Bad Bunny – X 100PRE

X100pre.jpgOne of the biggest musical trends over the previous year was pop music beginning to draw from many different aspects of various Latin-American genres, perhaps none more so than Latin trap. Already a global superstar, it was Bad Bunny’s feature verse on Cardi B’s “I Like It” that turned him into a household name in North America, and he shows off a diverse range of sounds from his native Puerto Rico across his first official full-length project, bridging the gap between them with his distinctively lower register and charismatic Auto-Crooned sound. The title a Spanish shorthand meaning “Por siempre”, or “Forever”, X 100PRE isn’t at all structured like your typical pop album, more like a shifting, changing playlist – many of these tracks have abrupt beat switches, and the flow of sounds from one track to the next is somewhat disjointed. While that does bring me out of the experience a bit, this is certainly a solid and wide-reaching debut.

Opener “NI BIEN NI MAL” is a pretty perfect example of the important presence Bad Bunny serves in the music industry right now, built primarily on some traditional acoustic Latin-sounding chords with the odd interspersed heavy trap beat that always complements these sounds so well, Bad Bunny sing-rapping a catchy, repetitive tune on top. The track eventually morphs into a more minimal, industrial hip-hop track and then a calming string section in its instrumental without the vocal track changing much, showing just how malleable Bad Bunny’s voice is – it’s strangely soothing even when in a more aggressive, hip-hop influenced register, and can fit over almost anything. He shows off his laid-back register at its peak on the track “Otra Noche en Miami”, the chorus a more electronic synth-based explosion as he repeats the title, sounding like he’s relaxing by the beach and taking the city in – the track reminds me of something from The Weeknd’s STARBOY.  Drake is honestly a pretty perfect guest to join him on the single “MIA” which closes the project – even as both sing in Spanish, their voices and the charismatic energy they are clearly bringing to the track match each other in a surprisingly great way.

Image result for bad bunny

In the next few tracks after the opener, we get “200 MPH”, which comes with a Diplo feature, “Caro”, with surprise vocals from none other than Ricky Martin, and one of the experiments that doesn’t really work, “Tenemos Que Hablar”, which ventures into what almost sounds like a 2000s-era alternative rock territory with a watered-down guitar riff and out-of-place trap beat.

While the project does run throughout various areas of reggaeton, bachata and dembow music – that same reggaeton beat you hear on every pop track isn’t quite dead yet when Bad Bunny augments it with some of his most emotional vocals on “Si Estuviésemos Juntos” – he is at his best dropping the high-energy trap bangers we know him for. The track “¿Quien Tu Eres?” is a shorter one that packs a serious punch, the beat dropping just as he raises his voice up into this higher-pitched yelp as he celebrates his success.

There are quite a few moments on the project where it loses direction a bit with a beat switch or the track listing’s order putting some sounds that aren’t incredibly complementary beside each other in the track listing, making it tougher to rank favourite tracks since so many of the greatest musical moments here come as part of a longer track that also features a strange diversion from what the track was trying to accomplish. Ricky Martin’s appearance on “Caro” is one of these moments, the track abruptly dropping in tempo to deliver the slower ballad pace Martin is more known for before Bad Bunny closes the track with a very brief return to the original high-energy section. “Solo de Mi” is split into two very good sections with completely opposite tones, vaulting into a chaotic hip-hop beat for less than a minute after a more emotional ballad – I’m all for a good beat switch, but there has to at least be a tiny bit of a through-line.

Image result for bad bunny live

“La Romana” is another track that begins excellently with one of the most fun Latin trap beats over this maddeningly catchy picked mariachi guitar pattern complete with airhorns as the beat drops, but glitches out Bad Bunny’s verse early and diverts into this more straightforward, percussive ragga/riddim section delivered by El Alfa that goes on for too long. The track listing probably could have been shortened as well – as much fun as Bad Bunny always sounds like he’s having, when he’s attacking a few of these Latin trap instrumentals with more of a melodic angle to complement a beat that isn’t quite so active, on tracks like “Ser Bichote”, the language barrier loses me a bit when I don’t have lyrics to spice up a less immediately exciting instrumental.

