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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BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2018

Music in 2018 can be mostly defined by the continued rise in prominence of hip-hop, taking over from rock as the most listened to genre for the first time. As both a rather limitless, rule-free form creatively and a way to express protest, almost every genre drew elements from hip-hop this year. We also got a huge number of high-profile releases as the album form slowly evaporates and artists become more prolific. A Spotify playlist of this list is linked at the bottom of the article!

Here are my favourite songs from the huge tide of great music we got this year.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – a lot (Ft. J. Cole)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Party For One
  • The Carters – SUMMER
  • The Decemberists – Sucker’s Prayer
  • Denzel Curry – SWITCH IT UP | ZWITCH 1T UP
  • Johnny Balik – Honey
  • Lil Wayne – Dedicate
  • Migos – Narcos
  • ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Saudi & Kendrick Lamar – X
  • Vince Staples – FUN!

50. Mac Miller – 2009

Image result for mac miller swimmingThe last song Mac Miller ever performed live, his look back on his career and personal growth over some uplifting piano chords took on an added level of meaning after his passing.

49. Hozier – Nina Cried Power (Ft. Mavis Staples)

Hozier recruits one of the greatest to pay tribute to artists who recorded impactful protest songs throughout history, backed up by some soulful choral vocals.

48. Twenty One Pilots – Morph

Image result for twenty one pilots trenchThe band finally perfects their manic genre-mixing, creating a rollercoaster of a track that flawlessly shifts through eerie rap verses, an 80s pop chorus and even some tropical house elements.

47. The Internet – Hold On

Image result for the internet hive mindA 6-minute slow burn, Steve Lacy’s instantly recognizable guitar work is entrancing throughout as Syd’s soothing vocals complete the picture.

46. Maggie Rogers – Light On

HIIAPL Maggie Rogers.jpgSuperproducer Greg Kurstin strikes again with an exciting rising star, as Rogers blends her near-gospel sensibilities with a more traditionally structured pop track.

45. Hayley Kiyoko – Curious

Image result for hayley kiyoko expectationsFeaturing a pretty perfectly structured pop chorus, Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals stuck with me throughout the whole year.

44. Amy Shark – The Slow Song

Image result for amy shark love monsterAmy Shark’s incredibly specific yet overwhelmingly relatable lyrics, in combination with her blend of hip-hop influenced beats with her softer singer/songwriter tone, reach their peak on this emotional ode to looking out at that one person across the dance floor.

43. Anderson .Paak – Cheers (Ft. Q-Tip)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardOn the closing track of  .Paak’s Oxnard, he teams up with the capable Q-Tip to reminisce on good times with their recently departed friends – Mac Miller and Phife Dawg – over some hard-hitting synth-funk chords.

42. Pusha T – The Games We Play

Image result for daytona pusha tI could never get tired of the griminess in Pusha T’s vocal delivery. His energy is in top form here, dropping non-stop bars of  vivid imagery and clever wordplay.

41. Joji – SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK

Image result for joji ballads 1A complete evolution from the former absurdist comedian, Joji’s take on the current trend of moody alt-R&B features some absolutely beautiful and explosive digitized synth tones that support his emotionally charged delivery.

40. BROCKHAMPTON – NEW ORLEANS

Image result for iridescenceThe rap collective opens their first major label studio album with a bang. The off-the-wall group trade some equally bombastic verses over a supercharged instrumental.

39. Nao – Another Lifetime

Image result for nao saturnRecorded after a breakup, hearing this much genuine emotion in Nao’s usually calm and collected vocal tone is incredibly moving as she sings about the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime connection.

38. Bas – Purge

Image result for bas milky wayOne of my biggest growers this year, the Dreamville rapper’s speedy flow and switch-ups are top-notch as he easily navigates through an entertaining and soulful sample flip.

37. Ariana Grande – God is a woman

Image result for sweetener coverWhen I saw the video for the first time I became convinced that this would slowly grow into one of Grande’s most memorable career songs years down the road. The choral ending of this track is truly transcendent.

36. Kero Kero Bonito – Make Believe

Image result for kero kero bonito time n placeOne of the most similar tracks to their earlier work on the experimental pop collective’s latest, heavier project, Sarah Bonito’s adorable voice is at its best over some colourful and animated synth tones.

35. James Bay – Pink Lemonade

Image result for james bay album coverAn energetic retro-pop track featuring Bay’s new, more upbeat style over some crunchy guitars and a conclusion with some seriously catchy harmonized chants.

