Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, 6ix9ine, Mariah Carey)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson .Paak’s highly anticipated third studio album Oxnard, executive produced by Dr. Dre himself, sees the James Brown-esque rising funk star continue to exude charisma and mic presence like no other, even if his style is a little less immediately unique and personal. Dre spins the album more towards his own musical world of 90s G-funk, meaning the album is more hip-hop oriented than Paak has ever been as he explores some darker sounds for the first time. Part of what I loved so much about him in the past was his exuberant soulful delivery and boundless musicality – he’s far too talented to be just a rapper. So, although it took a while to grow on me, there’s still a lot to love about this project. Paak is one of the most exciting artists out right now.

Once again opening with the sounds of the beach, “The Chase” is an incredibly cinematic way to draw us into the album, continuing with Paak’s previous themes of drawing from the Blaxploitation-era sound as the mostly-instrumental track and accompanying sound effects makes you envision a car chase, some angelic and soulful backing vocals reminding us of the funk space Paak occupies. Especially as it transitions into the additionally vehicle-centric themes of the tracks “Headlow” and “Tints”, you can tell that the album is structured deliberately and it makes me especially appreciate a single like “Tints” even more in the context of the story Paak paints here. Easily one of my most listened-to songs of the year, a collaboration between Paak and Kendrick Lamar is all that I could have ever dreamed of. I love the complexity of the layered funk instrumental, especially as the chorus drops and Paak starts interlocking a couple of catchy hooks on separate vocal tracks – the harmonized female voices on the outro is such a cool moment as well. Both of these two just ooze charisma, dropping some humorous quotables.

Things take a turn for the political on “6 Summers”, a rollercoaster of a track that switches from inflammatory rapped jabs at the President to a more contemplative R&B section that sees Paak’s singing voice at its most beautiful as he wonders how to deal with the pain. He gets pretty explicit about his concerns here, dropping some lines about a lack of gun control reform. That lyrical flip is brilliant – the track will “bang” at least 6 summers, but so will the guns for the duration of the presidency. The back half is full of big-name features, one of the best coming from Pusha T on “Brother’s Keeper”, sinister as ever over some explosive bluesy guitar chords embellished with the most subtle of trap beats. The two are a surprisingly great match, Paak serving as the emotion Push would never show. “Cheers”, with Q-Tip, is a beautiful way to close the album out as well, as the two pay tribute to departed friends Mac Miller and Phife Dawg over one of the most upbeat and prominent instrumentals here – the whole track sounds like a celebration.

One of the main things I think I’m missing here from Paak is the prominence of soul samples in the mix, mostly from his collaboration project Yes Lawd! While there are still definitely elements of the genre in the mix at all times here, quite a few times it feels like it’s taking a backseat to a more West Coast hip-hop flair courtesy of Dre. “Headlow” is one of those tracks that adheres to the breezy sounds of the coast, but Paak’s lower-key approach to the track as the percussion knocks feels like he’s holding back from what he’s really capable of – he has one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard (it pops up briefly on “Smile/Petty”), and maybe it’s because of the lyrical themes of the track as he tries to keep quiet, but it comes across as a little low-effort. “Mansa Musa” is a heavy rap track that features Dre himself, but it feels a lot more rhythmically straightforward than a Paak song ever should be, sticking to some rap clichés. “Who R U?” is perhaps Paak’s most through-and-through hip-hop track ever, consisting of little more than a heavy drumbeat. Still, even when the funk is the most missed, Paak manages to impress, delivering some surprisingly technical bars and saving it with his personality.

I honestly think Paak’s previous projects were so spectacular that I had set my expectations for this one far too high, disappointment being inevitable. Oxnard is far from being a bad project, it’s just not what I expected from him. Paak still has one of the most unique and diverse skillsets in the game, and a project this great being his worst is the sign of a great artist.

Favourite Tracks: Cheers, Tints, Brother’s Keeper, 6 Summers, Saviers Road

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

We weren’t sure we were actually going to get this album at all. 6ix9ine, the controversial rapper and walking meme, is still embroiled in court hearings and facing life in prison after being charged for racketeering a few days before its scheduled release. Officially his first studio album after dropping the Day69 mixtape early this year, DUMMY BOY was released without fanfare a couple days after the scheduled release date. Loaded with high-profile features, it sees 6ix9ine tone down his abrasive and energetic vocal delivery for a few tracks, venturing into a more pop and even Latin-oriented space. There’s almost nothing that can match the pure shot of energy 6ix9ine can give you when he’s on his game, and that does give him a lot of credit here, but most of these tracks seem rushed, the features inconsistent.

As much as it’s easy to hate on 6ix9ine, you can’t deny how exhilarating opening track “STOOPID” is. Over a Tay Keith beat that sounds like a ringing alarm, when it hits at the end of that line of chopped up “dumb-d-dumb”s is one of the most energetic moments of the hear. One of the main reasons 6ix9ine immediately occupied such a huge space in the public consciousness (other than his rainbow hair of course) is that there was such a void for this style of hardcore, gangsta-oriented material that 6ix9ine’s voice is so well-suited for. It’s also why so many of these tracks that see him taking the gravel out of his voice, seemingly for more pop appeal, are so disappointing – he shouldn’t be holding that machine-gun of a voice back. “FEFE”, his biggest hit so far with Nicki Minaj, feels so much emptier than a 6ix9ine song ever should, the main hook a sluggish crawl. Nicki shows up later on “MAMA” with Kanye West, a track that let me down for how much hype it’s gotten since release. The instrumental and 6ix9ine’s hook are pretty basic trap material, while the slower pace of the track isn’t quite enough to accommodate the huge personalities of the two guests. I want to hear a more powerful instrumental behind those supercharged “Maaaan, oh my god”s from Kanye!

Quite a few of these tracks are taken over by their guests, 6ix9ine almost an afterthought on his own album. “WAKA” is almost entirely dedicated to A Boogie wit da Hoodie’s awful singing voice, while the engaging guitar-driven beat of “TIC TOC” is squandered by Lil Baby’s low-effort flow. Most of the final few songs seem like they might have been manufactured last-minute, giving too much mic time to his videographer TrifeDrew’s struggle raps on “DUMMY”, while “WONDO” sounds like a track that was left off the already-messy Day69 for not being complete enough of an idea.

“KIKA”, on the other hand, is pretty incredible. Featuring a carefree hook from Tory Lanez over a steel-drum instrumental, we’re reminded that 6ix9ine is actually capable of switching up his flows and finding himself in a rhythmic pocket, which is all the more exciting when he’s nearly blowing his vocal chords out – the track reminds me of why I enjoyed previous one “KOODA” so much. At this point 6ix9ine’s mere presence on a track is enough for virality, but it actually seems like he’s trying here. Latin pop track “BEBE” is way too sugary and fun to hate as well – I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger hit, that synth tone is such an earworm. “KANGA”, another track with Kanye, is the peak of both of these artists’ meme potential. Featuring ridiculously over-the-top and juvenile lyrics and a playground chant of a flow, it’s one of those tracks that’s so bad it’s amazing.