Alongside J Balvin, Bad Bunny has emerged as one of the Latin stars poised for continued dominance in a post-Despacito world, and the range of his talents on this project is a clear indicator of why. You could throw him on any vaguely Latin track and he’d turn it into a hit. Despite some structural qualms, this is the sound of an artist just getting started.

Favourite Tracks: NI BIEN NI MAL, ¿Quien Tu Eres?, Otra Noche en Miami, La Romana, MIA

Least Favourite Track: Tenemos Que Hablar

Score: 7/10

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BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2018

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

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

Honourable Mentions:

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

50. Mac Miller – 2009

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

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

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

48. Twenty One Pilots – Morph

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

47. The Internet – Hold On

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

46. Maggie Rogers – Light On

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

45. Hayley Kiyoko – Curious

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

44. Amy Shark – The Slow Song

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

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

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

42. Pusha T – The Games We Play

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

41. Joji – SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK

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

40. BROCKHAMPTON – NEW ORLEANS

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

39. Nao – Another Lifetime

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

38. Bas – Purge

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

37. Ariana Grande – God is a woman

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

36. Kero Kero Bonito – Make Believe

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

35. James Bay – Pink Lemonade

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

34. BTS – Paradise

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

33. Jack White – Corporation

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

32. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – Reborn

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

31. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel

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

30. J. Cole – Kevin’s Heart

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

29. Lauren Jauregui – Expectations

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

28. Blood Orange – Saint

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

27. Charlie Puth – Empty Cups

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

26. Mitski – Nobody

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

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

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

24. Kim Petras – Heart To Break

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

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

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

22. Kacey Musgraves – High Horse

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

21. Robyn – Because It’s In The Music

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

20. Ella Mai – Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. DRAM – Best Hugs

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

15. Camila Cabello – Consequences

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

14. Denzel Curry – SUMO | ZUMO

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

13. SOPHIE – Faceshopping

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

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

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

11. Childish Gambino – This Is America

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

10. Kali Uchis – Flight 22

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

9. Pusha T – If You Know You Know

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

8. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

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

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

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

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

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

5. Kacey Musgraves – Rainbow

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

4. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

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

3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – 4th Dimension

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

2. Amy Shark – Don’t Turn Around

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

1. Janelle Monae – I Like That

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

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

Check out this list on Spotify below!

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

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

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

Lil Baby & Gunna – Drip Harder

Image result for drip harder coverThe year is 2018. Lil Baby and Gunna have narrowly eked out a sales victory over Beyonce and Jay-Z. And the tide of average yet wildly successful trap albums keep on coming. Drip Harder is a collaboration project between two of the bigger names on Young Thug’s YSL label, as well as a sequel of sorts to last year’s high-profile Atlanta collab project SUPER SLIMEY, featuring Thug and Future. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing across the entire project that gets me excited in any way, and that’s pretty difficult to do – usually there’s at least a couple tracks that’s are at least a lot of mindless fun. The best rap collabs are usually rather unexpected, their differences playing off of each other well – here, I can barely tell which is which, each doing their greatest impression of their label boss. The incredibly uninspired trap production doesn’t do much to help either, running through the same moody trap-piano instrumentals we’ve heard ad nauseam since the genre was popularized.

Both Baby and Gunna adopt a kind of woozy, muffled cadence, seemingly trying to use their voices as another form of instrument like Young Thug does but lacking the charisma and off-the-wall lyricism to make it work. I knew there was a Young Thug feature somewhere on the project on my first listen, and without looking at the tracklist I wondered on more than one occasion if a standard Baby verse was the aforementioned feature – that’s how little of their own identity each of these two carve out here.

