Boogie – Everything’s For Sale

Image result for everything's for saleWest coast rapper Boogie has been generating a lot of anticipation for his debut studio album since signing to Eminem’s Shady Records label – which is a pretty exclusive deal to get! Everything’s For Sale has arrived, and despite drawing some pretty obvious inspiration from his rap contemporaries on a few tracks, the project manages to put Boogie’s storytelling ability, which has the potential to be on par with some of the current greats, on full display. Boogie’s nasal, Chance The Rapper-esque delivery and his frequently underwhelming singing voice bring down the musicality of the project more often than not here, but it’s easy to see what Eminem saw in him – Boogie’s lyricism is vivid and compelling, and with a better team surrounding him as he grows, this project could mark the very beginnings of something exciting.

Opener “Tired/Reflections” is bookended by recordings of people criticizing Boogie’s “conscious” content, saying they’re tired of hearing it and want to escape into something more meaningless and fun. Boogie drops into a spoken word verse over an introspective guitar instrumental and some orchestral chords. He details his need to get the content that he does out, with some poignant observations on how his realistic descriptions of his own lived experience of racism and violence can just as easily be twisted and interpreted stereotypically. It’s the kind of track that quiets down the other aspects so you can really focus on what he has to say, and these are the ones that excel on this project.

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“Lolsmh” is another pretty original concept that Boogie takes a deep dive into and honestly reminds me of some Kendrick Lamarian storytelling techniques. Placing the omnipresence of social media, its effect on his own mental health and its propensity for others to leave their morals at the door in pursuit of fame under the spotlight, Boogie goes in for 4 minutes of straight verse with a dejected and confessional tone of voice and dropping lyrical gems and astute observations left and right. The theme continues on the track “Live 95”, as Boogie plays a character finding self-worth in what he obtains from his social media presence before dropping into a verse as himself searching for the same thing. Despite a recent influx of money, he still associates his worth with his poorer upbringings that constituted most of his life.

Quite a few of the more upbeat, more traditionally radio-oriented tracks on this project actually had the potential to be just as good as the more lyrical ones here if he had gotten someone else to sing the hooks – Boogie’s singing voice is seriously not good, and he uses it a lot. He tries to do these Weeknd-like quick trills on almost every track where he sings and the awkward breaks in his voice where he can’t complete them throw the rhythm off. A track like “Silent Ride” is structured to be the catchiest track here with a trap instrumental and some well-written internal rhymes in the hook, but I can’t get through that raspy, nasal delivery on the hook to fully enjoy it.

It only gets worse when he tries to apply it to more alt-R&B oriented tracks like “Skydive” and “Swap Meet”, where he dips in and out of an off-key falsetto and lacks the ability to keep a slower, completely sung track engaging. “Skydive” actually does have a pretty fantastic instrumental that sounds like it was influenced by Latin guitar patterns. It’s backed up by some rumbling bass ratcheting up the intensity, but Boogie sounds completely detached on the sung hook. It goes to show just how much he doesn’t fit with the style when the derivative 6lack outshines him at the end of “Skydive II”.

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In terms of Boogie’s less conscious tracks here, “Soho”, a collaboration with up-and-comer JID, is easily the best despite its shorter length. Featuring a quotable chorus and beat that combines some modern and old-school production styles, the two speed up their flow and dismiss fake friends.

Eminem himself appears on the track “Rainy Days”, Boogie’s voice at peak Chance the Rapper on a pretty catchy, soulful hook and spastic, paranoid verse before Eminem comes in with what might be one of his worst feature verses in a long time, and there’s been quite a few that haven’t been up to par recently. His speedy, robotic flow doesn’t match the slowly creeping beat at all and loses all semblance of musicality, not to mention that his dad-jokes and puns are as groan-eliciting as ever. At least now Boogie can say that he easily outrapped one of the greats on a track.

The final 4 tracks constitute Boogie addressing a couple more distinct topics over the course of some shorter song lengths, closing out the project on a high note as we’re reminded about his best asset. Trumpeter Christian Scott enhances Boogie’s stories surrounding relationship drama on “Whose Fault”, while “Self Destruction” is another standout as he interpolates Mac Miller on the hook and injects some energy back into his voice.