34. BTS – Paradise

Image result for bts love yourself tearWestern pop music watch out – the K-pop invasion is coming over quickly. The wildly popular boy band applies some aspects of 90s West Coast hip-hop to this track.

33. Jack White – Corporation

Image result for jack white boarding house reachA lengthy, mostly instrumental monster of a track – I was so happy to observe White doing something so  innovative and different with the rock and roll format. This is White at his most theatrical, embodying some sort of deranged preacher.

32. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – Reborn

Image result for kids see ghosts“Keep moving forward”. The centrepiece of the spectacular Kids See Ghosts album, Kanye West and Kid Cudi lean on each other for support as they discuss their respective mental health issues.

31. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel

Image result for dirty computerFeaturing a guitar riff produced by Prince himself, Janelle Monae proves she’s the closest living artist with this slick and sensual synth-funk track.

30. J. Cole – Kevin’s Heart

Image result for kod j coleOn an album where J. Cole talks about the dangers of giving yourself over to various addictions, love proves the strongest drug of all as Cole embodies a character struggling with fidelity – with a fun videogame-esque beat and some serious technical skill to back it up.

29. Lauren Jauregui – Expectations

Image result for lauren jauregui expectationsThe ex-Fifth Harmony member sounds like a young Alicia Keys over a minimal beat that places the spotlight on her impressive and emotional vocal showcase. How great would her boyfriend Ty Dolla $ign sound on this soulful track??

28. Blood Orange – Saint

Image result for negro swanThe producer extraordinaire goes in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, offering a complex and jazzy musical world amplified by some great gospel-tinged harmonies – “doing the most”, as the album’s powerful theme puts it.

27. Charlie Puth – Empty Cups

Image result for charlie puth voicenotesThe song that never left my head all year, this is just a smartly structured, bouncy 90s R&B chorus from the classically trained pop singer who really surprised me this year.

26. Mitski – Nobody

Image result for mitski be the cowboyIndie-pop singer-songwriter Mitski’s voice already sounds like it belongs to another era, and the near-disco, overly energetic flavour of the instrumental here, in stark contrast with Mitski’s lyrics nearly losing her mind due to loneliness, completes the retro-pop image.

25. Cardi B – I Like It (Ft. Bad Bunny & J Balvin)

Image result for cardi b invasion of privacyLatin trap exploded into the mainstream this year, and none harnessed it better than Cardi B, recruiting two of the genre’s biggest stars. Cardi’s aggressive flow never fails to enliven me, and that sample flip is a great added touch.

24. Kim Petras – Heart To Break

Image result for kim petras heart to breakAn all-out bubblegum pop extravaganza. Petras hits some seriously impressive notes on the chorus, but the whole song moves along with this irresistible driving energy that’s hard to ignore.

23. RL Grime – Take It Away (Ft. Ty Dolla $ign & TK Kravitz)

Image result for rl grime novaI was sent to another dimension the first time I heard the drop on this track. Those deafening, steadily growing synths and well-placed silences makes it feel like someone is repeatedly firing up some kind of generator. Ty Dolla $ign is always more than capable on the mic as well.

22. Kacey Musgraves – High Horse

Image result for golden hour kacey musgravesThe country artist’s poppiest song yet, we all know someone like this song’s subject. Musgraves blends the slightest of country aspects in the instrumental with an 80s dance beat and some sharp harmonies.

21. Robyn – Because It’s In The Music

Image result for robyn honeyThe Swedish pop savant has always found the perfect way to encapsulate the feeling of crying on the dance floor, partying the pain away, and this track is no exception. The track feels like an escape, easy to get lost in the inviting musical world.

20. Ella Mai – Trip

Image result for ella mai album coverThe piano-heavy R&B track brings a classic sound back in a big way, Mai’s effortless and silky-smooth vocals commanding your attention. Something about that staccato phrasing in the hook makes the track irresistably catchy.

19. Anderson .Paak – Tints (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for oxnard album coverTwo of the most charismatic artists in the industry link up for this paranoid and humorous funk track where .Paak just wants some privacy. I absolutely love songwriter Tayla Parx’s contribution to the harmonized outro – her discography this year alone is incredible.

18. Janelle Monae – Screwed (Ft. Zoe Kravitz)

Image result for dirty computerA call for a final party before the bomb drops, this might be the most overtly political track on an already defiant and revolutionary album. The track’s title serves as a poignant double entendre, Monae sounding like she’s having the time of her life in the studio over some shiny guitar riffs.

