Rapid Fire Reviews (Offset, Lil Pump, Hozier)

Offset Father of 4.jpgOffset – FATHER OF 4

The third and final member of the ultra-popular rap trio Migos to release their own solo project as we wait for Culture III, Offset actually takes the opportunity to do something you don’t often see the group doing: opening up and getting emotional. The album delayed due to relationship drama with Cardi B, Offset has quite a few tracks here acknowledging his mistakes and reflecting on himself, as well as zooming the lens out a little further and giving some insight and storytelling tracks into his upbringing and his relationships with the rest of his family. FATHER OF 4 does suffer from filler and long album syndrome as well as the lack of the other Migos to play off of, but has its fair share of surprises as well. Offset exists in a kind of commercially viable middle ground between his groupmates, possessing parts of both Quavo’s charisma and Takeoff’s technical ability.

Of all the things you might have expected a Migos-affiliated album to open with, it might not have been a somber orchestral arrangement, contemplative piano and Offset’s heartfelt ruminations on the births of his 4 children, addressing each of them by name and apologizing for the times he wasn’t there. The track gives a pretty good indication of how the rest of the album is going to go – while Offset might have the least natural musical instinct of the three Migos, his Auto-Tuned flow here never quite finding that catchy pocket or fitting with the song, what he’s saying is genuinely captivating, and that’s the part that makes FATHER OF 4 really work. The next track, “How Did I Get Here”, features J. Cole and finds the two reminiscing on making it out of the cycle of crime to find success. It certainly doesn’t reach the same level of depth as the last one, falling back into some more Migos-esque bars, but at least it’s about something – again, something that’s pretty rare for the trio. Cole really elevates the track with a much more aggressive delivery.

Honestly, for all the oversaturation Migos have had recently, you still can’t deny the energy of their greatest bangers, and Offset certainly delivers a few of them here, even if I do miss some of the complementary voices as the tracks go on. “Lick” rides a nice flute sample and fuzzy bassline and sees Offset switch up the Migos flow for a catchy chorus. Offset’s speedier flow is infectious, and there’s something about that “woo! woo! Offset!” adlib that sets me off every time, and the busy trap beat of “Made Men” and driving, slightly eerie synth line of “Wild Wild West” certainly allow him to show off his greatest skills. But undeniably the best classic Migos trap banger on the project is a collaboration with none other than Offset’s wife on the track “Clout”, featuring a dramatic piano loop and an absolutely hilarious and personality-driven verse from Cardi as Offset reflects on the clout-chasing culture they are caught up in.

One of the most surprising tracks on the whole album is “North Star” with Cee-Lo Green, which begins like a pretty standard trap cut before some acoustic noodling creeps in and the track gets spacier and moves into some creeping, ethereal synths that reminds me of something like the awe-inspiring nature of an ODESZA track – the perfect arena for Green to enter with some absolutely incredible and theatrical vocals, building on Offset’s paranoid bars with some powerful lines about perseverance. Backed by a gospel choir, it gives me chills every time and the fact that it came from a Migo is amazing. “Don’t Lose Me” is another compelling look into Offset’s emotions, opening with a clip from his public apology to Cardi and proclaiming that he wants to be with her for life.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Migos album without its fair share of tracks that serve only as uninspired filler and sound like they were made in a couple minutes – because they probably were, as the Migos will readily admit. Tracks like “Tats On My Face” and “Underrated” are some of the hardest on the project, but fall very flat since we’ve heard so much similar material from them already. There are a couple more tracks at the end that are loaded with features from all over the industry, but even they can’t quite liven it up after track after track of the same Migos flow – Travis Scott sounds especially lethargic on “Legacy”.

Ultimately, I’m glad that we did get these three projects from each of the Migos members, as it did allow them to display their greatest strengths. As always though, they’re better together. If we’re measuring them against each other, I’d say Takeoff’s project takes the crown, but this one’s right behind.