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This kind of delivery doesn’t complement such standard trap fare on these beats either, the point of Thug’s popularization of it was that it works on some more experimental instrumentals. Before we get to the top 5 single “Drip Too Hard” and the Drake-featuring “Never Recover”, back-to-back at the very end of the project, we have to suffer through 11 of the exact same, copy-and-pasted song of these two disinterestedly slurring their way through a midtempo hi-hat beat and either the same kind of keys or off-kilter synths in each track. I accidentally left the project on shuffle when writing this review and didn’t notice until 4 songs in because the songs are that indistinguishable from each other.

There are a few tracks like “Deep End” where they end up going completely off beat at times – what is that flow on “he can’t even swim he off the deep end?” Baby honestly sounds like he’s reading his lyrics off of a teleprompter and got surprised by a sudden change in what he had to say. On “World Is Yours”, one of the Gunna solo tracks here, the prominent hi-hat roll that had me at least nodding my head drops out right as the chorus starts, a repetitive and off-key melody that’s delivered at a lower energy level for some reason. Not even Thug himself can save the day on “My Jeans”, these two seemingly bringing out his worst tendencies as he dumbs down his personality and delivers some pretty standard bars about money and the like.

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Gunna honestly has a solo track here called “Style Stealer”, where he accuses people of stealing his. Gunna wouldn’t be here if he didn’t hop on a giant wave of style stealers – he has nothing distinguishable about himself for others to steal. As previously mentioned, the last two tracks are easily the most enjoyable here. Drake steals the show with his opening verse over a Tay Keith beat on the closer before the talent disparity is made evident as the other two return, while the accelerated energy and faster flows of “Drip Too Hard” are very welcome after all the sleepy trap cuts here.

It’s been difficult to write something that’s the same length as my other pieces because there’s been nothing released this year that’s such absolute sonic wallpaper there’s almost nothing that even stands out to write about. Every time I think we’ve reached the peak of the robotic trap music assembly line, these artists putting out multiple projects of very similar, formula-adherent material each year, something like this comes out and surprises me. Remembering that I have to review a 19-track Quavo album in the near future is not helping matters much. Yeah … yeah this is my first 1/10 of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Drip Too Hard, Never Recover

Least Favourite Track: Style Stealer

Score: 1/10

Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldTravis Scott’s third album, ASTROWORLD, firmly cements himself in the pantheon of today’s rap superstars with a project where he does everything expected of him and then adds a little more creative flair on top. Of course, nobody is looking to Scott for a work of art, and he delivers fully on a fun and enjoyable summer rap album. While it may not be his best album yet, it’s certainly his most risky, and comes with a truly impressive selection of guests that elevate Scott’s performance to another level entirely. It’s definitely a huge step up from the mundane and disinterested Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (2016), and it’s great to see what Scott can produce when he slows down his speedy release schedule for the first time.

As soon as that fuzzy bassline hits for the first time on opening track “STARGAZING”, we’ve stepped into Scott’s sonic conceptualization of his childhood favourite Houston theme park, since demolished. It’s a frequently surprising and always psychedelic, a magical dreamscape of a place. We hear the sound of a rollercoaster about to drop as the beat completely switches up to this frantic rising synthline as Scott explains the inspiration behind the dedication to the theme park with an expressive, capable flow. The beat switch is a great tactic for Scott, as it shows up again on standout “SICKO MODE”, where Scott and Drake essentially just play around on various incredible instrumentals from Hit-Boy and Tay Keith – Drake brings the same kind of flow he does on Scorpion track “Nonstop”, but the fuller instrumental here, the bass hitting that much harder, is so much more accommodating to him. He actually sounds like he’s having fun! Scott’s deep, slightly melodic voice manages to find the catchiest flow it possibly can on the middle section as well, but this is Drake’s song, and it’s surprisingly all the better for it.