17. Nas – Cops Shot The Kid (Ft. Kanye West)

Image result for nasirThe cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot-

16. DRAM – Best Hugs

Image result for dram that's a girls nameThe most lovable guy in the music industry is back to steal your girl – the one with the incredible hugs – and criticize you for letting her get away. My most listened-to song of the year, it’s the combination of ridiculousness and legitimately great musicality that only DRAM can pull off.

15. Camila Cabello – Consequences

Image result for camila album coverOof. This song hit me right in the feels from the first time I heard it, a sparse piano ballad where Cabello offers some deeply personal lyrics about the end of a relationship where her trust was broken beyond repair. The orchestral version released as a single just brought the tears back in full force.

14. Denzel Curry – SUMO | ZUMO

Image result for denzel ta13ooThe sheer force with which Denzel screams that second introductory “OKAY?!” signals just what kind of a punishing track lies ahead. Heavy bass rattles as the horrorcore rapper goes to work with his dexterous flow. Charlie Heat is one of the best rap producers in the game.

13. SOPHIE – Faceshopping

Image result for oil of every pearl's un-insidesI’m just now realizing that I shouldn’t have put these two tracks beside each other. Another track out to unleash a full frontal assault on the listener, the experimental producer’s work is constantly disorienting, yet connected by a recognizable, pop-influenced thread, represented here by a rhythmically spoken – and likely sarcastic – ode to materialism.

12. Troye Sivan – Dance To This (Ft. Ariana Grande)

Image result for troye sivan bloomAnother track with an unreasonable amount of plays on my personal Spotify this year, Ariana Grande tones down her usually powerhouse vocals to match the subtle yet powerful approach of Australian pop artist Troye Sivan. A perfect slow dance song straight out of the 80s, that synth hook that introduces the song makes it a grower.

11. Childish Gambino – This Is America

Image result for this is america artworkEven without the brilliant and viral music video associated with the track, Childish Gambino’s views on the state of the world presented through the intentionally inane and distracting lens of trap music is still one of the most important statements of the year – even if I wish the standalone song still had those gunshots in it.

10. Kali Uchis – Flight 22

Image result for kali uchis isolationKali Uchis has often stated that she draws heavy inspiration from Amy Winehouse, and it’s never more evident than on this track. A downtempo track that verges on dreampop, the twinkling keys and string section highlight her smooth and sensual vocal inflections.

9. Pusha T – If You Know You Know

Image result for pusha t daytonaI knew I was in for something mindblowing with the Daytona album when this was the opening track. Featuring some of the most quotable lines of the year and a crisp, chopped-up guitar sample from Kanye West, Pusha T is absolutely out for blood on this one and he doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

8. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

Image result for thank u nextAriana Grande has been having a horrible year – and this was the most brilliant way possible to address it in song form. Recorded only a few months after her Sweetener album, Grande speaks out about how she’s learned from the pain and come out better for it, thanking each one of her ex-lovers for the person she’s become. But of course, we still need that dismissive and cathartic “next”.

7. Travis Scott – SICKO MODE (Ft. Drake)

Image result for astroworldThe fact that this disjointed, endlessly creative track became a #1 hit single is nothing short of amazing. Most of Travis Scott’s latest work is as chaotic and disorienting as the amusement park it’s inspired by, and this endlessly fun rap track shifts through 3 completely different segments as Scott keeps things lively with an energetic flow. For all the average work he’s put out this year, Drake absolutely steals the show with his verse.

6. Kanye West – Ghost Town (Ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kid Cudi & 070 Shake)

Image result for ye album coverIt’s impossible not to feel something when new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake arrives on the outro of the track with her repeated and earnest mantra about freedom, breaking free from the pack. I can only imagine the experience singing it live with a crowd. The classic soul sample flip provides an excellent backbone to the track as well, West delivering some of the best singing he’s done in his career on his verse.

5. Kacey Musgraves – Rainbow

Image result for kacey musgraves golden hourI’ve always loved the complete purity in Kacey Musgraves’ vocals – she definitely has one of my favourite voices in the industry right now. The closer to her excellent Golden Hour is a lower-key track that highlights just how much emotion she can put into it as well, and it never fails to make me tear up just a little. A bittersweet track, Musgraves sings to someone who is incapable of seeing all the love they have around them.

4. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

Image result for rina sawayama cherryThe best pure pop song of the year, the always eccentric Rina Sawayama once again recruits experimental producer Clarence Clarity for an upbeat and endlessly layered track where Sawayama can’t contain her desire. Her dedication to taking the sound of early 2000s pop and modernizing it in a huge way is so engaging, those chords so familiar but twisted in such a new way as well. Every instrumental aspect of this track is a maddeningly catchy hook in and of itself.

