BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2018

Here are the absolute best of the best full bodies of work in the chaotic year that was 2018. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – I Am > I Was
  • The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
  • Camila Cabello – Camila
  • The Carters – EVERYTHING IS LOVE
  • Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
  • The Internet – Hive Mind
  • Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
  • Mitski – Be The Cowboy
  • Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
  • Vince Staples – FM!

25. Jeremih/Ty Dolla $ign – MihTy

MihTy.pngTy Dolla $ign might be my 2018 MVP – his vocals appeared on quite a few high-profile albums across a number of genres and he certainly proved his versatility. This collab project with Jeremih sees him back in his element, bouncing his characteristically raspy vocals off of Jeremih’s cleaner, higher-pitched approach to deliver a non-stop run of slow jams and upbeat melodic trap cuts. Teaming up with producer Hitmaka, the two carve out a place in 2018 for the somewhat-dated R&B womanizer figure.

24. Nao – Saturn

Image result for nao saturnNao’s sophomore project is named after the astrological phenomenon of the Saturn’s Return, a period of time around age 29 when Saturn returns to its position at one’s birth that provokes events causing drastic shifts in one’s life and signals complete maturity. Her artistic growth is evident from her debut, adding some excellent and personal songwriting to her already unique and ethereal voice. Nao feels that her personal drastic shift was the end of a long-term relationship, and she addresses her heartbreak across the album’s best tracks. Saturn is a jazzy R&B project about coping with the pains and pressures of finding your way in the world.

23. Panic! at the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

PATD PFTW.jpgStratospheric and theatrical vocalist Brendon Urie’s second album carrying the Panic! at the Disco name all by himself, he delivers some of his best work yet drawing from some aspects of Broadway after making his debut in musical theatre. While it might be their poppiest, the lighter melodies are grounded by roaring guitar underscores and Urie’s flair for a darker, baroque atmosphere. Of course, the centrepiece is still Urie’s powerhouse vocal delivery, a connecting thread making every unique and melodramatic world of sound the band travels to work perfectly – the man can sell anything. These are some spectacular, arena-sized choruses across the board.

22. BROCKHAMPTON – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgThe experimental hip-hop collective’s major label debut after the well-received Saturation trilogy, as well as their first without founding member Ameer Vann after allegations against him were released, BROCKHAMPTON continues on just fine with some eclectic and electrifying new sounds here. The instrumentals often complex and abrasive, the vocalists on top all with their own off-the-wall styles, everything about this project is signals an exciting and dynamic force in the industry who aren’t afraid to throw whatever at the wall even if it doesn’t all stick – most of it does, and the seamless transitions through various genres and musical worlds, each member getting a chance to shine, is an exhilarating rush. The openly gay Kevin Abstract’s discussion of his struggles continues to be a breath of fresh air in hip-hop, as well.

21. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson Paak Oxnard.jpegThe burgeoning funk superstar recruits Dr. Dre to executive produce his album and takes more of a turn towards hip-hop and 90s-inspired G-funk than ever before. It might not be his strongest suit, but everything .Paak does is a strong suit, still elevating the project with his boundless charisma and undeniable musicality. Getting some assistance from some great features including Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Q-Tip, the spirit of the funk and .Paak’s soulful singing voice can still be found across the board here, but the best part of Oxnard is that you can tell .Paak is having fun and living his dream of making an album with one of his childhood idols. The project takes a turn for the overtly political on “6 Summers”, but for the most part this is just .Paak continuing to flash that giant smile of his in audio form.

20. J. Cole – KOD

JColeKOD.jpgOne of the most densely conceptual albums of the year, the disturbing album cover alone should tell you how deeply Cole is about to dive into some dark and emotional topics here. Embodying several characters across the project’s runtime, Cole describes his observations of his friends and others in his community’s reliance on various addictions – drugs and alcohol, technology, inconsistent sources of money, power and love – to help them cope with depression and anxiety, suppressing their feelings rather than letting them out for fear of judgment. Keeping listeners interested with his technical skills and ability to paint a vivid story, it’s when Cole breaks character and delves into his own life experiences beating these addictions that the album becomes most harrowing.

19. Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgThe alt-rock (and everything in between) duo team up to deliver one of my biggest surprises this year, finally bringing the diverse musical worlds they pull from together in a seamless fashion in a huge improvement from their past works. United by a central narrative that apparently plays into a much larger thread running across their entire careers, the songs follow the experiences of a character in the fictional city of Dema, a name that draws from religious aspects of Zoroastrianism. The questioning of faith is just one of the deeper topics the duo address here, but the most compelling are frontman Tyler Joseph’s musings on mental health and celebrity culture, and the frequent romanticization of poor mental health. Trench is enhanced by impeccable production work, every tiny element of each track in the right place.

18. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngThe unapologetic rapper who shot to fame at the end of last year drops her debut project that represents one of the most fun and confidence-inducing albums of the year. Everyone has been so drawn to Cardi because she hides nothing about herself, being completely honest and having no filter at all, and that comes across here, dropping bars that can be explicit or carefree in a completely over-the-top way. Cardi is not only absolutely hilarious, but often surprisingly technically skilled, adding to the punch she puts behind every syllable with some quicker flows. The sonic diversity here that ranges from pure hip-hop bangers to calmer, emotional R&B, to Latin pop, shows that Cardi is much more than the one-hit wonder many expected her to be and is here to stay. She has the X Factor.

17. Ella Mai – Ella Mai

Image result for ella mai album coverOne of the breakout stars of the year, Ella Mai sets out bringing back some more traditional R&B to the mainstream in the wake of the more spacey, chill alt-R&B trend dominating the charts. Clearly inspired by early-2000s artists, Mai’s alto range is soothing and effortless as she runs through some vocal acrobatics and clever lyrical flips. Another album with a grounding aspect of connectedness, each small section of the album is introduced by a theme, the first letters of each theme ultimately spelling Mai’s name. The production from DJ Mustard perfectly blends some recognizable old-school sounds with a more modern angle, but by the time you get to the final, stripped-back track, it’s clear that the real excitement associated with Mai is just how great of a singer she is.

16. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldOne of the most culturally significant albums of the year, it’s safe to say we can add Travis Scott to the pantheon of today’s larger-than-life rap superstars with an album that is equal parts straightforward and fun, creative and risky. The perfect summer rap album, Scott recruits guests from Pharrell to Tame Impala to Stevie Wonder to Drake and dives into a psychedelic and frequently disorienting world enhanced by his Auto-Tuned flow. The listening experience is intended to feel like you’re on an amusement park ride, as the project is dedicated to a childhood favourite park of Scott’s since closed down. Scott approaches these tracks with almost an audible sense of wonderment in his voice, and while you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, you know it’ll be a good time.

15. Charlie Puth – Voicenotes

Image result for voicenotesAnother huge surprise for me this year, Charlie Puth drops the cheesiness of his past work and moves towards a more mature, yet still distinctly nostalgic sound. His classical training is evident on the brilliantly mixed project, which he produced himself. Anchored firmly in 90s R&B, Puth reminds me a lot of early Justin Timberlake here, and even fits right in with Boyz II Men when he brings them on board for a track. Puth’s wispy falsetto is consistently enjoyable, but it’s the layering and harmonies that really sell Puth as a worthy purveyor of this throwback material, delivering on an understanding of the musicality required to pull off some more complex and interlocking aspects. The guilty pleasure success of the year?

14. Kanye West – ye

Ye album cover.jpgIt’s a wonder that one of Kanye’s least polished albums of his career is still as good as it is. While it’s certainly not without its problems, ye exists as a kind of blend of Yeezus and “Old Kanye” that sees him take some pretty interesting dives into his mental health and its effects on his personal and familial life in the wake of his hospitalization, bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. West is at his most lyrical he’s been in a while, and his singing voice has clearly improved as he runs through a number of introspective and confessional tracks backed up by the usual combination of soul samples and minimal, industrial beats. West’s advice to speak your mind freely in times of crisis, stating your thoughts out loud no matter how dark they are and thus exorcising the demons, has resonated with me all year.

13. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

Sophie - Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides.pngThe endlessly experimental electronic music producer from the PC Music camp finally delivers her debut studio album, and it’s certainly just as much of a mindbending experience as I could have expected. A distorted and beautiful 9-track journey, this is the kind of stuff that could legitimately offer a window to gaze into what the future of pop music can sound like. SOPHIE ranges from punishing, bass-heavy tracks to lengthy, ethereal dreamscapes of cascading synths and calming vocals across this project, everything coming together for a 9-minute closing track where all the sounds are addressed that ultimately just falls apart into a stretched-out hellscape where everything cascades into each other. It’s all something you’ll have to hear to believe – this is something indescribable.

12. Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgEasily one of the most powerful projects of the year comes from one of my favourite producers, Dev Hynes – known as Blood Orange in his solo material. Inspired by various tales of discrimination in his younger years and a dedication to showing love despite an inability to escape being viewed as an outsider regardless of his actions, the spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock tie the project together as she speaks on perseverance and an embrace of one’s identity – “doing the most”. The sound of the project itself seems to have taken Mock’s advice, a jazzy R&B/funk album with some complex harmonies and wailing freeform solos. A producer at heart, Hynes lets a featured vocalist take over the track most of the time, and he knows just how to use artists’  greatest strengths in the right way. Hynes never beats you over the head with his more political statements here, but smartly disguises them for maximum impact, catching you off guard in the middle of his lush musical world.

11. Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverWho knew we’d ever get an Ariana Grande album mostly produced by Pharrell Williams? Sweetener is easily Grande’s riskiest album, and after taking some time to grow on me, it just might be her best as well. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop production style is strangely accommodating to Grande’s powerhouse vocal capabilities, adapting her sound to the more hip-hop influenced world of modern R&B. Full of genuine, believable declarations of an intense, whirlwind love and coloured with the slightest hints of lingering pain from the Manchester tragedy, ending the album with a moment of silence, Grande sounds like she’s making the music she wanted to be making all along. With the sometimes chaotic production style, it’s the first time we’re not focused solely on her impressive vocals, but it’s her most personal work all the same.

10. Robyn – Honey

Cover of Honey by RobynThe endlessly influential Swedish pop mastermind returns with her first album in 8 years, and everything we initially loved about her is still there. So much of the modern space of electropop still owes itself to her early work, and she delivers some more upbeat, synth-driven tracks here injected with her usual degree of catharsis and escape from pain through pop music. A warm and inviting sound, every one of these tracks feels like something bigger than music, a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that Robyn invites you to join. This is an all-out pop celebration, but the only reason we’re having it is to forget about all those other not-so-fun things that happened to us. Join Robyn, and keep dancing to stop yourself from crying.

9. Jack White – Boarding House Reach

Image result for boarding house reachRock and roll music is in dire need of someone to come in and shake up the formula right now, any music driven by guitars often nowhere to be found on the top charts. With the polarizing Boarding House Reach, Jack White might be that guy. On a garage and blues rock adventure, White throws song structure out the window and hits listeners with a series of mostly instrumental, distorted tracks that represent some of the most ambitious work I’ve heard on a mainstream release in a long time. White has always had a flair for the melodramatic, and his vocals are theatrical and overly emotional here as he attacks modern capitalism and other topics. White thrives in the chaos, and the various sonic misdirections combined with White’s social commentary turns this into something like performance art.

8. Troye Sivan – Bloom

Troye Sivan - Bloom (Official Album Cover).pngThe best purely pop album of the year? Sivan evokes the 80s with some refreshing and personal lyricism concerning his approaches to relationships as a gay man. Sivan’s vocals are never the flashiest, honest and raw and often kept to little more than a breathy, lower-pitched whisper, but what he doesn’t have in vocal acrobatics he more than makes up for by pouring so much emotion into every note. Most of these instrumentals are dreamy and magical, a perfect soundscape to frame the discoveries and the ventures into adulthood that Sivan speaks of across the project. Sivan’s understated melodies sneak up on you and stick in your head forever, and he ends up pulling off a perfect homage to the pop music he loved growing up without even sounding like he’s trying that hard half the time.

7. Kali Uchis – Isolation

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis recruits a seriously impressive list of collaborators and blends her classy approach to contemporary R&B with some musical aspects of her own Colombian culture, incorporating some sounds of samba and bossa nova. Isolation is an album where most of the strength comes from the dynamic instrumentals from individuals like Thundercat, Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi and the Gorillaz. Uchis’ breathier vocal style is a complement to any of the wide array of genres arranged around her voice here, but when she takes more control and shows off her impressive range, or starts singing in Spanish, it’s easy to become enamoured with the rising star. The album tells a story with a deliberate sequencing of tracks as Uchis arrives in the USA and overcomes people’s perceptions of her in order to make it in the industry.

6. Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgThe Australian indie-pop singer-songwriter delivers one of the most relatable, affecting projects about relationships and loneliness I’ve ever heard, even as most of the situations she describes are vividly detailed and specific to her own personal life. Shark’s music is often a charming combination of smartly written pop melodies, acoustic strumming and trap beats, her tone and confessional songwriting reminding me of Taylor Swift at her best in a lot of ways. Shark’s voice is heartbreakingly emotive as she sings about her loneliness and her fondest memories of a great relationship down to the smallest details of locations they went to or remnants left in her house, and her desperate yearning for something real is a believable representation of something we all strive for.

