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.

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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.

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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

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Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldTravis Scott’s third album, ASTROWORLD, firmly cements himself in the pantheon of today’s rap superstars with a project where he does everything expected of him and then adds a little more creative flair on top. Of course, nobody is looking to Scott for a work of art, and he delivers fully on a fun and enjoyable summer rap album. While it may not be his best album yet, it’s certainly his most risky, and comes with a truly impressive selection of guests that elevate Scott’s performance to another level entirely. It’s definitely a huge step up from the mundane and disinterested Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (2016), and it’s great to see what Scott can produce when he slows down his speedy release schedule for the first time.

As soon as that fuzzy bassline hits for the first time on opening track “STARGAZING”, we’ve stepped into Scott’s sonic conceptualization of his childhood favourite Houston theme park, since demolished. It’s a frequently surprising and always psychedelic, a magical dreamscape of a place. We hear the sound of a rollercoaster about to drop as the beat completely switches up to this frantic rising synthline as Scott explains the inspiration behind the dedication to the theme park with an expressive, capable flow. The beat switch is a great tactic for Scott, as it shows up again on standout “SICKO MODE”, where Scott and Drake essentially just play around on various incredible instrumentals from Hit-Boy and Tay Keith – Drake brings the same kind of flow he does on Scorpion track “Nonstop”, but the fuller instrumental here, the bass hitting that much harder, is so much more accommodating to him. He actually sounds like he’s having fun! Scott’s deep, slightly melodic voice manages to find the catchiest flow it possibly can on the middle section as well, but this is Drake’s song, and it’s surprisingly all the better for it.

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The experimentation continues on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”, a complete artistic deviation and triumph for Scott that sees him pull from disparate musical worlds to create something completely unique. The pleasant, breathy hook where the title is repeated is backed up by ethereal hums from Kid Cudi, Scott’s Auto-Tuned singing voice in complete command of the slower instrumental – as the track goes on, we get (seriously) some dynamic harmonica solos from STEVIE WONDER, and a final harmonized section from James Blake that’s the most beautiful moment on this whole project. Of course, Scott has no shortage of blistering club tracks either. His quicker flow on moody trap cut “NO BYSTANDERS”, featuring an incendiary hook from newcomer Sheck Wes, is the greatest technical showcase here, and I love how well it complements that quickly oscillating synth noise that comes in in the second half of his verses. “5% TINT” might be my favourite instrumental here, an off-kilter piano loop that sounds like something out of a spooky children’s show, while “CAN’T SAY” is a classic anthemic Scott hook in the vein of a “Goosebumps” or “Antidote”. The Weeknd appears for a feature on “WAKE UP”, framed by a lazy acoustic guitar sample and trap hi-hats as the two get lost in lustful thoughts as only they do, the two trading verses cleanly.

Scott’s genre-hopping is pretty impressive, even if not everything sticks completely. Across the tracklisting, he additionally pays homage to the legendary DJ Screw on “RIP SCREW” with the chopped and screwed, calmer style of R&B-influenced hip-hop he helped pioneer, brings jazz bassist Thundercat and John Mayer together for the wildly spacey and psychedelic “ASTROTHUNDER” and recruits indie band Tame Impala to produce the shimmering interlude “SKELETONS”, which also features vocals from The Weeknd and Pharrell. While none of these tracks are the most structurally cohesive, as I personally am usually looking for something more present from Scott, I seriously have to admire that he managed to pull tracks like these off to some degree of success. Even the closing track, “COFFEE BEAN”, sees Scott’s voice at his all-time clearest, taking the more subdued route of a storyteller rapper for the first time as he speaks out about concerns he had with dating Kylie Jenner as a black man thrust so fully into the private eye, even mentioning that her family had advised against it.

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As a whole, however, ASTROWORLD suffers from the same curse most mainstream rap albums do these days, decreasing noticeably in quality as the album continues and extends to 17 tracks in length. Most of the songs in the back half don’t possess the same degree of experimentation that each one of the preceding tracks do, sounding like relics of Scott’s past work just as most of Birds did. The lack of polish is evident on a track like “YOSEMITE”, which features some inexcusable mixing problems that undermine a pretty catchy guitar instrumental, while the Migos-featuring “WHO? WHAT!” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” don’t have the immediately catchy hooks that I usually expect from a Scott track, sounding like Scott running out of ideas and opting for streaming numbers instead of the best album he could make. The existence of “BUTTERFLY EFFECT”, a mediocre Auto-Tuned trap cut which was released in May 2017, demonstrates how much less thought went into the back half of the tracklist.

Ultimately, Scott succeeds at painting a vivid picture of the park he loved so much, each of these tracks representing a different ride – “CAROUSEL”, “SICKO MODE” the rollercoaster, “5% TINT” the haunted house … ASTROWORLD represents a similar kind of exhilarating, fleeting joy, a little cheap, but that’s what we all signed up for and expected anyway. I certainly had a great summer day in Astroworld.

