Rapid Fire Reviews (Nav, Yelawolf, Billie Eilish)

Nav - Bad Habits.pngNav – Bad Habits

A signee to The Weeknd’s XO label and one of the first Punjabi artists to make it this big with North American audiences, Nav’s Auto-crooned trap melodies have been getting more and more attention leading up to the release of his sophomore solo project, Bad Habits. Of course, there have also been no shortage of memes, whether it’s from his poorly mixed contributions to other people’s music or the fact that, at times, it appears that Nav is simply along for the XO ride and has no idea what he’s doing, seemingly zoning out during his public appearances and performances. The unfortunate part is that I’d believe it – once again, Nav is perfectly happy to simply adapt every trend he sees around him and apply his grating, nasal vocal delivery to them as he creates carbon copies of a trap sound that’s already starting to get tiresome. At 16 tracks, this project is hard to get through when he offers nothing that I haven’t already heard done better.

You forget just how much of why Nav’s music can be so unenjoyable is directly attributed to his voice and delivery – the project’s opening track, “To My Grave,” actually has a pretty great beat featuring a triumphant horn section that makes you anticipate what you’re going to get on this project immediately. Until Nav comes in with that shaky, Auto-Tuned falsetto, nasal sound and generic trap lyrics that aren’t saying much of anything and pulls all the focus away. One of the biggest criticisms of his collaborative project with Metro Boomin was that Metro wasted some of his best beats on someone like Nav, and that continues here even though most of the producers on this project are actually a lot less well-known. You really get the sense that Nav must just be a close friend of some member of the XO team, and either has delusions of grandeur or really good connections to have gotten to the spot he has. Half the time on this project it doesn’t even sound like he’s invested in being a musician, like he’s only recording these tracks for the clout and can’t wait to get out of the studio and onto Instagram where he can really make an impact.

Nav sounds bored out of his mind on tracks like “Taking Chances,” one of the many tracks here with more of a creeping, alt-R&B beat that exposes Nav’s awkward songwriting and making him sound all the more sluggish. It’s hilarious when Meek Mill hops on the next track “Tap,” because I couldn’t think of two people with more completely different energies. Meek opens the track with his spastic and excited cadence, then Nav comes on and sucks all the air out of the room, barely staying on the beat. Most of the features here aren’t even that great, but they sound incredible in comparison because it’s such a breath of fresh air to not be hearing Nav’s voice anymore – except of course for the usually reliable The Weeknd, who drops one of his worst hooks of all time onto the track “Price On My Head,” finally finding the notes that are too high for him after pushing the boundaries all these years.

The track “Tussin” with Young Thug is a decent track thanks to Thug and that fun trap-piano instrumental … though it doesn’t mean that Nav doesn’t still completely kill the energy during his verses, even if his singing is probably at its best here. The trap beat on the next track “Snap” is nothing innovative or new, but it’s upbeat and fun and present in the mix, which is enough for it to be one of the better tracks here as well. And while it’s far from an engaging song musically, hearing Nav actually earnestly expressing something that isn’t a trap cliché on “Why You Crying Mama” draws attention and is effective simply because it’s so surprising to hear that he has real emotions. “Stuck With Me” is the only hook on the project that I remembered playing through the album a second time, so again it meets the very low bar for a standout track.

Other than that, though, I really don’t have the energy to try to talk about distinguishable things about most of the other tracks in the back half of this project, everything really starts to blend together in a faceless, soulless wave of modern hip-hop trends.

I’m sure you’ve already read a lot of people criticizing this very line, but Nav saying “what’s the game without me” in a contemplative tone on the track “I’m Ready” is absolutely laughable – truly, what is Nav without the game? He’s never offered something that someone in his immediate circle hasn’t already done in his entire career.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck With Me, Snap

Least Favourite Track: Tension

Score: 1/10

Yelawolf Trunk Muzik III.pngYelawolf – Trunk Muzik III

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town r- wait, sorry, wrong country-tinged rapper. The Alabama rapper and Eminem protégé since signing to Shady Records in 2011 has always embraced elements of the country lifestyle in his work, even if his music stays pretty solidly in the hip-hop lane (with a couple diversions into heavier rock music). Now 39 years old, Yelawolf has been a huge force in the underground game for a while and has released numerous projects in the last couple years. Trunk Muzik III is the first in the series to get the full studio album treatment, and serves as his 5th While Yelawolf’s faster flow is seriously impressive and can usually elevate a track on its own, he’s frequently brought down by some awkward musical combinations of genre and the usual curse that quicker rappers fall victim to – sacrificing lyricism in the name of flow. This project is southern hip-hop through and through, and while it’s usually rather inconsistent, there are a couple highlights to remind us what caught someone like Eminem’s attention in the first place.

While I talk about country-rap making a resurgence years after Yelawolf ventured into the territory, another thing that’s huge right now that you can partially credit to Yelawolf is the resurgence of hardcore aspects in the mainstream from people like 6ix9ine – the way Yelawolf yells at the top of his voice as the album opens seriously reminds me of him. “TM3” is a pretty great opening track that really demonstrates just how great Yelawolf’s flow is over a rumbling bassline that never lets up and a crunchy electric guitar riff. It’s a nice way to get immersed in Yelawolf’s world and probably one of the most impressive technical showcases on the project. It’s been interesting to see how rappers who pride themselves more on their flows and “old-school” rap sensibilities have adapted to the omnipresence of trap music – the best ones usually find a way to incorporate the aspects of it that are undeniably fun while still offering enough variation to maintain their individual artistry, and that’s exactly what Yelawolf does on the track “Catfish Billy 2,” diving into the Migos flow a couple times but breaking away from it for a standout chorus that’s immediately memorable and very fun to rap along to due to that crazy internal rhyme scheme – I even love the way it abruptly cuts off after the final chorus, leaving it ringing in your mind.

It seems like Yelawolf puts in efforts to make his serial tracks always high quality – the piano instrumental and Pimp C sample on “Box Chevy 6” is great too. The soul sample and his calmer demeanor on “Drugs” is another great turn for Yelawolf that allows for more focus on what he’s saying alongside of that catchy fast flow, Yelawolf speaking on his complicated relationship with addiction after his family more or less introduced it to him. The heartfelt track “Addiction” takes this further as Yelawolf contemplates all that he’s lost due to it and his own struggles with beating it. Even on some of the weaker tracks here, Yelawolf’s flow is always a highlight and it’s always engaging to listen to him splice those syllables.