If this is really the end of 6ix9ine’s musical career, it’s safe to say that he’ll be remembered more for his antics and social media presence than the actual music itself. For a one-trick pony, his one trick is pretty great and succeeded at drawing attention towards him, but so much of his material seems like an afterthought.

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

15 studio albums in and her iconic Christmas classic once again shooting up the charts, Mariah Carey’s Caution proves that she’s still got something to offer – even if it’s not quite the same thing as before. We’ve all seen the internet criticism that her voice isn’t what it used to be, and while that’s all been exaggerated it’s easy to tell that the full power of one of the greatest vocalists of all time isn’t being utilized here. Carey tones down her vocals to a more subdued purr rather than the full belt here, which works fine fitting into the modern, more chill landscape of R&B anyway. Recruiting a few excellent collaborators, Caution is a mostly engaging 10-track breeze.

Lead single “With You”, a collaboration with DJ Mustard, is easily the best song here and shows just how captivating Carey can be even with her breathier vocals here. Reminding me a lot of why we’re all so captivated with Ella Mai this year, this is the kind of music that we’ve been missing, with some classic 90s R&B piano chords and a finger-snap beat. When she drops down to her more powerful lower register in the chorus, it’s just a very warm sound overall. Her vocal technique is still pretty unmatched, running through some impressive riffs and jazzy minor notes with ease. She even delivers some of those classic Carey whistle tones briefly as the song fades to a close. Transitioning into the title track “Caution”, she taps into her hip-hop side once again with a more aggressive faster flow in the verses and a hi-hat-embellished beat. With one of the catchiest melodies here, the track settles into a solid groove, Carey her flawless and flippant self as she warns her man about disloyalty.

She links up with the always-versatile Ty Dolla $ign on “The Distance”, another pretty classic-sounding track with a prominent rubbery bassline that kicks off with a cheerleading chant that’s smartly woven into the fabric of the track by its end. Ty holds his own with a legend, his lower tone laying the foundation for Carey’s trademark vocal acrobatics as the track closes. Blood Orange’s spacey, experimental style takes over for the 6-minute “Giving Me Life”, which also somehow features lauded rapper Slick Rick. The track never feels long, Carey’s newfound tone playing off of the icy piano notes – it’s almost hypnotic. The final two tracks are a good way to close it out, “Stay Long Love You” a dynamic upbeat pop track with an explosive and bubbling synth line and “Portrait” the best showcase for Carey’s voice here, a slower ballad.

There are definitely a couple weird decisions across the board here as well – I was surprised that promo single “GTFO” was on the album at all, but it’s actually the opening track here. After “With You” came out Carey herself was proclaiming how much better it was, referring to the former as just something fun she recorded – it’s a very awkwardly structured song, the rhythmic delivery in the chorus not landing well with me and the whole song staying rather one-note and not picking up in energy for 3 and a half minutes until a fadeout. “A No No” is similarly underwritten, the tempo almost too upbeat for Carey’s calmer vocals as the strangely staccato chorus drops, Carey simply repeating “no” throughout most of the song. The lazily rapped sample and the diversion into French at the end of the track just add to the confusion. Tracks like “One Mo’ Gen” and “8th Grade” still recapture the spirit of 90s R&B well enough, but at the end of the tracklisting they sound a little too similar to counterparts earlier in the album and have me wishing Carey still had more variation in her vocal delivery.

Caution is just about the best album I could have expected from 2018 Mariah Carey, still finding ways to surprise me almost 30 years into her career. While there are certainly a few inconsistencies here and there, this is a fully enjoyable R&B project.

Favourite Tracks: With You, Caution, The Distance, Giving Me Life, Stay Long Love You

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

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Ella Mai – Ella Mai

Image result for ella mai album coverUK throwback R&B artist and signee to DJ Mustard’s label Ella Mai explodes onto the scene with her debut self-titled studio album, after breaking through in a big way with the unlikely success of excellent single “Boo’d Up” – which has what is easily the cleverest flip of a lyric this year had to offer. While she might not reach the heights of her singles, Mai offers a full album of equally smooth vocal moments, navigating easily through vocal runs and DJ Mustard’s production offering up the classic R&B percussion and other sounds of yesteryear. It’s easy to criticize throwback acts for not bringing anything new to the table creatively, but there’s something interesting about an artist like Mai re-figuring an old sound that we’re sorely lacking with the moody alt-R&B wave, packaging it in a way that fits commercially into a more modern mould. You can see it in her speedier, rap-influenced flows and hints of newer drums. Regardless, I’m always automatically hooked by one of those upbeat 90s piano numbers anyway.

The album is framed by an acrostic poem of sorts, spread throughout the tracklisting in a similar way Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, as each of the 7 letters in “Ella Mai” correspond to a theme for the next couple of songs: “Emotion”, “Lust”, “Assertive”, “Mystery”, and the like – it really works in grounding the album in a concrete structure, Mai giving a few spoken word explanations of each section.

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Most of these tracks are carried completely by the refreshingly silky-smooth vocals of Mai over some classic 90s R&B soulful guitar and piano loops with the faintest hint of modern hi-hats. In total command of the rhythms of the track, most of these tracks are accompanied by some breezy higher harmonies that center everything in the most fun aspects of music from that era even more. The Chris Brown-featuring track “Whatchamacallit” is a complete blast from the past, Mai dropping into an immediately memorable hook as she speeds up her delivery to convincingly sing of a discrete encounter in her adorably innocent higher range, sounding frantic yet assured. Her range is something else that can really take you by surprise, going a lot lower at the start of  follow-up track “Cheap Shot”. The track represents one of the more trap-influenced cuts here. Still, Mai manages to make it fit in with the vintage feel of the rest of the project with the classic-sounding harmonies – the sparse vibes of the hook playing off the skittering rhythms of the percussion is another thing that stands out immediately, Mai closing the track with some Mariah-esque higher runs.

The immersive old-school production across the board here can almost distract you from just how great of a singer Mai really is, until she closes the project with the piano ballad “Easy” that puts all the focus on her as she delivers a seriously beautiful emotional vocal that fits right in with the 90s divas she loves so much. It’s over when that choir comes in to back her up. “Shot Clock” is a great concept for a song, as Mai waits impatiently by the phone for someone to confirm their desires as the time on the clock ticks down. Mai gets a little more aggressive lyrically, the funk bassline and minimal synth chords framing a place for the spotlight to be more on some impressive vocal acrobatics as she reasserts her own worth and criticizes a missed opportunity. “Own It” is another track that fits perfectly in the “Assertive” section, as she takes a smooth Adina Howard sample and knows just how to use her flexible vocals on one of the more sensual tracks here.