Favourite Tracks: SICKO MODE, STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, WAKE UP, 5% TINT, NO BYSTANDERS

Least Favourite Track: BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Justin Timberlake, Black Panther, Rich Brian)

I’ve been pretty busy lately with midterms and the Olympics but a couple of these rapid fire posts should get things back on track!

The cover image features two images of a male, edited to appear as one. Top-diagonal-half image features male in all-black suit and white undershirt, in a snow-covered wooded area. Bottom-diagonal-half image features male in ripped blue jeans, flannel button down shirt in a smog-filled wooded area. Below this title: MAN OF THE WOODS, appears in capitalised handwritten print.Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Timberlake’s fifth studio album and his first in five years follows one of the best pop albums of the decade with a confusing amalgamation of genres and a striking musical deviation into a territory that is a markedly poor fit for the r&b inflections his voice naturally possesses. Inspired by the birth of his son and described as “Americana with 808s”, Man Of The Woods still possesses moments where the talent we all know Timberlake has cuts through the misguided decisions in production, put for the most part tries to do too much and appeal to every music listener, losing its sense of self in the process.

The main problem the album has is its lack of direction. Lead single “Filthy” alone runs through three clashing sections, all seemingly jumping on trends of the past that have overstayed their welcome – and it doesn’t even have any of the country-folk flavour that colours about half of the project. While I can often be a proponent of blending genres together in an experimental fashion, Timberlake’s exaggerated country accent and campfire-song acoustic melodies just don’t work with the trap beats and synth-bass here. Timbaland’s production has been unsure of itself for a while now, but dragging Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes into this was a truly strange choice. He does his best with what he is given, but this style of music simply isn’t his forte.

Timberlake’s lyricism is noticeably weaker here as well, abandoning the suave wittiness of his romantic come-ons for ready-made phrases and Internet lingo, seemingly trying too hard to become a meme or catch the attention of a certain demographic by pandering. It just makes him appear disingenuous – people were appropriately outraged at the buzzword titles at the back end of this tracklist. This ingenuity extends to the instrumentals, it’s as if nobody working on this project is actually aware of the reality of the trends they emulate here. Many of the country elements here are stereotypical and derivative twangy guitar loops that haven’t been in fashion for a long time for a reason. His r&b vocals clash with the obnoxious “country” guitar pattern on “Sauce”, for example. He can certainly save a few of these weird decisions with his charisma and talent – the title track has some impressive harmonies and fun, goofy delivery that’s just campy enough to fit – but for the most part it’s a very confusing listen.

Unsurprisingly, the best moments on this album are it’s most traditionally r&b tracks, at times sounding like Timberlake is trying to recapture some of his earliest work rather than the neo-soul of 20/20 Experience. “Higher, Higher” is a solid old-school r&b track with a catchy guitar pattern that sounds like it could have fit perfectly on Justified, while his duet with Alicia Keys, “Morning Light”, is easily the best track here. The two complement each other well, Timberlake giving us those vocal runs he holds back for the rest of the album. The slight country flavour fits better here, as a meandering, lazy guitar line slinks through the slower bassline and accentuates the two lovers’ sweet words as they lie in bed in the morning. Co-written with Chris Stapleton, it’s got his real, heartfelt soul that the rest is devoid of.

I just … sincerely can’t believe that the song “Flannel” exists. It sounds like if you put a trap beat on the “F.U.N.” song from Spongebob. For someone with so much natural ability this is certainly a huge disappointment, especially for how long it took in between albums. Let’s hope he rights the ship, and it doesn’t take as long this time.

Favourite Tracks: Morning Light, Higher Higher, Man Of The Woods

Least Favourite Track: Supplies

Score: 3/10

Black Panther - The Album.pngTop Dawg Entertainment – Black Panther Soundtrack

Kendrick Lamar and the rest of his label step up to curate the soundtrack to one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, and while the soundtrack format and the commercialization of many of these songs to fit within Marvel’s easily accessible narratives hold it back from the narrative complexity of one of the label’s great albums, it’s impossible to deny all of the talent assembled here and the refreshing African flavour of the tracklist, recruiting some artists from the continent itself.

These artists frequently come much harder than I would ever expect them to on a soundtrack, giving us a number of tracks that could easily stand out on their own. Kendrick appears in at least a very small capacity on each of these tracks, but he certainly makes his presence felt. TDE in-house producer Sounwave is behind most of these beats, and he’s on the top of his game as usual – “X” is one of the greatest rap beats I’ve heard in a long time, and Kendrick’s quotable hook and hilarious, dynamic verses from ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz make the track an obvious highlight. Kendrick’s curation shows that he knows the right artists to put together as well – “The Ways” doesn’t really fit in with most of the album, but the adorable r&b exchanges between Khalid and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee as they long for a “power girl” are cheesy and endearing in the best possible way – the two complement each other very well. And while we’re talking about great teams, Kendrick and Travis Scott link up once again on “Big Shot”, as they dismiss their foes in the carefree and instantly iconic way that only they could.