A huge part of Yelawolf’s music has always been more of an embrace of the “Slumerican” lifestyle and the hardcore partying tracks that go along with it, Yelawolf edging closer to his aggressive, screaming flow with less of a focus on his rapping abilities and more of a focus on getting the people who are listening absolutely ready to tear the place apart – these kinds of tracks are where the enjoyability of the project falls off a cliff for someone who’s just sitting and listening to this on the couch. He and featured artist MGK do rap quickly on a track like “Rowdy,” but it’s clear that the true focus is on that aggressive hook and there was less effort put into the structure, just using it more as a party trick than something meaningful. Other songs like generic trap cut “No Such Thing As Free” and “We Slum” are similar.

There are a couple of tracks here that are a strangely inconsistent combination of some of the best and worst aspects of what Yelawolf does that just leave me a little confused. On the chorus of “Special Kind of Bad,” Yelawolf drops into this genuinely stunning, smoky singing voice that he’s never really displayed like this before, with some engaging lyrics, but everything else about the track is pretty unlistenable … I don’t understand why this was placed on a track like this where the rest consists of Yelawolf’s awkwardly sexualized lyrics and hardcore, slower flow, and whatever that modulated effect on his voice was at the end. He actually sings for most of the next track, “Like I Love You,” as well, but the lyrics are similarly far too blunt to be effective. The structures of tracks like these are pretty incredible, they’re just let down by one strongly negative aspect that brings them way down. The hook of “Trailer Park Hollywood,” the no-name features on “All the Way Up.”

The last 5 tracks on the album are all very strong and display the natural skills that Yelawolf has. While a lot of these tracks are brought down by inconsistencies, this is a respectable effort from a veteran in this lane.

Favourite Tracks: Catfish Billy 2, Drugs, TM3, Box Chevy 6

Least Favourite Track: Special Kind of Bad

Score: 5/10

Eilish sits on the edge of a white bed, in front of a dark background. She wears white clothing, while smiling at the camera.Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Another post, another huge, culturally shifting project that I’m reviewing a couple months after the fact. Looking back on something like this after it’s remained in contention for the #1 spot on the album charts every week since it’s been released is quite the experience. Also, let it be known that I called it, giving one of my rare 10/10 scores to the then-15-year-old Eilish who had released her first EP only two weeks before. Watching her dominate pop culture has been surreal for someone who’s been there from the beginning, and Eilish has now fully arrived with her debut album that takes her eerie concepts and unsettlingly adorable vocal delivery to the next level with a series of immaculately produced tracks, thanks singlehandedly to her brother Finneas (the layering on her voice, though!). The public have spoken – they’re looking for something completely new in a world of peak trap, and this is it.

After a brief intro, the project opens with the stunning track “bad guy.” This song absolutely blew me away the first time I heard it, and now it’s a global smash hit, which is pretty incredible for a song that sounds like this. The minor-key harmonies and layering on her voice sounds like it’s directly out of some kind of Halloween movie, that persistent, menacing bassline interacting with the higher-pitched synth hook and not much else. If there was a way to introduce us to Eilish’s character across the full project, there’s not a much more perfect one. “Duh“. Eilish and Finneas’ absolute command of the best spots of her voice and how to layer them in the most haunting and effective way is a standout tactic across the whole project, and it only serves to make both the bangers and ballads much better. “when the party’s over” might actually be my favourite song on the entire project, and it’s the one that uses the layering the absolute best. Eilish’s range as she ascends during the verses is something to behold, and the ocean of her many vocal tracks supporting the whole thing is an absolute treat for the ears with every tiny nuance and new harmony. The bridge is so powerful and moving, Eilish pouring her heart out about loneliness. “i love you” is another dramatic ballad that pulls a little too strongly from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but her vocals are strikingly beautiful in a similar way.

There are so many little details of Eilish’s music that serve to make the world she’s singing about so much more vivid, especially to a headphone user, since they’re so buried in the mix you’d miss them unless you were really paying attention – as you should be. Whether it’s the sounds of the party as Eilish’s friends slowly kill themselves via substance abuse on “xanny,” that unsettling scraping on the absolute punch-to-the-face of a track “you should see me in a crown” or the ambulances arriving after she climactically jumps off the roof on the heart-wrenchingly tragic track “listen before I go,” (did I mention how powerful – and worrying – it is for a 17-year-old to be singing about all of this?) Eilish makes the biggest effort to make sure her tracks are a cinematic experience. The sound seems to be tailored to the headphone-based experience as well, Finneas’ basslines always at the forefront of the mix and a unique effect where Eilish’s voice rapidly cuts in and out turn her into what I can only describe as an ASMR popstar. The music is designed to give you a physically positive response.

A common criticism of Eilish’s music is how similarly she approaches each one of her tracks from a vocal standpoint, her quiet, near-whisper of a voice a constant across the project, but the way she makes it fit in on all of these different instrumentals is the truly impressive part. “all the good girls go to hell” features a beat that sounds almost as if it’s directly out of the 90s G-Funk movement, but that intense vocal centers it and turns what should be a party track into something much more sinister with her religious themes, like what Jordan Peele did with “I Got 5 On It” in the Us trailer. “wish you were gay,” on the other hand, is another favourite track with a completely different approach, opening like a doo-wop ballad from the 60s as Eilish’s smart songwriting comes into play with the wordplay centered on numbers, before the chorus brings some modern electronic aspects in. When the music cuts out in the climactic bridge and that paper-thin vocal sings “I’m so selfish,” you feel her emotions at their peak when her vocal is at its quietest.

My absolute favourite albums are always deliberately structured to tell a story, and Eilish clearly appreciates the art of creating an album in the same way, as evidenced by the closing track “goodbye.” It’s not much of a track on it’s own, but the way it takes the listener on a reverse journey of the narrative of the album as Eilish sings a line from each of them in reverse order, ending with the original and overarching proclamation, “I’m the bad guy,” is a great way to wrap it up. There are a lot of great little lyrical references to preceding tracks as well.

There are a couple decisions that prevent the project as a whole from being as perfect as her debut EP, like the baby voice on “8” and lack of variation in the slower tracks that bring the project to its end, but this is the kind of self-assured debut you could expect from an artist who’s going to be here for decades to come.

