The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy album.pngEDM duo The Chainsmokers took a unique approach to the release of this album, releasing all of its 10 songs one at a time in each month of 2018 (with a couple exceptions). Not professing to be the biggest Chainsmokers fan in the world, all of these songs are new to me now that the full project has an official release. On their sophomore project Sick Boy, the duo takes a seemingly transitional approach, devoting about half the album to even more clones of their biggest hit in “Closer” and half to trying to find new sounds. One of the most disheartening things to me about the group is that they clearly have the capacity to be talented and creative, but spend most of their time watering down their sound and catering to what they think we want to hear – and as their latest sales reflect, that’s not always retreads of the same thing forever. There are a couple moments on this project where they hit a new and exciting groove, but most of it is diluted by their adherence to the same melodramatic lyrics and repetitive, sanitized and contemplative “dance” breaks.

The duo recruit their only big-name feature in country star Kelsea Ballerini on the opening track “This Feeling”, which just feels like a logical continuation of trying to recreate as many different versions of the same hit as they can, using what sounds like exactly the same swelling synth chords building up to the dance breakdown, replacing a few instrumental elements with strummed acoustic guitars instead as Drew Taggart debuts with his female counterpart over a repetitive chorus melody consisting of little more than a few adjacent notes. It’s a perfectly passable pop song, you just wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from literally anything else if it were playing in the background. If there’s anything I really do have to hand to The Chainsmokers, it’s their ability to create a distinctive and influential signature sound – I just need to hear some variety here and there.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018

The next track “Beach House” – which is literally named after the laid-back indie dreampop duo that the sound of the track was influenced by – doesn’t fare much better, dropping into a copy-pasted half-time and explosive yet brief dance segment interspersed between Taggart’s underwritten calls out to a girl. The track “You Owe Me” as well, despite being one of the catchiest here, was clearly inspired directly from the Twenty One Pilots repertoire, continuing to display the duo’s dearth of original ideas. The lyrics only get more awkwardly histrionic later on. Taggart adopts this kind of overwrought emo cadence for the whole duration of the album, really leaning into the ever-present idea that his words addressing the basics of life are much more poignant than they really are, but it all comes to a breaking point on the title track “Sick Boy” where he takes it so far it almost sounds like he’s faking a British accent. “How many likes is my life worth?”, Taggart emotes, trying to make some kind of a political statement with disjointed buzzwords and criticizing narcissism on an album full of it.

The duo collaborate with fellow DJs Aazar and NGHTMRE as the album winds down on the tracks “Siren” and “Save Yourself”, two tracks that inexplicably recall the peak of Skrillex-fronted brostep and come across as incredibly dated. “Siren” in particular sounds identical to the form and synth textures of how Skrillex used to structure his drops – the duo clearly think they’re evolving, switching it up, but they’ve gone so far backward into a sound I never thought I’d hear again.

I call this a transitionary project due to the legitimate presence of some new ideas here, most of which are actually pretty good. The last track to be released on this project, “Hope”, featuring the subtly beautiful vocals of Winona Oak, finally switches up the rhythmic structure of a Chainsmokers track with some Prismizer-esque layering of her vocals and a marimba-esque synth tone that enhances the flow with some syncopated cascading melodies. The way the pre-chorus returns at the end of the song, interspersing with the more upbeat section of the track which is allowed to continue instead of cutting short, is another obvious exercise in song structure that the duo should have tried long ago that really completes the track.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018 live

Frequent collaborator Emily Warren lends her vocals to the track “Side Effects”, a much darker track than we’re used to from the duo featuring some fuzzy synth-bass and a much more driving style – those piano chords in the background are an unexpected detail that completes the mix. Warren actually drops a pretty great rap verse as well, and the high-octane nature of the track when she hits her energetic peak is something completely new for the duo. “Everybody Hates Me”, if you can ignore Taggart’s return to some whiny, suffering-from-success sob stories that rival Drake at his absolute worst, features a pretty fun synth breakdown as well that represents another rhythmic switch and reminds me of the legitimately thrilling drop of their last truly great track, “Roses”.

Sick Boy represents the slightest of steps up from their debut project, and it’s good to see that they’re at least entertaining the idea of varying their sound a bit more. Still, there are way too many of their old, insufferable tricks here to justify repeat listens.

Favourite Tracks: Hope, Side Effects, You Owe Me

Least Favourite Track: Somebody

Score: 4/10

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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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

One of ascendant label 88Rising’s biggest artists, Joji, drops his debut full-length studio album BALLADS 1 which exhibits his unique, lo-fi approach to modern R&B, pop and hip-hop music. A former YouTube star famous for his surreal, absurdist comedy, you can certainly still sense some of his over-the-top personality in his lyrics, but Joji has done all he can to distance himself from his past as Filthy Frank and the comedy rap alias Pink Guy. Teaming up with some diverse collaborators, this is a very wide-reaching range of sounds, some of them more adaptable to his unhinged and emotional approach than others. Joji’s vocals are very raw and often a little off-key, and there are more than a few mixing and mastering issues here, but half the time it strangely fits, the nihilistic and moody aesthetic all clicking together in the right way regardless.

The opening track “Attention” is a pretty good indication that most of the project is pretty hastily thrown together – Joji’s vocals are more off than on most of the tracks here, and you can tell due to the minimal pop-piano backing track, while the distorted bass that rumbles in halfway through is far too loud and throws off the mix completely. Still, underneath all of the mess, there’s a pretty catchy melody there. The next track “Slow Dancing In The Dark”, on the other hand, is so beautiful it seriously caught me off guard from this meme master of an artist. The explosion of those digital, 80s synths and the lighter, cascading textures as he hits the climactic note in the chorus is one of the craziest musical moments of the year – it’s a completely unique spin on the moody alt-R&B ballads that have coloured the charts recently. “Come Thru” is another great track in the same vein here, some plaintive synth piano-notes and sparse percussion knocking on the off-beat backing up an Auto-Tuned falsetto melody – everything about the song is just barely off-kilter, and it fits the emotional tone of the track for that reason.

