Boogie – Everything’s For Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Swap Meet

Score: 6/10

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21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

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It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10

Kodak Black – Dying To Live

Kodak Black – Dying to Live.pngKodak Black delivers yet another late-year high-profile rap release with his sophomore full-length studio album Dying to Live. Last year’s Painting Pictures was easily one of my least favourite albums of the entire year, which is why it’s surprising that there are as many enjoyable tracks on this new project as there are. Kodak is still decidedly unmusical, distracting from the process with his grating and nasal voice and tending to fall off the beat at times, but he’s saved quite a few times here by some spectacular instrumentals and an embrace of his quirky and quotable side on some more fun, upbeat tracks. There’s still a plethora of misguided decisions and drawn-out introspective cuts that fall flat, as well as a few occasions where it becomes nearly impossible to separate the art from the deeply troubled artist, but at least it’s far from the complete unlistenability of his last project.

The opening run of 5 tracks are easily some of the album’s best and a seriously surprising rise in competence from his past works. Opening track “Testimony” takes a religious turn as Kodak exorcises his demons. He takes up a catchy Auto-crooned melody over an engaging and contemplative beat that introduces this unique funk-inspired synth tone halfway through – it reminds me of one of Zaytoven’s soulful piano melodies. “Identity Theft” keeps up the throwback vibes going with some seriously old-school percussion noises, a syncopated electric piano rhythm, and an Asian-inspired flute melody – it’s one of the best beats I’ve heard all year, and Kodak rises to the occasion with some funny lines here and there.

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It transitions pretty seamlessly into “Gnarly” with Lil Pump, which should be added to every New Year’s Eve party playlist with its immediately sticky hook, fun-loving delivery from both artists and hazy, ethereal synth textures. And of course, we all love the steel-drum instrumental so good it became a meme before the track’s release on “ZEZE” – Offset delivers a pretty great verse, but it’s the beat that keeps me engaged throughout. The track “This Forever”, despite an engaging spacey trap instrumental from London on da Track, emphasizes just how much Kodak is getting helped out by the beats here when it cuts out for a second and he just loses the flow completely.

Things get a lot more inconsistent after the opening run. Single “Take One” is another one where Kodak can’t quite measure up to the beat – on multiple tracks here, Kodak just sounds awkward in the moments where the heavier percussion cuts out for a second, like something’s just barely off rhythmically when it isn’t drowned out by the tempo of the hi-hats. “Transgression” is another innovative instrumental, anchored by what sounds like a pitched sample of someone shouting excitedly embellished with some soulful piano chords, but the same thing happens. When Kodak tries to divert from the formula, things get even more misguided. The track “MoshPit” essentially sees him adapt to the melodic style a featured artist Juice WRLD over a more cheerful, pop-rap oriented beat, and I just can’t listen to Kodak’s singing voice – or Juice’s ridiculous lyrics on his verse, for that matter – for the whole duration of a track when there’s not much to support him.

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The final two tracks “Needing Something” and the grammatically incorrect “Could Of Been Different” are even more inexplicable. “Needing Something” has this R&B slow jam beat, but Kodak honestly sounds like he came in a full beat early and never realized, the hi-hats hitting at the wrong time in his flow. He attempts a double-time flow on the closer and has nowhere near the level of musicality he needs to pull it off, the track just sounding like a jumbled and arrhythmic mess. However, it might be the tracks where you’re reminded of just who Kodak is that are the most off-putting. The tracks “In The Flesh” and “From The Cradle” are laden with sexual boasts, but it’s his lines on the latter about impregnating his exes so they stay with him – especially when he says they “deserve it” – that too easily bring up Kodak’s criminal charges. The track “Malcolm X.X.X”, where he actually compares deceased rapper and fellow abuser XXXTENTACION to Malcolm X, complete with interspersed Malcolm speeches, is another pretty shocking one.

I’ve still got to give credit where it’s due, however, and despite a few blatant exceptions this project is a huge step up from his last studio album. I wish I could listen to an instrumental version of it – this could be a legitimately great project with a better rapper at the helm.

Favourite Tracks: Gnarly, Identity Theft, ZEZE, Testimony

Least Favourite Track: Could Of Been Different

Score: 6/10

Gucci Mane – Evil Genius

Image result for gucci mane evil geniusAtlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s output since being relased from jail in 2016 has been so prolific that the timespan of just under a full year since his last project is an unusually long gap for him. It’s certainly given him some of his best sales in a while. He’s stated that he was trying to link up with the best personnel he could and make one of his “best projects ever”, but I’m not sure he accomplished that despite the time off. Evil Genius is one of the safest and by-the-numbers rap albums I’ve heard all year, Gucci toning down the more comical and cartoonish sides of his lyrics and delivery to fit into more of a generic trap mold. Across 17 tracks, it’s pretty difficult to tell most of them apart. One of the things that is most appealing to me about Gucci, especially on his features, is his effortless charisma and mic presence – most of that is lost here.