Favourite Tracks: when the party’s over, wish you were gay, bad guy, all the good girls go to hell, listen before i go

Least Favourite Track: 8

Score: 9/10

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James Blake – Assume Form

Image result for assume formEclectic UK experimental pop/R&B singer and producer James Blake’s 4th studio album Assume Form has been anticipated for a while, as he continues to expand his discography by appearing on the projects of just about everyone who matters, whether it’s Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean or Travis Scott. I was surprised to see people in hip-hop communities so ready to post their thoughts on this album – Blake’s vocals are slow-paced, chilling and emotional – but he has made a name for himself as both a counterpoint to and a legitimizer of hip-hop music as an art form to be taken seriously, even if his sound is pretty far removed from it. He brings Metro Boomin and Travis Scott aboard here, but he also brings people like acclaimed flamenco breakout star Rosalía and the powerful, cathartic vocals of Moses Sumney. It’s an album with its twists and turns, and it doesn’t all click quite perfectly, but Blake delivers an ambitious, complete project here.

The title track that kicks off the album is a disjointed, glitchy mix of some absolutely beautiful musical segments, mostly orchestral and hip-hop percussion – it sets the tone for the rest of the project pretty well. There are always these exciting motifs, but Blake might snatch them away just as fast and whisk you down some other incongruous musical corridor suggesting you should just enjoy them while they last. It’s tough to say that I’d come back to a lot of these tracks, but it’s certainly a new kind of sonic experience. Those classic James Blake withering falsetto harmonies are present across the board and stronger than ever as well.

Image result for james blake

Up next are the back-to-back Metro Boomin tracks, and it’s pretty fascinating to hear these two pioneers from different worlds blend their styles together. “Mile High” features Travis Scott, and minus Metro’s trademark skittering hi-hats, it removes the typical dark atmosphere of a trap cut and replaces it with these vivid, glacial synths and Blake’s yearning, emotional tone. The fact he somehow made Scott sound like he fit right in is a testament to how much Scott’s sound dominates the current musical conversation – but Blake knows exactly how to warp it just enough to put his own personal spin on it. The next, “Tell Them”, is a lot more traditional trap, but it puts the incredibly natural soul and rasp of Sumney on top, inverting the genre in the complete opposite way. In a world where we’re clearly getting tired of the Migos formula, this is just what we needed to kick off 2019.

Speaking of guests, Rosalía is such an unexpected yet logical addition to Blake’s world on “Barefoot in the Park”, the two voices intertwine perfectly, similarly understated but Rosalía’s breathiness nicely supporting Blake’s more forward, nasal approach. The addition of some more traditionally flamenco production when Rosalía sings the verses in Spanish is a great touch as well.

While it’s not as mindblowingly experimental as a couple of other tracks here, there’s something to be said about the strength of Blake’s ear for a simple great pop melody as well, which he applies on more straightforward tracks like “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” but perfects on the gorgeous “I’ll Come Too” later on in the tracklisting, a romantic track built on a looped sung “ooh” melody and the shimmering violins coming in quietly on top of the mix when he sings his most emotionally charged lines. “I’ve got nothing to lose with you”, he sings, throwing his voice around a little bit but sounding so blissfully happy in the process.

The second half of the project kicks off with the rhythmically off-kilter “Are You in Love?” that combines these soothing, 90s-esque synth-piano chords with this rubbery tone in the forefront that just skitters up and down the scales recklessly, the twinge of uncertainty reflecting Blake’s lyrical questioning of a partner’s authenticity.

Image result for james blake

The experimentation goes off the rails a little bit at times here, the ambition of a couple tracks going in a different direction than I was expecting them to. He generates something completely new, but it somehow turns out different than a “something new” that I see as a logical evolution of where things are at the moment. “Into the Red” is one of these songs. It begins with some layered harmonies and orchestral production, but this abrupt cut introduces a twangy guitar melody which seems completely out of step with the rest of the track, especially as it builds back up with some absolutely stunning moments at the end as Blake just extends these high notes as these warm orchestral chords build – I just can’t get fully into it when this repeated riff that sounds like it’s from some kind of country music parody is playing on top.

“Where’s The Catch?”, a track with the inimitable Andre 3000, doesn’t really come together either, Andre delivering yet another technically spectacular verse as some upbeat production comes in behind him, but Blake’s surrounding contributions don’t match him in intensity, the repeated hook falling off the pitch and slowing down the tempo as soon as Andre finishes.

It’s easy to see why so many high-profile artists call on this guy who still hasn’t cracked the top 10 on the Billboard album charts – there’s not many who can execute a fully realized vision as well as he can. Despite a couple of off-kilter diversions, this album goes many different places but is still unapologetically James Blake.

Favourite Tracks: I’ll Come Too, Tell Them, Barefoot In The Park, Mile High, Are You In Love?

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

Brockhampton – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgHip-hop/R&B supergroup (or “boyband”, according to leader Kevin Abstract) Brockhampton, fresh off the success of their Saturation Trilogy last year, have had one of the most meteoric rises in popularity in recent memory. Formed through interactions on a Kanye West fan forum, the group certainly emulates his flair for the experimental, blending together abrasive, complex instrumentals, introspective and personal lyricism, and calmer singing performances. Their fourth (but debut major label) album, iridescence, kicks off yet another trilogy as their frantic release pace continues. While it’s easy to pick out the clear best and worst contributors in the 14-member group and there are a few experiments that don’t quite connect, the project throws a gauntlet of novel ideas and adventurous choices at the listener – and surprisingly, most of the chaos comes together to create a degree of cohesion I’d never expect. The group moves seamlessly past the departure of main mic presence Ameer Vann, removed from the group after sexual misconduct allegations. Brockhampton aren’t perfect, but in today’s musical landscape, they’re a very exciting and dynamic force.

The project opens with the blistering track “NEW ORLEANS”, featuring a relatively simple yet endlessly energetic repeated siren blare punctuated by the occasional tribal ad-lib and crunching percussive bass as four of the group’s best rappers each offer their own, uniquely competent verse. One of the greatest things about Brockhampton is just how different the strengths each of their members can bring to the table can be, working together regardless. Joba immediately stands out from the pack on the opener with his distinctly high-pitched tone and double-time flow before Merlyn Wood’s layered, more aggressive approach closes the track that drops us head-on into the sensory overload that is iridescence (Can we just talk about how much Merlyn demolishes the short interlude “WHERE THE CASH AT” as well?). The transition into the soulful piano and backing gospel choir of “THUG LIFE” is absolutely flawless, the two really sound like a single song. We’re frequently whiplashed back and forth between the calmer and more abrasive sections of the album, but the transitions are so well-executed that it just feels like the exhilarating rush of a single project with surprising twists and turns.