All in all, Everything’s For Sale can be a frustrating listen at times due to its inconsistency. There’s one aspect of his work that Boogie does exceptionally well, but everything else is lagging slightly behind average. There are a couple times where it does click together here, but I’ll be anticipating the improvement that I know he has the potential for in the future.

Favourite Tracks: Lolsmh, Tired/Reflections, Soho, Self Destruction, Live 95

Least Favourite Track: Swap Meet

Score: 6/10

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Machine Gun Kelly – BINGE

Image result for BINGE mgkSeemingly capitalizing off of the many new eyes on him in the wake of his feud with Eminem, Midwestern rapper Machine Gun Kelly drops a 9-track EP that includes the now-massive diss track “RAP DEVIL”. Once a prominent force in the indie rap scene, Kelly’s 2017 pop-rap collaboration with Camila Cabello, “Bad Things”, exposed him to a much wider audience. While he certainly skews more hip-hop heavy on this EP, it still pales in comparison to a lot of his early work, especially from a lyrical standpoint. Kelly has seemingly diluted himself into a much more marketable, palatable figure, and while there are still some brief moments here where we’re reminded of what he can do from a technical standpoint, it’s telling that “RAP DEVIL” is one of the best tracks here, and Kelly didn’t even win the battle.

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The project only runs 24 minutes in length, likely demonstrating just how quickly this thing was thrown together – a lot of these tracks end before really reaching anywhere concrete. After a pretty awful Auto-Tuned warble for a minute-long intro, the project properly starts with the track “LOCO”. The track immediately drops into a droning extended bass note and trap beat, Kelly’s higher-pitched, exuberant voice sounding out of place on the instrumental while he delivers some particularly blunt and cringeworthy punchlines. I honestly used to be a pretty big fan of Kelly’s 5 or so years ago, and to hear him resort to a modified Migos flow on the chorus and a couple repeated ‘yeah hoe’s is a significant fall from grace into lazy mediocrity. He gets a little sharper and more animated on the next track “GTS”, which features a pretty fun electronic woodwind noise on the instrumental and a blistering 2nd verse where Kelly gets angrier, but it’s counteracted by his delivery on the chorus and the strange background layering of a sung note during what would otherwise be one of the more impressive technical moments here.

There are so many tracks here that are almost there and some aspect of them just throws the whole thing into disorder, which I suppose is representative of a guy with some real talent who has lost his way on the way to superstardom. Short (under 2-minute!) track “NYLON” starts promisingly with a few quotable bars and Kelly finally switching up his flow to ride over a half-time, nicely minimal acoustic trap loop, but the awkward layering (which I take is meant to make him sound tough…?) comes back in and the track is cut off abruptly with some heavy Auto-Tune and a skrrrrt. “LATELY” and the 24hrs-featuring “SIGNS” are two more lifeless trap cuts that I suppose act as filler on an EP that doesn’t even hit the 30-minute mark.

Image result for machine gun kellyMGK wearing the “Killshot” shirt

It’s not like Kelly isn’t capable though: the excellent Eminem track “Killshot” aside, I honestly think “RAP DEVIL” is a very solid diss track with some creative displays of wordplay and battle raps obviously inspired by the very target of the song. It’s significantly longer than anything here and for Kelly to keep up his spirited jabs for almost 5 minutes without much material to go off of is very impressive. Eminem said it himself, Kelly does intersperse a few compliments towards him here and its tough for him to hide just how much of his inspiration he does take from Mathers – this track is the most obvious example. “GET THE BROOM” is the really the only other enjoyable track here, featuring a fantastic dark electronic piano instrumental that’s the only one that truly fits Kelly’s attempts at malice here. He alternates from a calmer tone to a louder yell as the track goes on – it sounds like a more spastic Blocboy JB song.

This review is shorter than usual since there’s so little of substance to even write about here. The BINGE EP is so blatantly a quick cash grab for the rapper looking to extend his cultural relevance past a pop hit that most people associate with the feature. Maybe a removal from the public eye is what it’d take for him to stop chasing trends and return to the technical showcases and fire in his voice that he showcased in the past.