5. Pusha T – Daytona

Image result for daytona album coverYeugh. The veteran rapper kicked off Kanye West’s five-album Wyoming series with a non-stop verbal assault. Long-time collaborators, the rapper and producer come together in perfect harmony and understanding of each other here, West reaching into the darker sides of his production abilities to provide a grim and menacing platform for Pusha T to exert his ruthless and dominating presence. Pusha’s wordplay and punchlines are some of the best in the game right now, and his expressive voice delivers his emotions effortlessly as he sits back on his perch and issues threats with a smile. Standing at 7 tracks, there’s no room for filler here and Push makes sure that every single word counts for something, drawing out his syllables and overpronouncing words to make absolutely certain we understand where he’s coming from. Sorry Drake.

4. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13oo“Welcome to the darkest side of Taboo”, Curry sings to kick off a section titled “Light”. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist takes us on a journey through his mind, dividing the album into sections of Light, Grey and Dark to signify the degree to which he becomes subsumed in the violence and hatred he observes in his community. The sections inevitably become hopelessly blurred, Curry backing up his paranoid and chaotic lyrics and flows with a full-voiced scream that emphasizes his mental chaos. The project ranges from grimy, distorted hardcore tracks to even some more breezy, funk-influenced instrumentals where Curry shows off his dexterous flow without the anger behind it. The final “Dark” section, however, is straight out of a nightmare. Curry addresses a wide range of taboo topics, as the title suggests, from a disturbingly realistic angle, creating a shocking and overwhelming project that completely overrides your senses. Curry is a man possessed, and has the full toolkit of a great rapper to back it up.

3. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegIn stark contrast, Golden Hour is one of the most adorably happy albums I’ve ever heard. In the wake of her marriage, the previously cynical Musgraves starts to see the world from a new angle, taking some ambitious cross-genre leaps in the process. Musgraves shifts from witty criticism to a genuine admiration of the beauty the world has to offer, singing about it with her pop-country melodies and softly delivered honesty in her voice. Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting, and she convinces me completely of this shift in her outlook by injecting some asides that reminds us it’s still her, like on the track “Happy & Sad”. Her voice gives me chills every time on the slower tracks that highlight it. You’re not going to find a more affecting display of pure, essential human emotion this year.

2. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

Image result for kids see ghostsComing to expect Kanye West to reinvent the wheel with every project he delivers, I was wondering where the construction of a completely new sound was on his first two Wyoming releases. It’s all right here. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi, West incorporates his alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does here. The two embattled artists lay all their flaws on the line, then turn to each other for support and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over all that holds them back in an extremely powerful way, finding their own personal peace. Another 7-track release where every tiny aspect feels like it belongs, the sheer innovation and creativity behind the sample flips and applications of more rock-oriented work into these hip-hop tracks is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and the duo both bring the energy to match these driving and high-octane tracks. A grandiose and triumphant statement.

1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer

Image result for dirty computerWhy can’t all political statements sound quite this incredible? Janelle Monae combines pop and R&B to look at the judgments in our society through her familiar lens of technology, the accompanying and moving “emotion picture” associated with the album depicting aspects of minority identities as a computer virus which needs to be erased, the person carrying that virus a “dirty computer”. Each of these tracks represents a jubilant memory of self-expression that Monae’s character has “erased” by the disturbing society of the film, cleaning her up. Monae mentioned Prince as a major inspiration for the project, and his presence is clear in the funk basslines and the confidence in Monae’s rap verses. Dirty Computer is a highly sexual album, Monae putting the very essence of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality on display and inviting listeners to the party where this celebration and appreciation for these facets of her identity will take place. The project closes with a speech calling for the rights of various minority groups as gospel-tinged harmonies state plainly: “Love me baby, love me for who I am”.

That’s it for Bensbeat in 2018, and with some exciting projects already on the radar for 2019, let’s hope some more great music is on the way. I’ll be back in the new year with some projects that dropped right at the end of the year, and then the new releases will start pouring in once again. Thanks for reading this year.

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Rapid Fire Reviews (James Bay, BTS, Pusha T)

Image result for james bay electric lightJames Bay – Electric Light

James Bay completely revamps his image on sophomore album Electric Light, linking up with Adele producer Paul Epworth to take his music in a much poppier direction, while still maintaining the soulful, almost gospel-influenced delivery that lent itself well to his stirring rock ballads. The transition isn’t always seamless, the album coming across as quite a mixed bag at times, the songs containing a lot of raw power that doesn’t always fall perfectly into the structure of a song. But when Bay settles into a groove, his delivery stands out among his contemporaries.