Image result for brockhampton 2018The group can be so hyperactive at times that you get caught off guard by the poignant and personal lyricism from a few of the members, especially with something like Kevin Abstract’s verse on “WEIGHT”, speaking openly about his struggles with accepting his sexuality as the track explodes from the orchestral opening into a drum-n-bass breakbeat as other members discuss other “weight” hanging on them since the fame, delving into topics like depression, substance abuse and artistic pressures. It’s a shifting, changing odyssey of a track, Joba’s chopped and frantic vocals sounding like the inner voice in his head as more of a boom-bap beat re-energizes the track as it rushes towards its conclusion.

The back half of the project is just as strong. “J’OUVERT” is a monster of a track, establishing an eerie ambience that’s perfect for both Matt Champion’s deep-voiced snarl and Joba’s erratic and panicked delivery as he builds up to a full-on horrorcore-esque scream on his verse. Inspired by a street festival in the Caribbean and producer Jabari’s Grenadan heritage, the brief motifs of celebratory percussion and horns, as well as a patois sample from Grenadan artist Lavaman, that fight through the industrial muck to be heard just enhance the madness even more. Kevin Abstract and quiet standout Dom McLennon take some of the more direct approaches on the project as they rhyme over a Beyonce sample on “HONEY”, displaying some impressive flows before the 2nd half picks up even more with a half-time hi-hat beat and beautifully layered vocals – it’s just a random moment of instrumental tacked onto the end of a song that might be the best musical moment on the album.

A few times, Brockhampton throws way too much at the wall and the track slowly starts to disintegrate and fall apart as it goes on. “BERLIN” begins as another great punishing, minimal experimental hip-hop track that almost reminds me of a Die Antwoord song with bearface’s falsetto rap chorus and grinding industrial bass before the track awkwardly shifts through a few calmer phases, closing out with what seems like an improvised synth solo as the huge percussion hits return. The group try to blend completely disparate sounds together, one lingering behind and fading out as a new one enters, and the handoffs aren’t always as perfect as the transitions between songs here. “DISTRICT” is another one that you can’t help but nod your head to with that glitchy, distorted synth line in the background, but the disparities between the various members begin to make themselves clear.

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It’s hard to know exactly what I want to be different on these tracks, since there are so many different elements at play here. At times, it feels like the disparate approaches of the members succeed to varying levels on one instrumental, and I want more changes to suit their individual styles, but the group can’t always figure out exactly how to maximize the potential of all of their members at the same time. The explosive tonal shift in the outro here is an example, being completely unexpected and awkward. At the same time, I can’t fault the group for experimentation – there aren’t many people who are trying out the kinds of crazy ideas here with this rate of success at making them work. I find myself impressed by the sheer audacity to try laying these ideas down even during the weaker parts of the project, enjoying them anyway. The final three tracks of the album slow things down, the softer sides of Brockhampton’s talents taking over, but the return of the London Community Gospel Choir at the close of “SAN MARCOS” over an introspective acoustic guitar loop is an emotional peak that not just everyone can reach.

A lot of people are very excited about Brockhampton for good reason – there’s almost nothing about them, from the construction of the group, to the topics they address, to the sonic adventures they take us on, that isn’t a complete breath of fresh air in hip-hop and music in general. With more focus, they have the potential to contribute to some all-time classics.

Favourite Tracks: SAN MARCOS, HONEY, NEW ORLEANS, J’OUVERT, WEIGHT

Least Favourite Track: TAPE

Score: 8/10

Joey Purp – QUARTERTHING

Image result for QUARTERTHINGChance the Rapper affiliate and SAVEMONEY Crew member Joey Purp finally delivers his debut studio album, 3 years after exploding onto the scene with his 2015 mixtape iiiDrops. The Chicago rap scene has been thriving in recent years, and Purp maintains his standing as one of the most creative artists from the city with this project, continuing to contrast his blunt and straightforward raps with some of the most innovative and quirky production we’ve heard on a rap album all year. Working with local jazz/funk collective The Social Experiment, the combined efforts make QUARTERTHING one of the best rap projects of the year.

Similar to his last project, QUARTERTHING opens with a grand and cinematic number in “24k Gold/Sanctified”, which features R&B vocalist Ravyn Lenae. The track cascades through sections of triumphant and explosive piano loops and live percussion, harmonized choral backing vocals and quieter sections as Purp draws out a half-sung “I’m still aliiiiiive!” Purp’s emotionally charged delivery frequently sees him perfectly balance a characteristically Chicago soulful timbre and pushing his vocals to the point of a borderline out-of-control shout. The tracklisting really dives into completely unique territory with a seriously impressive run beginning with its second track, “Godbody Pt. 2”, a continuation of a track from iiiDrops introduced by none other than the RZA. Purp’s flow dexterously navigates through chaotic rolling drum fills and a seriously funky descending synth-bassline in an absolute sensory overload of a track, Purp at what might be his most technically impressive on the album as the instrumental cuts out at the most opportunistically euphoric moments.

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One of the greatest things about QUARTERTHING, strangely, is some of the abrupt endings and shorter tracks here, and that is because of just how versatile Purp is. When under most circumstances this might be annoying, Purp cutting off some of these tracks midsentence with a second of static before catapulting listeners into a completely different sound is absolutely exhilarating and just makes his talent all the more impressive, and makes me want to play the full album instead of individual tracks. “Hallelujah” is a shorter, celebratory track featuring some blaring horns from Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet) that tumbles into the back-to-back party tracks built for the Chicago juking dance style in “Elastic” and “Aw Sh*t!”. I’ve always loved Purp the most in this style, introduced to me with 2015 standout “Girls @”, the more minimal instrumental and Purp’s deeper vocals delivered with a fun-loving wink making a completely unique-sounding track – nobody else is rapping over instrumentals quite like these. The latter especially is a blast, Purp delivering some quotables over a skittering breakbeat and handclaps as his vocals are chopped up in the background – the track ends with what sounds like the trap version of an ice-cream truck, because why not. It’s all Purp’s off-the-wall aesthetic.

Talking about this project in chronological order is a lot of fun, writing as I listen through, because every twist and turn the tracklisting takes is surprising. The title track “QUARTERTHING” shows yet another dimension for him, Purp at what might be his most aggressive delivery yet as he distorts his vocals and lowers to a menacing drawl over some eerie sliding synths, a droning bassline and off-kilter Pharrell-esque percussion. The ridiculously strong first half of the album closes with “Paint Thinner”, the only track here that’s unabashedly trap music, but Purp makes it work for him by applying a speedy yet much more straightforward flow than usual and somehow making it sound great anyway – he drops into the Migos flow for a few bars at the start of the second verse just to show how different what he’s doing really is.