Favourite Tracks: North Star, Clout, Made Men, Wild Wild West

Least Favourite Track: Legacy

Score: 6/10

Lil Pump - Harverd Dropout.pngLil Pump – Harverd Dropout

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about 18-year old viral sensation Lil Pump? Perhaps known even more so for his antics on social media than his music, even after racking up nearly a billion views on his single “Gucci Gang”, Pump fully embraced his status as a living meme as soon as he strut down that hallway next to Kanye West in a Roblox costume. Harverd Dropout is his second studio album, and it’s been pretty universally panned, but to be completely honest – I have a lot of fun with Lil Pump’s music. It might be some of the most mind-numbing material out there, but the sheer enthusiasm with which he embraces the persona he puts out – just the way he delivers the line “I’m a millionaire, but I don’t know how to read”, adding a cheery “nope!” as an ad-lib on the track “Be Like Me” as an example – makes it hard to hate the guy. Fine, fine – it’s objectively terrible music. But there’s a lot of terrible music that isn’t anywhere close to being this fun.

Lil Pump’s “ooh!” (and the usually accompanying “huh??”) is one of the most visceral, inexplicably energizing ad-libs I’ve ever heard. There’s something so gleefully ignorant and flippant about it, and it’s the perfect way to punctuate Pump’s ridiculous lines – my favourite of which might be Pump, with an audible giant grin, saying “I gave lean to a newborn baby” on the track “ION”. The first two brief tracks “Drop Out” and “Nu Uh” both see Pump flexing about dropping out of school (now he’s richer than your mom) over some garish 8-bit synths and a breakneck tempo that brings out the most hyperactive sides of his youthful vocals. And of course, this drops right into “I Love It”. The fact that this track hit top 10 is absolutely hilarious to me. Pump and Kanye both knew exactly what they were doing with this track, and everything they do on it falls right in the perfect uncanny valley between serious and jokey. It’s the same reason “Old Town Road” is so huge right now, and “I Love It” is so genuinely maddeningly catchy that it can’t be seen as just a joke in the same way.

Honestly, some of the most taxing moments on the project actually come when feature artists are invited into Lil Pump’s world, since nobody exists on the same level of absolute memery as him. The closest thing we get is goofball 2 Chainz on the track “Stripper Name”. Pump actually tries to be more serious to match their average contributions instead of the other way around, and his complete lack of ability as an actual musician gets exposed in the process. The two features from members of the Migos on the tracks “Fasho Fasho” and “Too Much Ice” are so phoned in, and the repetitive beats that Pump frequently raps over aren’t as fun when Pump doesn’t have any of those trademark outlandish quotables overtop. The latter just … really hurts my brain. It’s all a little too loud. Lil Wayne’s verse on “Be Like Me” really isn’t that bad, but it’s easily the longest track here and it’s clear they were trying to get a real single out of Pump. He just doesn’t work in a traditional song structure; Pump is fully a product of the short attention span generation.

It’s really a very strange balance with Lil Pump – much like making something catch virality on the internet – there’s a very fine line here between headache-inducingly terrible and absolutely hilarious. It really makes it hard to give the project a score, or even write up serious criticism on it. Take the track “Vroom Vroom Vroom”. It really is little more than Lil Pump making a series of car noises. And maybe it says something about me, but I can’t help but smile when I listen to it. Can I, a music reviewer, even call it music? Debatable. The man drops Fortnite bars on “Off White”. He knows what he’s doing, and it’s not making music.

Lil Pump isn’t real. He’s a character, and a pretty funny one at that. I equate his music, quality and enjoyment level wise, to something like what The Lonely Island was making back in the day. And while no one was arguing that was high art, and it certainly had its fair share of huge misses, it was still pretty enjoyable. I’m looking forward to what in the world this guy is going to do next. ESSKEETIT!!!!!!!!!!

Favourite Tracks: I Love It, Drop Out, Racks On Racks, Butterfly Doors

Least Favourite Track: Too Much Ice

Score: 🤑/10. Man, I don’t know. Let’s just say 6/10, I guess.

Hozier - Wasteland, Baby!.pngHozier – Wasteland, Baby!