Opening track “Wasted On Each Other” is a pretty good representation of what we’re going to get over the rest of the album, Bay introducing the chorus with some falsetto vocals and a steadily building synth line before his heavier guitars and powerful delivery cascades back in too quickly. Bay doesn’t have the greatest grasp of his strengths on the project, offering some spectacular moments inconsistently. Many of these tracks are perfectly fine, but they could be a lot more as demonstrated by standout tracks like “Pink Lemonade” and the incredible gospel harmonies on “Fade Out” that feel so much more natural than the digitally altered companions “Wild Love” and “In My Head”. The latter especially feels like it’s teetering right on the edge of being something incredible, never reaching it. The sparse, passionate chorus feels immediately anthemic and iconic, but it’s brought down by abrupt shifts in energy and out-of-place pop synths. It feels like three genres collide awkwardly on the majority of the tracks, and when he focuses on a single one, he shines every time. Single “Pink Lemonade” is an energetic retro-pop track, driven by a prominent bass riff and a harmonized chorus. The crunchy guitars and electronic elements make the track chaotic in the best way, most of the musical elements dropping out near the track’s conclusion to showcase that standout voice before the drums roll back in for the dramatic conclusion.

For someone who seems so desperate for a change in his perception across the project, the most characteristically Bay songs frequently stand out, adding enough of a change with the fuller instrumentation while maintaining the things that make him a unique artist. “Us” is a beautifully-written gospel piano ballad, a choir backing him up as he returns to the intimate, confessional songwriting that drew him notice in the first place. Closing track “Slide”, as well, is a much quieter song detailing the rediscovery of love after the end of another relationship – and Bay’s ability to convey emotion absolutely sells it with every tiny warble and trill. But if there’s one thing he’s consistently incredible at, its the ability to write a dynamic and stirring chorus. “Just For Tonight” is another larger-than-life harmonized track that brings back the fuzzy guitars and coasts on its own energy.

Bay essentially performs a reverse Harry Styles here, shifting from cheesy rock to universally appealing pop rather than cheesy pop to universally appealing rock. In a similar way, he undergoes a dramatic shift to shed the image of the guy with the huge hat singing an acoustic rock ballad for something more ambitious and dynamic, citing Prince and Frank Ocean as influences, and overplays his hand. Still, the fact that about half of it works VERY well is incredible in and of itself.

Favourite Tracks: Pink Lemonade, Us, Slide, Fade Out

Least Favourite Track: Stand Up

Score: 6/10

Image result for love yourself tearBTS – Love Yourself: Tear

The staggering popularity of Korean boy-band BTS has become too great to ignore, the group debuting this album at #1 and receiving a Top 10 hit in the USA with their lead single “FAKE LOVE”. I didn’t know much about what to expect with this album, and I must say that BTS certainly exceeded my expectations. Love Yourself: Tear is a little erratic and trend-hopping due to the stronger focus on widespread commercial appeal in the K-pop market, but the interplay between the group’s many members and their inclusion of sounds from the 90s, even diving into some instrumentals that remind me of old-school West Coast hip-hop, make the project a lot of fun.

“FAKE LOVE” is a certified banger and absolutely deserves all of the success it’s getting. It introduces a lot of the 90s vibes of the album well, and it’s one of the rare occasions where the singers of the group steal the thunder from the rappers – those “just for you” backing vocals are delivered so well to support them, and there’s about three different hooks to get stuck in your head permanently here. RM, or Rap Monster, emerges as the true star of the group on most of the track he features on, however. “Anpanman” and especially “134340” clearly draw heavy inspiration from West Coast legends, RM sounding like he’s trying to emulate Snoop Dogg over the woodwind instrumental and G-funk tempo. His deep, laid-back vocals are effortless and distinctive from the group’s other rappers – and he has some seriously impressive technical skill as well, “Outro: Tear” verging on speedrap.

“Paradise” continues the streak, creating the most immediately catchy track here by adding a skittering trap beat to some classic 90s cascading synth chords and another chilled-out verse from another of the group’s rappers, Suga contrasting a pretty flawlessly written chorus melody. The producers here know exactly what they’re doing, and when you combine their dance ability with these catchy pop choruses and rap talent it’s easy to see why the group is such a worldwide phenomenon. There was never a popular boy-band quite this dynamic and versatile – the closest comparison being something of a much larger, male TLC. They try out a lot of styles across this project and succeed at most of them – I even love the enormous EDM breakdown on the cinematic, uptempo “Magic Shop”.