3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – 4th Dimension

Image result for kids see ghostsWhere does Kanye find these samples? One of the most creative sample flips I’ve ever heard, this was easily the standout on one of the year’s best albums as West completely refigures a Christmas song from the 1930s for his own purposes, isolating the part of the track that has the most untapped energy and applying a driving, tribal rhythm overtop. Kid Cudi doesn’t often spit a purely rap verse, but he more than keeps up with West here.

2. Amy Shark – Don’t Turn Around

Image result for amy shark love monsterIt’s shocking how singer-songwriter Amy Shark can describe such a detailed, specific scenario in her songs that still comes across as so relatable, to the tune of some smartly written pop melodies. Shark keeps getting into situations where she’s forced to see her ex, simultaneously imagining a future whirlwind reconnection and frantically telling herself to just let it go. Some of my favourite lyrical content of the year, Shark’s unassuming vocal delivery fits the picture while her strummed acoustic chords are warm and easy to return to.

1. Janelle Monae – I Like That

Image result for dirty computerMy favourite track off of Dirty Computer, it represents the culmination of all the powerful statements of self-assertion Monae delivers across the project. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs” might be my favourite song lyric of all time. Monae might not be for everybody, but she couldn’t care less – deviation from the norm is exactly where she belongs, and if she’s the only one on board with what she’s putting forward, then that’s perfectly fine. Monae sounds effortlessly cool on the track, delivering some impressive vocal runs and even a rap verse addressing a school bully, and the repeated backup vocal line is just the perfect set of soulful chords that keeps me returning. Keep doing what you do best, Janelle.

That’s the music that got me through this year, stay tuned for my Top 25 albums of the year on Friday, when we’ll say “thank u, next” to the music of 2018.

Check out this list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/6abpgfxueTZr6FspGVIHyE

XXXTENTACION – SKINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

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

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (James Bay, BTS, Pusha T)

Image result for james bay electric lightJames Bay – Electric Light

James Bay completely revamps his image on sophomore album Electric Light, linking up with Adele producer Paul Epworth to take his music in a much poppier direction, while still maintaining the soulful, almost gospel-influenced delivery that lent itself well to his stirring rock ballads. The transition isn’t always seamless, the album coming across as quite a mixed bag at times, the songs containing a lot of raw power that doesn’t always fall perfectly into the structure of a song. But when Bay settles into a groove, his delivery stands out among his contemporaries.

Opening track “Wasted On Each Other” is a pretty good representation of what we’re going to get over the rest of the album, Bay introducing the chorus with some falsetto vocals and a steadily building synth line before his heavier guitars and powerful delivery cascades back in too quickly. Bay doesn’t have the greatest grasp of his strengths on the project, offering some spectacular moments inconsistently. Many of these tracks are perfectly fine, but they could be a lot more as demonstrated by standout tracks like “Pink Lemonade” and the incredible gospel harmonies on “Fade Out” that feel so much more natural than the digitally altered companions “Wild Love” and “In My Head”. The latter especially feels like it’s teetering right on the edge of being something incredible, never reaching it. The sparse, passionate chorus feels immediately anthemic and iconic, but it’s brought down by abrupt shifts in energy and out-of-place pop synths. It feels like three genres collide awkwardly on the majority of the tracks, and when he focuses on a single one, he shines every time. Single “Pink Lemonade” is an energetic retro-pop track, driven by a prominent bass riff and a harmonized chorus. The crunchy guitars and electronic elements make the track chaotic in the best way, most of the musical elements dropping out near the track’s conclusion to showcase that standout voice before the drums roll back in for the dramatic conclusion.

For someone who seems so desperate for a change in his perception across the project, the most characteristically Bay songs frequently stand out, adding enough of a change with the fuller instrumentation while maintaining the things that make him a unique artist. “Us” is a beautifully-written gospel piano ballad, a choir backing him up as he returns to the intimate, confessional songwriting that drew him notice in the first place. Closing track “Slide”, as well, is a much quieter song detailing the rediscovery of love after the end of another relationship – and Bay’s ability to convey emotion absolutely sells it with every tiny warble and trill. But if there’s one thing he’s consistently incredible at, its the ability to write a dynamic and stirring chorus. “Just For Tonight” is another larger-than-life harmonized track that brings back the fuzzy guitars and coasts on its own energy.