Joji additionally attacks sounds of more traditional synthpop and trap here, and while showing he has a great command of melody and song structure, the vocals and mixing can let him down on the more minimal or derivative tracks. Joji duets with kindred spirit Trippie Redd on “R.I.P.” – the two are similar in that they sacrifice vocal performance for authentic and raw emotion, often to an extreme degree. I’m not going to argue that he sounds great on upbeat pop tracks like “Can’t Get Over You” and “No Fun”, but the carefree nature of his vocals, especially when he starts throwing some deceptively sadder lyrics into these standout, bouncier mixes, creates something that is recognizably Joji. The aching falsetto on a track like “Why Am I Still In LA”, especially over such an arrhythmic, lurching and distorted instrumental that verges on noise rock, is a truly haunting and affecting moment, the sudden musical explosions mirroring his clearly genuine anguish. Most of this album isn’t exactly what you’d call replayable, but it’s something I’ll remember for a while.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Dancing In The Dark, Can’t Get Over You, No Fun, Why Am I Still In LA, Come Thru

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

Cover of Not All HeroesMetro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Trap producer extraordinaire Metro Boomin drops his first solo album after having his name attached to numerous collab projects over the past few years. Possibly the most recognizable music producer by name at the moment, you can likely credit most of the rise of trap as a popular genre to his influence, particularly his early work with Future. After threatening retirement … or at least, just a break of some sort … in the midst of his hit songs dominating the charts, Metro returns rather quickly with a collection of tracks that are a little more low-key for his style, but still play into his trademarks of murky and menacing basslines and the odd soul sample thrown into the mix. Metro is a bonafide hitmaker, but I can’t help but feel most of these tracks don’t have the same kind of immediately iconic and innovative techniques that help him spice up the genre that you can find on most of his hits. He still gets some great performances out of his collaborators – 21 Savage steals the show on every feature here – but this is the first time I’ve heard Metro beats and felt just a little bored.

People are drawn to Metro’s instrumentals because they put something unexpected into the formula – usually, something that sparks a trend that everyone else ends up following. More often than not here, it feels like he’s being safer than ever, and even following some trends himself. The first two tracks, “10AM/Save The World” and “Overdue” both have elements of soul sampling in them, but the first track is split into two distinct sections, Metro briefly showing his flipping talents after a by-the-numbers opening track featuring a sleepy Gucci Mane feature that doesn’t capture his usual charisma. “Overdue” splices a sample through the whole track, exciting me with those opening moments of that delicate and breathy vocal performance, but it continues to cut in and out after the beat drops despite being the aspect that complements it the most and saves it from a pretty average performance from Travis Scott.

As for chasing trends, Metro deviating from his sound proves to be a pretty bad idea in his attempts to make a Latin pop track with Wizkid and J Balvin on “Only You” – it’s blander than he’s ever been, and far from his area of expertise. Most of these tracks could easily blow up – those hi-hats hit as hard as Metro’s ever have, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like something only he could have made anymore. “Dreamcatcher” harnesses a great hook from Swae Lee and a fun Travis Scott verse, but it doesn’t have that same level of excitement. The back half of the album could essentially be found on any hit trap project this year.

There are still quite a few sparks of creativity across the board here. “Don’t Come Out The House” is a constantly switching-up track that sees him team up with 21 Savage and re-embrace his eerie horror-movie influenced sound, Savage hilariously leaning into his over-the-top nefarious persona with a whispered flow. 21 Savage’s other solo track “10 Freaky Girls” is the best sample flip here, taking inspiration from the 90s synth-piano textures of a lesser-known Whitney Houston track as Savage continues to deliver some hysterical punchlines and an upbeat, present flow. Those brief, weird scream sounds are such an interesting touch, and the horn section is one of those unexpected embellishments that only Metro could throw in halfway through and have work so well. “Space Cadet” is ridiculously fun, featured artist Gunna going full Young Thug with some off-the-wall vocal inflections and an audible smile on his face as he makes boasts over some shimmering synth chords and appropriately galactic bleeps and bloops.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a perfectly serviceable trap project from a man who understands the genre better than most, and in most scenarios, it’ll still enliven a room – I just have high expectations for Metro after his unstoppable run of tracks that were both wildly popular and creative.

Favourite Tracks: 10 Freaky Girls, Space Cadet, Don’t Come Out The House, Dreamcatcher

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

Iconic and influential Swedish pop singer Robyn makes her comeback – it’s been 8 years since her last solo full-length project, Body Talk, though she has dropped an EP and a brief collaboration with equally experimental electropop duo Royksopp in that time. Listening to this new project, Honey, it’s easy to see just how much of the current landscape of experimental electropop owes its existence to some of Robyn’s earlier work, discarding the pop formula at the time and injecting a new degree of emotional catharsis to some upbeat, synth-infused tracks – it’s the earliest form of what singers like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Tove Lo do now. The project consists of only 9 tracks, but each of them are a fully established, shimmering dance-pop world that shifts and changes with a very warm and full sound. It’s easy to think that this project is dated, and a few of these longer tracks do get slightly tiresome after a while, but Robyn is still doing some pretty incredible things in the pop music world.

Most of the emotion Robyn is able to convey is truly due to her voice, which is more than holding up. A breathy yet powerful soprano, it’s the perfect instrument to triumphantly soar over the pulsating disco-influenced synths that are frequently backing her up. The opening track “Missing U” is a pop song from another time, Robyn hitting a catchy and straightforward pop rhythm over a booming synth bassline and a quickly oscillating higher-pitched synth texture that never goes away even when it falls out of key with the rest of the track, but it works perfectly as both a driving force anchored to the thumping percussion and something that’s just out of place to line up with the lyrical themes. “Because It’s in the Music” is even more transcendent, containing what’s easily one of the greatest pop choruses of the year. Robyn slowly ascends up the scales with a huge degree of emotional conviction as she sings about defines most of her career – a song that simultaneously makes you want to move … and cry. One of the most evidently disco-influenced tracks here, Robyn’s vocals are light as air as some orchestral stabs and a persistent funk bassline build her up to her bigger moments.

Most of the project comes across in this ethereal, very full-sounding dreamscape and a lot of that is due to some pretty impressive harmonies. Even a minimal track like “Human Being” comes alive when she drops some old-school pop triads onto the chorus. The title track “Honey” is a high-octane track that sees Robyn doing a high-speed syncopated rhythm on a single note before the hi-hats kick the track into a higher gear of energy – all of these tracks are a pretty masterful exercise in the slow build that ultimately turns into an all-out pop celebration, but all the same it’s a celebration for people to exorcise their personal demons getting swept up in the driving rhythms. I love that robotic vocal sample and bongo drums on the absolutely bizarre Disclosure-esque track “Between the Lines”, and the project closes on a strong note as well with “Ever Again”, one of the most unapologetically pure pop tracks here that cycles through a few fun added instruments keeping up the driving main riffs of the backing track.