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The experimentation continues on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”, a complete artistic deviation and triumph for Scott that sees him pull from disparate musical worlds to create something completely unique. The pleasant, breathy hook where the title is repeated is backed up by ethereal hums from Kid Cudi, Scott’s Auto-Tuned singing voice in complete command of the slower instrumental – as the track goes on, we get (seriously) some dynamic harmonica solos from STEVIE WONDER, and a final harmonized section from James Blake that’s the most beautiful moment on this whole project. Of course, Scott has no shortage of blistering club tracks either. His quicker flow on moody trap cut “NO BYSTANDERS”, featuring an incendiary hook from newcomer Sheck Wes, is the greatest technical showcase here, and I love how well it complements that quickly oscillating synth noise that comes in in the second half of his verses. “5% TINT” might be my favourite instrumental here, an off-kilter piano loop that sounds like something out of a spooky children’s show, while “CAN’T SAY” is a classic anthemic Scott hook in the vein of a “Goosebumps” or “Antidote”. The Weeknd appears for a feature on “WAKE UP”, framed by a lazy acoustic guitar sample and trap hi-hats as the two get lost in lustful thoughts as only they do, the two trading verses cleanly.

Scott’s genre-hopping is pretty impressive, even if not everything sticks completely. Across the tracklisting, he additionally pays homage to the legendary DJ Screw on “RIP SCREW” with the chopped and screwed, calmer style of R&B-influenced hip-hop he helped pioneer, brings jazz bassist Thundercat and John Mayer together for the wildly spacey and psychedelic “ASTROTHUNDER” and recruits indie band Tame Impala to produce the shimmering interlude “SKELETONS”, which also features vocals from The Weeknd and Pharrell. While none of these tracks are the most structurally cohesive, as I personally am usually looking for something more present from Scott, I seriously have to admire that he managed to pull tracks like these off to some degree of success. Even the closing track, “COFFEE BEAN”, sees Scott’s voice at his all-time clearest, taking the more subdued route of a storyteller rapper for the first time as he speaks out about concerns he had with dating Kylie Jenner as a black man thrust so fully into the private eye, even mentioning that her family had advised against it.

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As a whole, however, ASTROWORLD suffers from the same curse most mainstream rap albums do these days, decreasing noticeably in quality as the album continues and extends to 17 tracks in length. Most of the songs in the back half don’t possess the same degree of experimentation that each one of the preceding tracks do, sounding like relics of Scott’s past work just as most of Birds did. The lack of polish is evident on a track like “YOSEMITE”, which features some inexcusable mixing problems that undermine a pretty catchy guitar instrumental, while the Migos-featuring “WHO? WHAT!” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” don’t have the immediately catchy hooks that I usually expect from a Scott track, sounding like Scott running out of ideas and opting for streaming numbers instead of the best album he could make. The existence of “BUTTERFLY EFFECT”, a mediocre Auto-Tuned trap cut which was released in May 2017, demonstrates how much less thought went into the back half of the tracklist.

Ultimately, Scott succeeds at painting a vivid picture of the park he loved so much, each of these tracks representing a different ride – “CAROUSEL”, “SICKO MODE” the rollercoaster, “5% TINT” the haunted house … ASTROWORLD represents a similar kind of exhilarating, fleeting joy, a little cheap, but that’s what we all signed up for and expected anyway. I certainly had a great summer day in Astroworld.

Favourite Tracks: SICKO MODE, STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, WAKE UP, 5% TINT, NO BYSTANDERS

Least Favourite Track: BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Score: 7/10

Drake – Scorpion

Scorpion by Drake.jpgCanadian singer, rapper, walking meme, marketing genius, and – gasp – FATHER, Drake, only 16 months removed from his previous project More Life, releases yet another bloated project where the biggest artist in the world sees fit to deliver the bare minimum, attempting to coast through on charm. Scorpion certainly has more highs than More Life did, largely thanks to the production work from primary OVO sound man Noah “40” Shebib and some experienced classic hip-hop producers that tap into an era of samples and sharp rhythms, but Drake himself is once again simply going through the motions of exactly what people expect from him. As he does, he drops the odd brilliant or terrible line or melody into the mix, often directly adjacent to each other, but for the most part Scorpion upholds Drake’s reputation as the guy who always stops at “good enough”. This is interspersed with some frustrating responses to Pusha T’s attempted career demolition where he contradicts himself – both trying to act tough and place himself above the situation on differing tracks. But, of course, it’s so hard not to like the guy when he’s on his game.