Bay essentially performs a reverse Harry Styles here, shifting from cheesy rock to universally appealing pop rather than cheesy pop to universally appealing rock. In a similar way, he undergoes a dramatic shift to shed the image of the guy with the huge hat singing an acoustic rock ballad for something more ambitious and dynamic, citing Prince and Frank Ocean as influences, and overplays his hand. Still, the fact that about half of it works VERY well is incredible in and of itself.

Favourite Tracks: Pink Lemonade, Us, Slide, Fade Out

Least Favourite Track: Stand Up

Score: 6/10

Image result for love yourself tearBTS – Love Yourself: Tear

The staggering popularity of Korean boy-band BTS has become too great to ignore, the group debuting this album at #1 and receiving a Top 10 hit in the USA with their lead single “FAKE LOVE”. I didn’t know much about what to expect with this album, and I must say that BTS certainly exceeded my expectations. Love Yourself: Tear is a little erratic and trend-hopping due to the stronger focus on widespread commercial appeal in the K-pop market, but the interplay between the group’s many members and their inclusion of sounds from the 90s, even diving into some instrumentals that remind me of old-school West Coast hip-hop, make the project a lot of fun.

“FAKE LOVE” is a certified banger and absolutely deserves all of the success it’s getting. It introduces a lot of the 90s vibes of the album well, and it’s one of the rare occasions where the singers of the group steal the thunder from the rappers – those “just for you” backing vocals are delivered so well to support them, and there’s about three different hooks to get stuck in your head permanently here. RM, or Rap Monster, emerges as the true star of the group on most of the track he features on, however. “Anpanman” and especially “134340” clearly draw heavy inspiration from West Coast legends, RM sounding like he’s trying to emulate Snoop Dogg over the woodwind instrumental and G-funk tempo. His deep, laid-back vocals are effortless and distinctive from the group’s other rappers – and he has some seriously impressive technical skill as well, “Outro: Tear” verging on speedrap.

“Paradise” continues the streak, creating the most immediately catchy track here by adding a skittering trap beat to some classic 90s cascading synth chords and another chilled-out verse from another of the group’s rappers, Suga contrasting a pretty flawlessly written chorus melody. The producers here know exactly what they’re doing, and when you combine their dance ability with these catchy pop choruses and rap talent it’s easy to see why the group is such a worldwide phenomenon. There was never a popular boy-band quite this dynamic and versatile – the closest comparison being something of a much larger, male TLC. They try out a lot of styles across this project and succeed at most of them – I even love the enormous EDM breakdown on the cinematic, uptempo “Magic Shop”.

The project is carried by the energy generated by the group’s interplay and rapid-fire delivery, and the album does take a little while to get going in this regard. The intro, “Singularity”, and the Steve Aoki-produced “The Truth Untold” are both structured like a 90s slow jam, the singers of the group delivering passionate vocals over a waltz tempo, but knowing what I know now about the group I’m just waiting for RM to jump back on the mic and electrify the song. I can’t deny how well these tracks are produced, though – maybe this is a case of the language barrier stepping in. You can see the wheels of marketability turning behind the scenes a bit too much as well, a track like “Airplane pt.2” being a pretty watered-down imitation of the Latin pop explosion.

BTS have a lot of things going well for them, and it seems like the team around them know how to cater to those strengths. Love Yourself: Tear makes it impossible to deny the talent behind one of the world’s most popular acts.

Favourite Tracks: Paradise, 134340, FAKE LOVE, Outro: Tear, Magic Shop

Least Favourite Track: So What

Score: 7/10

Image result for daytona album coverPusha T – DAYTONA

I really thought I was going to be reviewing A$AP Rocky’s latest disappointing release TESTING here, but Pusha T’s victory over him in sales is incredibly exciting for everyone at G.O.O.D. Music and it means I have no excuse but to talk about it. DAYTONA is the first of five 7-track albums in superproducer and controversy magnet Kanye West’s ambitious plan to release back-to-back projects produced primarily by himself. With a ruthless and dominating mic presence like Pusha T, it means there is absolutely no room for filler and the shorter length works wonders, Pusha taking no prisoners for just over 20 minutes. West’s beats are as soulful as they’ve ever been, with a new cold and calculating edge that matches Pusha’s menacing sneer and ominous wordplay.