One of the reasons Gucci works so well as a feature is how different from most rappers his delivery actually is, adding to the variation in approaches on any given track – across this project, as usual he’s more laid back and yet possesses this kind of 21 Savage-esque coldness. One of my favourite Gucci tracks is actually his “Finesse The Plug Interlude”, where he delivers threats with a kind of cheerful shrug and high intonation. But carrying a full project by himself, his somewhat sleepy tone gets a little boring – especially when there’s no interesting instrumentals to keep him afloat.

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The two opening tracks “Off The Boat” and “By Myself” are pretty good examples of what’s wrong with this project – both of them have pretty every-day, bass-heavy and relatively empty trap instrumentals that you could hear anywhere else, and their lack of variation and relatively low energy make Gucci’s quieter flows blend in to the background and his sudden bursts of energy feel out of place. The latter ends with some comically over-enunciated words and a shouted playground chant of a flow over an incredibly minimal beat. My favourite track on here is actually “Father’s Day”, an interlude-length track with a spastic and upbeat instrumental from Metro Boomin where Gucci reaches his energetic peak on the chorus as he emphatically proclaims his status as the one who started a wave – just as I was getting into it on my first listen, it ended.

As expected, some of the features here add spice to what Gucci brings to the table and contribute to some of the better tracks. “BiPolar” is enlivened by some quicker hi-hats than usual from OG Parker, but especially Quavo’s melodic interjections on the chorus to enhance Gucci’s more static flow and keep the rhythm afloat. Kevin Gates’ in-your-face presence and quicker flow on the track “I’m Not Goin’” is a welcome addition, especially in comparison to Gucci’s awful singing voice on the chorus, and Youngboy NBA fulfills a similar role on the track “Cold Shoulder”, where Gucci actually gives a pretty great performance to match – the addition of a quick triplet at the end of a couple lines in the chorus is something that I could only expect from someone like him. This is one of the best beats on the project as well, some creeping low synth tones raising the stakes. Single “Wake Up In The Sky” with Bruno Mars and Kodak Black is Gucci’s peak aesthetic, and a fun enough track even if I wanted Mars to show off a little more. An effortlessly cool, laid-back track, all three artists dial their voice back to a too-cool-to-care, relaxed cadence and completely sell it.

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Most of these tracks feel like filler when they’re so short, Gucci rattling off one or two repetitive choruses with some low-effort verses in between before we immediately move on to another half-baked idea. The run from “On God” to “Lost Y’all Mind” gives me whiplash from how quickly these ideas are created and abandoned before anything is developed properly. Most of these tracks honestly aren’t too bad – “Lost Y’all Mind” might be my favourite track in the middle with that glitchy, melodic beat – but the fact that they sound so similar and end quickly like a couple focus groups went through a checklist and each presented their own version of a Gucci song makes me wish there was a little more variety and innovation across the board here. By the time we get to the end of the tracklisting I’m seriously tired of the excessive number of tracks with the same skillset being presented – tracks like “This the Night”, “Mad Russian”, and “Lord” are seriously uninspired and could easily have been cut.

There’s been a few average rap albums as the year comes to a close and it looks like there’s still going to be a few more – the genre’s seriously taken the year over, with high-profile releases coming almost every week. Evil Genius doesn’t do enough to make the personality of one of the most personality-driven rappers stand out from the rest, and it’s pretty disappointing as a result.

Favourite Tracks: Father’s Day, Lost Y’all Mind, Wake Up In The Sky

Least Favourite Track: By Myself

Score: 3/10

XXXTENTACION – SKINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The 1975, Meek Mill, Rita Ora)

Image result for the 1975 a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

British pop-rock band The 1975’s third studio album is easily their most experimental and ambitious, diverting from the typical straightforward guitar-driven anthems to a diverse and discordant array of genres with central themes of attacking the political landscape and our dedication to social media and technology. I’ve often found that the band has tried way too hard to make a huge statement that isn’t really there in the past, but frontman Matty Healy gets his message across a lot better here for the most part. Despite a couple experiments that don’t quite work out the way the band wants them to and a fair share of fake-enlightened ridiculousness, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a respectable step forward. I certainly didn’t see anything like this coming from them.