It’s been about 5 years since a deep-voiced Irishman invaded pop radio with an unlikely hit single about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and Hozier has finally returned with his second studio album, Wasteland, Baby! After an introductory EP that gave us the impactful and moving protest song “Nina Cried Power”, which landed on my top tracks of the year list, and the mellower track “Shrike”, the full album is a reminder of everything that we loved about the disruptive force in the mainstream music scene in the first place. Standing at 57 minutes in length, it’s hard not to see through Hozier’s formulas at times. A couple of these tracks sound a bit like a copy-and-pasted “Take Me To Church”, but there is still essentially no one else successfully occupying his lane. Most of the singer-songwriter types from 5 years ago failed to adapt, but Hozier still sounds fresh as ever.

After the fiery opener, the project drops into the track “Almost (Sweet Music)”, which, if we’re connecting these tracks to his older material, is this album’s “Jackie and Wilson”. I still think that’s Hozier’s greatest song, so I don’t much mind the adherence to formula here. Hozier’s voice is pretty unparalleled in its expressiveness. Set over some sunny acoustic chords, when those soulful backing vocals come in to support him in the second verse it’s hard not to get lost in this ode to music itself – Hozier is essentially running through a list of his favourite songs in the lyrics. Hozier has mastered this inexplicable thing in quite a few of his songs, this kind of eerie feeling as he sings some powerful, larger-than-life lyrics in a minor key. “Movement” displays this perfectly as he sings about the effect his partner’s love has on him, but even as he’s celebrating it he sounds almost a little scared of it, an all-encompassing thing about to take over his body and make him do involuntary things – that’s the vibe that almost all of Hozier’s big-concept songs give off. It’s a pretty good formula to follow. The longer track “No Plan” is another soulful jam session that keeps a strong start going. I love that fuzzy lead guitar, reminds of a Black Keys song.

As the project progresses and we hit the middle section, we get an opportunity to focus a lot more on that beautiful tone with a series of calmer songs beginning with the dramatic and minimal “As It Was”. This track sounds almost like something out of Lord of the Rings as Hozier seems to be singing about a love that persisted through some unknown dark and evil fog: “the otherness came”, he ominously sings. It’s an absolutely chilling song. “Talk” is another pretty strong track by the delivery of those background “hey-yeaaaaa”s alone.

There are certainly a couple tracks here that don’t quite hit the same level of gravitas that I come to expect from a Hozier song, or serve as a tonal counterpart to an earlier track that doesn’t hit quite as hard. The chorus of the track “To Noise Making (Sing)” is seriously awkward, replacing Hozier’s usual strong lyricism with the repetition of a single word, and the way the backing vocals in a nasal higher octave are mixed louder than Hozier’s own voice is a strange choice. By the time we get to tracks like “Be” and “Sunlight” at the end of the album’s runtime and we start to hear the same crunchy effects on the guitar and the same tactics of extending those higher, choral notes in the background that we’ve heard elsewhere in the album, I start to wonder if it needed to be this long. Nonetheless, Hozier’s voice is always a treat to listen to regardless. “Would That I” is a great, emotionally delivered track that breaks up the monotony at the end as well.

The opening run of 4 tracks on this thing alone is enough to make me wonder why I’ve seen some of the more mixed reviews on this project floating around on the internet. Hozier is a refreshing presence in the world of mainstream music and I sincerely hope he’s not gone for as long until the next one.

Favourite Tracks: Nina Cried Power, Movement, As It Was, Almost (Sweet Music), No Plan

Least Favourite Track: To Noise Making (Sing)

Score: 8/10

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James Blake – Assume Form

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

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

Image result for james blake

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

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

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

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

Image result for james blake

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

Image result for maggie rogers snl

You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

Image result for maggie rogers

Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

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

Mitski – Be The Cowboy

Image result for be the cowboy mitskiOne of the most consistently critically acclaimed artists in the indie community, indie-pop and alt-rock singer-songwriter Mitski returns with her 5th studio album and first following her major-label breakthrough with Puberty 2. Be the Cowboy is a similarly eclectic and intentionally off-kilter collection of brief and often existential tracks. Blending her unassuming, indie-leaning vocal work and bleak and vulnerable lyricism with bombastic, distorted guitar instrumentals, there’s certainly nothing out there that comes even close to what Mitski is doing here. I’m all for experimentation, but it’s honestly hard to tell if I fully like the music here or I just respect it as a completely out-there idea. Although there are brief moments where things get a bit too chaotic here, for the most part the project is elevated by Mitski’s beautiful vocal moments and songwriting abilities.