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Scorpion is divided into two equally inconsistent sides, one leaning more hip-hop and the other R&B. The hip-hop side opens with some pretty standard Drake fare, “Survival” and “Nonstop” both featuring his monotoned, disinterested voice over some dark, moody instrumentals. The latter is clearly supposed to be a hype track, but it only appears so because Drake punctuates his low-effort delivery with even sleepier ad-libs – which I think is the opposite of what an ad-lib is supposed to do. He turns into an accidental caricature of himself on the whiny “I’m Upset”, complaining about trivial issues in an uninteresting way. The first half works better when Drake combines his strengths, improving on an otherwise bland instrumental on a track “Elevate” by alternating between raps and a catchy sing-song flow.

The producers steal the show here, however. Of course, before the two camps were sending shots at each other, Drake was once a young Kanye West fan and many of these beats sound more like “Old Kanye” than ever. “Emotionless” is an absolute standout, Drake rapping over a chopped vocal sample of Mariah Carey’s classic “Emotions” and gospel piano chords from the legendary No ID, some energy creeping back into his voice as he acknowledges his son for the first time on an album clearly updated with additional discussion on the subject. Drake pulls a Taylor Swift marketing move, flipping the narrative, embracing the role he’s been given, and expanding on his position. Boi-1da drops a sample of some soulful Marvin Gaye chords onto “8 Out of 10”, Drake’s sing-song, syncopated flow sounding like it’s directly off of Graduation. Another Boi-1da beat, “Mob Ties”, despite some pretty terrible punchline bars, continues to show that Drake can excel when people other than his team of yes men come around – the eerie, high-tempo synth stabs and very prominent hi-hats are conducive to the erratic, threatening persona he presents. Never staying consistent though, tracks like “Can’t Take A Joke” and “Is There More” that close out the first side bring it back down to the basic hip-hop beats and straightforward, phoned-in delivery.

Side B is a bit less structured, and it honestly works better for him – it’s fun to hear Drake messing around a bit in the studio, his R&B vocals calling back to the endearing cheesiness of male R&B in the 90s. Single “Nice For What” has always been a great blend of Lauryn Hill and New Orleans bounce, and it shows that Drake’s ear for a catchy melody might be his greatest asset. The track “In My Feelings” is pretty ridiculous in concept, Drake naming a different girl in each chorus as he calls out to them “do you love me?”, but that melody never leaves your head, and eventually, it just becomes hilarious and you can’t help but love it. The genuine comedy continues on “After Dark”, a tribute to slow jams of the 90s that features a smooth feature from Ty Dolla $ign and Drake absolutely selling the sleazy ladies’ man angle over some dreamy acoustic noodling.

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The side also features some interesting new sonic directions from Drake, which is very welcomed on an album with so much filler. “Summer Games” features some of Drake’s warmest vocals over a persistent, throbbing synth line and a steadily building tribal percussion rhythm that shows the versatility of his instrument … if he so chose to use it. The side still isn’t without it’s shortcomings – tracks like “Peak” and “Ratchet Happy Birthday” don’t quite click, Drake’s meandering melodies not lining up with much, both punctuated with too-prominent annoying effects – a synth line, or Drake’s “BRRRRR”. “Jaded” is boring in comparison, while “Don’t Matter To Me” throws aside the creation of an enjoyable, coherent song for the sole purpose of proving that Drake has the money to throw at the acquisition of previously unheard Michael Jackson material.