After a brief intro, we’re dropped into the high-pitched guitar riff of “Give Yourself A Try”, perhaps the track which recalls their earlier material the most of any here. A driving rock song, Healy’s voice cuts through the distorted mix as he immediately dives into some pretty dark topics, addressing struggling with finding meaning as he transitions into his 30s, even comparing his life with a young fan who took her own. It’s hard to understand the lyrics at times here when the mixes are so loud. Healy’s voice gets a little buried at times, but most of what he says is very pressing and poetic. The track “Love It If We Made It” has found its way onto numerous year-end lists, Healy singing “modernity has failed us” among a series of blunt and disjointed statements including Trump quotes, depictions of extravagant riches and Internet lingo. Healy pushes his vocals to the brink here – he sounds overwhelmed, breaking down, the song’s title repeated in the chorus as a desperate plea of sorts. The accompanying music is pretty great too – I love the half-time switch-up introduced in the second chorus, adding a funk bassline and some pounding walls of shimmering synth chords.

Sprinkled throughout the tracklisting are these completely unexpected switches in sound. “How To Draw/Petrichor” is a sparse and cinematic track that spans nearly 6 minutes that consists of twinkling orchestral instrumentals and beautifully layered vocals from Healy, ultimately adding an almost drum n bass dance beat – it complements the technological theme well, the digital intruding. One of my favourite experiments the band makes here is the addition of choral, soulful backing vocals on the tracks “Sincerity Is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love”. The former is framed by some warm synth-piano chords and that accommodate the harmonies well, Healy toning down his vocals to an intimate and sincere level as he asks “why can’t we be friends?”, while the latter uses them to their full emotional effect, suddenly roaring in after an emotional soul ballad that goes full 90s R&B on the instrumental (there’s even a key change!). The track “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is another great experiment, essentially sounding like a classic 80s pop anthem – the chorus melody actually really reminds me of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, and it captures the same euphoric high, with some celebratory harmonized gang vocals on the hook.

There are certainly a few experiments in genre that don’t really work out as well, however. The acoustic, folksy ballad “Be My Mistake” is relatively simple and repetitive melodically, and Healy’s penchant for the overtly blunt drops a few ridiculous lyrics into the mix that are all the more evident due to the minimal instrumental. I really didn’t think I’d get a trap beat on an album like this, but there it is on “I Like America & America Likes Me”. Healy’s vocals on the track are processed through some kind of Bon Iver-esque machine, and the tonal contrast, especially as he keeps hitting the same wailing vocal melody in the chorus with an unpleasant amount of distortion on his voice, turns the track into a bit of a chaotic mess. “Inside Your Mind” is another slower track where Healy sounds like he’s putting on a different voice, over-enunciating his words, which just gives me the chills due to the creepy subject material of the track. Healy described it as “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much that you want to smash their head open to look” – except he takes it to a disturbingly literal level.

As the band has always been, most of this album is pretty self-indulgent, and when they start exercising some of their worst tendencies the project can go off the rails a bit. However, it’s almost as if the world has gotten so much more confusing and ridiculous that some of their typical ways to address it almost fit too perfectly where they didn’t before. This album is certainly nothing if not ambitious, and its high points are pretty incredible.

Favourite Tracks: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, Love It If We Made It, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), Sincerity Is Scary, How To Draw/Petrichor

Least Favourite Track: Inside Your Mind

Score: 7/10

Meek Mill – Championships.pngMeek Mill – Championships

Meek Mill’s Championships is his fourth studio album, and the rapper returns with as much unbridled energy as before. Never afraid to get deeply personal, the project contains quite a few detailed narratives of his experiences in jail, extending it to a criticism of the justice system at large after an FBI investigation into the inappropriate conduct of his judge. While his lyrics and storytelling are always a strength, the album is a bit of a mixed bag standing at 19 tracks and over an hour in length. Meek’s boastful tracks are always fun to listen to when he backs it up with the over-the-top, insatiable delivery that he possesses, but there are more than a few misses where things go on for too long, or a guest vocalist doesn’t quite deliver. Still, there are a fair share of tracks here that are enjoyable for vastly different reasons.

