XXXTENTACION – SKINS

XXXTentacion – Skins.pngSince his death this past June, it’s becoming much more evident just how much of an incredible impact XXXTENTACION had on the direction of music and culture. While his projects were uneven and his career was mired in endless controversies, there was always a clear creative spark and an urge to put out something different, something uniquely him. SKINS is his first posthumous release, and standing at only 19 minutes in length, it’s clearly unfinished, most of these songs having issues with mixing and mastering or instances where X was recording a demo vocal to be replaced with something more substantial later. Although there are definitely a few issues with putting this out so quickly to capitalize on his name, looking back at how much the genre he kickstarted has grown has honestly made me appreciate the ideas presented on this tape for what they are – I can tell that if these were turned into full songs, it’d be a huge step forward from 17 and ?. If I’m evaluating this just on the music presented though, this barely qualifies as an album.

It’s immediately evident just how little new material we’re actually going to get here when the instrumental of the first full track, “Guardian angel”, starts playing – it’s just the beat of one of his biggest hits, “Jocelyn Flores”, reversed. X’s rapping on the track is honestly some of the best I’ve ever heard him, urgent and powerful, but the track ends before it even begins – this is just a tiny chunk of something he recorded. I always enjoyed his calmer raps, without the overuse of distortion, the most out of any of his wide variety of styles, and it continues on the next track “Train food” which sees X do something new and put together a full narrative and concrete idea – at almost 3 minutes, it’s an unusually long track for him. X’s lyrics are vivid as he paints the picture of encountering the figure of Death while walking home, enhanced by the sound effect of a punch before he wakes up tied to a railroad track. The repeated lyrics and very minimal instrumental suggest that this could have been even more powerful than it already is – that last verse is chilling and prophetic, as X raises his voice to a shout.

Image result for xxxtentacion

The track “STARING AT THE SKY”, standing at under a minute and a half in length, sees X revert back to his full-voiced distorted yells and heavy metal production style interspersed with acoustic emo-folk delivery. It’s the kind of material that really made me worried for him on his previous projects, but the addition of a sinister whisper under his repeated yells of “WE’RE GONNA BREAK” is an absolutely terrifying touch that shocked me. It’s not something I’d ever want to return to, but it definitely made me feel something.

The heavy guitars continue to much better effect on “One Minute”, which recruits Kanye West and Travis Barker. Despite some seriously questionable lyrics, West absolutely demolishes his verse, the distorted guitars behind him injecting his confident and charismatic flow and delivery with some serious energy before X enters with a bloodcurdling scream – even if his part is minimal and clearly looped, it’s a pretty mindblowing track all in all.

It’s strange to accuse a 19-minute album of having filler tracks, but some of these songs are blatantly unfinished and it makes me worried that X’s team are suggesting that there is more to come if this is all they could muster to put on his first posthumous release. The tracks “whoa (mind in awe)” and “what are you so afraid of” are painfully repetitive and consist of little more than X’s whoa-ohs, suggesting that they were demos he recorded before adding actual lyrics. Most of the time, it doesn’t sound like he’s fully present in recording, like these were obviously nothing close to the final takes he was going to record.

Image result for xxxtentacion memorial

A track like “BAD!” sounds like it would have been an obvious hit if it were actually put together with some more effort – X’s words are barely clear, like he was unsure if he’d replace them later. The studio wizardry throughout is so clear, constructing tracks out of bits and pieces that it might not have ever been his intention to fit together. “I don’t let go” is another track that I can see coming together with more work – the glitchy instrumental from Cubeatz reminds me of “Moonlight” and X’s falsetto chorus is pretty enjoyable, despite its repetition without much else to switch up the energy of the track. Like everything else here, the idea is there, but the execution is far from complete.

Most of what I enjoyed from this project is simply from my fascination with the creative processes of one of the most culturally influential artists in recent memory – hearing X’s ideas in their bare-bones form gives me hope that he was moving in a more positive artistic direction, and that some of these tracks could have been a lot better than his previous work. There are a lot of things to like here, but the fact that we never really get to hear them come to fruition makes this a seriously underwhelming release that makes me nervous for just how long we’re likely going to be milking X’s work after he’s gone.