A lot of this project is straight out of a different time, and not the kind where we’re paying homage to the past by doing the slightest things to bring it into the modern world either – there are a couple times here when adjusting your 2018 ears to what’s being delivered here is a huge leap. “Beach2k20” is essentially an old-school house music track, Robyn not doing much more than spoken word over a repetitive samba instrumental that extends further than anything else here. “Baby Forgive Me”, as well, falls into more of a traditionally European-sounding area associated with an earlier time, feeling a little empty – although Robyn’s haunting vocal delivery on the track is great.

A couple diversions aside, the greatest aspects of this project are exactly what pop music was designed to be in the first place – a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that takes over and lets you escape from whatever you’re thinking about and join something bigger than yourself. There’s not much of that anymore in the instant-gratification streaming era.

Favourite Tracks: Because It’s In The Music, Between The Lines, Missing U, Honey, Human Being

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10

MØ – Forever Neverland

MØForeverNeverland.jpegNot typically an albums artist, Danish electropop singer and frequent EDM collaborator MØ releases her sophomore studio album and first since 2014, though she did drop the When I Was Young EP last year. Forever Neverland is a mostly enjoyable collection of shimmery uptempo dance-pop influenced tracks, MØ shining through with the unique vocals that make the tracks she’s featured on stand out so much. Her crackly tone always makes for an interesting listening experience, and often in collaboration with a few superstar DJs and producers across the board here, creates a selection of club-ready, fun tracks. There are a few misses here and there, but for the most part this is something to turn your brain off and enjoy.

After a brief intro, the first track “Way Down” immediately drops into the overdone dancehall beat that backs up most dance-pop songs at the moment, but almost as soon as it begins MØ overrides the sense of over-familiarity with some anthemic and layered group vocals building up to a speedy drop featuring a great, bouncy synth bassline. MØ distorts the formula just enough to create something that you can enjoy for being tried-and-true and easy to consume, with the slightest of twists. The primary writer on all of these tracks, MØ knows how to craft a catchy melody – the next track “I Want You” is instantly memorable, with some rapid-fire lyrics and a melody that’s simultaneously repetitive and impressively showing off her range. As the instrumental steadily builds up in intensity throughout the track, as she dives into that last chorus and the percussion explodes it’s a powerful and gratifying moment. There are multiple tracks here where MØ follows the Francis and the Lights model of layering her vocals with Prismizer and something about the computerized distortion fits her voice well – it’s employed well on the track “Blur” despite the more disappointingly straightforward instrumental drop afterwards.

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MØ saves all of her big-name collaborations for the album’s middle, kicking off with yet another track with Diplo titled “Sun In Our Eyes”. The dynamic duo team up for one of the most radio-friendly, by-the-numbers pop tracks here, but again, there are still some pop formulas that exist for a reason, and these two are seasoned veterans in following the greatest ones. Diplo provides some full, very summery synth chords here that really wrap MØ’s joyful, celebratory vocals here in the right kind of exuberant musical world – the guy can rarely go wrong. “Mercy”, a team up with former Flume member What So Not, is uncharacteristically low-key for the future-bass artist, built on a few piano chords that highlights a yearning, enormous chorus from MØ that works pretty well as she strains up to some higher notes – some live percussion finally kicks in for the final chorus and it becomes clear just how well-crafted a track it is when all the elements click together. And of course, the similarly sassy Charli XCX appears on “If It’s Over”, a manic and glitchy track where the two confidently kiss off some bad relationships.

Late in the tracklisting, “Imaginary Friend” might be the best track here, actually reminding me of some of Charli’s best work. The chorus instrumental immediately grabs your attention more than the other tracks here, MØ singing in her lower register as a distorted higher-pitched voice echoes her over some synth stabs that quickly cut in and out for a much more rhythmic track. The accompanying rapidly cascading noises and embellishments make it sound like you’re entering a dream sequence and continue to immerse you in the track.

There are definitely a couple tracks here where the formula begins to wear thin, usually the case when putting together a larger number of upbeat, dancier tracks into album format. “Nostalgia” is a track that stands out as being pretty unlistenable in comparison to the quality of most of its counterparts here, bringing back the generic dancehall beat but dropping into a chorus that just seems completely off with the layering and harmonies. She uses the same kind of layered group vocals but they don’t line up as perfectly here, especially when going for such a huge sound with a more percussion-based, minimal instrumental. MØ also delivers some half-rapped, half-casually spoken sections in the verses that just throw off the rhythm of the track and sound awkward. Closer “Purple Like the Summer Rain” feels a little rhythmically disjointed as well, the prominent percussion on the track feeling like it’s too fast for the vocals in front at times.

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A few songs just fall barely short of expectations as well, like the track “Beautiful Wreck” which features what might be the best build-up on the album with some Zedd-style vocal manipulations that culminates in a lackluster and low-impact drop, or “Red Wine” that features an enjoyable reggae flavour that breaks up some of the dance-pop monotony but features some stranger lyrics in the chorus that takes me out of it. These tracks are still pretty good, but it just makes it more evident that the creation of tracks like these can be low-effort at times.

Forever Neverland is a much more enjoyable collection of tracks than most in her genre – it’s never easy to put such high-octane music into an album format without it feeling exhausting after a while – and that’s a testament to her approach and personality being a lot more individual than her counterparts as well. Teaming up with some veteran hitmakers here, one of the most prominent voices in the dance scene keeps on rolling.

Favourite Tracks: Imaginary Friend, I Want You, Sun In Our Eyes, Mercy, Way Down

Least Favourite Track: Nostalgia

Score: 7/10

Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgUncategorizable alternative duo Twenty One Pilots release their fifth studio album, and first after becoming household names with 2015’s uneven but hugely successful Blurryface. While I’ve often struggled with the duo’s consistency in the past, as they seemingly mashed disparate styles together for no reason other than the fact that they could, Trench sees them take better control of their more outlandish artistic impulses, combining it with the catchy pop songwriting and heart-wrenchingly descriptive and personal lyrics that made them such a success previously. While their mid-song transitions could still use some work, Trench is the best kind of wildly versatile project that somehow works cohesively, and it’s likely their best work yet.