Listeners are introduced to the kind of album it’s going to be pretty early on, some full, vibrant orchestral strings opening first track “Geyser” before the brief, horror-movie jumpscare type distorted noise honestly shocked me and the track eventually builds up to some underlying heavy distorted guitars as the rest of the pop elements of the track swell to their greatest cinematic peak. It’s all a little much, but it’s nothing if not ambitious. Mitksi’s use of distortion and chaos across the board is used to illustrate the mental state she describes in her lyrics, but it makes it hard to want to give a lot of these tracks repeated listens, especially when she intentionally doesn’t want to settle into a particular groove, switching things up immediately after they’ve begun.

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Mitski is at her best when she embraces the quirky indie-pop singer-songwriter angle: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” uses the guitars more sparingly, punctuating powerful moments instead of taking everything over. There are some serious 80s synthpop vibes on the song, driven by a pulsating bassline and catchy synth hook that frames the sweeter areas of her voice well. On the song, Mitski expresses disappointment that an ex doesn’t want her back, even though she’s the one that ended it in the first place, and her confused and chaotic mindstate regarding romance continues to show up as a theme here. Almost all of these songs don’t even break the 3-minute mark, making the project resemble a series of disjointed, impulsive thoughts – and her lyricism and even her melodies often reflect this. Mitski has expressed in interviews that she didn’t necessarily want everything to come together perfectly, the distress she expresses on these tracks evident through the music itself. She discusses conflicted feelings on returning to a toxic relationship out of fear of being alone on “A Pearl”, where her vocal lines fluctuate around and never really settle on a direction, and continues to return to the theme of a kind of existential loneliness that has her losing her mind on tracks like “Lonesome Love” and “Blue Light”.

At the same time as this disjointedness works well for what Mitski is trying to express here though, many of my favourite moments on the album are over before they have even begun. “Lonesome Love” is one of the more instrumentally simple tracks here, Mitski adopting an almost folk/Americana cadence over little more than acoustic strumming, and the increased focus on her voice is welcome – but we don’t even hit the 2-minute mark here. “Me And My Husband” is another great moment here, the instrumental reminding me of the kind of old-school piano rock that appears on a Father John Misty project. Hearing Mitski’s vocals on an instrumental capable of turning her emotional vocal delivery into an anthemic mantra as she desperately clings on to a fading partnership.

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In the middle of all of this genre-bending madness, there’s what is essentially a perfect pop song in the single “Nobody”. Mitski’s voice already has such a Lana Del Rey-like automatic flair for the vintage, and there’s something about the chorus melody that captures it perfectly here, underscored by those low piano chords and almost disco synths. So many worlds collide on the track in the best possible way – the live percussion on the track elevates it to another level as well, and we’re catapulted into an off-kilter ethereal section of the track as it comes off the rails, Mitski’s voice becoming filtered and robotic as the song ends abruptly after a key change, repeating the title over and over to further illustrate the loneliness she outlines elsewhere. “Washing Machine Heart” is another great track where the almost too-perfect, adorable tone of Mitski’s voice is made to sound detached and robotic with the kind of childish yet eerie melody you’d hear at a carnival, the song ending with a single, terrifying second of static as the speaker becomes unhinged.

Be the Cowboy is certainly one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve had all year, but from everything I’ve heard Mitski say about the album its clear that she has a clearly defined artistic vision and she’s executing it about as well as she possibly could. There are quite a few very powerful musical moments on this album, and despite the lack of replayability, it’s a lot better listened to as a full experience than returning to single songs.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody, Washing Machine Heart, Me And My Husband, Why Didn’t You Stop Me?, Lonesome Love

Least Favourite Track: A Horse Named Cold Air

Score: 7/10

Amy Shark – Love Monster

Love Monster CD by Amy Shark.jpgAustralian indie-pop singer Amy Shark, after rising to prominence with her contributions to the Love, Simon soundtrack, releases her debut album Love Monster. Shark takes some clear inspiration from other rising pop artists in her home country and neighbouring New Zealand, as well as some other megastars of the day, but manages to deliver a very strong debut due to her unique vocals and specific and personal lyrical content. A few superproducers hop on board for a single song each, but for the most part, this is one of the strongest debut projects of the year based solely on Shark’s own captivatingly refreshing presence as a newcomer to the music industry.