Mai links up with some pretty great guests as well, bringing the EGOT winner himself John Legend aboard for the almost doo-wop track “Everything” and fellow rising R&B star H.E.R. for “Gut Feeling”, a bouncy piano track where the two similar voices melt into some nice harmonized moments.

Image result for ella mai

I can’t get enough of current single “Trip” right now either – it’s essentially a perfect follow-up building on the momentum of “Boo’d Up”. There’s something about the staccato phrasing in the hook and classic piano instrumental combined with a much more capable mainstream singer than we’re used to that makes it feel so unique and refreshing amongst the other popular music at the moment. So much of Mai’s appeal is an indescribable kind of X-factor.

The album does take little bit to pick itself off the ground at the start, some of its weaker tracks opening it up. I’ve seen people criticize Mai’s lyrics for being repetitive, but it doesn’t usually get as annoying as it does on the song “Good Bad”, the verses opening with the same set of lines before the chorus features a couple lines that try to shoehorn the song’s title in as many awkward ways as possible, going on for too long without one of the inescapable earworms of a hook she’s so good at. The next track “Dangerous” is one of the more instrumentally disparate tracks here, and for now Mai occupies such a particular niche that the distorted synth guitar here feels a little over-the-top.

A lot of these tracks do feel somewhat similar to each other, but at this point I’m just so glad that there’s someone bringing this sound at its purest essence to the mainstream again. Mai’s vocals are outstanding throughout this project, and it’s endlessly replayable since the hooks are so strong and its easy to get lost in just how smooth everything sounds. This is a pretty excellent exercise in throwback material.

Favourite Tracks: Boo’d Up, Trip, Whatchamacallit, Everything, Easy

Least Favourite Track: Good Bad

Score: 8/10

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgBritish producer and psychedelic pop/R&B artist Dev Hynes, better known by his alias Blood Orange, releases his fourth studio album which offers both his most accessible music yet and his most powerful message. Negro Swan is mostly inspired by tales of discrimination against Hynes, an LGBT black man, in his youth, as multiple spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock regarding confidence and perseverance tie the project together. Hynes still acts mostly as a producer here, often letting a featured vocalist take over a track when he sees that they suit the instrumental better than him, but the sound he delivers is much more cohesive and consistent than something like his last project Freetown Sound. Leaning in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, parts of this project sound like the kind of soulful, upbeat pop tracks we’re missing from the 80s revival appearing around modern music at the moment.

We immediately get what might be the album’s two best tracks in openers “Orlando” and “Saint”, which fully embrace the soulful, harmonized jazzy funk tracks that are still somewhat of a new venture for Hynes. His falsetto delivery on the opening track is aching and vulnerable as he speaks about his troubled adolescence, recalling a time when he was physically assaulted and moving past it. “First kiss was the floor”, the lyric repeats. The transitions and instrumentation across the board here are pretty flawless for how complex the backgrounds are at times, often either a completely seamless musical transition or dissolving into a frantic saxophone solo.

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Janet Mock introduces the track “Jewelry” with a monologue questioning why people criticize others for “doing the most”, stating that people who have been previously marginalized especially should embrace doing the most as they continue to slowly permeate the culture – it feels like Hynes tried to reflect these sentiments in his production work, often featuring some solos doing their own thing in the background of a track or layering vocals to an overwhelming, ethereal degree. “Saint” seriously brings to mind an almost gospel territory, featuring some great female harmonies on the chorus. The track picks up with some light gospel piano chords and an aggressive breakbeat, Hynes touching on the inescapability of discrimination with some touching vocal moments, saying he’s unable to escape his skin colour but committed to spreading love regardless. The gospel theme continues on the powerful “Holy Will”, featuring some explosive high-pitched vocals from church singer Ian Isiah as he covers a track from gospel group the Clark Sisters, Hynes bringing it into his world with some of his trademark synth textures.

Quite a lot of the album’s power comes from just how raw and unfiltered most of the vocal takes on the project are here, Hynes actually stating that he sang through most of them in one take multiple times rather than recording different sections separately, simply selecting his best take. For this reason, more experimental, sparse tracks like “Take Your Time” and “Dagenham Dream” take on an added degree of power, focusing on the pure, natural emotion in Hynes’ vocals as the chaotic instrumentation jostles about behind him.

Another element that we haven’t seen from Hynes in a while is the addition of rap and hip-hop influence to his work. He brings Diddy on board for a catchy, repeated hook on “Hope” that contrasts with a silky soprano main vocal from Colombian singer Tei Shi – Shi’s vocals and the lush piano and shuffling percussion remind me of Hynes’ Carly Rae Jepsen track “All That”. A$AP Rocky and Project Pat’s contributions to “Chewing Gum” are a lot less immediately memorable, feeling unrelated to the message Hynes is attempting to convey here, but Hynes himself actually raps on tracks like “Jewelry”. Especially on an album where Hynes attempts to embrace his identity, hearing him rap “I’m feeling myself” is encouraging. Hynes even takes a thinly veiled shot at Miley Cyrus on “Vulture Baby”, regarding her recent comments about her renouncement of hip-hop culture and going back to her roots after her appropriative Bangerz era. Hynes is completely comfortable in his element here.

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Hynes continues to hit us with some great tracks as the album winds down to its conclusion, delivering one of the catchiest hooks on the project straight out of the bouncy funk areas of Prince’s catalogue on “Nappy Wonder”, offset by a disjointed and distorted guitar solo – those high harmonies feel like they keep shimmering for a few seconds after the track ends. Another one is “Out of Your League”, in collaboration with young producer Steve Lacy. Lacy’s production style fits right in with Hynes’ here as the two essentially have a jam session on their opposing instruments, Lacy on the keys and Hynes playing bass guitar – the percussion on the track is a lot of fun, this one feeling less like a profound statement and more like two really talented dudes messing around in the studio.

Some of Hynes’ ethereal and psychedelic R&B tracks can tend to blend together a bit and make the album more one-note than its masterful instrumentation in other areas would suggest, but the real strength of Negro Swan is the degree to which Hynes expresses his message to the listener through a series of smart lyrical references that cleverly disguise lifetimes of sadness, not lingering on the past too long as he takes control of who he is in the present. The superproducer delivers some of his best production work yet here, and I’m going to remember Negro Swan at the end of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Saint, Orlando, Hope, Out Of Your League, Charcoal Baby

Least Favourite Track: Chewing Gum

Score: 8/10

The Internet – Hive Mind

Image result for the internet hive mindR&B/funk collective The Internet, now on its 4th studio album after the disbanding of parent group Odd Future, unleashes the collection of subdued, effortlessly cool tracks Hive Mind. Their young producer Steve Lacy, already making hits with other big name artists like Kendrick Lamar, brings his multi-instrumentalist skill to the complex jazz-funk instrumentals here, while ex-Odd Future vocalists Syd and Matt Martians handle the mic, becoming stars in their own right after other members like Tyler The Creator, Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt’s successes. While the project does stand at a meandering 57 minutes, a few of these tracks getting too indulgent and disjointed for their own good, Syd’s captivating vocal work and Lacy’s production holds it together well.