Favourite Tracks: One Minute, Train food, I don’t let go

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

Advertisements

Trippie Redd – Life’s A Trip

Image result for life's a tripSteadily becoming one of the leaders rising to the top of the new class of alternative rock and pop punk-influenced emo rap artists, Trippie Redd’s debut studio album is a melancholy, raw project framed by Redd’s unique, strained and distressed vocal delivery. He references Lil Wayne’s music on the project, and he comes across here as the most obvious offspring of Wayne’s ill-conceived but undoubtedly influential 2010 rock album, Rebirth. Ultimately, Redd’s vocal delivery verges on painful to listen to, and his ridiculous lyricism and meandering, directionless moody emo-trap song structures greatly let down the novelty of the act that he is.

Trippie Redd is often lauded for his lack of Auto-Tune usage, unlike his contemporaries in the genre, simply presenting his raw, unfiltered vocals that supposedly better express the darker thoughts that pop up in the new landscape of hip-hop. This would be a perfectly appropriate comment if Redd’s vocals weren’t so hard to listen to – Redd seems to take this too far, straining his vocals and every so often extending a note too far with a garbled scream. Young Thug’s worst tendencies are right at home on this album, appearing on the track “Forever Ever”. The two each throw their voice around with reckless abandon, forgetting that a concrete musical rhythm and structure exists for a reason. The songs on the project that extend past the usual 2 or so minutes that most Soundcloud rapper adhere to feel completely self-indulgent, Redd repeating the same refrains without a hint of a memorable, catchy melody as he runs up and down the scales completely off-key.

Image result for trippie redd

It really does feel like all of these songs are freestyles at times, like he goes into the booth without an idea of what’s going to happen. The track “Bird Sh*t” sees him suddenly latching onto a single musical phrase in the middle of a verse and repeating it, seemingly just because it fit his liking in the moment regardless of how it worked with the rest of the song. Longer tracks “BANG!” and “How You Feel” are even more excruciating, Redd singing the entire chorus with his strained, yelling vocal on a song that extends to nearly 5 minutes on the former and sounding completely out of place on the guitar instrumental on the latter. It’s a few guitar chords that simply loop for 4 and a half minutes, accompanied by a higher-pitched wail in the background and Trippie repeating the title in his often pitchier higher register seemingly emulating a rock n roll frontman, occasionally breaking the cycle to offer a ridiculous lyrical simile or absurd melodramatic proclamation. Travis Scott-featuring single “Dark Knight Dummo” goes the other way, the beat a complete sensory overload that tries to do too much, and the only thing that could draw attention from the instrumental is of course the same strained vocal on top of all of the background mess.

Redd does attract some great collaborators to this project, and at times you can see some good songs hiding underneath all of the mess coming from Redd himself – the legendary Scott Storch lends a catchy, poppier instrumental to the track “Taking A Walk”, which is over too quickly and is let down by Redd’s vocals, for example. Sometimes, the good song is literally hiding underneath – Redd adds the Diplo collaboration “Wish” to the tracklist with a new “Trippie Mix”, after he expressed his disdain with the changes Diplo made to the song on his own project. Turns out, Diplo simply removed all of Redd’s terrible ideas and turned it into an enjoyable song. Redd reinserts a delayed echo affect that throws off the melody and some awful harmonized vocals completely out of sync with the rest of the song that left me shaking my head in disbelief at how passionately he felt about such incompetence.

Image result for trippie redd live

Redd’s rap tracks do fare slightly better, especially “Oomps Revenge”, where he clears up his voice and raps over a great chopped up soul sample – he kind of sounds like Chance the Rapper. “Missing My Idols” had potential, but his apparent thought process that an obnoxious vocal delivery means clearer expression of self reappears even here and he loses the rhythm a bit in the second half of the song extending his words too far and raising his voice.

After pioneer XXXTENTACION’s death, I can only see this style continuing to grow and prosper – there’s evidently something about it that does succeed at drawing people in. Whatever it is, I personally have no idea how to relate to or understand it.