Favourite Tracks: GET THE BROOM, RAP DEVIL

Least Favourite Track: SIGNS

Score: 2/10

Eminem – Kamikaze

Image result for eminem kamikazeRap powerhouse and king of controversy Eminem’s tenth studio album Kamikaze, released as a surprise less than a year after his previous effort Revival, continues to take a deep dive into Eminem’s self-examinations of his own artistry and the criticism that accompanies it. After the negative reception to Revival, a complete tonal misfire that easily stands out as the worst of his career, it would appear that all the negative commentary has made Eminem angry again – and angry is evidently a great place for him to be. While its still far from perfect, Kamikaze sees Eminem’s unparalleled technical skillset back on display over some sorely missed heavy-hitting hip-hop beats, as he sets out to prove that one bad album doesn’t destroy his legacy.

The first three tracks on this project are honestly some of the most impressive rapping we’ve heard from Eminem in close to a decade, as he finally abandons his choppy staccato flow and drops back into some Slim Shady-esque material. Not only that, but on opening track “The Ringer” he essentially lyrically obliterates the entire industry, artists and critics alike. While Eminem’s approach to the current wave of rappers can seem out-of-touch at times, when he’s dropping wordplay like this he’s allowed to criticize the repetitive lyrical content of modern rap music. The track is a complete technical showcase to reintroduce us to what is to come and remind us of just how good Eminem still can be when he tries. The track “Lucky You” recruits fellow controversy-starter Joyner Lucas, and he honestly holds his own with Eminem as his extended verse introduces the song. Both of them ultimately drop into a searing double-time flow to close out their verse and the anger, and more specifically the pure energy each one of them brings as the beat drops mirrors some younger artists’ focus on hype today. Eminem emphasizes a few times here that he is more disrespectful towards the artists than trap music itself, and hearing him and Lucas absolutely destroy this trap-piano beat from Boi-1da is exhilarating.

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For all the attacks Eminem lobs at people like Lil Pump and Lil Yachty, some of the greatest moments here actually come when Eminem takes a more modern concept and proves he can not only replicate it, but add to it. He rhymes over some beats from modern producers Mike Will and Tay Keith. The latter contributes to the track “Not Alike”, where Eminem starts by emulating the Migos flow over a beat similar to “Look Alive”. It’s great to hear him with frequent collaborator Royce da 5’9 again, and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun with his extensive toolkit here. The tracks “Kamikaze” (despite the awkward and childish hook, but what else is new with modern Eminem) and “Fall”, as well, are great returns to form, Eminem sounding like he’s delving back into his battle-rap upbringing.

There’s been a lot of criticism that Eminem isn’t focusing on structuring actual effective songs here, forgetting that technical skill isn’t all you need to make a good rap song. It’s definitely valid, but when we haven’t heard the full extent of his powers for this long, just hearing him back on these kinds of songs is enough to bring a smile to my face – there’s absolutely no one who can come close to touching him in so many areas, it’s a shame that he’s so far behind the game in just as many.

There are still some tracks on Kamikaze that certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on Revival, Eminem still getting away with some pretty inexcusable things that someone really should have told him was a terrible idea. He slows down his flow on relationship track “Normal”, seemingly trying to tap into some of what’s making Drake songs tick currently as he adopts a half-singing cadence that is pretty unlistenable, his singing voice nasal and honestly causing him to fall off the rhythm a few times as he draws out his syllables. It’s all very surprising and uncharacteristic of him after the introduction to the album.

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He fares slightly better on the next track “Stepping Stone”, a career retrospective that sees him mourn the end of D12 with some introspective and confessional lyricism over a beat that sounds like some classic Eminem material, but his poor selection of hooks continues to haunt him as the track awkwardly flips into what sounds like yet another country-tinged classic-rock sample, Eminem singing along overtop. The clinical, robotic flow still isn’t completely gone either, as he closes out the song with an extended section where he delivers a seriously cringeworthy understanding of how to adapt to the music that backs him up, layering his voice in that awful way he has for years, with a falsetto delivery prominently on top. The final three tracks also bring the album way down, and it leaves me wishing that this was cut down to an EP. “Venom” is relatively fun, but the tie-in to a commercial movie leaves a bad taste as the album concludes, and as much as I love Canadian pop-R&B artist Jessie Reyez, her style and Eminem’s do not mesh well at all on the two tracks she features on here.