As Drake may have famously learned, Pusha T is not to be underestimated as a lyricist, or anything else – even if the subject material is mainly the same, he has some of the cleverest wordplay and cultural references in the game. The real appeal for me has always been the way he delivers the lines, however. Pusha T’s voice is very distinct, very expressive with its inflections yet remaining at the deeper tone we know him for that complements darker instrumentals so well. His ability to sound so happy, or surprised, or angry by raising his voice just a tiny bit allows him to issue threats to his enemies with a kind of demonic glee. The project opens with a great 1-2 punch in “If You Know You Know” and “The Games We Play”, which are a welcome return to classic Kanye production. The former chops up a piercing guitar wail into a syncopated hip-hop beat, but “The Games We Play” sounds like it’s directly off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, looping a catchy guitar riff with some cinematic horn stabs punctuating Pusha’s every gritty description of his drug-dealer past and yeugh ad-lib. It makes you feel like he puts everything he has into every single word he states, drawing out syllables and overpronouncing words to make sure we understand. We get the greatest display of commanding vocal presence on closing track “Infrared”, an incredibly thinly veiled shot at Drake and other members of what was once the Young Money label, accusing him of ghostwriting and losing his identity pandering to white audiences.

West’s production always succeeds both in bringing the absolute best out of Push and offering a bit of a counteraction to the non-stop verbal assault when necessary. “Come Back Baby” is the centerpiece of the album, Pusha T delivering a more basic flow that makes every word count over one of the most minimal beats here, not much more than two notes of creeping synth-bass, before the chorus transitions into a generous sample of soul singer George Jackson, a jarring shift to a completely different and catchy alternative that shouldn’t work as well as it does. West’s sample work is what he’s known for, and they show up on every single track here. “Hard Piano” has another great sampled chorus and looped, muted jazz piano that draws just enough attention as Pusha takes the spotlight – average Rick Ross feature aside. The beat switch in “Santeria”, the off-kilter soul organ picking the track back up from 070 Shake’s chilling, echoey vocals, is the best moment on the whole thing.

I almost want to say that the true star of the project is West, but that isn’t true at all – all the studio sessions in Wyoming resulted in a perfect fusion of their respective strengths. The beats are still characteristically West, but we’ve never really heard anything like this from him. Not incredibly different artists, Pusha accomplishes his aims through a no-nonsense approach where West might fall back on a joke, and the adaptation of his production style to a dark and straightforward approach gives Pusha T all the ammunition he needs to exert his dominance.

Favourite Tracks: If You Know You Know, Santeria, The Games We Play, Come Back Baby

Least Favourite Track: Hard Piano

Score: 9/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (blackbear, Fabolous/Jadakiss, Cyhi The Prynce)

Image result for no dope on sundaysCyhi The Prynce – No Dope On Sundays

GOOD Music rapper Cyhi the Prynce’s debut project has been delayed for years amongst label disputes, dropping a few promising verses on label boss Kanye West’s tracks along the way. No Dope On Sundays is the sound of an artist who has been waiting to express himself in the cohesive album format for a long time, stretching long past an hour in length as Cyhi exercises his old-school style on extensive verse after verse. Cyhi is not the most dynamic or engaging rapper in the world, his delivery is very laid back – his skills are clearly there, but such a long project without much variation causes me to lose interest quickly. There are certainly highlights here, however.

Some of Cyhi’s best moments come when he is able to play off of his guests – the title track “No Dope On Sundays” has a great choral sample from a late-60s psychedelic rock track, which transitions into a second half featuring producer Lex Luger’s trademark aggressive hi-hats and pianos and a verse from Pusha T, whose style most closely mirrors Cyhi’s. At its best, No Dope On Sundays is a reminder of the style of rap Kanye West popularized in the mid-2000s, heavily based on samples and focusing on gimmick-free, straight lyricism. “Murda” is the standout here, breaking up the monotony with a reggae sample from Ini Kamoze, Cyhi capitalizing on the laidback vibes perfectly. And of course, Kanye himself shows up on “Dat Side”, delivering a perfectly … well, Kanye verse. The quotable hook has Cyhi showing more personality than the rest of the project combined. Cyhi’s storytelling excels when you’re engaged enough to pay attention, even dropping a few clever one-liners and punchlines. A few spoken-word transitions reference Biblical passages, as Cyhi describes the juxtaposition of his life in the church and on the streets of Atlanta growing up.

Many of these tracks run far too long, quite a few extending past the 5-minute mark. Listening to the same instrumental, calmer than most rap beats of today, for so long without much variation in the vocal delivery can get tedious, especially on such a lengthy album. There are quite a few beat switches mid-track to keep things interesting, but these could have been organized better, often changing the energy completely. The hooks here could have been improved as well, too frequently delivered awkwardly by an auto-tuned Cyhi in the same cadence as his raps and failing to excite. Pitchfork’s review stated perfectly that Cyhi does “too much and too little at the same time”.