The album opens with a minimal, acoustic chord progression on the song “I Got You”, immediately introducing us to the perfect storm of what a star on the rise should harness on their debut album as the trap beat and catchy pop melody quickly cascade in. It’s a combination of sounds that’s been done before, of course, but something about the brightness of the acoustics, the way the beat doesn’t dominate the track, and Shark’s cheery lyrics delivered by a voice with the inflections to make her sound emotional even when completely casual creates a wonderful welcome to a surefire star in the making who uses trends sparingly to display her own personal artistry on top. The most obvious parallel you can draw to Shark’s work is Taylor Swift, especially the better half of her recent reputation. The way she throws her entire emotional being into her vocal performance, as well as the smartly written pop melodies and very slight hip-hop edge to charming pop tracks mirror the megastar in the best way.

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“All Loved Up”, produced by Swift and Shark’s common collaborator Jack Antonoff, is one of the most pop radio-ready tracks here – the verses feature Shark in a kind of hurried, out-of-breath delivery of faster-paced lyrics, as if she’s barely succeeding at fitting all of the many emotions running through her mind as she takes the exciting leap of faith into a committed relationship into her verse. The chorus is just as catchy as any here, but what sells it is Shark’s likability and relatability as she lays all of her emotions out. The next track, “I Said Hi”, is pop euphoria – and Shark has said she wrote the lyrics and melodies in an impassioned 10-minute burst of creativity, hurriedly recording it after the realization it was “Grammy Award-winning”. The trap-acoustic theme is played up to its maximum power here, with an absolutely monstrous drop into one of the most pristine pop melodies I’ve heard all year and hilariously passive-aggressive lyrics aimed at her doubters – I’m excited for her future if she can assuredly make something this excellent so quickly. New Zealand pop mastermind Joel Little assists on “Never Coming Back”, a lighter track where Shark plays up the sweet, breathier side of her vocals over some shimmering synth lines that remind me of Little’s excellent work with Broods. The track features some great harmonies leading up to an explosive conclusion.

Shark’s emotional songwriting reaches its heartbreaking peak on a song like “Leave Us Alone”, describing the best memories and feelings of a past relationship in vivid detail, repeating the titular “alone” in a much quieter voice that contradicts the stronger front she tries to put up. This continues on “Don’t Turn Around”, another complete knockout of a track where Shark fantasizes about reconnecting with an ex upon seeing them at an event, internally criticizing herself for it – “You’re two rows behind me and it’s hard not to turn around”, she says, as a distorted, higher-pitched voice sends the track into pop overdrive with some quicker, rhythmic vocals that complete the sonic picture the bright trap-pop instrumental paints. Shark’s versatility across this project is quite impressive, harnessing the appropriate volume and emotional delivery of tracks with more of a louder rock edge on the Mark Hoppus (Blink-182) featuring “Psycho”, to the EDM-leaning “Middle of the Night” to the quiet indie-pop variety that makes up the majority of the tracklisting here.

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If anything, 14 tracks feels just slightly long, a few of these tracks standing as slightly less effective versions of counterparts earlier on in the tracklisting. Placing a song like “The Idiot” after the stellar “I Said Hi”, the song possessing similarly dominant guitar stabs and a knocking hip-hop beat, makes it slightly redundant despite being pretty great in its own right. Shark does wear her influences on her sleeve as well, constantly bringing to mind the lyricism of Lorde, instrumentals and harmonies of Broods or the emotion of Swift. Her own personality does shine through though, and the added variation of any future material will likely confirm this.

Love Monster is the most confident and self-assured pop debut since Billie Eilish’s don’t smile at me EP, Shark quickly establishing herself as an artist to watch by endearing herself to the audience with her honest emotional delivery and specific, smart lyricism. Meanwhile, she capitalizes on the sound of the moment to a small enough degree that it doesn’t feel like trend-hopping. I’m very excited to hear more from her.