Quite a bit of this album reminds me of what made Kali Uchis’ Isolation, one of my favourites of the year, work so well. Syd’s vocals, often catching the attention of my ears over Martians’ lower supporting voice, have the same kind of aloof and breathy yet determined quality, while the instrumentals share the same degree of refreshing complexity. The tracks that are delegated entirely to Syd are always the strongest here, especially when the instrumental and lyrical content takes on the sensual quality that her voice was built for. A lazy funk guitar pattern and bouncing bassline frames a request to “Come Over” on the titular track. I love how her vocals are layered with her head voice, an octave higher, quieter in the background, like a representation of the genuine excitement behind what she’s saying that she’s afraid to betray to the recipient completely. Instead, she plays it cool with her lower voice in the front of the mix.

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Tracks like “Stay The Night” and “Mood” see Syd step convincingly into the role of a typical R&B seducer as well. Lacy’s percussion (are those wooden instruments?) and funk bassline on the former lends it to a kind of bossa-nova vibe, Syd’s vocals at their most breathy and longing as she whisper-sings “maybe you should stay the night” quickly into alternating ears, surrounding the listener in her voice. It’s pretty convincing. “Mood” turns Syd’s bedroom into a shimmering dreamscape with some ascending synth-piano as she taps into a faster-paced, hip-hop influenced storytelling angle of her successful date plan – even receiving some good luck texts from her friends – dropping into an enticing rap vocal as she finally gets her (female!) partner home. “Next Time/Humble Pie” drops into a pretty fun groove immediately, Syd offering some of the catchiest melodies across the whole project in the verses of the first half of the song – I wish we got more of it instead of the distorted, sparser “Humble Pie” section.

“Wanna Be” is another strong, dreamy track built around a funk guitar riff – it seems like there’s some kind of ethereal, echoing effect on Syd’s vocals as she sheepishly asks if a partner wants to take the next step, while the next track “Beat Goes On” is the only song here with Martians as a primary writing credit, and it’s the experimental track that panned out the best of any of them here. As the title would suggest, it’s built on numerous interlocking, heavy percussion rhythms, verging on drum ‘n’ bass as Martians echoes Syd’s sentiments on “Wanna Be” from the male perspective.

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The project starts to lose replayability as the songs continue to extend past their welcome, many of these tracks existing more as experimental jam sessions than a deliberately thought-out song that one is likely to easily remember – for example, something about that introductory guitar pattern on “La Di Da” doesn’t line up rhythmically with the rest of the song the way I want it to for some reason, the band seemingly going for a noisier, experimental angle. “Bravo”, as well, is built on some explosive percussion stabs that are a little too loud in the mix and throw off the chill vibe of the song as Syd harmonizes with herself beautifully underneath. The hooks are never quite memorable enough to stick long after listening – “Come Together”, the opening track, feels like the hook was structured to be immediately anthemic, but the lower energy of the song and the slightly awkward emphasis placement doesn’t lend it any favours. In other places, the hooks are simply underwritten, but most of the time I’m easily distracted by the prominent percussion anyway. “Roll (Burbank Funk)” lends a bit too much time to Martians’ wavering vocals and a mostly empty hook, but the click-clack of the upbeat, danceable percussion dominating the track’s space turns the song into an inescapable, driving force regardless.

The Internet is essentially the immense talents of five individuals colliding in an often messy and occasionally brilliant way. Syd is a force to be reckoned with all on her own, but The Internet have tapped into a niche in quite a strong way with this project. The replayability factor might not be there, but this is a truly refreshing work.

Favourite Tracks: Stay The Night, Mood, Come Over, Wanna Be, Hold On

Least Favourite Track: Bravo

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Post Malone, Janelle Monae, Leon Bridges)

Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

Breakout artist of the year Post Malone plays it safe on his first album since exploding into the mainstream, offering over an hour of the same admittedly very addictive and fun formula that made “Rockstar” one of the year’s biggest hits. Malone is a master at making the kind of bland, inoffensive music that can be played in the background at almost any kind of function due to it’s ability to transcend genres. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to hate. However, listening to a full project, the formulae begin to make themselves far too clear, and while Malone does offer some surprises in terms of the strength of his singing voice and hooks that are too much fun to ignore, Beerbongs and Bentleys is a bit of a chore to get all the way through.

Despite being frequently grouped amongst the hip-hop community, I see Post Malone as more of a singer with pop and even country elements that uses the popularized structure – and vernacular – of trap music in order to attracted a widespread audience, situating himself perfectly in the middle of multiple diverse worlds. It’s a pretty respectable business plan, and the hooks across the board here show that Malone has more of a grasp on how to write a catchy, marketable chorus than anyone. Someone who has risen to popularity this quickly and completely has to be doing something right. With producers like Frank Dukes and even Scott Storch on board, Malone’s team help him as much as they can, allowing his melodic instincts to shine. Dukes’ “Rich & Sad” is built over a bed of plaintive, falsetto human vocal samples and synth-bass that make his repetitive hook work. Repetition works when the grasp of melodic ability is so strong – “Psycho” is somehow a great track despite it containing little more than two alternating musical phrases.

Quite a few of these songs go a bit too far into the territory of being catchy, inoffensive background music and never really pick themselves off the ground, the instrumentals too empty. A track like “Spoil My Night”, laughable lyrical content aside, has lost all of its energy in the middle of the Swae Lee feature, the trap hi-hats dropping out in favour of the moody, watery creeping synth instrumentals that dominate most of Malone’s sad trap cowboy routine. The lyrical content ultimately wears thin on an 18-track album, Malone delivering the same generic lines about partying with some ridiculous metaphors and references. It also reveals that Malone doesn’t have much artistic ambition of his own, existing as the most readily available amalgamation of all the current trends across the music industry. None of this music forces itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness. Listening to song after song of hooks built to be the soundtrack designed to keep a party going and nothing more gets exhausting. The album could easily have been cut at the surprisingly decent ballad “Stay”, the 12th track – there are 6 more afterwards consisting of the same ideas that we’ve heard expressed elsewhere with so much more musicianship, polish and charisma.

It’s tough to talk about individual tracks across this album, because there is almost nothing that distinguishes each instrumental from the next, Malone singing a different, intoxicating and repetitive hook over each one. And while this works incredibly, impressively well in the right situation, an album length just reveals Malone’s lack of ambition.

Favourite Tracks: Better Now, Psycho, Rich & Sad, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Over Now

Score: 5/10

Image result for dirty computerJanelle Monae – Dirty Computer

R&B artist Janelle Monae takes a detour away from her android character Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis Suite album series in order to drop a poppy and poignant look at the plight of minorities through the lens of technology that she is so fond of using. With a slew of great collaborators and Monae’s exuberant declarations of self-assertion in her lyrical content, juxtaposed with instrumentals that would make mentor Prince proud, Dirty Computer is sure to be one of the year’s – or the decade’s – greatest albums.

