous relationship with his mother, is written with the sensibilities of a screenwriter to perfectly make you feel his words. The words of advice he gives to his son are revealed to be the same words given to him by his own parents 2 tracks later on outro “Stand Tall” – “Smile when you can”.

Since the album does involve throwing a lot of different sounds at the wall and seeing what sticks, it can tend to go off the rails sonically at times despite usually meshing very well. “Riot”, although brief, is quite disjointed as its title might suggest, putting too many different sounds in at once before ending abruptly. “Stand Tall” does the same thing, extending too long and jumping back and forth between one motif to the next. The short breaks in sound before something completely different is thrown in could really make the song 3 separate tracks.

While I do hope Gambino raps again sometime in the future, hopefully elements of this project can find their way into his music and this isn’t just a side experiment, because Awaken, My Love comes from another planet. To take such a huge artistic risk and follow through to this level of success and with this much certainty in direction is an incredible achievement. Every time I think Donald Glover can’t surprise me any more than he already does, he feels the need to prove me wrong.

Favourite Tracks: Redbone, Me And Your Mama, Baby Boy, Terrified, Zombies

Least Favourite Track: Riot

Score: 9/10