The second half definitely lags behind, but it was a pretty difficult act to follow. The song “2012” features a much calmer instrumental of higher-pitched synths that doesn’t really fit with Purp’s energetic yelps in the forefront – the man thrives in the chaos. The lack of distracting bells and whistles exposes Purp’s weaknesses as a lyricist for a second, his delivery sounding strangely one-note. “Fessional/Diamonds Dancing” sounds more like Purp trying to fit in with modern rap trends than anything else here, adopting a bit of a Blocboy JB slurred cadence here that feels more inauthentic than his genuine joy just to be here on every other track, while “Karl Malone” is essentially a combination of the previous two criticisms – he layers his voice in Auto-Tune and raps over a menacing sparse piano beat … OG Maco he is not, and the track drones on and falls apart.

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Still, the fuzzy synth-bass and quirky bleeps and bloops of braggadocio-laden track “Look At My Wrist” is no less of a complete shot of adrenaline despite the underwritten hook – I love how every aspect of the track just starts gradually speeding up at the end, like Purp is unable to be contained. “Bag Talk” and “Lebron James” are more of Purp elevating unique instrumentals with his Energizer Bunny self as well.

Purp, for the most part, has done something pretty incredible in creating an album that flows together perfectly in certain areas, each track impressive and engaging for a completely different reason. Even with the inconsistencies, you can listen to the whole thing and not realize that 40 minutes have gone by due to how much of a mic presence Purp possesses. I’ve been waiting 3 years to see what he could deliver on a full-length studio album and like usual, he impressed.

Favourite Tracks: Godbody – Pt. 2, Aw Sh*t!, Hallelujah, Paint Thinner, 24k Gold/Sanctified

Least Favourite Track: Karl Malone

Score: 8/10

Denzel Curry – TA13OO

Image result for ta13ooI’m not sure anyone was quite ready for Denzel Curry’s TA13OO. The dark and aggressive hardcore rap artist’s third studio album takes a deep dive into the most tortured levels of his subconscious, dividing the project into three shorter acts – Light, Grey and Dark, which signify the degree to which he gives into and accepts the violence and hatred surrounding him, as well as his own personal paranoias and anxieties. Curry’s lyricism is top notch here, stringing together complex wordplay and extended metaphors that are only bolstered by the sheer force behind his delivery. His confusion and mood swings are additionally represented by his greatest show of versatility yet, mixing his trademark scream-rap style with some extravagant, soulful and jazzy material closer to the “Light” side. This is one of the most essential hip-hop albums of the year without a doubt.

Although the album is broken up into three acts, distinguishing between them isn’t so easy – Curry introduces “Light” singing “welcome to the darkest side of taboo” on the title track. Even at Curry’s most optimistic, trying to distance himself from the issues he speaks on throughout the album, they still weigh heavily on him – specifically as he worries about a friend who had been abused as a child on this track. The sound of most of the Light section, on tracks like “Black Balloons” and “Cash Maniac”, is a complete sonic deviation from what we know from Curry, as he raps in a much clearer, expressive voice and even sings over some dreamy and funk-influenced instrumentals. These brighter instrumentals really allow Curry’s technical skill and lyricism to shine through in a way they never really have before, when we’re not so focused on how hard the beat knocks – this is still saved for later, of course. Curry runs through various characters and alter-egos, as they contradict each other and emphasize his mental chaos – his wordplay seriously verges on an early Eminem level at times here. Not only that, but “Cash Maniac” rides over this old-school 90s West Coast instrumental as Curry delivers a bouncy singsong flow accompanying Nyyjerya’s uncharacteristically catchy pop-rap hook – he does almost everything under the hip-hop spectrum right across the whole album.

Image result for denzel curry

Still, Curry might be at his best doing what he knows best, and there is certainly no shortage of disgustingly grimy hardcore rap tracks here. Single “Sumo” is classic Curry, grit creeping into his voice as he yells his words into the mic, somehow keeping his breath going as he puts everything he has into a quicker-than-expected flow. Charlie Heat’s instrumental comes with fuzzy, industrial bass that injects the track with energy – it’s so hard to write this out as I’m listening right now, because the track just makes me want to get up and move, maybe knock some things over in the process. This transitions into the Grey area with “Super Saiyan Superman”, Curry speeding through the track that comes closest to a modern trap banger here. There’s something about his delivery that makes him stand so far above all of his contemporaries – he’s so present on the track, sounding like a man possessed by some spirit that absolutely needs to get these words out there. The track is punctuated by blood-curdling screams, ending too abruptly.

The Grey area is where we start to see some doubts and worries creeping into Curry’s lyrics, wondering if he’s already subsumed in the cycles he tries to escape from. “Switch It Up” is yet another absolutely searing track, the instrumental sounding like a horror movie as Curry’s flow becomes more stuttered in response to the irregularly cascading hi-hats. The way he switches flows so seamlessly just goes hand in hand with Curry trying frantically to fight off his “mean” persona creeping into his words just as the gravel creeps back into his voice and he starts fantasizing about indulging in his darker thoughts, desensitized to gun violence and expecting his own life to end as a direct result. “Sirens” is the most politically charged track here, getting an assist from similarly grim rising indie pop artist Billie Eilish on the hook and one of the most lyrical current rappers in Dreamville’s J.I.D., making direct references to the presidential election and the resulting state of America, comparing the negative effects of the political divide, the reach of the media and violence in his community to some seriously twisted and decidedly non-politically correct extended metaphors. The passion in his voice makes you understand that he fully believes every word he says.

Image result for denzel curry live

The final “Dark” section is some of the most disturbingly nihilistic material I’ve ever heard, but it’s incredibly compelling all the same. He addresses the effects of rappers romanticizing drug abuse on “The Blackest Balloon” and “Percz”, the instrumentals at their most ominous and anxious, menacing bells and deafening bass punctuating Curry’s distressed, mournful voice as he predicts terrorism and the continued deaths of those close to him. The final two tracks, “Vengeance” and “Black Metal Terrorist”, find Curry channelling the hardcore genre, recruiting JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami for some verses that are somehow even more aggressive than his own. It’s some very shocking stuff, and I’ve certainly never heard anything like it, but I can’t deny how much the music takes over my body and senses completely. Curry’s inflections on “Vengeance” are something else – I have no idea how he manages to take his voice to so many different places with such a fast flow.