The album is introduced to us with the opening title track, featuring Monae’s calm and smooth alto tone introducing the concept of the album with backing harmonies and instrumentation from the master of harmonies himself, Brian Wilson. The accompanying “emotion picture” depicts a society in which minority groups’ identities are seen as a computer virus, their memories removed and “cleaned” up. The majority of the album consists of tracks depicting experiences that needed to be removed from Monae’s memory, a full-out celebration of all the things that make her unique in an embrace of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality through an exuberant funk-pop shimmer. Monae has said she was very influenced by Prince, who she knew well, across this project and it definitely shows – especially on lead single “Make Me Feel” that lifts the same funk guitar chords from his hit “Kiss”. Many of these tracks are carried by rattling hi-hats and a funk bassline, Monae applying her very capable vocal abilities in a completely unapologetic shout, usually dropping at least one rap verse onto each song.

Dirty Computer is an extremely sexual album in a world that suppresses it, especially for someone like Monae, and her matter-of-fact statements on its unavoidable presence and importance on tracks like “Pynk” are just as confidence-inducing as her braggadocious rap track “Django Jane” where she runs through her many achievements and declares herself the greatest of all time. “Screwed” is an absolute show-stopper of a song, fuelled by handclaps and shiny guitar riffs that sound like a double-time HAIM track. It’s the most immediately catchy melody and the most overtly political song here, using the title as a double entendre calling for a final party before the bomb drops – “everything is sex, except sex, which is power”. The album itself feels like this party at times, not letting the listener take a breath once as it continues to deliver high-octane pop tracks with an overarching message of universal love.

Many of the instrumentals’ funk elements here remind me of Pharrell Williams’ early work, and Williams shows up on the rap track “I Got The Juice”, Monae’s delivery at an all-out energetic scream as the hi-hats crash into each other perfectly, her chopped vocals in the background. My favourite track of all might be “I Like That” however, one of the calmer ones here that lets us hear the prettier side of Monae’s singing voice, carried by an incredibly catchy musical phrase looped by backing vocals as she speaks on her intentional diversion from the norm. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs, and I like that” has to be one of my all-time favourite lyrics. The whole thing culminates in “Americans”, a gospel-influenced track that sees Monae slip into the character of various individuals blindly dedicated to outdated ideals of the what the American flag signifies before the bouncy, singalong chorus simply declares “Love me for who I am” with some beautiful harmonies. As the refrain echoes, a reverend’s voice starts a speech calling for the rights of various marginalized groups, some that Monae belongs to and some she does not.

Dirty Computer and its accompanying visual are incredibly powerful, brilliantly conceptual stuff, and it might be the most important sociopolitical message delivered through music next to “This Is America” this year. I’ll be surprised if anything comes out this year that knocks this from my top spot.

Favourite Tracks: I Like That, Screwed, Make Me Feel, Americans, I Got The Juice

Least Favourite Track: Take A Byte…? I guess?

Score: 10/10

Image result for leon bridges good thingLeon Bridges – Good Thing

Texas retro-soul and blues singer Leon Bridges takes a bit of a step back from his triumphant debut Coming Home, falling prey to the sophomore jinx and turning to pop producer Ricky Reed for the majority of the album. As a result, the poppier tracks here are actually the album’s best, Reed losing his way at producing the classic sounds that Bridges’ smooth vocals fit so cleanly over. Still, even if many of these tracks don’t stick as well as many of his past endeavours, it’s always a delight to hear a voice like Bridges’ – there aren’t many people making albums this popular that sound like him, and his simple love songs call back to an earlier era of songwriting.

The opening track “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” is the kind of music that bridges should be making all the time, the opening flurry of sound almost like a montage transporting us back in time like a cinematic flashback. The song places his vocals front and center, strings echoing in the background as he hits the best part of his upper register in the chorus, the slight rasp that makes his vocals distinctive complemented by some great high harmonies. The majority of the tracklist makes it all too clear that this was an album produced by a guy who has worked with people like DNCE and Maroon 5 recently. Quite a few of these tracks are loose, upbeat tracks where Reed attempts to replicate the vibe of a blues or jazz song, instrumental solos often taking up the empty space, but eliminates the complexity often found in the instrumentals for a straightforward rhythmic pattern that makes the music more accessible for the many people who made this the top-selling album of the week. It becomes less about Bridges in complete command of his element, and it makes his more subdued style of delivery less likely to stand out on tracks like “Bad Bad News” and “Beyond”. Bridges excels when the instrumental molds to his direction, rather than the other way around.

“Shy” is another great track that sees the return of the vocal harmonies and jazzier chords that aren’t as present elsewhere, Bridges slowing the track down and commanding attention with his dynamic vocal presence and charisma. Of course, Reed is still one of the better mainstream pop producers, and this shows on the danceable, all-out pop tracks “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “You Don’t Know”. Bridges’ voice is versatile enough to be believable as a John Legend-esque pop vocalist, sounding like the GOOD Music artist on the former especially, vocoder harmonies backing him up on the kind of early guitar-funk pop bounce that’s quickly becoming popularized. The problem lies when these poppier elements aren’t mixed as well with elements from Bridges’ musical territory, awkwardly shoehorning in modern sounds where they shouldn’t be, like the percussion on a track like “Forgive You” that clashes with the acoustic guitars.

Bridges is a great vocalist that’s always a breath of fresh air in the landscape of what’s popular right now, but the team up with Reed here doesn’t make much sense and holds it back from being a truly great project – I trust he’ll be back with a vengeance on his next.

Favourite Tracks: Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand, Shy, You Don’t Know, If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Mrs.

Least Favourite Track: Bad Bad News

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Cardi B, Kali Uchis, Pentatonix)

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy.pngCardi B – Invasion of Privacy

2017’s breakout star Cardi B finally releases her debut studio album, and while it certainly isn’t anything groundbreaking, she delivers 13 very solid tracks loaded with the hilarious personality we’ve come to love, a bevy of great guest spots and some surprisingly impressive technical skill. Invasion of Privacy is just about the best debut album I could have expected Cardi to make – she continuously defies her status as a meme or a one hit wonder.

Cardi’s biggest strength – likely the reason she blew up as quickly as she did – is her unapologetic, honest personality and she is just what you expect on this project, being open about her rags-to-riches upbringing on opening track “Get Up 10” and being brutally honest about her feelings towards a certain member of the Migos. There’s something strangely empowering about hearing Cardi deliver lyrics that can be incredibly explicit, confident or carefree that most others wouldn’t dare. She builds herself up in the most hilarious ways, channelling the self-aggrandizing energy she injected into that iconic “Bodak Yellow” hook with tracks like “I Do”, featuring a celebratory SZA speaking on the pair’s many successes, and “Money Bag”. Even though the latter is all but a carbon copy of Cardi’s biggest hit, her lyrics still make it incredibly fun – her abrasive New York accent puts an extra, percussive, vitriolic punch onto every one of her boasts. The album does actually contain some sonic diversity as well.