Meek sends a shot at “mumble rappers” on his Phil Collins-sampling “Intro” track, and if anyone is the exact opposite, it’s him. Meek’s voice is always at a full-voiced and expressive shout that’s assertive without veering into the abrasive 6ix9ine territory and assists in delivering both his earnest and emotional life stories and his braggadocio bars. Things pick up for the first time on “Uptown Vibes”, a track that Meek’s energy sends through the roof built on a melodic, Hispanic-sounding trumpet loop and a beat that switches back and forth from aggressive trap to reggaeton – Latin trap artist Anuel AA even shows up to add some Spanish flair to the track. This transitions into “On Me” with Cardi B, and I couldn’t think of a better combination – these two are equivalents in the vitriol with which they attack the mic, and the sinister instrumental allows them each to do what they do best, as unapologetic and unbothered as ever. As much as I can never stand Kodak Black’s voice, “Tic Tac Toe” is another adrenaline shot that introduces another great back-to-back with the track “24/7” with Ella Mai. There’s something about her silky-smooth classic R&B vocals on the chorus complementing Meek’s exuberance. Mai taps into her inner Beyonce, singing a bit of her song “Me Myself & I”, which the track samples.

“What’s Free” is a 6-minute track that represents storytelling Meek at his finest as he recruits label boss Rick Ross and Jay-Z for some extended verses on the meaning of freedom. Meek attacks the judicial system with some slavery comparisons, while Jay-Z shuts the track down with some elder statesman knowledge about keeping his wealth secure and avoiding the injustices. The title track, as well, is a pretty poignant reflection from Meek on the system that holds him down over an extravagant and jazzy classic sample, speaking about his father’s death in a robbery, gun control, and simply trying to stay alive in the violent community. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” hits a similar mark with a soulful sample and political talk, but Meek’s technical ability as he rides over a pretty complex instrumental seriously impresses here.

This album definitely would have benefited from some editing down – at a certain point, these three and four-minute tracks with Meek running through lengthy verses of political material with his voice at a constant shout starts to feel repetitive and tiresome to get through – it’s why I enjoy some of the more fun tracks at the end of the tracklisting more than most of them here, I needed a bit of a break (“Stuck In My Ways” has a quotable chorus that you can’t help but love). Meek doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on his diverse instrumentals, all of what he’s trying to convey is done through his words first and foremost – which works, in shorter doses. Some more minimal tracks with heavy subject matter like “Respect the Game” and “100 Summers” come to mind. There was bound to be a few filler tracks here, and they mostly come when Meek loses sight of his strengths. “Almost Slipped” is the first of a couple tracks where Meek tries his hand at singing and only succeeds at coming across as an off-brand Ty Dolla $ign – why remove that immediate, percussive impact of your words? Even “Going Bad”, the much-publicized reunion with Drake after a series of diss tracks, is a pretty lackluster effort from both of them, Drake dipping back into his disinterested flow and a few off-key melodic embellishments while Meek sounds like he’s holding back just a little bit to fit with the lower-key instrumental.

Meek is a serious mic presence and a compelling storyteller, but he’s not the most consistent rapper of all time. There’s a great album hiding somewhere in this tracklisting, but Championships diverts away from what he does best too often.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck In My Ways, 24/7, Uptown Vibes, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies

Least Favourite Track: 100 Summers

Score: 6/10

Rita Ora Phoenix cover.pngRita Ora – Phoenix

It’s surprising that Phoenix is only Rita Ora’s second studio album – after label disputes with Roc Nation and signing a new contract overseas, where she’s always been a lot more popular, her sophomore release comes 6 years after her first. Although its clear that this is more of a collection of songs than a fully defined album, pulling from collaborations, movie soundtracks, and songs that are over a year old at times, for the most part Ora recruits an impressive legion of some of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business and succeeds at creating some pretty smart and engaging, if not relatively safe, pop music.

All these tracks were new to me, despite some of them being released long ago – and some being huge international hits away from this continent. Opening track “Anywhere” is one of these, but it’s a great way to kick off this album regardless. Produced by Swedish DJ Alesso, the track evades some of the clichés of the pop song bridge building into the instrumental EDM drop with a nice acoustic transition and Ora’s sincere vocal delivery. The way Alesso chops up her vocals in his electronic chorus is ridiculously catchy. This transitions into latest single “Let You Love Me”, which despite that recent lip-syncing mess at the Thanksgiving Day parade is another well-structured pop track drawing from a more EDM style. The way the music cuts out when she hits the climactic highest note in the chorus before dropping into the heavy percussion of the dance break section is a pretty exhilarating moment, and I’m still not tired of the trend of using those vocoder/Prismizer computerized harmonies either – they sound great at the tail end of the track.