Curry truly has the full toolkit of a great rapper. It’s so easy to get lost in one of the great aspects of this project and completely miss one of the others – I certainly didn’t understand the importance of most of Curry’s lyrics on the first listen. TA13OO is the most experimental and unique rap record of the year – and is one of the most insane listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Favourite Tracks: Switch It Up, Vengeance, Sumo, Cash Maniac, Super Saiyan Superman

Least Favourite Track: Clout Cobain…?

Score: 9/10

Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts

Now that I’ve finally caught back up to the present with these reviews, I’ll be returning to the original, longer format and hopefully returning to a consistent release schedule starting next week. Jorja Smith review coming shortly, then back to Tuesday/Thursday or something similar. I’m also going to be back on Instagram, follow me at bensbeatmusic! Here are my thoughts on one of my favourite albums of the year:

Image result for kids see ghostsKanye West and fellow G.O.O.D. Music artist Kid Cudi bring the best out of eachother to maximum potential on the third of West’s 5 Wyoming releases, Kids See Ghosts. Saving his innovative production and completely new sounds for this project, West combines his style with Cudi’s alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds we haven’t heard executed this well anywhere else before. Where ye felt hurried and open-ended, these 7 tracks all feel connected, deliberately sequenced and encapsulate a perfect microcosm of West’s incredible ability as a producer, with some old-school Cudi vibes and impressive political wordplay from West on top as well. It’s easily the best Wyoming release, and that’s saying a lot with the strength of DAYTONA and ye.

Image result for kanye west kid cudiInfluential artist Takashi Murakami designed the cover art.

The project opens with “Feel The Love”, a song that goes to three completely different places in under three minutes. Pusha T’s menacing intro verse gives way to West’s completely unexpected emulation of gunshot noises, completely upsetting the natural flow before the beat finally clicks and perfectly lines up for the most exhilarating musical moment I’ve heard in a while, feeding off primal energy. More contemplative synths reintroduce Cudi’s hook, as the rhythm of West’s vocalizations come back in on the percussion to complement it more quietly. The experimentation and energy only continues after the smooth transition to “Fire”, the track carried by a steadily driving deathmarch tempo backed by Cudi’s trademark hums and a distorted acoustic guitar. Cudi’s singing on this track and across the board is a lot more on key than usual, competently delivering hooks and tapping back into his older style to carry a longer track like “Reborn” almost all by himself. The song itself is a bit of a breather from the aggressive stranglehold of the first 4 songs here, Cudi singing about defeating his demons over a contemplative synth piano. As the hook – “keep moving forward” – continues repeating into the end of the track, Cudi continues to layer his vocals on top, emphasizing that it still isn’t that easy – “which way should I go?” he asks.

“4th Dimension” is one of the craziest ideas West’s ever had, and he pulls it off flawlessly. Taking a Louis Prima Christmas song from the 1930s, he orchestrates a sample flip, picking out the group vocals on the melody line from the original. He speeds up the tempo with a steady, knocking beat and uses reversed vocals to completely repurpose it. West sounds absolutely triumphant on his verse, like he’s fully aware of the incredible musical feat he’s pulled off with the track. He truly could turn anything into a hip-hop song. He brings Ty Dolla $ign on board once again for “Freeee”, a continuation of his own track “Ghost Town” that takes the emotion of the original and translates it into a grandiose, godlike rock anthem. The heavy guitar loop gives way to Ty’s vocals, layered multiple times for a deafening sound as he simply repeats “Free”. West and Cudi are on top of the world here, repeating the title as well in an echoed, booming deeper voice. It’s incredibly empowering stuff. I also love that quickly descending synth that comes in near the end of the track. The title track “Kids See Ghosts” is yet another track carried by West’s innovative beat, a more minimal, driving jungle rhythm with ominous synth bass and high-pitched clicks, Mos Def’s “civilization” verse at the end framing the artists’ words as some kind of ancient knowledge.

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Closing track “Cudi Montage” tastefully takes a very raw acoustic sample from Kurt Cobain, a man who suffered through clinical depression and bipolar disorder as Cudi and West respectively have. It’s a great wink to the audience after an album where the two artists repeatedly embrace their flaws and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over it all, moving forward where Cobain couldn’t. The track itself actually sees West turn poignantly political in his verse, speaking on the culture of gang mentality and its contribution to the crime rate in Chicago. West and Cudi’s repeated mantras to close out the album – “Lord shine your light on me”, “Stay strong” – see the two as having found a place of freedom, peace and empowerment outside the elements that hold them back, both in the form of West’s political talk and their own disabilities.

West and Cudi stand together as kindred spirits building each other up and helping each other through their respective personal hardships. It’s truly amazing to hear them speaking about these topics with such a level head, having moved past them. West’s production is at it’s most innovative here, creating a new movement of sound instead of reverting to old tricks like on his solo Wyoming project. Every track here feels like it belongs, and Kids See Ghosts stands as one of West’s all-time greatest works in a discography that has plenty of contenders.

Favourite Tracks: 4th Dimension, Feel The Love, Reborn, Fire, Cudi Montage

Least Favourite Track: Impossible. Each track serves a very specific, essential purpose.

Score: 10/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Shawn Mendes, Father John Misty, Kanye West)

Image result for shawn mendes self titled albumShawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes releases his third self-titled studio album at the age of only 19, expanding his musical influences to explore genres past his trends of safe, acoustic pop balladry. Working with a high-profile set of collaborators, Mendes delivers a solid set of pop tracks that splits about half and half with working what he knows and trying his hand at more upbeat pop tracks or venturing into more of an R&B The experimentation works out for him more often than not, the tracklisting weighed down by just a bit too much of what we’ve already heard from him – or someone like him (looking at you once again, Ryan Tedder).

Single “In My Blood” opens the album, and it’s probably the strongest single Mendes has ever released, transcending the cheesy and derivative pop tracks for a more rock-leaning song featuring live instrumentation and a nice build-up to a passionately sung chorus, his trademark crackles creeping into his delivery – those huge drums in the background are a nice break from the trap hi-hats we hear everywhere. The opening run of the album contains it’s best tracks, two of them co-written by the frequently outstanding Julia Michaels: “Nervous” is an R&B-funk adventure with a quickly delivered falsetto chorus and persistent bassline, and it’s the first time I could ever imagine a Mendes song on a dancefloor. Michaels actually sings on quiet acoustic duet “Like To Be You”, and they blend together shockingly well for two artists with very distinct voices. Mendes is surprisingly believable as an R&B vocalist, stating that he drew inspiration from artists like Justin Timberlake. “Where Were You in The Morning?” is his most obvious draw from the Man of the Woods, some lazy guitar chords and the slightest hint of a trap beat framing Mendes’ smoothest vocal yet, sounding much older than his age. Ed Sheeran lends his reliable hand to “Fallin’ All In You”, which sounds like a huge hit, blending his old and new styles impressively with the hint of a doo-wop bassline and Sheeran’s tendency to pack in as many syllables as possible.