Favourite Tracks: Murda, Looking For Love, Dat Side, Nu Africa

Least Favourite Track: Don’t Know Why

Score: 6/10

Image result for blackbear cybersexblackbear – cybersex

Singer, rapper and producer blackbear’s second project this year is another solid collection of energetic and electronic spins on the current alt-R&B sound, as blackbear himself takes a step back on the production and invites a slew of guests, demonstrating his solidification of a place for himself in the music industry. While there is a lot less here of blackbear focusing on his greatest strengths, the project failing to reach the heights of digital druglord, cybersex is carried by blackbear’s quotable lyrics, still ruthless and overconfident, and innovative instrumentals.

blackbear only produces two tracks here, and while the others he invites on this project succeed at emulating his style most of the time, the instrumentals on some of these tracks can tend to divert back to generic trap territory at times, especially when blackbear opts to rap instead of sing on tracks such as “bright pink tims”. You should be able to tell a song is blackbear’s – nobody else is really in his lane of blending together EDM-style instrumentals and alt-R&B vocal sensibilities, and when his producer’s ear for melodies is lost these tracks become too derivative.

blackbear makes songs you want to sing along to – the braggadocio he imbued his first hit, Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”, with likely played a huge part at transitioning him into the superstar he is today, and when you combine these confident and carefree declarations with something like the underlying guitar riff and catchy melody on a track like “playboy s**t”, blackbear’s personality sells it easily. He almost sounds like he’s laughing while delivering these lines – “woke up rich”, “shout out to my wrist”. For the most part, the guests on this project deliver, blackbear found some kindred souls here – 2 Chainz and T-Pain don’t take themselves too seriously either, while Machine Gun Kelly delivers a feature verse much more engaging than his recent pop exploits. Some older rappers like Cam’ron and Rick Ross don’t connect as well, but this is still clearly blackbear’s project despite a guest appearing on every song, his unique spin on things rising above.

The project shines at its brightest when the production veers its closest to EDM, as the combination of genres is still a breath of fresh air. Blackbear’s glitchy vocals on tracks like “anxiety” and “down 4 u” as the digitized synths bleep, bloop and swell behind him is a unique listening experience that I’d be surprised if the larger world of alt-r&b didn’t catch onto sooner. “anxiety” in particular invites close collaborator and fellow producer FRND, and his final beat switch-up is euphoric. Blackbear is all about juxtapositions – “everybody dies and love is fake as f**k”, he sings over the most cheerful acoustic instrumental he could find on the hilarious “Thursday/froze over (interlude)”. This is a rising star in the industry.

Favourite Tracks: anxiety, playboy s**t, down 4 u, e.z., i hope your whole life sux

Least Favourite Track: glo_up

Score: 7/10

Image result for fabolous jadakiss friday on elm streetFabolous/Jadakiss – Friday On Elm Street

This collaborative album between two hip-hop veterans has its share of impressive instrumentals and interplay between the two rappers, but certainly contains a lot of filler and more dated ideas. In addition, the horror movie-inspired project (Fabolous corresponding to Freddie, and Jadakiss, Jason) featuring one jovial and one sinister rapper correlates a little too much to Offset and 21 Savage’s “Without Warning” earlier this year, not executing the concept quite as well.

“F vs. J Intro” is an impressive track, the two rappers embodying their chosen horror-movie villain and delivering a verse structured like a battle-rap, the two comparing their body count and throwing in some nice punchlines over some eerie chimes and a hard-hitting beat. The theme continues more loosely for the rest of the project, the instrumentals frequently tinged with a haunting quality that someone like the gravelly-voiced Jadakiss is right at home stalking through. Some classic producers like Swizz Beatz, C-Sick and The Weeknd’s go-to man in Ben Billions appear here. These two embody the East Coast sound, and they match each other bar for bar over these energetic instrumentals. We’ve been seeing quite a few rap collaboration projects this year, and they’ve all been choosing their sparring partners well. “Soul Food” is just as its title suggests, flipping a sample nicely as the two reminisce on their longevity in the game.