Even when the songwriting and production isn’t as strong, it’s hard not to at least nod your head throughout the duration of the album. These are all uptempo, high-octane pop tracks anchored around the strength of Ora’s voice – she has a surprising amount of power for someone who sticks to the dance-pop lane. The high-energy chorus for a track like “New Look” is puzzlingly short, but it’s great while it lasts. “Your Song”, a track written with Ed Sheeran and his production team, is pretty sanitized and inoffensive, but there’s nothing in it that’s overtly bad – as we progress through the album, the innovation goes down and most of these songs turn into background music, but there’s something in Ora’s delivery that keeps me engaged anyway even if there’s not going to be any awards for creativity here. By the time we get to mid-album tracks like “First Time High” though, the formulas are applied worse and worse and the transition to the electronic drop here is a bit of a mess.

There are a few songs throughout that take me out of the immersion of the album – as innovative as Avicii was, “Lonely Together” was one of his weakest recent tracks, and its placement in such a prominent area here despite already being released on his own album both decreases the quality of Ora’s project and unnerves me a bit for capitalizing on an unfortunate situation. “Summer Love”, a track with UK drum ‘n’ bass collective Rudimental, is another track that was released on another album first and doesn’t fit with the sound of the album at all, completely throwing the flow off. Rudimental themselves have a pretty solidified style that doesn’t switch up much from track to track, and hearing the same reiterated beat that I’ve heard before isn’t as exciting anymore. On the other hand, for a track from a movie soundtrack, the Fifty Shades Freed song “For You” with Liam Payne is actually pretty good. The syncopated and overpowering synth line in the chorus and Ora reaching up to some full-voiced high-notes, as well as the way Payne’s lower register complements and supports Ora so well, continues the franchise’s musical hot streak.

After getting through controversial and clunky mega-collaboration track “Girls”, the album ends pretty strong as well – Julia Michaels’ vocals are always appreciated on “Keep Talking”, a track that she wrote, but closer “Hell of a Life” is a true highlight – I love how the main vocal hook is teased earlier in the pre-chorus and cut off, and the off-kilter guitar pattern is a nice rhythmic switch-up.

Phoenix is a weird amalgamation of tracks from a star with a troubled career trajectory (in North America at least), but there’s enough pop starpower on board to make a few great songs – still, a lot of it is bogged down by filler material.

Favourite Tracks: Anywhere, For You (Fifty Shades Freed), Hell Of A Life, Let You Love Me

Least Favourite Track: First Time High

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Takeoff, Imagine Dragons, Muse)

Image result for takeoff the last rocketTakeoff – The Last Rocket

The second of three solo albums from the members of ultra-popular rap trio Migos, Takeoff’s project is thankfully shorter than most of the rap odysseys his label drops all too often and is easily more enjoyable than the preceding album from Quavo. Takeoff is perhaps the Migo with the most technical ability, but the least personality. The latter certainly shows here with some repetitive and uncreative bars at times, but getting to hear just how well Takeoff can use that rapid-fire triplet flow that we usually get as a brief cap to a Migos track across a full album and some fun instrumentals is enough to establish himself as a threat on the level of his two more well-known counterparts.

The project kicks off with “Martian” after some recordings of a literal rocket ship takeoff, a more minimal track that introduces us well to Takeoff’s rhythmic ability well early on. A surprisingly hard-hitting beat despite not being much more than a creeping, menacing bassline and traditional trap hi-hats, Takeoff’s flow doesn’t stop, and it’s exciting each time the beat hits and kicks off another run of speedy triplets. Takeoff has a great rap voice, a huskier low tone that always serves as a great counterpart to the more hyperactive members of his group, and it both fits in well with some darker instrumentals than usual here and makes it endearing when we finally get to see him inject some personality and emotion of his own onto these tracks. A track like “Vacation” is a lot of fun for the first reason, featuring a slightly orchestral minor-key instrumental and chilling piano from Murda Beatz as Takeoff’s energy is at its peak for the emphatic hook, stretching out the song’s title for hilarious effect. “Casper”, on the other hand, sees him break from the Migos tough-guy persona for a second and actually sound like he’s having fun. Hearing him deliver a line like “Decided what I’m gonna do today!” with genuine mirth and inspiration and just as much technical skill as the other tracks makes me want to return to it more, just as a break from the endless barrage of Migos material we typically get.

The closing few tracks are some of the best, demonstrating Takeoff’s consistency delivering track after track of technical trap showcases. Buddah Bless is quickly becoming one of my favourite new producers with his trademark flute style, and his “Insomnia” stands out here. “Infatuation”, though, is something completely unexpected – an energetic, upbeat fully synthpop track mostly featuring unknown singer Dayytona Fox. These poppy, bouncy tracks always accommodate the Migos flow better than you’d expect, and everything about this track comes together into a dancefloor-ready standout.