One of the project’s greatest strengths, however, is the showcasing of smaller artists that give the project its unique sound. African artists, particularly Saudi on “X” and Sjava on “Seasons” deliver most of their verses in Zulu, the instrumentals emulating the popular heavy percussion of African music and channelling the spirit of Wakanda. “Opps” is an absolutely insane, dark and grinding instrumental. “Paramedic!”, featuring a DJ Dahi beat and rising rap group SOBxRBE, is another highly energetic, personality-driven track

I think we finally found something Kendrick Lamar can’t do – on opening track “Black Panther” he tries his hand at production for the first time and the juxtaposition of tones on the brief track just comes across as way too jarring despite his technical dexterity on top. There are quite a few moments on this project when its clear that Kendrick and others are holding back a bit from creating the creative, thought-provoking material we know they are capable of, but I appreciate this for what it is. Even so, Kendrick doesn’t have his typical urgency in his verse on “All The Stars”, not measuring up to SZA’s virtuosic chorus, while tracks like “I Am” and “Bloody Waters” are similarly watered down and the rap verses from individuals like Jay Rock can be underwritten – this isn’t their own, well-crafted work and the effort level can show it at times.

While many soundtracks can seem entirely phoned in and commercialized in the pursuit of a radio hit or two, not many have Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment behind them. The phoned in version of these artists are still sitting firmly at the peak of culture right now, and what better way to show it than with the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther.

Favourite Tracks: X, Paramedic!, Pray For Me, King’s Dead, The Ways

Least Favourite Track: I Am

Score: 8/10

Amen RichBrian.jpgRich Brian – Amen

The viral 18-year-old Indonesian rapper drops his debut album – and his previous controversial name – and displays his unique artistry and approach to the genre across a full-length project for the first time. Produced almost entirely by himself, Brian accommodates his deadpan, slightly comedic delivery with some spacey, synth-oriented beats that draw more attention to his words. While this lack of variation in his delivery and similarity across a few tracks withhold it from being truly great, Brian’s legitimate technical skill, great personality and unique production makes Amen an impressive debut.

The project opens strong with “Amen” and “Cold” – the first of which just introducing us briefly to his surprising level of technical prowess for someone who exploded onto the scene with a song like “Dat Stick”, while “Cold” sees everything click into place at the same time for him – the instrumental sounds like it comes from a 90s video game, Brian’s cadence and the off-kilter production reminding me of some of the best work on Tyler, The Creator’s latest project. When the beat drops and you hear just that little bit of extra spark in Brian’s voice it’s a refreshing sonic experience – nobody is doing it particularly like this.

“Introvert” is another great track that shows off Brian’s unique production style – it is calming and chilled, yet so appropriate for when he starts rapping some outlandish punchlines on top. An appearance from Joji – or as you may know him, YouTube’s Filthy Frank – only increases the early-Gambino kind of quality to the music. It’s funny and endearing, but there’s not a particular, overt reason why – this is just a talented guy who learned how to rap through the Internet and is having fun as his exposure peaks. There’s something about his cadence that is aggressive and percussive even though it is quiet and reserved, and when it links up with these hi-hat-infused beats it just goes ridiculously hard, all the while he’s dropping jokes about everything from ISIS to The Incredibles. Brian’s carefree and unexpected lyricism is another highlight, showcasing exactly who he is for the project’s full runtime.

Some tracks, such as “Glow Like Dat”, feature more of an r&b approach, toning back the rap percussion and letting Brian’s ethereal instrumentals dominate. Brian’s intentionally sleepier approach to his bars doesn’t translate as well to his singing, going a bit too off-key to be enjoyable. Across 14 tracks as well, some of these songs begin to sound too similar to counterparts in the album’s earlier stages – even something as early as “Trespass” is the same style of trap banger with a moderately straight, monotone flow he had already demonstrated 2 or 3 times, quickly becoming forgettable. It’s certainly a trademark artistic choice that makes him stand out – but this flow can only take you so far across a full project. Someone like 21 Savage only stands out as contrast to someone more energetic.

More variation in his cadence and flows would benefit Brian well in the future, but at the moment we have to remember he is still only 18 – and this much of a fully defined artistic vision is quite impressive for someone as self-taught as Brian is.

Favourite Tracks: Cold, See Me, Kitty, Attention, Introvert

Least Favourite Track: Glow Like Dat

Score: 7/10