Favourite Tracks: Oomps Revenge, Taking A Walk

Least Favourite Track: Gore

Score: 2/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Logic, Lil Yachty, XXXTENTACION)

BobbyTarantino2.jpgLogic – Bobby Tarantino II

The newly minted king of woke rap enters another instalment into his less formal series of mixtapes after breaking through to the public in a major way with his latest album Everybody. While Logic does show both a hilarious level of self-awareness at how annoying his preachiness can be and a large sample of the technical skill we know he possesses, Bobby Tarantino II falls short of its predecessor by turning up the blatant copying of other successful rappers he has always been accused of to the most obvious degree yet. As well, it’s strange to hear Logic back on this material he acknowledges himself is fun and meaningless in that earnest, awkward, high-pitched voice we heard singing about suicide prevention. His creation of an album that was trying so obnoxiously hard to spread a message has created a no-win situation for him. As Pitchfork wrote, “Once you’ve gone full Macklemore, you can’t walk all that sanctimony back”.

The project opens with a Rick & Morty skit in which the straightforward Rick prefers “Mixtape Logic” – criticizing “oooooh, equality” – to the idealistic Morty’s “Album Logic”, and it’s honestly great to hear how self-aware Logic is about his own music, and there really are some tracks here that call back to the quality of his music before the fame. Opening track “Overnight” brings to mind the standout track on the first Bobby Tarantino mixtape, “Super Mario World”, as Logic addresses his detractors over a fuzzy video game-esque synthline and trap beat. “Contra” feels like classic Logic as well, his delivery energetic and his speedy flow relentless. “Indica Badu” is a great microcosm for Logic’s career recently, the verses displaying the greatest extent of his enormous talent and technical skill – even bringing out what might be featured artist Wiz Khalifa’s career-best verse – before ruining it with a basic hook inexplicably delivered in the most annoying possible falsetto voice.

Sometimes I feel like I criticize Logic much more than he deserves, since it is clear that his potential is limitless. Even on projects that are as solid as this one, his brief deviations into his worst tendencies are frustrating. Logic has always been accused of lifting ideas from his contemporaries such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and it seems like his latest fascination on this project is none other than Travis Scott, as half of the project is filled with the eerie, laidback trap instrumentals and melodic Auto-Tuned yelps he is known for, particularly on “BoomTrap Protocol” and “Wizard of Oz”. He shows an affinity for jumping on trends in a different way with the awkward Marshmello collaboration “Everyday”, the watered-down Chainsmokers-lite EDM instrumental not complementing Logic’s awkwardly sung hook. Even when Logic is on a mixtape where he acknowledges that he’s going to flex and little else, he still feels the need to insert a few lines about self-love, being a good person and the like that weren’t present on his earlier projects. Although these are just side deviations on this project, his surface level approach to these topics is still annoying.

The majority of the tracks on this album are actually pretty impressive in comparison to Everybody, and even though I try to separate the art from the artist as much as possible, hearing the tiny inklings of his pandering, public persona on a project like this brings me out of the experience.

Favourite Tracks: Overnight, Contra, 44 More, Wassup

Least Favourite Track: Everyday

Score: 6/10

LilBoat2.jpgLil Yachty – Lil Boat 2

SoundCloud rap pioneer Lil Yachty, still only 20 years old, releases the followup to his major label, genre-shifting debut Teenage Emotions with a sequel to his successful Lil Boat Since Yachty was truly one of the first people to popularize what has become commonly known as mumble rap with his endearingly haphazard approach, the genre has shifted a bit more towards the “sadboi” stylings of people like Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTENTACION, who I’ll cover later in this review, passing Yachty by. Lil Boat 2 goes a bit darker than his previous work in response, foregoing his melodic exploits for eerier instrumentals and straight rap bars. While he makes a significant improvement in this area, one that suffered on his previous projects, the loss of Yachty’s distinct personality on this project brings it down.

There’s always something to be said for the sheer sense of joy to be making music Yachty communicates through his excitable and childlike delivery. I used to say that it made up for Yachty’s lack of musicality, but that has certainly improved across the board on this project, as he is capable of pulling off speedy triplet flows without falling off the rhythm as he had in the past. Tracks like “BOOM!”, “DAS CAP” and “POP OUT” are incredibly fun for this reason, Yachty repeating the title as a high-pitched adlib in the background while rapping better than we’ve heard him before. Yachty’s lyrics are absolute nonsense, but it honestly fits this persona at this point. “she ready” is easily the best track here, and possibly the closest track to his older style, a falsetto melody in the chorus set over another great addition to the flute trap instrumental trend. “MICKEY” shows his newfound harnessing of his rapping ability, holding his own with Offset and creating a flow I haven’t heard before in the chorus by drawing out his final syllables.