Eminem proved his point with Kamikaze. No matter how many people try to discredit him, he shows here that his legacy as one of the greatest rappers of all time is still intact, and for good reason. Still – as his career winds down, it’s getting to the point where he should be a lot more careful about what he puts out there. For now, I’m just going to keep playing those opening three tracks.

Favourite Tracks: The Ringer, Lucky You, Not Alike, Greatest

Least Favourite Track: Nice Guy

Score: 6/10

Nicki Minaj – Queen

Image result for nicki queen coverRap superstar Nicki Minaj continues to adapt and thrive, dropping her most rap-heavy album yet, Queen. Her fourth full-length project, we see Minaj raising her defenses a bit and reverting back to her classic hip-hop tactics of biting lyricism and an always surprisingly technically proficient flow. In a world quickly becoming more accommodating to the presence of more than one wildly successful female rapper (there are 4 of them in the Billboard Top 5 at the time of this posting), Minaj reminds us why she was regarded as such a powerful force to begin with. Despite the messy rollout that accompanied the project, the best tracks here are equal parts infectiously energetic and unflinchingly tough, the two sides that have always made up her appealing persona. At 19 tracks, not everything comes together and there’s certainly some filler and material that sounds slightly dated, but the highs are fantastic.

The album opens with “Ganja Burns”, a fantastic track that places the listener in the world of the album immediately. Drawing slightly from the dancehall wave that Drake kicked off, Minaj drops a deep-voiced speedy flow that navigates through the prominent, clicking percussion perfectly and immediately sends a shot at Cardi B 30 seconds in. Her dramatic singing on the chorus adapts to the hazy acoustic guitar loop, reminding us that pop Nicki isn’t gone either – just before she starts completely annihilating her foes, as she hits us with the one-two punch of “Majesty” and “Barbie Dreams”. The former features none other than Eminem, who delivers his greatest feature verse in years, Minaj keeping up with him over the menacing siren of a low, buzzing synth – an upbeat piano chorus from Labrinth tries to interject before she cuts him off midway with more vitriol. This doesn’t compare to her coming for THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY on the next track, set to the classic instrumental of Biggie’s “Dreams” as she sends some comical, absolutely savage shots at almost every relevant rapper, outlining the reasons why none of them will see her in the bedroom – it really establishes herself as more of a classic hip-hop figure than we anticipate, and her lyricism and delivery is top notch here.

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“Chun-Li” still holds up as well, a track that perfectly plays into her over-the-top, cartoonish nature – Minaj embraces the cheese to full extent, and it works. Minaj succeeds at some of her rarer forays into pop territory here as well – the Ariana Grande-featuring “Bed” is a serviceably catchy, chill tropical pop song featuring production from Actual Reggae/Dancehall Artist Supa Dups, but “Come See About Me” really stands out. A legitimately heartfelt piano ballad, I’ve never heard Minaj’s singing this passionate, her vibrato hitting in just the right places before building up to a powerful, harmonized chorus.

The album definitely sags in the middle, quite a few of these tracks lacking the direction and energy that Minaj needs to excel – at the end of the day, most of her appeal really does come down to that expressive delivery. “Thought I Knew You”, a track with The Weeknd, doesn’t seem to know what exactly it wants to be, Minaj and Abel trading brief sections of awkwardly varying lengths, his sing-rap style not fitting at all with the poppier instrumental here – and Minaj’s stuttered chorus sounds pretty low-effort as well. “Chun Swae” extends to 6 minutes in length, Swae Lee’s lilting high-pitched delivery getting grating – though there really are some great elements of the track – that first verse is seriously technically impressive, Minaj extending a rhyme scheme to ridiculous length and then dropping into her fastest flow on the project. The features do let her down on more than one occasion here, Future delivering what might just be his worst verse of all time on paint by numbers trap cut “Sir”.

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It’s a shame that Minaj herself seems to be playing into the idea that there can only be one female rapper at the top of the game here with some of her lyrical references, since it makes a few of these tracks feel like she’s going through the motions to reassert herself in a variety of areas, and the last thing she can afford to lose is the amount of fun it always seems like she’s having. Her last-minute addition of 6ix9ine hit “FEFE” to the end of the tracklist is a move of an artist undoubtedly more interested in her numbers than her music – it shouldn’t matter if she gets this #1, and she really might not – this rap-centric album was an opportunity to prove herself through her talent more than her brand, and the segments where she does this more than she has in years are the parts that stand out. Tracks like “LLC” and “Good Form” stand out in the middle for being upbeat, characteristically quirky and off-kilter, dynamic and technically proficient.