The main problems with this project come when, standing at 14 tracks, Mendes and his collaborators can’t help but exercise a few tried and true ideas that edge closer to the slower, minimalist ballads that don’t capture my attention quite as easily. Other than “Perfectly Wrong”, a track where Mendes’ songwriting shines above the less showy instrumental with some heartbreaking commentary on forcing himself out of a toxic relationship he desperately wanted to save, tracks like “Youth”, a duet with similarly minded artist Khalid, and “Because I Had You”, itself a complete rip-off of Justin Bieber’s hit “Love Yourself” never really pick themselves off the ground. The notoriously unoriginal Ryan Tedder also contributes to “Particular Taste”, which lifts a few too many elements from Prince’s catalogue – someone else has already delivered the word “particular” like that in an iconic fashion. Most of the back half of the project feels too similar to its counterparts and I feel like the tracklist easily could have been shortened. “Why” shows potential with an extravagant, dreamlike instrumental, but as Mendes reaches up into his falsetto the breaks in the instrumental reveal a few awkward transitionary places in his range.

Mendes’ steps towards risk-taking on this project easily make it his best collection of songs – still very young, he’s showing a definite upward trajectory and is beginning to understand where his greatest strengths lie. For now, Shawn Mendes exists as a pleasant surprise that shows his potential despite a few of his old ways still sticking around.

Favourite Tracks: Fallin All In You, Where Were You In The Morning?, Perfectly Wrong, Nervous

Least Favourite Track: Love Yourself, uh, I mean Because I Had You

Score: 6/10

Image result for god's favorite customerFather John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Master songwriter Father John Misty’s fourth narrows his focus on his fourth studio album, dialing back the wide range of topics he addressed on his sprawling breakthrough Pure Comedy, a satirical takedown of politics, religion and everything under the sun. While he does return to some similar musical themes across this project, his trademark blunt and darkly humorous songwriting makes his tales of his mental health and familial relations just as compelling.

“Hangout at the Gallows” introduces listeners to the kind of material that will be featured on the album well, Tillman in complete command of a piano rock instrumental that previews the darker thoughts of suicide and paranoia he brings up over the course of the project. Tillman makes this kind of thing work perfectly for him, like a modern-day, extremely cynical Elton John. “Mr. Tillman” is a hilarious track spoken from the perspective of a worker at the front desk of a hotel, observing Tillman’s clear signs of a mental breakdown while he sings in a cheerful melodic loop intended to be just a little obnoxious. It’s not the only moment where Tillman picks up another character on the album, the incredible “Please Don’t Die” being sung from the position of his wife. It’s just as bluntly, beautifully Tillman as the track suggests, as it turns into something of a country ballad, a slide guitar twanging in the background as he softens his voice and expresses concern that Tillman might kill himself with some somber, falsetto harmonies.

Tillman has one of the most poignantly expressive vocal deliveries I’ve ever heard, capable of delivering raw emotion believably even when he doesn’t have much of an instrumental to support him. “God’s Favorite Customer”, the title track, continues his troubled relationship with religion, turning back to a faith he stopped believing in long ago in his time of mental instability. His knowingly futile calls to an angel on the stark chorus is just another example of his brilliant songwriting ability.

The instrumentals on this project are largely similar to what we’ve heard from Tillman in the past, potentially even sparser and more minimal on this one than something like Pure Comedy as he shows a clear focus on the clear delivery of his lyrical content. Without issues so enormous and pressing to offer his philosophical thoughts on, a few of these tracks with little more than a slow piano accompaniment aren’t carried by Tillman’s thoughts alone. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is a pretty straightforward love song that rides on a very familiar acoustic strumming chord progression without much of the hilarious turns of phrase we’re used to, while the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is one of the first times I’ve ever felt like Tillman tried to make a huge statement and didn’t actually manage to say anything, offering baseline analysis while I wait for the twisted joke to land.

It’s clear that Tillman decided to play it safe a bit coming down from such an ambitious project released only last year, but he has the skills that even that elevates him over most singer-songwriters of his kind. He’s certainly the only person that can deliver the lyric “Last night I wrote a poem, man, I must have been in the poem zone” with as much genuine emotional weight as he does.

Favourite Tracks: Please Don’t Die, God’s Favorite Customer, Mr. Tillman, Hangout at the Gallows, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

Innovative rapper Kanye West’s eighth studio album is the second of five he plans to produce this summer, a brief 7 tracks like its predecessor DAYTONA. Supposedly completed in a matter of a couple weeks after the originally planned Love Everyone was scrapped due to controversy, ye is a journey through everything we’ve come to love about West’s music over the course of his entire career. Although I have come to expect West to completely reinvent the wheel on every project he releases, ye utilizing old themes of industrial beats and soul samples, the production is still on a level no other artist comes close to touching.

ye sees West at perhaps his most introspective and confessional in his whole career, revealing his inner thoughts on his troubled years post-Saint Pablo Tour with his bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. The album opens with “I Thought About Killing You”, West delivering a spoken-word intro over some beautiful Francis & The Lights Prismizer work where he details his need to speak his mind freely to exorcise demons, even his darkest thoughts concerning suicide, directing threats at himself in second person emphasizing his bipolarity. The first half of the project resembles Yeezus more than anything, as the opener explodes into a chilling scream and knocking industrial beat. “All Mine” is an aggressive and minimalist grinding carnal track, eerie, breathy vocal samples and crashing percussion framing West’s hilariously blunt lyrics, while “Yikes” is the most immediately commercially viable song here. Pi’erre Bourne assists with the production as West delivers his best flow on the project and a great melodic hook – “find help, sometimes I scare myself”.