Kicking the project off with their heaviest song in years, we’re immediately dropped into the droning guitars of single “Jumpsuit”, which introduces just how great the production across the board is going to be on the project – there are so many little details that enhance the world of the song, especially as it ties into the conceptual landscape of the fictional city of Dema that each song is tied to. Something like cutting back to just the menacing bassline for a second in the paranoid second verse works wonders. One of the most consistently engaging things here is how well they’ve fit their more commercially oriented pop choruses so well onto the darker, heavier instrumentals of their past. Writing an inescapably catchy chorus is still one of frontman Tyler Joseph’s greatest strengths, a few of these tracks drawing on 80s synthpop in their most pop-oriented moments. Not many of them stay in that mode for the whole song, but “My Blood” does, and it’s a pretty euphoric experience.

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“Chlorine” might be the catchiest hook of all here, though. A more low-key track, the cascading piano embellishments and major-key fanfare of a bassline add to its memorability. The back-to-back tracks “Nico and the Niners” and “Cut My Lip” both dive back into the subtle reggae influence the band has borrowed from in the past and do it better than ever before. The way the vocal modulations on “Nico” frame the drop into the final, speedy rap verse on the track makes my heart skip a beat every single time, while “Cut My Lip” features a final, repeated refrain built for an arena to sing along to. It’s one of the most emotionally sung tracks here as well, Joseph reaching into his upper register. “Pet Cheetah” is just … absolute madness. The glitchy, lurching synth-bass collides with in-your-face hip-hop production for a track that quickly switches back and forth between the panic-inducing hellscape (in the absolute best way!) of the former and the softer, sung sections of chorus.

As usual, Joseph addresses some pretty heavy topics across the board here as well. On the track “Neon Gravestones”, he muses on the romanticizing of celebrity suicide over a somber piano loop and skittering drumbeat, acknowledging how much more famous he’d get if he killed himself. As he’s acknowledged having these thoughts in the past, he bluntly sings that if the worst does happen, he doesn’t want his fans to feed into the culture of celebrity and move on. At the end, he switches the narrative, saying to celebrate grandparents who have lived a full and accomplished life instead – the dedication is particularly poignant due to the death of Joseph’s own grandfather, who appears on the cover of the duo’s 2013 album Vessel. The track “Legend” here is a heartfelt dedication to him, featuring a final verse where Joseph outright states that he recorded it on the day of his passing.

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In an album that goes to so many interesting and diverse places so well, a track like “The Hype” feels far too one-note, essentially just structured like an everyday pop song. The falsetto delivery almost reminds me of an older song from a band like Foster the People. As well, Joseph’s rapping has always sounded a little off to me, and while he’s certainly improved here there are a still a few moments where it sounds like it’s just not something he should be doing at the time. On tracks like “Pet Cheetah” and “Levitate” something about the places he emphasizes his syllables throws the rhythm off slightly. “Levitate”, especially, has a pretty great throwback hip-hop percussion groove with the off-kilter Twenty One Pilots edge, but Joseph’s higher-pitched delivery doesn’t fit right with the tone of the track. Follow-up track “Morph”, on the other hand, sees him settle in perfectly. Another exquisitely produced track, the emotion creeps into his delivery over the chilling synth-piano eerie carnival ride of an instrumental. I love how many different places the track goes without losing its essence – through the almost future bass swells, the falsetto pop chorus, the tropical house synths at the end … it’s boundless creativity at work.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have essentially done the best possible thing they could do here after skyrocketing to fame, taking some of the greatest elements of what the general public were drawn to and combining it with some of the greatest elements of what made them unique in the first place. I’m sure their diehard fans are getting even more enjoyment out of the complicated lore behind the project as well. Another contender for the Most Improved Award.

Favourite Tracks: Morph, Neon Gravestones, Nico And The Niners, Pet Cheetah, My Blood

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

RL Grime – Nova

Image result for rl grime novaElectronic musician RL Grime, fluent in the sounds of future bass, drum ‘n’ bass, and of course grime, defies most EDM artists’ approach to drop a well thought out and cohesive project rather than sporadic singles. Nova is his second full-length, following 2014’s Void, and runs through a high-energy and endlessly fun selection of different sounds and genres, recruiting a great selection of guests as well. Most of these tracks are shell-shockingly heavy with bass and other dominant, flaring synths, and puts RL Grime in a category all on his own by sheer virtue of his ability to craft these tailor-made party tracks that still include a selection of sounds so distinctive and distracting. The transitions and clear album structure, as well, make the usually taxing task of listening to an EDM album, almost an hour straight of one-note dance tracks, much more engaging – though at 15 songs it still does fall victim to a few pitfalls of almost every electronic full-length.

RL Grime has always incorporated elements of trap music into his work, even before the huge boom in popularity of the genre, so he makes an easier transition than most in keeping his brand of EDM relevant to the musical conversation as the mid-2010s brostep wave dies out. The focus on it isn’t huge here, Grime maintaining what makes him unique, but the familiar hi-hats serve as the foundation that Grime builds his dynamic soundscapes on to a successful degree, tracks where hip-hop artists show up some of the best here. “Feel Free” is a great instrumental intro that displays his musicality as it relates to the wonky, perfectly arrhythmic future bass sound – the track is a nice introduction to the rest of his work here, being pretty abrasive immediately but dynamic and experimental enough to surprise the listener as it breaks from formula. I always love when the 2nd drop switches up the sound rather than looping the first half of the song once again.

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As the tracklisting continues, Grime really does show his diversity in running through a lot of different styles here, the album rarely boring to listen to. “Shrine” re-introduces some of his older elements of high-speed drum ‘n’ bass, while “Light Me Up” brings both Miguel and Julia Michaels aboard for a bouncy, tropical pop track, Michaels’ soft and seductive vocals contrasting surprisingly well with the pounding synth line in the chorus.

The following run of 3 hip-hop influenced tracks is where the album hits its experimental and euphoric stride, however. Jeremih’s delivery on “Undo” is intoxicating, flowing smoothly over a traditional rap instrumental before Grime unexpectedly drops a quirky, jagged synth melody that sends the track into an energetic overdrive. “Take It Away” is a track that really shocked me, however. Featuring (2018 MVP?) Ty Dolla $ign, it’s one of the biggest musical sensory overloads I’ve ever experienced. The chorus features these gargantuan sliding synths, elevating upwards like some kind of twisted carnival ride, eerie yet completely celebratory and triumphant, alternating with complete silence as the undeniable effortless cool of Ty holds it all together. The same kind of euphoric, top-of-the world feeling is replicated on “Reims” – something about it just makes you feel powerful. The wailing, distorted vocal sample underscores what can only be described as a strobe light in sound form, a completely in-your-face oscillating synth line. “Pressure” is another great instrumental track, a slightly menacing bassline building to the kind of trademark off-kilter future-bass chorus Grime is known for.