Ultimately, Queen is a mixed bag that might possess both some of Minaj’s best and worst tracks of her career, with slightly more of the former. After seeing her take more of the pop direction over the last few years, her reminder to us all that she’s much more of a rapper than many give her credit for was certainly very welcome, but she might have lost a bit of the spark trying to do too much here.

Favourite Tracks: Come See About Me, Majesty, Barbie Dreams, Chun-Li, LLC

Least Favourite Track: Sir

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 (Pink, Niall Horan)

Apologies for being gone for so long – I’ve been writing my graduating thesis for university but now I’ll be able to get this page back up and running like normal. There’s some albums here that are long overdue for a review so to catch back up I’m going to make a few posts with rapid-fire thoughts on some of these albums from October!

Image result for pink beautiful traumaPink – Beautiful Trauma

Pink recruits some all-star collaborators for her 7th studio album, and while they frequently make their presence felt in some great and emotional musical moments, the majority of Beautiful Trauma is incredibly safe. The project alternates between a familiar mix of soaring pop ballads that exhibit Pink’s gargantuan vocals and upbeat forays into electropop that come across as well worn-out. The outlier might be “Revenge”, a quirkier track where Pink dreams of taking revenge on her ex with some painfully awkward rap lines and delivery before Eminem swoops in with a hilarious and cringe-embracing verse in the way only he can, reframing the entire track as a goofy joke to be enjoyed.

In addition to the rap superstar, Pink brings in some of the biggest names in pop music in Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Jack Antonoff and Julia Michaels. The latter two do the best work here, Michaels applying some of her trademark heartbreaking lyrics to emotional tracks “Barbies” and “For Now” and Antonoff producing the best track here in “Better Life” where we get some great harmonies over an energetic beat and subdued, jazzy piano chords and finger snaps – despite his inexplicable decisions on the title track, which contains 2 abrupt shifts in energy that fall flat.

Pink is undoubtedly a vocal powerhouse capable of conveying the emotion behind these huge pop ballads and she frequently impresses across the course of the album, but when she insists on reaching into the highest part of her register it can get annoyingly shouty – especially on closing track “You Get My Love”. Overall, Beautiful Trauma has some really great highs but is frequently too derivative to be memorable.

Favourite Tracks: Better Life, But We Lost It, For Now, Revenge

Least Favourite Track: You Get My Love

Score: 5/10

Niall Horan Flicker.pngNiall Horan – Flicker

Former OneDirection member Niall Horan continues the surprising trend of his bandmates releasing much better music than they ever did while part of the collective. As each member seemingly diverts to a different genre of music, Horan adopts the acoustic singer/songwriter angle and delivers an album of powerful pop ballads. While it may be very easy to compare him to Ed Sheeran, as he sticks to the formula the superstar adopted, Horan’s calming vocals and assistance he got from Greg Kurstin on this project ensured a solid debut.

We open with the maddeningly catchy “On the Loose”, built around a pounding beat and a pleasant sliding guitar pattern as Horan’s vocals cascade on top of each other into the chorus. These are some smartly written pop tracks – and Horan has primary credit on every one of them. Even some tracks, like single “This Town”, fall into a repetitive and unexciting territory in terms of the instrumental, Horan’s vocals are more than enough to carry these tracks. Subdued and emotional, he puts his heart into every word and truly delivers the emotion of these romance-oriented tracks. While we all know “Slow Hands” by now, the single truly took me by surprise. He sounds absolutely effortless on the track, and the underlying bassline groove distinguishes it from the rest of the album and sends the track over the top. Other highlights include a nicely harmonized duet with country singer Maren Morris on “Seeing Blind” and Kurstin’s “Since We’re Alone”.

As we get closer to the end of the album, the tracks definitely do begin to blend together a bit. The Sheeran influence is worn on Horan’s sleeve, and the slower acoustic ballads that close out the album are similar enough to get a little sleepy. Still, Flicker is easily the most consistent post-1D album yet.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Hands, On The Loose, Too Much To Ask, Since We’re Alone, Seeing Blind

Least Favourite Track: Flicker

Score: 7/10

Big Sean – I Decided.