“I Like It”, a Latin trap banger, is the most fun song here and features the two biggest artists in the genre in J Balvin and Bad Bunny. The interpolation of the Pete Rodriguez classic track on the sample with such an aggressive trap beat was creative enough to make it an instant hit. “Ring” and “Thru Your Phone” see the instrumental take calmer, more R&B direction, but the fire doesn’t leave Cardi’s voice as she speaks about her partner’s infidelity. Kehlani’s hook on “Ring” is absolutely beautiful, and Cardi’s delivery makes her sound believably deeply hurt. We are getting Cardi with no filter across this project. For all the people writing Cardi off as a joke act due to her ridiculous persona, her technical skill always impresses me. To hit every word of these faster tracks while pregnant in her Coachella performance solidified Cardi as someone who deserves all of the successes she has. She keeps up with Takeoff’s incredible verse on “Drip”, while the chorus of “Bartier Cardi” is an absolute tongue-twister of lyrics.

To pull off the album as well as she did is something of a surprise since, well, one of the main reasons we love Cardi is her embrace of her flaws – polish isn’t her strong suit. There are a few tracks on here that could have been improved with a bit more work, but the idea is there. “Be Careful” is a track that certainly grew on me from my first listen, with a catchy Lauryn Hill interpolation, but Cardi’s flow leaves a bit to be desired. As well, Chance the Rapper’s characteristically adorably happy feature on “Best Life” doesn’t really fit at all – it’s the song with the least punch on the project, with more of a melodic and meandering instrumental that doesn’t really accommodate the assault on the mic from Cardi.

There’s something inexplicably magical about the injection of confidence that Cardi’s music provides, even when I don’t come from anywhere close to the same walk of life as her. The success couldn’t be happening to someone more genuine, and Invasion of Privacy proves that.

Favourite Tracks: Bodak Yellow, I Like It, I Do, Ring, Money Bag

Least Favourite Track: Best Life

Score: 8/10

Kali Uchis - Isolation.pngKali Uchis – Isolation

Rapidly rising Colombian star Kali Uchis recruits one of the most impressive lists of collaborators I’ve ever seen for her debut album Isolation, blending her voice suited for contemporary R&B with her own cultural elements of reggaetón and bossa nova. Although Uchis’ vocals are not always the strongest or most distinctive, Isolation is an album that is built through complex and dynamic instrumentals featuring numerous instruments and a full orchestral sound, Uchis’ pleasing and airy tone just a universal complement that allows her many star producers to easily build a great track of any genre around. Appearing across the album are Thundercat, DJ Dahi, Brockhampton’s Romil, Steve Lacy, Sounwave, Gorillaz, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Greg Kurstin, BadBadNotGood and more.

The albums’ opening two tracks introduce the listener into Uchis’ unique musical niche perfectly, the intro “Body Language” a calmer track with a samba bassline transitioning into “Miami”, the site where this traditional sound becomes modernized with some trap hi-hats complementing the reggaetón guitar chords. Uchis obliterates people’s misconceptions of her in the track, stating that despite her appearance she can be a powerful, dangerous figure capable of achieving her aims. Uchis’ team not only provide her with lush instrumentals, but some seriously catchy melodies as well. Steve Lacy’s hot streak continues with “Just A Stranger”, Uchis and Lacy himself layering their vocals to create an anthemic and rhythmically sound chorus over a fun funk instrumental. Uchis is at her best when she taps into her Colombian roots, singing in Spanish on “Nuestro Planeta” and breezes through upbeat, danceable Latin instrumentals on “Your Teeth In My Neck” and “Tyrant”. It’s great to hear such a modern take on a style that isn’t incredibly prominent in popular music, despite the recent explosion of Spanish music into the mainstream. The melodies here are strangely familiar, keeping in line with their reggaetón roots, yet at the same time they’re nowhere else to be found in 2018.

Uchis’ greatest vocal showcase comes on the track “Flight 22”, a downtempo track that veers closer to bedroom pop with dreamy, twinkling keys and a string section backing up her impressive range. Her sensual vocal inflections remind me of Amy Winehouse, named as a large inspiration behind the track. More often, however, Uchis’ vocal tone is best utilized as the smooth, malleable aspect to fit over any style of instrumental. “Dead To Me” is the most chaotic track here, featuring cascading electronic blips and a high-speed breakbeat over the omnipresent funk bassline, Uchis’ calm tone making it seem as if she handles the complex musical world with ease – and she’s confident and assertive enough in her delivery that she doesn’t need to go all out to make her point. I always love albums that make the most out of their sequencing to tell a story, and the albums’ later interludes “Gotta Get Up” and “Coming Home” serve as transitional pieces, completing the gaps between the surrounding tracks and completing a full narrative. Gorillaz’ manic track “In My Dreams”, where Uchis runs through a whimsical dreamscape before waking up to negative realities, and the Tyler, The Creator-featuring single “After The Storm” shine in the latter half.

The main takeaway from this album is Uchis’ incredible consistency. It’s not always this difficult to pick out a least favourite track. Her command of some seriously complex instrumentals seems effortless at all times, and we could be witnessing the start of something very exciting.

Favourite Tracks: Flight 22, Dead To Me, Tomorrow, After The Storm, Just A Stranger

Least Favourite Track: Killer

Score: 9/10

Pentatonix - Top Pop Vol 1.jpgPentatonix – PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol. I

A cappella success story Pentatonix returns to their roots of covering some of the most popular songs of the year after a switch in members saw them acquire a new bass vocalist. While it can get rather easy to grow tired of the group with their quantity over quality approach, many of their arrangements utilizing the same tricks despite their torrid release pace, it’s pretty impressive that they can breathe new life into something like a “Despacito” / “Shape of You” mashup. This kind of material is what made them famous in the first place, and there are still a few flashes of greatness here to remind us why.

We open with Charlie Puth’s “Attention”, a track that was basically meant for a cappella from the beginning that showcases new bass Matt Sallee prominently early on. The extra syncopated melody that doesn’t exist in the original added to the 2nd verse is a great touch, and the half-time section and jazz chords that close the arrangement make for their most ambitious exploits across the whole project. The two mashups on this project are both highlights, showing that the group is at their best when at their most creative. It’s tough to make an album of covers of extremely played out songs and continue to hold interest. Their combination of “New Rules” with Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” works shockingly well, and the first three notes, each vocal part building on the next, that hit in the breakdown get me every time. Kirstie Maldonado sounds fantastic singing in her more comfortable language on “Despacito x Shape Of You”, even switching a few lyrics in Sheeran’s hit to Spanish. Maldonado is the strong suit across the board, carrying a lead vocal of Julia Michaels’ “Issues” pretty flawlessly. Songs like “Issues” and Kesha’s “Praying” are pretty impossible to do badly regardless, and the group rise to the occasion covering these great tracks.