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As is to be expected with an EDM project, a few of these tracks have too many similarities to exist on the same tracklisting together, although I do appreciate how Grime tries to make it appear more than rinse-and-repeat with his transitions. There’s only so much pummelling my senses into submission that I can take in one sitting! Actually though, some of my least favourite tracks on this project are when Grime opts to tone it down a bit. “OMG” is an upbeat and fun track, but it pales in comparison to the previous two similar tracks with hip-hop artists, Joji’s laid back delivery not fitting in as well. “Shoulda” introduces a run of instrumental tracks with a more atmospheric sound bordering on chillwave that takes too long to get to its higher-energy conclusion and doesn’t align with his greatest strengths. “I Wanna Know”, featuring Daya, and “UCLA”, featuring rapper 24hrs, feel out of place tacked onto the end of the tracklisting as well farther away from their counterparts.

Nova is one of the most consistently engaging EDM projects I’ve heard in a while, due to RL Grime’s ability to switch up his style all the while inserting himself in the current musical conversation. It’s easy to see why he’s had staying power over quite a few of his contemporaries who started around the same time, and his creativity and adaptability across the board here make him stand out. I’m sure I’d like it even more in a live setting.

Favourite Tracks: Take It Away, Reims, Pressure, Undo, Feel Free

Least Favourite Track: Shoulda

Score: 8/10

Years & Years – Palo Santo

Image result for years and years palo santoBritish electropop trio Years & Years unleash their sophomore effort Palo Santo, an endlessly danceable homage to the upbeat and explosive synthpop sounds of the 80s that features refreshingly openly gay lyrical content that dives further into the real stories of frontman Olly Alexander – often with the use of religious imagery. I wouldn’t blame any listener for missing out on the lyrics completely though – while not the most consistent or original of albums, slowing down its frenetic pace in the middle and lifting some recognizable melodies and rhythms, many of the tracks that populate Palo Santo are simply ridiculously fun, built on inescapable rhythms that reach levels of modern synthpop mastery on an equal playing field with someone like a Carly Rae Jepsen.

Alexander doubles as a theatrical actor, and the extravagance of live performance is reflected through his expressive and dynamic vocals. Quite a few of these songs veer into pretty heavy territory, Alexander speaking about his romantic experiences as a gay man, without concealing any of the giveaway pronouns in the process, with the veneer of religion. He speaks about his desires both as something inappropriate and sinful that he finds some kind of absolution in regardless, asking a man who claims to be straight to “Sanctify” him or comparing partners to a religious figure “preaching a lie”. The album first sets off its ethereal dance party on its second track, “Hallelujah”, however, Alexander finding the spiritual healing that he seeks through dance and the escape of pop music. Produced by veteran Greg Kurstin and written with help from Julia Michaels, the percussion unremitting as Alexander delivers a rapid-fire, harmonized chorus. The beat dropping for the final time as he extends his note on an ascendant repetition of the title phrase is one of the greatest moments here.

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This leads directly into “All For You”, which might be the best song on the whole project. Another Kurstin track, the chorus is one of the most immediately infectious you’re likely to find all year. The slowly swirling synths eventually build into a buzzy, syncopated rhythm that’s echoed by the vocals as Alexander gets caught up in burning desire. The delivery on that opening “you look like you’re so damn scared” is electrifying, especially when the music cuts out briefly for the final chorus. Years & Years aren’t scared to slow things down either, “Hypnotised” a quite aptly named track as Alexander’s voice is allowed to shine without the surrounding pizzazz for an aching, beautifully harmonized track where his acting talents can be clearly heard.

Palo Santo can suffer from a lack of originality at times, even if the music is so fun you’re a lot less likely to care. A track like “Karma” is so heavily inspired from late 90s-early 00s female R&B hits that you could apply certain sections of the track to individual songs. It’s a lot more similar than it should be in a world where musicians are being sued for emulating a “vibe” – remnants of Lauryn Hill and Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits haunt the song, but it’s still very upbeat and fun by adding a prominent synth line that the aforementioned artists never had. “If You’re Over Me” stands out in the tracklist for all the wrong reasons as well. For the most part, this is forward-thinking pop music that seamlessly updates an older sound for modern purposes, but this song essentially copy-and-pastes the car-commercial-esque synth line from American Authors hit “Best Day of My Life”, and the surrounding track is just as dated and uninspired, produced by the increasingly bland Steve Mac, who just landed the biggest hit of his career with “Shape Of You”.

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As the tracklist reaches its end, the revelry continues, it just doesn’t reach the same levels as the early goings, one small part of the track missing before it reaches its full potential. “Preacher”, for example, is constructed out of a flashy bassline and Alexander’s falsetto ‘woohoo’s, but I feel like the chorus lags one measure behind where it should, leaving too much silence. It finds its footing once again on penultimate track “Lucky Escape”, however – the hi-hats slow things down to a more R&B leaning half-time tempo, synth-piano and falsetto harmonies driving one of the catchiest tracks here, put over the edge by Alexander’s triumphant and sassy inflections as he celebrates “dodging a bullet”.

Palo Santo certainly expands Years & Years’ musical range from their debut, in a rare feat of improving rather than falling victim to the sophomore curse. The religious themes throughout make the act of enjoying pop music feel like a kind of spiritual liberation, and the collaborators here knock it out of the park in an homage to a genre past. Even if it comes off too close to replication at times, it’s a great step forward for the trio.

Favourite Tracks: All For You, Hallelujah, Hypnotised, Lucky Escape, Sanctify

Least Favourite Track: If You’re Over Me

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (6ix9ine, MGMT, Nipsey Hussle)

Bensbeat is back for the summer and I’ll be catching back up to the present with a lot of these quicker posts.

6ix9ine – Day69

Controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine delivers a debut project infused with the unique scream-rap energy he brought to the singles that made him famous, but it lacks the lyrical content and adaptability to back him up over the course of a full-length project, even one that stands at only 29 minutes. Despite this, his production from some pretty unknown names (save for rising star Pi’erre Bourne on hit single “Gummo”) is frequently top-notch, riding a surprisingly melodic wave and adapting to a style that is distinctly 6ix9ine’s. The sheer blunt force and energy of some of these songs is hard to deny, but more often than not, there just isn’t enough here.