Scorpion is Drake’s best album since he decided to go the route of bloated projects for the sole purpose of increasing his streaming numbers with 2016’s Views. The duality between the sides keeps the listener engaged as Drake steps into his fatherly role with some compelling tales. Still, the glimpses of just how much more it could have been remain pretty infuriating. Drake’s inconsistency continues, but if that scathing Pusha T diss track couldn’t deter his continued rise, I’m sure he won’t mind what I have to say.

Favourite Tracks: Nice For What, After Dark, Emotionless, Talk Up

Least Favourite Track: Is There More

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

Drake – More Life

Image result for more lifeSinger, rapper, OVO label boss and debatable biggest artist in the world Drake defies the typical strategy of release once again, unleashing his fourth project in about a 2-year span on his adoring fans and dubbing it a “playlist”, inventing a new category between the mixtape and the album. As the speed of his projects increases and popularity rises, More Life unfortunately only continues the trend which most recently culminated in 2016’s sprawling, overlong and unfocused Views.

I have frequently referred to Drake as the most inconsistent artist in the music industry today, capable of creating some truly great things when he actively seeks to distinguish himself and make a statement but more often than not falling into the same sonic and lyrical trends that made him famous. More Life contains even less standout moments than Views did, rarely pushes itself to the foreground of listeners’ consciousness and continue to blend global elements to a painfully awkward degree.

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Drake attempts to take listener on a world tour with the sound of this project, evidently hoping that titling it a playlist would excuse its incongruity. When we aren’t getting the classic Drake dancehall flips (the more upbeat tropical instrumental of “Madiba Riddim” actually got me excited for a second until Drake whined “I can not tell who is my friend”) or “It’s so hard being the most famous person in the world” bars over uninspired rap instrumentals, he ventures even further into getting halfway there on replicating Afrobeat and grime. Outside of relatively unknown influences from Drake’s new worldly forays, production is handled by the same OVO team which has been creating similar OVO beats since If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

The best moments on this project come when we hear new sounds that don’t come from attempts to emulate a genre, such as on the beats of “Skepta Interlude” and “Portland”, which is itself riding a recent wave of implementing flutes into trap beats. “Ice Melts” counts because it’s only the 2nd song ever that sounds like D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”. Of course, you can never count out the charm that makes up the majority of Drake’s appeal showing up at least a few times on a 22-track project either, and “Gyalchester” best reflects this.

Some, but certainly not all (looking at you, Giggs) features on this project make the best of their guest spots on a high profile project. I have to mention Young Thug’s verse on “Sacrifices” here, where he sounds more coherent than ever and presents a technically impressive verse with a running motif and an off-kilter flow that only Thug could make work. UK singer Sampha gets a track all to himself, allowing his smooth vocals to steal the spotlight for a moment, and Kanye West’s appearance on “Glow” saves what is a rather disjointed track due to sounding more passionate than most tracks on Pablo.

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Drake, on the other hand, rarely sounds like he cares at all. Most of my favourite moments on this project come when Drake isn’t speaking because every other voice sounds like they want to be there more. Compare him to grime rapper Skepta, who gets an entire interlude to himself and outdoes all other tracks by virtue of his impassioned delivery alone. The entire project is watered down Drake tropes, as evidenced by the fact that single “Fake Love”, itself a less interesting “Hotline Bling”, now almost sounds good in this context.

I’m surprised that Drake’s interpolation of cultural elements that are not his own are not drawing as much negative ire as something like Iggy Azalea’s fake accent in how awkward their execution is. His now-trademark dancehall elements appear on about a third of these tracks, and his fake patois unfortunately appears on more. As a few lesser-known UK artists get prime appearances here, of course Drake had to try their style as well. On “No Long Talk”, he legitimately says “Now you man are on a diss ting” in a British accent. From now famously stealing upstart XXXTentacion’s flow on “KMT” to turning half of “Teenage Fever” into a pitched sample of ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez’s hit “If You Had My Love”, there is little originality to be found here.