The back half, on the other hand, reverts back to the soulful “Old Kanye” sound that troll song “Lift Yourself” hinted might return. “Wouldn’t Leave” is a touching track dedicated to his famous wife’s loyalty despite his many mistakes, thanking her for remaining by his side in the wake of a breakdown about her own career repercussions and West himself suggesting she leave if she needed to. Harmonized soulful backing vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, an uncharacteristically passionate PARTYNEXTDOOR hook, and somber synth-piano chords complete the emotional track. The love is affirmed with a triumphant Charlie Wilson hook on “No Mistakes”, West’s flow coming a little unhinged but coasting through on a fun, rhythmic gospel sample from Edwin Hawkins. The best track is the emotional peak of “Ghost Town”, however, featuring a shimmering, soulful organ sample and Kid Cudi getting so into the hook he falls off the pitch in his usual endearing way. West’s verse is the best singing (no Auto-Tune!) he’s done in a long time, but new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake steals the show, turning the second half into a repeated anthemic mantra, the music cutting down to an enormous stomp-clap. I can’t wait to sing it in a huge crowd. It’s great to hear more adept lyricism from West after Yeezus and Pablo as well, acting as an adorably overprotective father towards his daughters on “Violent Crimes” and delivering some of his best wordplay in a while on “Wouldn’t Leave”.

Since the project was so quickly assembled and West’s favourite subject material in his lyrics is, of course, himself, many of the current topical references to his life that happened mere weeks or days before its release makes the project feel less larger-than-life than his past albums, his quotables becoming law, or at least Instagram captions. Referencing things like G.O.O.D. Music’s war with Drake on “No Mistakes” or drawing specific attention to that fateful TMZ interview, regardless of how interesting a light he paints on the intrapersonal repercussions of his actions, on “Wouldn’t Leave” will end up sounding extremely dated in comparison to something like The College Dropout, which still resonates 14 years later.

West hasn’t made a perfect album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he’s getting a lot better at finding beauty in the chaos. Although the album could use a little more polish, his artistry is still unquestioned and a closer look into his psyche and personal life is appreciated for the 9-year old in me who overplayed “Gold Digger” to death.

Favourite Tracks: Ghost Town, Yikes, All Mine, Wouldn’t Leave

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

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

Jhene Aiko – Trip

Trip by Jhené Aiko cover.jpgR&B/Soul singer Jhene Aiko’s sophomore album, Trip, is less of an album and more of an experience. Nearly an hour and a half in length, Aiko’s silky smooth vocals guide us through a project framed as one long drug trip. Aiko’s becomes lost in a psychedelic and sometimes scary world, addressing her relationships including her disastrous and short-lived marriage to producer Dot Da Genius and her new “soulmate” Big Sean along the way.

Aiko additionally taps into her alter-ego, Penny – a nickname her grandfather gave her that she states is her “purest, most authentic form” and dedicates the album to her brother, who died of cancer in 2012 and shows up a few times here. Aiko paints a world to get lost in while addressing some pretty heavy topics. Trip is the well thought out concept album I’ve been waiting for this year.

Image result for jhene aiko

I’ts tough to compare individual songs on this project, as they all flow together seamlessly in one concrete experience. While some have criticized the album’s length due to its similar sounding tracks, Aiko’s voice has a hypnotic quality and I barely realized how long I had been sitting there listening to the album. Aiko’s vocals stay true to her trademark breathy style, but over such a sparse and psychedelic instrumental they adopt this beautiful, almost ghostly quality, floating above the track with a calming presence. With every vocal run and harmony she draws me deeper into the world of the album.

“LSD” introduces the album as Aiko begins her trip and says “And what I saw, oh my god…”, referring to the images she comes across over the course of the album. What she talks about certainly warrants her surprise. Aiko experiences the highest highs and lowest lows of human emotion, often blissfully in love, but she begins her journey by venturing into Japan’s suicide forest on “Jukai”. “Hell is not a certain evil, Hell is other people … or the lack thereof”, she sings, introducing the themes of love and loneliness. She is rescued from the forest by an unknown man who accompanies her in spoken dialogues after a few tracks here, revealing his dark side as more and more drugs are offered.

Some of my favourite projects are clearly deliberately ordered and tell one cohesive story, and Trip certainly fits the bill, as the sections of the album are demarcated with different drugs that cause Aiko to experience different things. “LSD” introduces a slew of songs that see her in a young romance, until she starts having some lingering doubts on final track “When We Love”. She suddenly instructs the male voice “Don’t hurt me, OK?” before “Sativa” introduces a longer segment full of Aiko’s ideal images of love being tormented by some darker thoughts, culminating in the chaotic “Bad Trip (Interlude)”.

Her brother makes an appearance as she addresses her struggles with addiction in the wake of his death on “Nobody”, and runs through feelings of loneliness, confusion and negative self-image. “Never Call Me” sees Aiko get uncharacteristically angry (even if her sweet tone of voice would never betray such a thing) as she criticizes the inability of her man to communicate his feelings instead of acting passive-aggressive. She references Dot Da Genius’ alimony lawsuit directly, the communication issues likely referencing his infamous series of cryptic tweets regarding his relationship with Aiko.

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The story of Trip parallels Aiko’s real-life issues, as the first part of the album represents the younger, naive version of herself that rushed into a relationship with the wrong person. The resulting fallout of the divorce and doubt entering a new relationship makes up the majority of the album, while the final section, “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is more representative of her new, healthy relationship with Big Sean.

Jhene recruits some colourful collaborators here to spice up the sound just enough. She brings Sean himself in to revive their funk-infused side project Twenty88 on the upbeat “Only Lovers Left Alive”, while John Mayer’s sensual guitar riffs back her musings of newfound love on the quieter “New Balance”. Her father delivers two extended outros, while she duets with her 9 year old daughter Namiko Love on endearing track “Sing To Me”.

There’s certainly a lot to unpack here thematically, but did I mention the music is great as well? “Overstimulated” stays true to its title, as Aiko delivers an intoxicating melody over some rolling hi-hats and a very dreamy soundscape, juxtaposing a speedier rhythmic delivery with her beautiful higher notes over some soft synth chords in the chorus. “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is another standout, a nearly 8-minute monster that brings in a horn section and infectious synth pattern resembling a siren amidst some of Aiko’s best harmonies.

I love how many layers there are to this project – this review would be a lot longer if I delved into what Aiko has stated some of these symbols mean. The album is very long, but I could listen to that voice forever, especially tied to these deeper conceptual themes. On title track “Trip”, Aiko concludes the album “Love pays, but love taxes – it’s a real trip”, summing up the journey we’ve just been on. Trip is a trip indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Overstimulated, Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect), While We’re Young, OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive), Never Call Me

Least Favourite Track: Oblivion (Creation)

Score: 9/10