Too often, the group doesn’t do much to alter the structure of the original song, thinking that the tricks that we’ve heard before will suffice. “Finesse” is basically a carbon copy of a song that was already pretty sparse instrumentally due to its new jack swing influence – more interesting vocal percussion acrobatics might have been interesting here, while their approach to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” adds in Kevin Olusola’s cello yet again, losing the spirit of a cappella as they structure in a huge, empowering build-up in the same way they’ve done in the past. The other thing that annoys me about Pentatonix studio albums recently is that they’ve stopped trying to hide how much of these finalized studio arrangements aren’t performed live, adding in layering and other computer-generated processes in post-production. “Stay”, a predominantly electronic song, features the same loop of Alessia Cara’s pitch-shifted vocal run that would be impossible for a human voice to replicate. It’s harder to tell for sure judging by Mitch Grassi’s shockingly high vocal, but I think I was able to distinguish Maldonado singing underneath her lead vocal as well.

Pentatonix are obviously ridiculously talented, but I still think that their album of original music was their best work yet. The novelty of these A-list covers has worn off over time, and I want to hear what they are able to do without the constraints – the mashups here prove their creative ability.

Favourite Tracks: Attention, Issues, New Rules x Are You That Somebody?, Despacito x Shape Of You

Least Favourite Track: Feel It Still

Score: 6/10

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

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

Revival by Eminem cover.jpgEminem – Revival

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: Castle, Arose, Remind Me

Least Favourite Track: Nowhere Fast

Score: 4/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: ESP

Score: 9/10

Charli XCX - Pop 2.pngCharli XCX – Pop 2

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Tears

Score: 7/10

Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa album21-year-old Guernsey-born DJ Mura Masa’s debut studio album is a multicultural and genreless mashup that takes listeners on an exhilarating ride through the twists and turns of his unique style. He states that his biggest influence is Gorillaz and you can clearly tell. The ability to pull aspects from such diverse musical worlds and unbridled creativity with regards to the instrumental that the band is known for comes across here.

Imbued with the newer aspects of the future bass and house music scene that is taking over the nearby United Kingdom, the project comes across as somewhat of a combination between early Gorillaz work and Disclosure’s deep house masterpiece Settle. Make no mistake though, Mura Masa brands everything with his own personal touches and his self-titled debut marks the rise of an exciting young talent.

Image result for mura masa

The complexity of many of these songs stands out. Even though they often adopt a rather standard song structure that we come to expect from the electronic genre, building up to a drop and such, they possess enough interlocking and unique aspects that it is a refreshing and enjoyable listen throughout. When “Messy Love” progresses to its second drop, we have the central chime melody interlocking with the bouncy bassline, chopped up vocals and the complicated piano riff. All 4 of these things are catchy enough to be used as a main hook, but when they come together it amplifies the vibrant feeling.

Many of these songs are unique because of Mura Masa taking instruments from other cultures that we don’t hear often and making it his defining feature. His songs range from hip-hop to bubblegum pop to deep house to dancehall, but they are all united by modern hip-hop beats and the clinks of marimba, chimes and steel drums that become the defining feature of his sound. I would say we are bringing these things into the mainstream with modernising aspects, but it sounds like this is coming from the future. “Love$ick” is a standout track that features ASAP Rocky jumping around a calypso rhythm that builds up to a huge drop with futuristic synth swings and pitched-up vocals.

Mura Masa uses his guests very well – a lot of these songs can only be described as euphoric when they finally reach their climax, and Mura Masa has harvested a few artists from very different places who also possess this quality. I’m not sure I could have ever expected NAO’s otherwordly R&B vocals, life of the party Charli XCX and trap court jester Desiigner in the same place, but that’s what they all have in common.

It’s easy to get lost and submit completely to someone like Desiigner’s seemingly reckless love of life on “All Around the World”, and Mura Masa brought out the best in him – I didn’t think he had it in him to flow on a beat this rhythmically complex. But it’s “1 Night” that I’m shocked isn’t on every dance floor worldwide. Charli XCX’s recent music has really succeeded in capturing that incredible feeling – the freedom of just letting loose. As she playfully asks “Do you wanna go?”, the music cuts out for a fleeting second, and comes back in full force with a catchy chorus melody of “oh”s, I feel like I’m the centre of attention in the greatest club in the world just sitting in my chair at home.

Image result for mura masa liveLook at this guy’s setup!

It’s this spirit of fun that carries these tracks, and the creative musical aspects only bring me into that world even more. Tracks like “What If I Go?” and “helpline” are pretty poppy in the best way. The electronic sounds are different for a change, and the vocalists just sound like they’re having the time of their lives and beckoning for you to join them. Bonzai’s voice climbs up the scales as she repeats “go, going, going”. It’s a driving, beautiful, infectious energy.

I also have to give a special shoutout to closing track “Blu”, a quieter affair that focuses on a nice harmonized melody from Mura Masa’s hero, Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn. It’s a great way to ease us out of his crazy world.

Because Mura Masa executes the high-octane party tracks so well, it gets a little disappointing when he starts to slow things down at the tail end of the album. But if anything, this just speaks volumes to the strengths of his greatest tracks. After an album full of driving basslines, blaring synths and ecstating choruses, the quieter nature of tracks like “Second 2 None” and “Who Is It Gonna B”, with less of the frenetic and interlocking aspects of their predecessors, sound like standard electronic fare in comparison despite the quality that is still there.

Mura Masa is one of the year’s greatest albums so far, and the fact that it comes from a 21-year old newcomer from a tiny island is pretty exciting. In a world where many DJ’s are just going through the motions, all of the tracks here feel alive, and make you feel the same way.

Favourite Tracks: Love$ick, 1 Night, What If I Go?, helpline, Firefly

Least Favourite Track: Who Is It Gonna B

Score: 9/10

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgVersatile DJ and frequent hitmaker Calvin Harris’ 5th studio album is a reinvention of sorts. While he has frequently incorporated some aspects of funk and hip-hop into his music in the past, he has never attempted to make this much of a fully-focused and cohesive project. Harris abandons the formulaic dance drops here, instead turning his attention to the creation of a compact, star-studded 10-track affair full of breezy synth-funk instrumentals. Harris has all but succeeded at making the perfect summer album here.

Although some of the logistics of the project leave a few things to be desired, most of the fun of Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 comes from letting loose and not caring about them. Harris said it best himself in a tweet – this isn’t “feel good music”, this is “feel INCREDIBLE music”.

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As soon as you hear those opening piano chords on “Slide”, you know that what you’re about to experience is going to be a lot more musically complex than your typical Calvin Harris album. Harris has always been one of the more talented mainstream DJs, a multi-instrumentalist who plays all the piano and guitar parts on his albums among other things, but the many interlocking aspects of a funk album helps you understand just how difficult his job here was, more than in his previous work.