Image result for big sean i decidedDetroit rapper, G.O.O.D. Music artist and Kanye West protege Big Sean’s fourth studio album continues to showcase his remarkable consistency, always delivering a decent project despite not taking as many creative risks as many of his peers. More trap-influenced than its predecessors and reflecting the rapidly rising popular sound of today, I Decided. has been described by Sean as a concept album. The cover art depicts Sean standing beside an older version of himself, a theme which becomes clear as the older, alternate universe version of Sean speaks in interludes throughout the album. This character regrets not living life to the fullest, working the same job and going through the same routine for 45 years and imploring listeners to live in the moment. Many of the album’s tracks reflect this theme as the Sean we know describes his lifestyle, and many of them manage to come across very energetic and fun, if less than original.

Sean has some pretty interesting and unexpected features here, as well as some familiar faces in production that help him transition to the hi-hats and 808 bass of today’s day and age. While the majority is handled by Sean’s relatively unknown touring keyboardist Amaire Johnson, he is assisted by an all-star team of rap producers including Key Wane, DJ Mustard, DJ Dahi, Metro Boomin, who has 3 great beats on here, and 20 year old Wondagurl, who broke through at the age of 16 on Jay-Z’s “Crown”.

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Complementing Sean on the mic, we have none other than the pride of his hometown Eminem, who flexes his lyrical muscles but ultimately delivers an uncharacteristically off-kilter and awkward verse, “Bad And Boujee” rappers Migos, who join Sean on “Sacrifices”, injecting him with their energy for a punishing track, and girlfriend Jhene Aiko, who drop a brief promotion for their collaborative project Twenty88’s upcoming sophomore album with “Same Time Pt. 1”, Part 2 nowhere to be found. Jeremih and The-Dream also deliver on their respective R&B choruses, rounding out an impressive roster.

Sean’s flow is one of the most unique in the rap game, showcasing rapid irregular flows on songs like “Bounce Back” or going for stretches at a time where he continues to act like he’s deftly filling in the empty spaces on a huge and complex beat that isn’t actually there – the song “Light” has no percussion at all, for example. Lyricism has always been one of Sean’s strong suits and there are no shortage of clever bars and wordplay here – although I’m not sure many can top wordplay king Eminem’s now suddenly topical “I may be deserving of a pat on the back like a Patriots jersey”. Some of my favourites: “I’m the one at the end like I count backwards”, “‘Ye found a pro, I guess I’m profound”.

At the same time that Sean can sound somewhat detached and disinterested, he resembles someone like J. Cole in his ability to use his voice to draw you in to what he’s saying, his raps sounding like he’s having a casual conversation with you. When he goes into storytelling mode, like on “Owe Me”, an account of his breakup with Ariana Grande, and the soulful “Sunday Morning Jetpack”, where he speaks about his faith, it’s compelling.

Image result for twenty88Sean and the other half of Twenty88, girlfriend Jhene Aiko

Even so, sometimes it isn’t enough to distract from the fact that his delivery can be quite flat and monotone at times. On lower-key tracks like “Light” and “Inspire Me”, this can make the track a lot sleepier than it needs to be and it wouldn’t hurt to add some variation in his tone. Perhaps my biggest criticism with the album is one that spans his entire career – Sean really can’t sing and does on far too many tracks here. When it’s contrasted with Jhene Aiko’s voice it sounds slightly better, frequently bringing the best out of him as demonstrated on their fantastic interlude here. However, dedicating most of a track like “Jump Out The Window” to his mediocre and frequently off-key singing voice can really ruin a song that otherwise could have been great as it features a sonically unique Key Wane beat.

For all of his efforts, Sean doesn’t really present anything new here, nor has he ever. His biggest hit, 2014’s “I Dont F*** With You”, was the closest he’s come to making something that is uniquely Big Sean, infusing it with his personality, but outside of maybe “Moves”, which is a bit too Drake-y, nothing comes close to matching that here. I wish he took more risks like he does on “Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan”, which features a completely innovative song structure that switches back and forth between the two motifs, increases and decreases the tempo, and just so happens to have the best beat on the entire album – thanks again, Metro Boomin.