The album opens strong with the quick intro “Billy”, which is one of the most intense and cinematic beats on the whole project. The trap hi-hats and orchestral, almost operatic instrumental is such an interesting sonic playground to drop the unstoppable force of 6ix9ine’s vocal cords into, and it’s over before it even began. For some reason here, it works – he’s established himself as a quick jolt of energy and you can’t expect him to give much more as he pours everything into his delivery. I always preferred single “Kooda” to “Gummo” – the latter is a preview of where the remainder of the album can fall flat. Pi’erre’s beat is chilling, yet perhaps a little too reserved for 6ix9ine’s yelps. The repetitive songwriting found here persists throughout the project, some tracks like “Chocolaté” content to repeat the same lines for most of the track, and not in a fun, “Gucci Gang” way. The subject material never deviates from threats to others, references to his weaponry, and the like. When he switches up his flow on that delightfully melodic beat on Kooda – “You can talk hot on the Internet, boy!” – even that is enough of a distinct artistic choice to push the track over the edge. The track is a pure adrenaline rush. “93”, as well, features a great grinding, industrial instrumental that pummels the senses.

The tracks with features, “Rondo” and “Keke”, each try to fit three quite distinct artists into songs that barely exceed two minutes and make such a unique presence in 6ix9ine feel incredibly out of place. There’s nobody else in the realm of old-school hardcore rap he is trying to revive and artists like Young Thug and A Boogie wit da Hoodie are gone before you were even able to appreciate that they were there. The largely unrelated track names don’t help much with identifying the differences between the tracks in the back half of the project either – most of it blends together, 6ix9ine’s voice abrasive and threatening over instrumentals that never quite accommodate it.

Day69 is certainly a breath of fresh air – if 6ix9ine can incorporate more tracks like more recent single “Gotti”, where he introduces a more melodic vocal delivery, he might have a shot at outlasting his peers.

Favourite Tracks: KOODA, BILLY, 93, DOOWEE

Least Favourite Track: MOOKY

Score: 5/10

Image result for little dark ageMGMT – Little Dark Age

The indie-pop duo returns with their fourth studio album, a pretty fun, occasionally humorous and surprisingly dark set of breezy, psychedelic synthpop tracks. The band offers some critiques of modern society disguised behind some maddeningly catchy pop hooks, pointing the finger not only at others but themselves as well. Working with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, many of these tracks assert their slightly off-kilter position and somber lyrical content with the slightest uneasy twinges in the instrumental, revealing the lurking foreboding warnings underneath the shimmering pop veneer. Frontman Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice is as calm and soothing as ever.

We open with the hilarious “She Works Out Too Much”, which intersperses the happy yet disengaged voice of a workout tutorial instructor behind lyrics of a relationship not “working out”. The relationship in the song is described on the surface as legitimately failing because of the man’s disdain for exercise, but the catchy female voice delivering that hook contrasting with VanWyngarden’s existential crises in the verses reveals something else. “He didn’t work out” – his issues – “enough”. It’s a great build up to the chaotic conclusion, a frantic saxophone roaring in. These tracks are frequently driven by pulsating synth patterns, pushing themselves to the forefront ahead of the vocals. The title track delves into an area of synth-funk, snapping into a decisive minor chord at the end of the chorus as VanWyngarden delivers some confessional lyrics about depression.

I didn’t realize how dark the album really is until “When You Die”, which plays off this dichotomy perfectly. It’s genuinely shocking when you hear such a pleasant voice declare “Go f*ck yourself” in monotone, kickstarting a chorus where he contemplates suicide and happily declares “It’s permanently night” at the end. The track contains genuinely the most cheerful melody on the whole project. Later on, the band criticizes dedication to electronics and dives into political commentary with the beautiful closer “Hand It Over”, the closest thing we get to dreampop – “The joke’s worn thin, the king stepped in”, VanWyngarden sings, the track culminating in a gospel-tinged singalong repetition of the title. The band can still write a soaring chorus – a sparkly synth pad and backing vocals support the celebratory “Me and Michael”, changed from the original “my girl” for the sheer purpose of ambiguity.

The chillwave sound has died down a bit, and MGMT still proudly carries the torch. It’ll be tough to get any of these tracks out of your head. It’s a great return to form, coming closer to the joys of the late 2000s tracks that catapulted them into the mainstream.

Favourite Tracks: Hand It Over, She Works Out Too Much, Me and Michael, When You Die, Little Dark Age

Least Favourite Track: One Thing Left To Try

Score: 8/10

Image result for victory lap nipseyNipsey Hussle – Victory Lap

The veteran West Coast rapper finally drops his debut studio album, abandoning his dedication to numerous mixtapes. He continues his partial revival of the G-funk sound on this project, bridging the gap to the modern era with some more trap-oriented sounds. Spanning over an hour, Hussle clearly had a lot to say saved for a debut project of this magnitude, but not all of it connects. His delivery and lyricism are his strong suits much more than his flow, and quite a few of these tracks can slip into filler territory by extending themselves past their welcome without much of a catchy, driving rhythm to keep them going. Hussle brings out some impressive guests in fellow Californians YG and Kendrick Lamar, even getting an appearance from Sean Combs himself. It’s a lot of content, but not enough of it sticks.

Production is handled mostly by underground west coast duo Mike & Keys, who broke out with a hit in G-Eazy’s “Him & I” this year and do a great job of emulating the old-school West Coast style despite the temptation to give into trends of today. “Last Time That I Checc’d” makes up for Hussle’s disinterested delivery with a bouncy synth bass instrumental that sounds like it could be a classic E-40 track. The homage to the past continues on “Hussle & Motivate”, one of the album’s best tracks, in which Hussle settles into the flow nicely over a slowed down sample of Jay-Z’s classic “Hard Knock Life” instrumental. The ordering of the album can be confusing, most of the weaker tracks present at its beginning. The back half meets expectations pretty consistently, Hussle sounding more urgent – “Status Symbol 3” is carried by a great melodic hook from Compton rapper Buddy and a harder-than-usual beat pattern that Hussle adapts to with a faster flow. Many of these tracks take the form of a long, winding story, Hussle speaking about his tumultuous upbringing and rise to the top, hence the title “Victory Lap”, and these streams of consciousness can be quite compelling.

Hussle doesn’t develop nearly enough of a distinct personality despite the expansive runtime he had to do so. When guests appear, especially Kendrick Lamar on “Dedication”, Hussle clearly attempts to emulate their styles in order to make the track sound more cohesive, but I really wanted to hear more of his own artistry in a world quickly becoming inundated with rap as its top genre. It’s a perfectly solid project without much obviously wrong with it, there’s just not enough to make me pay attention.