Harris may have assembled the most impressive guest list of the year here, recruiting legitimate superstars from the worlds of pop, R&B and hip-hop on every track. We have legitimate superstars like Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, rap heavyweights like Migos, Future and Young Thug and R&B stars both indie and mainsteam like Frank Ocean, Kehlani and Khalid all on the same project.

Many of these instrumentals sound rather similar, but the tracks are easily distinguishable due to the diverse roster of guests. The whole album flows well into each other, and Harris makes the most out of some collaborations that you never could have imagined. We have three excellent songs on this project in “Cash Out”, “Holiday” and “Feels” that feature artists that you could have never imagined in the same universe. ScHoolboy Q, PARTYNEXTDOOR and D.R.A.M. combine their three completely different takes on urban music into one beautifully oiled machine on “Cash Out” – ScHoolboy calms down a bit and channels his inner Snoop Dogg to glide over the bouncy, G-Funk inspired instrumental. The Dogg himself appears later on “Holiday” and sounds more comfortable and confident than he has in years.

The overall essence of the project is just so much fun. At one point as the song is fading out, Harris punctuates a critical beat intersection of “Prayers Up” with a loon sound effect. It’s the goofy, carefree spirit of a move like this that pervades the album as a whole. Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams sound like they’re recording the chorus of “Heatstroke” while reclining on a huge flotation device in a pool.

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Pharrell’s more prominent turn on “Feels” is another standout moment, bringing to mind some of the better tracks on his similarly funky 2014 album, G I R L. Harris’ bassline is punctuated with guitar stabs on beats 2 and 4 that give the track somewhat of a reggae flair. Pharrell’s light vocals transition to a chorus from Katy Perry, whose frequently forced quirky persona finally fits in this environment, and we close with a beat switch and a characteristically relaxed Big Sean entering with an eye-roll and a “God damn”. If you’re looking for crowd-pleasing hits, this album really is an embarrassment of riches.

A few of these guests are simply not suited to this style of instrumental, and don’t really try all that hard to fit in either. Harris went all-out to land these features, but Future’s appearance on “Rollin”, flexing his characteristically disjointed flow over a pounding funk bassline, is completely misplaced. The appearance of other mumble rappers like Travis Scott and Lil Yachty don’t go over much better. Despite the detractions coming from vocal delivery on more than one occasion, the instrumentals are often enjoyable enough to overlook them. Nicki Minaj’s Auto-Tune drenched cadence on “Skrt On Me” is a little excessive, but the melody associated with it is so catchy that it doesn’t really matter either.

Trust me, when you roll down the windows and blast these tracks, the little nitpicks I’m making here aren’t going to make you turn it down. Harris has tapped into summer vibes perfectly and I’m going to be nodding my head to these bouncy funk instrumentals all summer and beyond. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the most fun album of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Slide, Feels, Heatstroke, Cash Out, Holiday

Least Favourite Track: Rollin … if I had to choose …

Score: 8/10

Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkVirtuoso jazz-funk bassist Thundercat, now exposed to a wider audience due to his outstanding work on Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly, unleashes his third studio effort and first since 2013. The album is sprawling, conceptual and incoherent in the best way, musical tidbits flying past you before you even have a chance to grab hold of them. Songs rarely extend past the 3-minute barrier. The title, Drunk, is intended to be as appropriate as it ends up being.

It not only feels like we are drunk ourselves, listening to the music which is equal parts woozy and frantic and getting constantly distracted by different things, but that we are listening to an hour-long diatribe given by the drunken Thundercat. He has absolutely no filter on this project to hilarious result and says any stray thought that enters his mind. The album is very difficult to make heads or tails of, but the convincing degree to which Thundercat executes the concept and the stellar musicianship on display makes Drunk more than worth your time.

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The album is an infinite loop, as the same melody from opener “Rabbot Ho” is repeated with different lyrics on closer “DUI”. “Where this ends we’ll never know”, Thundercat sings, knowing that he is going to continue to revert back to the negative thoughts and tendencies he speaks about over the course of the album. The whole album really is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole that he alludes to on the opening track.

Thundercat is accompanied on nearly every song by producer and Brainfeeder labelmate Flying Lotus, whose usually electronic work is just as experimental in sound and gels nicely here. Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave (B***h Don’t Kill My Vibe, King Kunta) appears on three tracks and offers his funk sensibilities to great effect as well. Lamar himself appears on the mic, one of three hip-hop features with Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell Williams, who all do their best to maneuver through Thundercat’s unique soundscapes. Most interesting are the appearances on “Show You The Way” from none other than Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, clearly inspirations for Thundercat’s style of singing, who sound as at home as ever on the jazzy instrumental.

Thundercat’s work with his bass guitar is an absolute wonder to behold — “Uh Uh” introduces his skill level early on in the album with a largely instrumental track where he duels with a piano player, seemingly attempting to play the fastest while maintaining a coherent sense of melody. It all reminds me of Sebastian’s “conflict and compromise” speech in La La Land.

The lyrics are consistently a surprise, hiding some much deeper themes behind some seemingly random and mundane topics. Yes, Thundercat sings about how he doesn’t understand technology (“Thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t Tweet our thoughts?”, he sings sarcastically), skirting romantic relationships to play video games, and how he wishes he lived the carefree life of a cat (complete with meowing vocals), but the tempo frequently slows down to offer more poetically written statements on death, loss, loneliness and discrimination. It shows that tracks like “Tokyo”, where he travels to the city to “blow all [his] cash on anime”, are more of a coping mechanism with this pain. It’s all very conceptual, and will take further listens to fully understand.

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Thundercat’s voice is a beautiful falsetto, but as the focus is more on his instrument, he never takes much effort to put variation in his tone and as a result many of these songs end up sounding very similar. If it weren’t for the distinctive lyrics, this album would get incredibly boring as it reached its end.  Standing at 23 tracks, there is certainly some filler here, as some tracks touch on largely the same topics – though perhaps the ultimate meaning hasn’t clicked yet. Thundercat seems like the kind of artist who would deliberately order these tracks to communicate an overarching artistic vision.

The unique musical style displayed throughout is often too abstract to accommodate guests, and it leads to some awkward verses from Lamar, Khalifa and Williams, who all seem as surprised by the twists and turns as we are. As they are trying to deliver their verse, they tend to clash irrhythmically with the shifting, changing musical landscape behind them.

While Drunk certainly has its faults, the sheer attempt to pull off something like this and irreverent creativity and absurdism issued in Thundercat’s lyrics makes this 2017’s most interesting project thus far. Thundercat has proven himself to be a talent far beyond his manic bass playing, and it’s easy to see why a visionary like Lamar keeps calling on him.

Favourite Tracks: Show You The Way, Tokyo, A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II), Uh Uh, Friend Zone

Least Favourite Track: Where I’m Going

Score: 8/10