Despite all of this, it is hard to argue against Sean’s growth from 2011’s Finally Famous to today. Always a bit behind the curve but delivering when he eventually gets there, Sean as a personality is engaging enough to continue to keep me interested in his albums. When he rises above the average content that he settles for to fill up about half of each album, he shows brief glimpses of the star power I’m sure he can eventually reach considering his incredible work ethic.

Favourite Tracks: Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan, Sacrifices, Bounce Back, Sunday Morning Jetpack, Moves

Least Favourite Track: Jump Out The Window

Score: 7/10

Skylar Grey – Natural Causes

Image result for skylar grey natural causesSkylar Grey’s sophomore effort comes 3 years after 2013’s Don’t Look Down, and while it certainly raises the bar in terms of creativity, ultimately suffers from the same issues of inconsistency which persisted on her debut. It is a confounding and eclectic mix of sounds in the same way, and while some of these sounds utilize her ethereal voice in a perfect way, other times it falls flat. All in all however, this is certainly a step up. It feels less geared at the pop audience, as the last project was filled with unnecessary features and bland songwriting.

Grey seems to have embraced her status as a more prominent force in the indie scene, as many of these songs are slower and aimed more towards a singer/songwriter vibe. The main element which ties together these diverse songs seems to be an emphasis on layered vocals and harmony, and interesting and inspired choice for Grey’s singing style which works very well for the most part.

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It isn’t that Grey excels in one style over the others: hard-hitting and dramatic track “Kill For You” and stripped-down and vulnerable ballad “Moving Mountains” are equally brilliant, and having confusingly lacklustre cousins with similar sounds — perhaps “Straight Shooter’ and “In My Garden”, respectively. It seems like the process of cutting down the album might be difficult. Unlike Don’t Look Down, however, this album truly does have many more incredible moments than it does misfires.

Production is a major strength on this album, and working with a more focused and cohesive group of individuals for the entire duration of the creative process helped in a major way. All producers and writers on this project have been heavily involved with Eminem in some way in the past, which is moderately surprising considering Grey’s genre — even if she has served as a perfect complement to many of the rapper’s songs over the years.

Even with all these distinguished producers, the album’s production MVP might just be Slim Shady himself. He has writing and production credits on the back to back standout songs “Kill For You” and “Come Up For Air”, and while both songs reside comfortably in Grey’s regime of slower-tempo tracks, each is heavily anchored by a massive live drumbeat, intersecting with Grey’s backing vocals and the minimalist production perfectly. While Eminem’s verse on “Kill For You” is still great, although less spectacular than we know he is capable of, “Come Up For Air” is a true masterpiece. Grey’s voice soars, and backed by a choir comprised by her own voice, the song is one of the most strikingly beautiful of the year.

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The theme of minimalism is quite prominent throughout Natural Causes, and it works because Grey’s voice is enough to carry a track on its own. The acoustic and beautifully written ballad “Moving Mountains” is a perfect example. Grey’s voice is full of emotion as she implores us to put aside the ambitious part of ourselves that always wants to change the world and enjoy the moment we are living in. Compared to some of the sleepier ballads like “Closer”, the message of this one shines through. The diversity is another strong suit, often surprising the listener. Middling track “Picture Perfect” is elevated when halfway through the track, the beat picks up and Grey starts rapping. Don’t look now, but she might have done the impossible and turned in a better verse than Eminem on this project.

The high points make the occasional blunders all the more confusing. A few of the slower songs simply suffer from being a less interesting counterpart to a similar song on the album.  A song like “Straight Shooter” is simply unnecessary and dates back to the pandering on the last album, being really the only time her pop past comes back to haunt her. “In My Garden” is fraught with overproduction, distorted synths overpowering the track and drowning out the vocals for a quite uncharacteristically unpleasant listening experience.

Skylar Grey’s overall artistic vision on this project makes for a much more fully fleshed-out work than her debut, and despite the brief inconsistencies, provides us with some stunning slower tracks for the colder months. Hopefully her friend and mentor Eminem’s album should be following suit in the near future and we will continue to hear more of this indie-influenced side of Grey in her contributions to the project.

Favourite Tracks: Come Up For Air, Moving Mountains, Kill For You, Picture Perfect, Off Road

Least Favourite Track: In My Garden

Score: 7/10