Favourite Tracks: Hussle & Motivate, Status Symbol 3, Keyz 2 The City 2, Dedication

Least Favourite Track: Succa Proof

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Eminem, N.E.R.D., Charli XCX)

We’ve finally reached the last review post of the year, which means it’s time for Year-End Lists! My top 50 songs and top 25 albums of the year should be out before the new year, stay tuned.

Revival by Eminem cover.jpgEminem – Revival

Best-selling hip-hop artist of all time Eminem returns after a 4-year break with his ninth studio album, Revival, concluding a trilogy that included more poorly received work in Relapse and Recovery. While Revival does give the generational talent some more space to flex his unparalleled technical muscles, the team around him contributes to the same problems that have been plaguing him for a while, reaching some pretty inexcusable levels on this project.

For every one of Eminem’s dad-joke punchlines that becomes the butt of a joke on the internet, he has about five brilliant displays of wordplay here. There’s a moment on “Chloraseptic” where he laces only words with three different “a” sounds together in a recurring pattern for about 30 seconds – nobody else can do this stuff. Revival excels when Eminem’s goofy persona cuts through all of the commercialization of his more recent efforts, embracing the cringe factor perfectly on the Joan Jett-sampling “Remind Me” with some delightfully disgusting pick-up lines. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as hilarious on the other dated Rick Rubin-produced rap-rock tracks, of which there are too many that fall flat. The final two tracks, “Castle” and “Arose” are the album’s highlight, offering the only believable emotional content on the album as Eminem revisits his overdose and near-death experience in 2007, writing to his daughter as he recounts his career and expresses his love for her in his final thoughts. “Arose” references “Castle”, rewinding to its final verse as Eminem completes it by abandoning his pills instead of taking them. It would be a beautifully fitting end to his career, if his threats of retirement are true.

Many criticized the tracklist for including so many pop features, and the final product certainly features a glossy pop-rap sheen that decreases the impact of Eminem’s vitriolic delivery technique. “Need Me” is basically a P!nk song. The mixing on this album is shocking for such a high-profile artist, tracks like “Tragic Endings” legitimately confusing me if something on my end was wrong due to how off-kilter the vocal levels were. What might be the most disappointing thing however, is Eminem trying incredibly hard to show us that he has emotional depth, all while sounding like a robot with the choppy staccato flow he insists on using lately. The same artist who gave us ruthless tracks in his Slim Shady persona opens the album with “Walk On Water”, a 5-minute track about how criticism hurts his feelings. For whatever reason, hearing Eminem care about things is disheartening. I expected Eminem to offer scathing, nihilistic takes on the world’s problems, but instead he falls back into fake-deep, baseline “inspirational” content on political tracks like “Like Home”. He follows up his 2013 apology to his mother with a copy-and-pasted apology to ex-wife Kim on “Bad Husband”, and legitimately censors himself on “Framed”. I understand why with the current wave of sexual assault stories, but this is Eminem we’re talking about. His lyrics on “Offended” aren’t as shocking anymore, what really offends me is the atrocious playground-chant chorus that completely disrupts the rhythm.

At the end of the day, Eminem is still one of the most talented artists to ever live, and the brief glimpses of that on this project are enough to save it from being unlistenable. It’s not doing much for his legacy though.

Favourite Tracks: Castle, Arose, Remind Me

Least Favourite Track: Nowhere Fast

Score: 4/10

No one ever really dies album.jpegN.E.R.D. – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES

Superproducer Pharrell Williams revives his band for their first album in 7 years, delving back into his funk and hip-hop roots with one of the most sonically experimental albums of the year. Things are still based around The Neptunes’ stripped-down, percussion-heavy style, but Pharrell adapts to his many guests and builds some solid walls of sound around it, creating waves of pure hyperactive energy around his James Brownian vocal delivery.

We open strong with single “Lemon”, Pharrell immediately jumping into a frenzied, slightly off-kilter rap verse before the track breaks down and Rihanna struts onto the track and delivers an incredible, quotable and confident verse like she’s been doing it her whole career. The tracks only get more complex from there, bringing Chad Hugo’s guitars back in and frequently offering abrupt shifts mid-song. “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” is a nearly 8-minute, constantly fluid masterpiece that begins with Pharrell asking his 9-year old son to sing the letter “G” – a note which he electronically extends as a recurring motif throughout. The first half sounds more like Pharrell’s more contemplative work on G I R L. We hear chirping birds and running water in the background as he sings of a universal connection, the second half breaking out into a hip-hop beat and metallic synth pattern as his peaceful prophecies are realized. The Future-featuring “1000” could easily start a riot, built on rhythmic interlocking vocal samples, distorted synth bass and Pharrell yelling “HOLY S**T IT’S WORKING”. Halfway through the track he says something about “rainbow angst” and the sound follows suit, with high pitched sugary yet distorted synths suddenly at the forefront of the track in what could only be described as rainbow angst. It’s complete madness, and it’s beautiful.

N.E.R.D.’s lyrics get political as well, sending thinly veiled accusations against “Mr. Wizard of Oz”, the President, on nearly every song and dedicating the Frank Ocean co-written track “Don’t Don’t Do It!” to victims of police brutality. Pharrell’s lyricism is still as whimsical and optimistic as ever, so hearing him talk about these issues is equally endearing and affecting. “I hope you’re just talking, man”, he emotes regarding the border wall on the frantic “Deep Down Body Thurst” before exploding into a huge breakbeat and group chanting. “Don’t Don’t Do It!” begins with this sunny funk guitar pattern, but an angrier riff starts slowly creeping in as you start to realize the darker subject matter, coming in fully as Kendrick Lamar delivers one of his most technically incredible verses of the year verbally obliterating the police force.

There are certainly times here where Pharrell’s lyrics get a little too cheesy, or the more toned-down, early Neptunes sections of the track verge on tedious and repetitive, but there are so many surprises on this project that they just fly by and you become immersed in something else. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

Favourite Tracks: 1000, Lemon, Deep Down Body Thurst, Lightning Fire Magic Prayer, Don’t Don’t Do It!

Least Favourite Track: ESP

Score: 9/10

Charli XCX - Pop 2.pngCharli XCX – Pop 2

Charli XCX’s second mixtape of the year ventures into even more experimental territory than Number 1 Angel did, bringing on a wealth of guests and taking PC Music production to another level. While some of these ideas are a little too out there for my personal tastes, Charli XCX has been triumphantly leading the way for experimental pop music this year and delivers some great tracks on this project.