The Quavo-assisted “She Gon Wink” is one of the weaker tracks here, further demonstrating just how well Takeoff actually manages to excel on his own. Takeoff adapts more to Quavo’s slower, melodic style on the track and it just makes me wonder why it wasn’t on Quavo’s album. It’s not something I want to be hearing after waiting for Takeoff to get his opportunity to shine for a while, after being a highlight in so many Migos tracks. “None to Me” is another track where he puts a little more of a sing-song angle into his flows which doesn’t land particularly well, actually sending him off the beat a little in a few areas of the track. The purest rapper of the group, he doesn’t seem to realize that adherence to the Migos formula isn’t necessary at all times to make a good track – this should be an opportunity to exhibit his own style first and foremost, especially with the smaller number of tracks here. A track like “I Remember”, as well, is where we see him get laziest with the lyricism here, the hook, consisting only of those two words, taking up most of the space of the song.

With so much similar, uninspired content coming this year from the Quality Control label, I enjoyed The Last Rocket a lot more than I expected to, reminding me that half the reason we were all so drawn to Migos in the first place was that they can actually rap pretty well. I’m glad Takeoff finally got his time in the spotlight.

Favourite Tracks: Casper, Infatuation, Vacation, Insomnia, Lead The Wave

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Origins cover.pngImagine Dragons – Origins

For the last little while now, pop-rock band Imagine Dragons have been some of the only people who manage to score high-charting hits with any semblance of a guitar in their music. With their fourth studio album, Origins, they continue to sell well after diluting the sound into something so easily consumable that they’ve become just about the only option in the eyes of most people who aren’t completely immersed in the genre. The band exploded back onto the scene last year with “Believer” after the sales dropped off for their 2nd album, and haven’t looked back since, adhering to the same painful formulas over and over. You know how it goes: some sweeping, contemplative and slightly soul-oriented chords as Reynolds begins quietly, then throws in a complete tonal shift and suddenly starts yelling. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but Origins might be even more obnoxious than their last project, Evolve.

Opening track and lead single “Natural” is honestly not too bad – much like their lead last year being one of the better songs on the album. It’s almost as if they structure an entire album around their lead single, creating 10 more imitations of it that never measure up. It’s one of the only tracks here that has a build-up to the loud part that genuinely works, Reynolds’ vocals gradually getting more intense before the chorus drops. I really do like the way they incorporate that rhythmic minor-key guitar riff that backs the quieter intro into the chorus as the song goes on as well. It’s all downhill from there.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Reynolds’ vocals – sometimes, it seems like he could be a genuine rock frontman with the rasp and passion he naturally possesses, but other times it just sounds awful and strained when he reaches up into his upper register. It might be the fact that he takes it too far for the calmer instrumentals that pop up more often than usual across this album, like on the chorus for “Boomerang”. Don’t get me started on that half-time trap hi-hat beat that shows up out of nowhere for the final chorus. Then again, from there we transition into “Machine”, a more industrial number where Reynolds uses almost exclusively his louder, angry tone that sounds like he’s painfully forcing the sounds out of him, distorting his vowels and really throwing off my enjoyment of the track. You’d think with all of the experienced pop producers they bring on board now that they would be able to find a way to hit on more catchy choruses than they actually do. Most of these sound like they’re making them up on the spot, the weird deviations in melody reminding me of something like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”. “Bad Liar” is another track like this, the longest one on the album, so clearly, they thought they had something here. One of the calmest tracks the band’s ever made, it’s built on this delicate synth pattern and Reynolds’ falsetto before the energy shifts abruptly through two more phases in the chorus and pre-chorus, Reynolds drawing out his voice awkwardly on the “eye” sound of “Liar” on a strained higher note.

Imagine Dragons honestly stick a track from a movie soundtrack in the middle of their album here, not even tacked on at the end, which shows how much care went into the construction of the project as a deliberately sequenced album. Most movie soundtrack songs are clearly made with less effort into song structure with more of a general tone in mind, and this is no exception. “Zero”, from Wreck-It Ralph 2, might honestly be the worst song I’ve heard this year. An obnoxiously high-octane chorus is contrasted with a sluggish bridge where the track grinds to a halt on Reynolds’ contemplative falsetto, and immediately catapults back into the madness of the chorus. It’s pretty comical.

The rest of the back half of the album is full of ill-informed genre hopping and capitalization on long-dead trends. “West Coast” sounds like every 2011 indie-folk track, “Bullet In A Gun” a weirdly computerized EDM-esque track, “Only” oversaturated dance-pop, “Digital” is … my god … a drum ‘n’ bass pseudo-rap track … and all of them involve Reynolds yelling in my ear. There’s so much nonsense I could mention but this review is already getting way too long.