The project is carried by the energy generated by the group’s interplay and rapid-fire delivery, and the album does take a little while to get going in this regard. The intro, “Singularity”, and the Steve Aoki-produced “The Truth Untold” are both structured like a 90s slow jam, the singers of the group delivering passionate vocals over a waltz tempo, but knowing what I know now about the group I’m just waiting for RM to jump back on the mic and electrify the song. I can’t deny how well these tracks are produced, though – maybe this is a case of the language barrier stepping in. You can see the wheels of marketability turning behind the scenes a bit too much as well, a track like “Airplane pt.2” being a pretty watered-down imitation of the Latin pop explosion.

BTS have a lot of things going well for them, and it seems like the team around them know how to cater to those strengths. Love Yourself: Tear makes it impossible to deny the talent behind one of the world’s most popular acts.

Favourite Tracks: Paradise, 134340, FAKE LOVE, Outro: Tear, Magic Shop

Least Favourite Track: So What

Score: 7/10

Image result for daytona album coverPusha T – DAYTONA

I really thought I was going to be reviewing A$AP Rocky’s latest disappointing release TESTING here, but Pusha T’s victory over him in sales is incredibly exciting for everyone at G.O.O.D. Music and it means I have no excuse but to talk about it. DAYTONA is the first of five 7-track albums in superproducer and controversy magnet Kanye West’s ambitious plan to release back-to-back projects produced primarily by himself. With a ruthless and dominating mic presence like Pusha T, it means there is absolutely no room for filler and the shorter length works wonders, Pusha taking no prisoners for just over 20 minutes. West’s beats are as soulful as they’ve ever been, with a new cold and calculating edge that matches Pusha’s menacing sneer and ominous wordplay.

As Drake may have famously learned, Pusha T is not to be underestimated as a lyricist, or anything else – even if the subject material is mainly the same, he has some of the cleverest wordplay and cultural references in the game. The real appeal for me has always been the way he delivers the lines, however. Pusha T’s voice is very distinct, very expressive with its inflections yet remaining at the deeper tone we know him for that complements darker instrumentals so well. His ability to sound so happy, or surprised, or angry by raising his voice just a tiny bit allows him to issue threats to his enemies with a kind of demonic glee. The project opens with a great 1-2 punch in “If You Know You Know” and “The Games We Play”, which are a welcome return to classic Kanye production. The former chops up a piercing guitar wail into a syncopated hip-hop beat, but “The Games We Play” sounds like it’s directly off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, looping a catchy guitar riff with some cinematic horn stabs punctuating Pusha’s every gritty description of his drug-dealer past and yeugh ad-lib. It makes you feel like he puts everything he has into every single word he states, drawing out syllables and overpronouncing words to make sure we understand. We get the greatest display of commanding vocal presence on closing track “Infrared”, an incredibly thinly veiled shot at Drake and other members of what was once the Young Money label, accusing him of ghostwriting and losing his identity pandering to white audiences.

West’s production always succeeds both in bringing the absolute best out of Push and offering a bit of a counteraction to the non-stop verbal assault when necessary. “Come Back Baby” is the centerpiece of the album, Pusha T delivering a more basic flow that makes every word count over one of the most minimal beats here, not much more than two notes of creeping synth-bass, before the chorus transitions into a generous sample of soul singer George Jackson, a jarring shift to a completely different and catchy alternative that shouldn’t work as well as it does. West’s sample work is what he’s known for, and they show up on every single track here. “Hard Piano” has another great sampled chorus and looped, muted jazz piano that draws just enough attention as Pusha takes the spotlight – average Rick Ross feature aside. The beat switch in “Santeria”, the off-kilter soul organ picking the track back up from 070 Shake’s chilling, echoey vocals, is the best moment on the whole thing.

I almost want to say that the true star of the project is West, but that isn’t true at all – all the studio sessions in Wyoming resulted in a perfect fusion of their respective strengths. The beats are still characteristically West, but we’ve never really heard anything like this from him. Not incredibly different artists, Pusha accomplishes his aims through a no-nonsense approach where West might fall back on a joke, and the adaptation of his production style to a dark and straightforward approach gives Pusha T all the ammunition he needs to exert his dominance.

Favourite Tracks: If You Know You Know, Santeria, The Games We Play, Come Back Baby

Least Favourite Track: Hard Piano

Score: 9/10