Most of the production here is handled by PC Music figurehead A.G. Cook, but of course Charli had to bring the most unique producer working in SOPHIE on board for a single track once again. Her track “Out Of My Head” is a pretty flawless pop song, forming a trio with Scandinavian singers Alma and Tove Lo, reiterating the titular line in the chorus by interrupting and layering on top of each other for a truly unique and immersive listening experience. Charli declares herself a “Femmebot” on the track of the same name, an all-out sugar rush of explosive 80s synth chords and robot metaphors, and the glitchy effects on her production and vocals here can be used for some pretty brilliant effects. “Lucky” slows things down, one of the only tracks without a guest, and her vocals are shifted rapidly between notes for a Kanye West-esque emotional effect, her vocal cutting out while she sings about a connection breaking up and somehow conveying more emotion through incomprehensible autotuned mumbling than actual words.

For whatever reason, Charli turns up the autotune effect here, and for someone who already has a kind of nasal tone to their voice, the juxtaposition of these effects to the PC Music style of heavy electronic synth production can get a little grating, becoming too robotic by removing too much personality. Her long-awaited collaboration with Carly Rae Jepsen, “Backseat”, layers multiple harmonies of her heavily autotuned vocals with Carly’s more folksy, untouched vocal takes over some high-pitched background synths for a track that is much too chaotic. In the same vein, the decision to include a faint recording of Charli’s blood-curdling scream, recurring in the background of already repetitive track “Tears”, distracts too much from the experience.

Charli XCX has truly morphed from the burgeoning bubblegum popstar we envisioned in 2013 to a proponent of all things weird. This is pop music in 3017, and perhaps I just haven’t caught up to it yet. A lot of these tracks sound more like a celebration of her spectacular year than cohesive music, throwing absolutely everything at the wall because she can – and you have to have some respect for that.

Favourite Tracks: Out Of My Head, Delicious, Femmebot, Lucky, Unlock It

Least Favourite Track: Tears

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tove Lo, Walk The Moon)

Image result for walk the moon what if nothingWalk The Moon – What If Nothing

Walk the Moon’s third studio album and first since exploding with their 2015 hit “Shut Up and Dance” is a mixed bag that sees the band attempting to both recapture lightning in a bottle and pay homage to their beginnings as a rock band, both tasks not receiving the full extent of their focus and neither being performed to their greatest effect.

I prefer the pop material on this project to some of the off-kilter decisions they make when the guitars roar back in. “Headphones” juxtaposes frontman Nicholas Petricca’s shouted rap vocals and terrible lyrics with rapid-fire guitar solos for chaos that never clicks together. The ordering of the album is very strange in this regard – the band switches back and forth between this and tracks like “One Foot”, an incredibly bland pop song that brings back the marching-band drum tempo, rapidly syncopated one-note vocals and gang vocals reminiscent of their biggest hit.

The band haven’t lost their touch entirely, however – opening track “Press Restart” is legitimately a great pop song, as the effect of the band showing restraint for once is shown, the track beginning quietly and culminating in the explosion the band is known for. The main hook is catchy, and when all the elements they introduce finally click together, we get the sense of euphoria the band is clearly trying to achieve. The harmonies on “All Night” are a surprise in new wave bliss, as the band displays their highest level of musicality, Petricca sounding engaged in the music instead of trying his hardest to create a hit song.

The main problem What if Nothing suffers from is a lack of originality. The album stretches to nearly an hour’s length, and too often I just feel like I’m listening to retreads of “Shut Up And Dance” that aren’t as immediately impactful, a band desperately trying to achieve stadium status but lacking the songwriting ability and creativity to connect on that level. All of these songs blend together – and this review is a bit shorter because it’s tough to distinguish them enough to write in specificity. They have the ability – “Sound Of Awakening” is a 6-minute shifting, changing experiment in vocal effects that actually goes over pretty well, but opted to be safe instead.

Favourite Tracks: All Night, Press Restart, Sound Of Awakening

Least Favourite Track: Headphones

Score: 4/10

Image result for tove lo blue lipsTove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]

Tove Lo’s third studio album comes shortly after last year’s largely inconsistent and disappointing Lady Wood, representing its second “phase” and a huge step up in quality. The production here is much more complex and engaging than its predecessor, as she finds all the best spots in her vocal range to move past the bland pop of last year. While the lyrical content can still leave a bit to be desired, sometimes its bluntness fits the overly sexual mold she has come to embody over the course of her career, the musical decisions here at time as bold as that album artwork.

Tove Lo works harder here to create an ambient, electronic world, frequently incorporating aspects of her own vocals into the instrumental to great effect, as it offers the quality of sonic intimacy, wrapped in her soft vocal tones, that the content of her music demands. “shivering gold” is an incredible track, building on extended, creeping low synth bass notes before exploding into a pulsating, syncopated chorus as she hits high notes I never knew she had in her between the rapid juxtaposition of synth stabs and tiny moments of silence. Some of the chord progressions here are clearly 90s inspired, slower tracks like “dont ask dont tell” offering an intoxicating piano melody straight out of a slow dance in a teen movie.

On Lady Wood, her vocals were secondary to overproduction, but the mix here is greatly improved without the instrumental getting any less bombastic – you can tell because for once, you are paying attention to her every word, her sultry vocals drawing you in. “bitches” packs so much fun into its brief 2-minute runtime, Tove Lo swinging her vocals over a prominent rock and roll drumbeat and woozy synths in the background, while closer “hey you got drugs?” is her most emotional track yet – she stated she was crying in the studio in an interview and you can tell – her harmonized, anguished repetitions about a relationship’s end – “You won’t save the night for me” – are incredibly visceral.

Even so, lead single “disco tits” is a little too ridiculous for me. The spoken, repetitive vocals are just too awkwardly phrased and overtly sexual to be enjoyable despite that pounding, inviting instrumental. The album’s second half is a little weaker, the energy letting up on tracks like “romantics” where the production drops out for the lower-tempo verses, coming back with clichéd trap hi-hat rolls.

Still, Tove Lo’s melodies themselves are so much better than Lady Wood, the album much more sonically cohesive. Blue Lips is a step in the right direction, Tove Lo coming into her own in the experimental alt-pop scene.

Favourite Tracks: shivering gold, hey you got drugs?, dont ask dont tell, bitches, struggle

Least Favourite Track: disco tits

Score: 8/10