Favourite Tracks: I Said Hi, Don’t Turn Around, All Loved Up, I Got You, Mess Her Up

Least Favourite Track: Adore

Score: 9/10

Florence + The Machine – High As Hope

HighAsHope.pngIndie-pop band Florence + The Machine return after 3 years with their 4th studio album, their most minimal and personal yet. Standing at a concise 10 tracks, Florence Welch’s immediately distinctive vocals take the spotlight once again, especially as the instrumentals behind her calm down for the most part. The band draw on some gospel sensibilities across the board here, infusing some of these tracks with rich harmonies and powerful choral moments. Although I prefer the scarce occasions when things get a little more upbeat here, Welch’s voice the unrestrained ball of energy over the driving percussion, High as Hope is another overall solid project from the consistent group.

Opening track “June” quickly draws listeners in to the ethereal world of Florence + The Machine, Welch’s raw, fluttering and emotional vocal delivery backed by some sparse, moody piano chords and twinkling effects to further enhance the dreamscape that her vocals belong to. While the track and quite a few others here are less structured than I’d like them to be, the rhythms of the piano chord progression lining up in a slightly awkward fashion, the focus on Welch’s very personal inner monologues pull the stripped-back sound together, the surrounding instrumentals representing the chaos of the personal struggles she describes. Second single “Hunger” pulls all the great elements of the band together – Welch speaks on her struggles with an eating disorder as the gospel chords pick up and the percussion settles into a steady rhythm. The band’s greatest singles have always had this same quality of an anthemic mantra, Welch’s passion just selling the message. It’s a track that’s equal parts powerful and brilliantly catchy.

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“100 Years” is one of the only other upbeat tracks here, a prominent, fun stomp-clap rhythm backing up Welch’s empowering message of persevering despite disheartening world events – 100 years marking the length of time since women first voted in her home country of the UK. The band recruits a great list of collaborators here, and you can feel their effect – the whole album is produced with superstar indie producer Emile Haynie, but the writing credits boast unexpected names in Jamie xx, Sampha and Tobias Jesso Jr. You can hear Sampha’s influence especially on his co-written track “Grace” – the evocative piano and blunt, specific lyrics could have fit on his debut Process. The slow build of the track as Welch puts more power into the chorus each time, leading to a full-voiced, expletive-laden shout at the conclusion, is a perfect contrast to the verses where we hear the calmer, surprisingly sweet side of her voice. Quite a few of these songs capture a kind of larger than life, awestruck cosmic feeling as the deafening backing vocals roar in for the chorus. It’s the same thing we hear on their classic tracks like “Dog Days Are Over”, and it’s a truly unique thing that the band is able to bring out.

Penultimate track “The End Of Love” is the album’s greatest, featuring a chorus built on chilling layered harmonies. It’s a very minimal song, but it makes the bigger moments all the more powerful. The saxophone that briefly wails in as Welch describes a rushing river is a great touch that shows attention to detail, but that beautiful, shimmering chorus is the deserving centerpiece of the work.

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Some of the quieter tracks here fall a bit short due to the traditionally uncontrolled, warbling nature of Welch’s voice – the band doesn’t give enough to rein in and support its wilder qualities at times here, giving off the impression that she’s making up these melodies on the spot. A track like “South London Forever” has one of the safest instrumentals here, a steady, reflective pop piano loop that doesn’t mirror Welch’s shouted vocals, the hook suddenly cascading in unexpectedly without the track doing much to signify its arrival. Welch sings with reckless abandon, throwing in the squeaks and uncontrolled vocal runs that make her so unique – on tracks like “No Choir” and “Big God”, we get to focus more on all those quirks without the energetic instrumental behind. While Welch’s lyrics are still very compelling, the vocal eccentricities sound improvised and out of place when the supporting cast isn’t as dynamic and passionate as she is.

High as Hope finds Florence Welch at the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen her, and the quieter contributions from the band exposing her raw vocal delivery reflect this move. Running through loss of family members, relationship struggles, religion and personal anxieties, Welch’s lyrics are the primary focus here. While the music can leave me anticipating more of the high-energy experiences Welch’s distinct instrument is more than capable of delivering, this is a very cohesive and well-thought-out project.