Origins is the sound of a band along for the ride, saying yes to whatever all the people who have come in to manage their immense popularity tell them to do and losing all semblance of artistic identity in the process. They’ve fully embraced their role as the new Nickelback.

Favourite Tracks: Natural, Cool Out

Least Favourite Track: Zero

Score: 2/10

A neon-coloured portrait of the members of the band in 80s-style dystopian-themed costumes, with themed electronic imagery surrounding them.Muse – Simulation Theory

Frequently evolving veteran rock band Muse undergoes yet another shift in sound from their previous harder-rock effort Drones to a more digitized electro-rock and synthpop direction. There’s always been a lot of influence from bands like Queen on frontman Matt Bellamy’s almost operatic vocal delivery, but the arena-sized ambitions of an album like Simulation Theory take it a little bit further. While Muse can often tend to go over the top into a territory of excessive cheese with their overwrought lyrical themes and melodramatics – this project being no exception – the majority of these tracks are smartly constructed pop melodies, and a more modernized sound that works a lot better for them than their last sonic experiment – all the sci-fi elements are a lot of fun too!

Opening track “Algorithm” is straight out of a Tron movie, opening with an extended instrumental featuring a driving beat that switches from a string orchestra to a fuzzy synth tone, cascading piano arpeggios and a straight-up synthesizer solo on top before Bellamy’s warm and capable vocals kick in, making everything sound immediately more intense and important in the way that only he can. This is all incredible guilty pleasure kind of stuff. “This means war – with your creator”, Bellamy emotes, because of course he does. The next track “The Dark Side” kicks the tempo up a notch, the guitar riff slightly reminiscent of their older material (think a digitized version of “Knights of Cydonia”). I really love the combinations of live drums and the more frivolous noises from a drum machine – it’s like Muse is finally learning to not take themselves so seriously. “Pressure” is a pretty incredible, dynamic track, Bellamy switching in an out of a panicked falsetto backed up by a syncopated guitar line modified to sound almost like a horn section before the track explodes into a rapid-fire melodic rock track with poppy backing vocals and a menacing, repeated whisper – “pressure building”. The band links up with Timbaland of all people for the weird and wonderful track “Propaganda”, a minimal track that sees Bellamy go full Prince with his vocal inflections over some sparse snaps, while a distorted vocal sample yelling the title fights to break into the mix. The harmonies here are fantastic.

There’s not much that measures up to the first 4 tracks in quality here, and it wouldn’t be a Muse album without a couple ambitious ideas that swing for the fence and completely fall flat. The band still insists on using the dubstep wubs they picked up when the genre exploded in popularity, and their combination with a guitar toned off-key for ominous effect on “Break It To Me” is pretty grating, especially as the track shifts through a few sections rapidly, Bellamy switching to his tender delivery for the chorus before the track turns into a Rage Against the Machine song at the end. The wubs show up to somewhat better effect on “Dig Down” later on. “Get Up and Fight” is Muse indulging their absolute worst tendencies, and while at times it’s easy to get caught up in their rousing calls to action and resistance set to a driving guitar melody, this one goes way too far into try-hard inspirational territory. This might be the most overly dramatic track they’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. “Something Human”, as well, is almost too poppy, with a campfire-side folksy quality to it that doesn’t fit Bellamy’s grandiose voice.

Single “Thought Contagion” pops up later in the tracklisting, and this is the closest thing we get to a classic, impossibly catchy Muse track. The main riff and stadium-sized singalong chorus are immediately memorable, juxtaposed with verses that have an almost hip-hop angle with some skittering hi-hats and a more rhythmic, syncopated flow from Bellamy. I can already tell it’ll be incredible live.

Simulation Theory is easily one of the band’s most enjoyable albums, now that they’re just essentially making fun music and not going overboard with some political theme. The 80s nostalgia is a great sound for them, even with a few missteps here and there.

Favourite Tracks: Pressure, Propaganda, Thought Contagion, Algorithm, The Dark Side

Least Favourite Track: Break It To Me

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10

Future/Juice WRLD – WRLD On Drugs

Image result for wrld on drugs coverIn yet another of the recent long line of surprise hip-hop collaboration projects, prolific Atlanta superstar Future teams up with the 19-year old upstart emo-rap artist Juice WRLD, who recently has a huge hit on his hands with “Lucid Dreams”. I often say that the best hip-hop collab projects are the ones that are the most unexpected, the two diverse styles complementing each other and adding some surprising twists and turns to the tracklisting, and this is certainly a pairing that I never could have anticipated – but this one might just be the slightest bit too weird to work out perfectly. WRLD On Drugs is a lot better than I expected and contains more than a few excellent tracks, mixed in with a fair share of blander trap filler. Produced mostly by fellow Atlantan Wheezy, the beats are frequently what makes the project more memorable than its counterparts. The tape sounds more like the straightforward Future trying to fit into Juice’s moodier WRLD more often than not, but Future’s lyrics have always been able to get surprisingly dark and reflective when he wants them to.