Yachty’s attempts to get grittier on this project often leave his tracks a bit empty. The most appealing thing about him in the past was his ability to create joyful, catchy melodies with a positive and idealistic outlook on life. In comparison, a track like “OOPS” sees him drop his voice lower to match the featured 2 Chainz over a very minimalistic trap beat set to nothing more than some low, rolling bass notes. There’s not enough to hold his slightly off-kilter flow in place. Yachty was never meant to follow trends, so seeing him veer closer to the patented and popularized Migos sound is disappointing. Both Quavo and Offset appear here, and “GET MONEY BROS.” sounds more like a Migos leftover than anything else.

There aren’t many new concepts to be found here, and even though that is what drew me to Yachty in the first place, his relentless attack to these tracks and clear improvement of an area of his work contribute to another respectable project from him. Now that he’s proven himself here, can we get back to those tropical, fun tracks?

Favourite Tracks: she ready, MICKEY, DAS CAP, BOOM!

Least Favourite Track: GET MONEY BROS.

Score: 6/10

XXXTENTACION-Sad-Changes-Single-Cover.jpgXXXTENTACION – ?

Diverse and controversial emo rap enigma XXXTENTACION’s sophomore album expands him into the mainstream even further, improving his songwriting ability and singing voice from the disjointed and disappointing debut 17 despite his insistence on keeping many of his tracks infuriatingly short, ending before any concrete ideas take off. Emerging onto the scene with shockingly distorted and aggressive tracks like “Look at Me!” X has since reverted to folk and emo-rock emulating guitar-based tracks with depressing lyrical content regarding his personal life and his own issues, of which he has many highly publicized examples. While X certainly shows the ability to pick out a great melody is there, proving he’s much more than we initially thought, there are far too many terrible and confusing musical decisions across this project for it to be truly enjoyable. X’s music is too much of a disturbing cry for help at this point.

Previously we only heard X’s singing voice on some lo-fi, depressed, uncomfortable moaning melodies but he certainly finds a few places to hit his stride as a songwriter and vocalist here. The track “Moonlight” is incredibly catchy, set over a unique glitchy synth instrumental – I really wish it was longer. This transitions into his first top 10 hit, “SAD!”, the plaintive melody of which has clearly resonated with people despite the uncomfortable message disguised within that hits a little too close to the abuse we’ve heard he’s capable of in the news. The chemistry he shows with Joey Bada$$ on “infinity (888)” is pretty undeniable as well, X dropping some rapid-fire triplet flows over a boom-bap instrumental featuring a melancholy, distant saxophone.

Despite the successes he finds on this album that weren’t present on the dismal 17, there are still quite a few moments where he takes the vibe of that album and escalates it to an even more obnoxious place by fleshing it out into what is … well, ALMOST a full song. Opener “ALONE, PART 3” is more of the same whining over sad guitar patterns, whereas X goes full screamo on tracks like “Floor 555”, reminiscent of his early work – the level of anger he displays here is genuinely terrifying and worrying as he blows his voice out on the chorus – as well as the Travis Barker-featuring “Pain = BESTFRIEND”. These just leave me hoping X gets some serious help. The right way to do this is “the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love)”, which sees the trademark folksy guitar patterns juxtaposed with a faster flow from X and a few sparse trap hi-hats that represents the first time he convinced me that this genre-mixing is possible. The back half of this album is a complete mess of genres that just alerts me to X’s instability more than anything else. He brings on 13-year old Matt Ox on “$$$” for an intolerably Auto-Tuned hook and disappears for most of the track on “I don’t even speak spanish lol”, an extremely basic reggaetón track that shows … that X heard “Despacito”.

The title ? is quite appropriate, since it is never quite sure of what it is. The real thing that will keep me from returning to the project, however, is just how real X’s pain sounds on this project, and it is impossible to empathize with him. His unhingedness creates something worthwhile on a few brief occasions, but mostly just creates messy exhibitions of his sadness and anger that leave me concerned.