Favourite Tracks: The End Of Love, Hunger, Grace, 100 Years, June

Least Favourite Track: South London Forever

Score: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Rapid Fire Reviews (Vance Joy, Tory Lanez, Tech N9ne)

Image result for nation of two vance joyVance Joy – Nation of Two

Indie-pop singer-songwriter Vance Joy returns with his second studio album, almost 4 years after the runaway success that was “Riptide”, a song which was run into the ground to a rather annoying degree for this reviewer personally. Joy’s sentimental songwriting and catchy falsetto melodies are back on this project, and while a few of these breezy and instrumentally sparse tracks can seem overly simple or derivative at times, Nation of Two does stand out as a solid project due to its thematic cohesion and Joy’s undeniable ability to write uplifting tunes that we all want to sing along to. The album details the story of what Joy calls a “perfectly self-contained couple”, and the highs and lows of their blocking out most of the outside world.

The album opens with “Call If You Need Me”, potentially the closest thing on the whole album to exactly what we expect of him, the instrumental little more than a repetitive, plucked guitar pattern backed up by some ghostly indie-folk falsetto vocals that we’ve heard on his earlier work, and many others’. Joy knows what works for him and plays it safe to a degree that doesn’t really engage me quite a bit. There are more interesting musical choices than I would have expected after that intro, however, as the album starts to pick up immediately. “Lay It On Me” is a great track that sees Joy get more upbeat than usual, building into an explosive brass-backed chorus with some nice harmonies and a huge drum build-up. The fuller instrumentals work to his benefit, giving more power and support to his singalong choruses. Even if he uses some of the same tricks repeatedly, Joy’s earnest and confessional approach to songwriting fits as the instrumental raises and lowers volume in accord with the more emotional moments in his delivery. Joy’s voice is the perfect instrument to deliver the heartfelt declarations of love he is so fond of, accompanied by tiny wavers when he holds out a note and appropriately soaring for the bigger, celebratory choruses. There’s something indescribably unique that connects him to a listener.

Still, by the 5th or 6th time a song opens with the same basic picking patterns you’ve heard your friend play on the ukulele more than once the album starts to get tiresome. There’s a reason Joy was rewarded with a prime spot opening for the perfect exercise in pop marketing – Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour. Joy’s approach to songwriting can be intentionally formulaic and accessible to a lowest common denominator audience, not deviating from the song structures or content that is expected.

Joy went bigger on this project without altering too much of what got him here in the first place, and despite the lingering feeling that we’re simply being presented with a cookie-cutter “wholesome” façade, there’s enough underlying talent that it doesn’t matter much.

Favourite Tracks: Lay It On Me, We’re Going Home, Alone With Me, I’m With You, One of These Days

Least Favourite Track: Call If You Need Me

Score: 7/10

Tory-lanez-memories-don't-die.jpgTory Lanez – MEMORIES DON’T DIE

Toronto singer and rapper Tory Lanez’ second studio album, MEMORIES DON’T DIE, is just as overlong and derivative as his debut project I Told You. For someone who has had numerous conflicts with fellow Torontonian Drake in the past, his emulation of his processes and formulas on this project is surprising. While the production on this album can certainly save a few of its tracks, too often we return to uninspired piggybacking on OVO trends such as the fake dancehall tracks, Lanez possessing a small fraction of the charisma that allows Drake to pull it off.

Most of the album is backed up by the same spacey, moody R&B instrumentals and trap beats that can be found on every artist riding this new wave’s projects. Lanez is a much more engaging rapper than he is a singer, although even this comes with its clear influences from others – “Benevolent” is just a better than average Drake track with its soul flip and entrancing dark trap instrumental. Worse, Lanez has the audacity to suggest that others are copying HIM on “Old Friends x New Foes”. His singing can be overly indulgent, slowing songs down and contributing to the extensive runtime of the project. He does mix the two together, like another larger artist we might all know, but he can’t pull off the disinterested, barely trying attitude that makes these kind of mixed vocalizations sound listenable. He sounds downright obnoxious on a track like “Shooters”, falling off the tone at the end of his sentences and confusing his Auto-Tune machine. Lanez’ delivery doesn’t feel genuine or natural at times either, often adopting a higher, strained baby voice to accompany the fake accent he uses on dancehall tracks like “Skrt Skrt” and “4 Me”.