The project opens with two of its best songs, “Jet Lag” and “Astronauts”, some of the most immediately catchy and memorable tracks here that see Juice WRLD apply his softer, more malleable voice to some pretty intense trap instrumentals pretty well – his ear for melodies has him sounding like a more hip-hop oriented Post Malone here. “Jet Lag” is built around a watery synth bassline that bridges the gap between the two rapper’s worlds pretty perfectly, both menacing and melodic as the more traditional percussion crunches mixed in with the trap hi-hats line up for maximum energetic impact. “Astronauts” is another high-octane track with a high-pitched piano loop and rumbling bassline that sees Future take over hook duty and deliver a melody just as good – “Me and Juice astronauts”.

Image result for future juice wrld

The second half is considerably better than the first as the quality takes a steep drop after the initial two tracks – we pick up again on the melodic track “Shorty”, which has a lot more of an R&B vibe. This is a Juice song through and through, built on a shimmering, swung synth pattern that breaks up the standard rhythm of a trap beat a little bit, as Juice does what he does best and delivers a catchy melody with emotionally tinged vocals, Future adapting well in a supporting role. “Realer N Realer” sees the two find more synergy than usual, interlocking different vocal lines layered on top of each other. The beat here reminds me of a modern update of something like an early 2010s Lil Wayne track, very uptempo with some old-school elements thrown in like a reversed beat and a certain kind of synth tone that doesn’t exist anymore in the chorus. The melodic tracks and experiments here usually pay off, Juice often taking the reins. “No Issue” is another fun track with more of a unique approach to trap, Wheezy throwing in some Neptunes-style breakbeats on top.

After Nicki Minaj knocks her extended feature on “Transformer” out of the park with the zany energy we know and love from her, closing track “Hard Work Pays Off” might be the best of all, and it might be its poppiest. With some layered vocals and harmonies from Juice WRLD over a dreamy, ethereal background of major synth chords that makes for a warm, full sound, it’s the catchiest melody of all here. Those bouncy embellishments and Juice’s harmonized ‘whoa’s make this an excellent closer that just brings a smile to your face.

Single “Fine China” doesn’t resonate with me as much as everyone else, judging by its immediate success – it’s here where the lyricism of the two really falls apart most evidently. I’m not expecting anything profound from either of these two, but Juice’s chorus here raises a few eyebrows for a few reasons and seems pretty tone deaf in the current social climate. Yeah, this is trap music – but it’s so prominent in the chorus that it stands out as awkward. The lyrics here sound improvised more than a few times across the board here, and while these two have mic presence and charisma in spades these collab projects are sounding more and more like they were thrown together in a short amount of time – I really believe that the title for “7 AM Freestyle” is actually the circumstances for the track, the two barely sound like they’re awake and lose the personality they had, especially when they have nothing that isn’t generic to say on the track.

Image result for future juice wrld

There are more than a few unquestionably strange decisions thrown into the mix here, and one of them is the unlistenable solo Future track “Oxy”, where he uses the high-pitched, squeaking, inhaled voice that was memed to death on Black Panther track “King’s Dead” for the entire song – it’s a shame, because the beat is honestly one of the best here, but who is telling him this is a good idea? I learned to love it on “King’s Dead” because it was a brief, funny diversion, but I can’t handle it here. The clashes in tone between the two is made evident quite a bit as well, sections of certain tracks like “Different” sounding empty when the wrong rapper for the instrumental style is present, this lurching, minimal bassline here doesn’t fit Juice’s more vibrant voice at all.

WRLD On Drugs’ highlights are so memorable because of how unlikely they were to work on paper – even the age disparity between the two is huge at 15 years. Juice WRLD is definitely an exciting new artist to watch, and his collabs with a steady veteran here show that he can just as easily adapt himself to any area of hip-hop. Sure, there’s some filler here, but when isn’t there anymore in the streaming era?

Favourite Tracks: Hard Work Pays Off, Jet Lag, Realer N Realer, Transformer

Least Favourite Track: Different

Score: 6/10