As soon as fans were whipped into frenzy upon Drake’s utterance of “Running! Through the! Six! With my woes!” on 2015 track “Know Yourself”, it became far too easy to be Drake and he began to focus on quantity over quality. While he suggests an extensive break from the spotlight on More Life‘s closing track, he still asserts he will be back in 2018. For all of our sakes, take a bit longer and find your inspiration again.

Favourite Tracks: Skepta Interlude, Can’t Have Everything, Gyalchester

Least Favourite Track: Teenage Fever

Score: 4/10

PARTYNEXTDOOR – P3

Songwriter, producer, Drake protégé and R&B artist PARTYNEXTDOOR’s third studio effort latches on to the rising tide of the popularized OVO sound which is currently infiltrating its way into every facet of the music industry. The minimalistic alt-R&B presented here makes for a project which is incredibly sonically unified, even as the runtime extends past an hour. But rather than aiming for hits on this project like some of his contemporaries, PND slows things down for a more stripped back and intimate listening experience. While it would be fantastic if this had translated to PND offering a higher degree of artistry than his labelmates, it mostly sounds like emulation, albeit quite masterful.

Production is handled mostly by OVO beat mastermind 40, as well as PND himself, among some other lesser-known OVO associates. While these people have proven time and time again that they are amazing and very effective at what they set out to do, there is one again no new personnel coming in to provide a new perspective, and that is why the sound of this album hits every point of the framework of what is popular amongst the OVO camp at the moment. PND rides Drake’s current wave of dancehall-inspired instrumentals, which turns out to be a major strength of P3 as I believe he does it better than the boss himself. During a woozy section in the album’s middle, PND offers up the Weeknd’s brand of slowed-down, darkly beautiful alt-R&B numbers as well.

“Not Nice” is possibly the best song to come out of the OVO dancehall craze, speeding joyfully along and sounding like a caffeine-injected version of “One Dance”. PND’s instantly catchy melody adapts to the steel drum instrumental, the joy of recording coming across evidently to the listener. “Only U” follows and is equally as good. PND hails from Mississauga, Ontario of all places, but he could convince me he was born and raised in Jamaica with these songs. His voice adapts very well to the patois for some reason, unlike how awkward it can be when Drake says something like “ting”.

“Joy”, on the other hand, is the best Weeknd-style track. It really is quite ridiculous how thinly veiled PND’s imitation of his peers is on this project, as he adopts Abel’s grim worldview and desensitization to emotions in his lyrical content. This sounds like a track that was rejected from “Beauty Behind the Madness” for being too happy, actually entertaining the concept that finding joy in a relationship is possible. The Weeknd would never do such a thing! The song is the best showcase for PND’s voice over languid acoustic strumming and minimalistic backing piano. The Weekndisms and guitar-based R&B continue on standout track “Spiteful”.

A few of these songs overstay their welcome and become almost over-indulgent. There is no reason for a song which does not divert once from a singular idea – PND and his lady need 1942 tequila – to be nearly 6 minutes in length. Quite often after the main structure of a song has run its course, PND remains on a more minimal version of the beat for an extra minute crooning out variations of some of the lyrics we just heard. If PND was an absolute knockout of a singer, this would probably be beneficial, but at the moment it is just too much. The intro “High Hopes” could have been one of the best songs if it didn’t bore me to death with its 7:22 runtime.

PARTYNEXTDOOR was signed in tandem with The Weeknd by label boss Drake. Now only one of the two has become a burgeoning superstar, and I believe it may have to do with the fact that The Weeknd is one of the only people in the entire OVO camp who broke from the formula and started doing something new and interesting. It caused him to stand out from the crowd, whereas PND does not regardless of how good the songs actually are. PND at times sounds like the sonic baby of the OVO melting pot on this project, and carving out his own sound will ultimately be necessary for further success. When I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between PND and Drake on collaboration “Come and See Me”, I knew there was a persisting problem here. But then again, PND is a pretty fantastic imitator.

Favourite Tracks: Not Nice, Joy, Only U, Spiteful

Least Favourite Track: 1942

Score: 6/10