Certain tracks do possess some more interesting musical deviations in the instrumental. “48 Floors” is one of the catchiest tracks here, mostly thanks to a melodic panflute instrumental from lesser-known producer Mansa that blends well with Lanez’ repetitive earworm of a hook, while Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat’s trademark atmospheric pop style fits surprisingly well on “Hypnotized”. Still, tracks like “Real Thing”, with a pretty energetic trap beat, can still be pulled down by Lanez’ substandard delivery. The string of features near the albums’ tail end didn’t seem to put in much effort, with the exception of 50 Cent, who can still drop an engaging verse. NAV, Fabolous and Wiz Khalifa are just as inept as usual, however.

Tory Lanez doesn’t do anything on this project that isn’t done more effectively somewhere else. His team does everything they can to mask the fact that his personality is rather indistinct, but MEMORIES DON’T DIE falls flat.

Favourite Tracks: 48 Floors, Hypnotized, B.I.D.

Least Favourite Track: Shooters

Score: 3/10

Image result for planet tech n9neTech N9ne – Planet

Prolific independent rapper Tech N9ne releases yet another in a long string of albums over the past few years. Although he is heralded by his lightning-fast “chopper” style that raises him high above most rappers in terms of technical skill, his lyrics and attempts to mix his work with other genres have often left something to be desired. Tech N9ne always has the capacity to surprise the listener with his ability even after so many years, but his albums are often a mixed bag of quality and Planet is no different.

Planet opens strong with “Habanero”, featuring a catchy chorus from one of the Strange Music label’s most promising young artists in Mackenzie N Tech doesn’t go all out on his verses here, but his boasts are a good intro the album displaying a small portion of his technical ability and deferring most of the song’s staying power to Nicole. The album wakes up in full on the track “Don’t Nobody Want None”, where Tech pays homage to his roots as a breakdancer with an old-school 80s breakbeat that fits his slightly goofy persona perfectly. Hearing Tech’s chopper flow over a beat that was never supposed to accommodate it is absolutely impressive. “Bad JuJu” might be Tech’s strongest vocal performance on the album, and King Iso’s feature is just as mindblowingly speedy. Closing track “We Won’t Go Quietly” might be Tech at his career best, an incredibly powerful track where Tech addresses racism and the extreme political divide preventing artists from stating their true feelings over uplifting piano chords. What might have gotten my attention the most, however, is how strong the transitions are between tracks on this album, flowing into each other seamlessly in a surprising way due to the many genres the album attempts to span. It’s impossible to notice the tracks skipping over here.

One thing Tech has done more in recent years is show an affinity for metal music, even collaborating with members of Slipknot and System of a Down. While these have been an interesting contrast to his music, Tech’s attempts on his own to scream like a metal frontman over some harder, guitar-driven beats have often proven awkward at best. Tech doesn’t have the lyrical skill to go as cinematic and grandiose as he does on tracks like “Brightfall” either, complemented by full-blown operatic choirs as he speaks about his complicated relationship with religion. Tech’s lyricism is often affected by his desire to spit so quickly, due to having to find so many words to rhyme as the lyrics fly by and simply finding a word that fits the rhyme scheme much better than the narrative. Tech also inexplicably adopts something of a country accent on the obnoxious hook of “Kick It With Myself”, previewing the later “Not a Damn Thing”, where it returns in a messy genre clash between the harder verses and harmonized chorus. 20 albums in, it’s tough not to repeat as well, and “Comfortable” is basically a retread of one of Tech’s biggest hits in “Fragile”, criticizing broadcast media rather than print this time.

It’s undeniable that Tech N9ne is and has been one of the most technically gifted rappers in the industry, but so many other aspects surrounding his music could use better execution. When it comes together perfectly, it creates something very powerful, but that’s becoming more of a rare occurrence later in his career.

Favourite Tracks: We Won’t Go Quietly, Don’t Nobody Want None, Bad JuJu, Never Stray

Least Favourite Track: Kick It With Myself

Score: 5/10