Favourite Tracks: Moonlight, the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love), infinity (888)

Least Favourite Track: Pain = BESTFRIEND

Score: 3/10

Brand New – Science Fiction

Image result for brand new science fictionRock band Brand New, often credited with spearheading what became known as the emo genre in the early 2000s, release their first studio album in 8 years. Much more than the musical label frequently associated with them, Brand New use their final statement to look back on their career with a different sound.

While many of the band’s most well-known songs are loud and explosive, frontman Jesse Lacey analyzes his career at the forefront of a slower, somber soundscape. After all, most of the things he has to say are actually not all that positive. As we explore the deepest reaches of Lacey’s mind, we receive a project that makes up for its lack of exciting musical moments with some profound musings and anthemic hooks.

Science Fiction opens with a recording of a therapy session, as a woman describes having a dream where she feels overwhelmed and the relief she felt upon waking up. This paints the backdrop for most of Lacey’s words on the project, stating a sense of pride in his accomplishments but much more so contemplating what would have happened if he hadn’t devoted his life to the band. He became forever associated with one thing, and the pressures and expectations associated with it, rather than living a full life.

Image result for brand new band 2017

Many of the lyrics on this project contain a similar juxtaposition, mostly somber and pessimistic but containing a glimmer acceptance, being at peace with their fate and making the most of it. This extends even past Lacey’s commentary on his own work, as some other tracks reference the state of the world.

“137”, a reference to an isotope created by nuclear warfare, imagines a world after a devastating war. Despite his obvious fears, the track also romanticizes the idea and calls it a “lovely way to die” – it happens so quickly, you don’t have to deal with the pain of saying goodbye. The track also contains sarcastic references to looking forward to entering Heaven, a common theme across a few tracks as Lacey shows his cynicism towards religion. “Desert” sees Lacey speaking in character as a hateful Christian, denouncing immigrants and homosexuals before the track ironically concludes “God is love”.

In a world quickly being dominated by mumble rap, lyrics like these are eye-opening and refreshing. Some of the most emotionally affecting are Lacey’s conversations with himself – on “Waste”, he muses on getting old, offering advice to his reckless younger self, while on closing track “Batter Up” he taunts younger bands “give me your best shot”. In the context of the album, it is both a genuine, hubristic challenge and a warning of all that comes with accepting it.

The band clearly has a talent for big anthemic hooks. I love that bridge on “In The Water” – the catchy melody states “I don’t want it enough, so everyone’ll wait”, likely referring to the album’s delay. The music cuts out for a second, before roaring back into a guitar solo. It’s a truly beautiful moment here. Most of these tracks have choruses that will be hard to forget – I can easily picture crowds singing along to the smartly written melodies on tracks like “Waste” or the call-and-response hook of “Desert”

I also really enjoy the bluesy guitar riff that backs “451”, the most unique song on the tracklist from a musical perspective. It’s great to hear some diversity near the tail end of the project, because it is mostly atmospheric, somber and repetitive.

Image result for brand new band live

Outside of a few brief energetic explosions in vocal delivery, the project is rather one-note musically. It contains tracks like “Could Never Be Heaven”, which contains a quiet and repetitive acoustic riff and a monotone vocal delivery that never ventures outside of a comfortable range. The lyrics are frequently compelling, but don’t have as much passion behind them.

The album begins and ends with songs that each stretch beyond 6 minutes. Some of the quietest, they stretch on for too long attempting to capture a chilling effect as we wait for some semblance of emotion to appear. We know the band is more than capable of delivering this – see the refrain of “Same Logic/Teeth” here.

You might expect opener “Lit Me Up”, a song where Lacey envisions the freeing effect of being set on fire, to appear as more than a mumbled afterthought. But perhaps this is the point, as Lacey expresses his disillusionment with his music career. Is he breaking free by circumventing our expectations, finally creating something that is just for him?

Science Fiction is an endlessly thought out and dense work, which stands as an incredible way for a band to make a final statement. Lacey’s honesty about his issues and doubts make for some harrowing material that I won’t soon forget. Batter up, indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Desert, 137, Waste, No Control, In The Water

Least Favourite Track: Could Never Be Heaven

Score: 8/10