A few tracks see the two stuck in the past, especially on something like the Swizz Beatz produced “Theme Music”. With the rise of trap, Swizz’s style has never seemed further from the cultural zeitgeist, basing the track over a few loose, skittering hi-hats and a repetitive, but calm Marvin Gaye sample – the rappers never really settle into a constant flow for this reason, the song having so much more empty space than we typically hear anymore. The ideas run out closer to the album’s end – French Montana collaboration “All About It” isn’t much more than a repetitive hook and an attempt to throw a trap beat on a synth instrumental that sounds like something T.I. would use in 2008. Friday On Elm Street is a pretty great listen for fans of the two older rappers, as they certainly prove they’ve still got it, but it might have been better at EP length.

Favourite Tracks: Soul Food, F vs. J Intro, Principles, Stand Up

Least Favourite Track: Theme Music

Score: 6/10

Drake – More Life

Image result for more lifeSinger, rapper, OVO label boss and debatable biggest artist in the world Drake defies the typical strategy of release once again, unleashing his fourth project in about a 2-year span on his adoring fans and dubbing it a “playlist”, inventing a new category between the mixtape and the album. As the speed of his projects increases and popularity rises, More Life unfortunately only continues the trend which most recently culminated in 2016’s sprawling, overlong and unfocused Views.

I have frequently referred to Drake as the most inconsistent artist in the music industry today, capable of creating some truly great things when he actively seeks to distinguish himself and make a statement but more often than not falling into the same sonic and lyrical trends that made him famous. More Life contains even less standout moments than Views did, rarely pushes itself to the foreground of listeners’ consciousness and continue to blend global elements to a painfully awkward degree.

Image result for drake

Drake attempts to take listener on a world tour with the sound of this project, evidently hoping that titling it a playlist would excuse its incongruity. When we aren’t getting the classic Drake dancehall flips (the more upbeat tropical instrumental of “Madiba Riddim” actually got me excited for a second until Drake whined “I can not tell who is my friend”) or “It’s so hard being the most famous person in the world” bars over uninspired rap instrumentals, he ventures even further into getting halfway there on replicating Afrobeat and grime. Outside of relatively unknown influences from Drake’s new worldly forays, production is handled by the same OVO team which has been creating similar OVO beats since If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

The best moments on this project come when we hear new sounds that don’t come from attempts to emulate a genre, such as on the beats of “Skepta Interlude” and “Portland”, which is itself riding a recent wave of implementing flutes into trap beats. “Ice Melts” counts because it’s only the 2nd song ever that sounds like D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”. Of course, you can never count out the charm that makes up the majority of Drake’s appeal showing up at least a few times on a 22-track project either, and “Gyalchester” best reflects this.

Some, but certainly not all (looking at you, Giggs) features on this project make the best of their guest spots on a high profile project. I have to mention Young Thug’s verse on “Sacrifices” here, where he sounds more coherent than ever and presents a technically impressive verse with a running motif and an off-kilter flow that only Thug could make work. UK singer Sampha gets a track all to himself, allowing his smooth vocals to steal the spotlight for a moment, and Kanye West’s appearance on “Glow” saves what is a rather disjointed track due to sounding more passionate than most tracks on Pablo.

Image result for drake live

Drake, on the other hand, rarely sounds like he cares at all. Most of my favourite moments on this project come when Drake isn’t speaking because every other voice sounds like they want to be there more. Compare him to grime rapper Skepta, who gets an entire interlude to himself and outdoes all other tracks by virtue of his impassioned delivery alone. The entire project is watered down Drake tropes, as evidenced by the fact that single “Fake Love”, itself a less interesting “Hotline Bling”, now almost sounds good in this context.

I’m surprised that Drake’s interpolation of cultural elements that are not his own are not drawing as much negative ire as something like Iggy Azalea’s fake accent in how awkward their execution is. His now-trademark dancehall elements appear on about a third of these tracks, and his fake patois unfortunately appears on more. As a few lesser-known UK artists get prime appearances here, of course Drake had to try their style as well. On “No Long Talk”, he legitimately says “Now you man are on a diss ting” in a British accent. From now famously stealing upstart XXXTentacion’s flow on “KMT” to turning half of “Teenage Fever” into a pitched sample of ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez’s hit “If You Had My Love”, there is little originality to be found here.

As soon as fans were whipped into frenzy upon Drake’s utterance of “Running! Through the! Six! With my woes!” on 2015 track “Know Yourself”, it became far too easy to be Drake and he began to focus on quantity over quality. While he suggests an extensive break from the spotlight on More Life‘s closing track, he still asserts he will be back in 2018. For all of our sakes, take a bit longer and find your inspiration again.

Favourite Tracks: Skepta Interlude, Can’t Have Everything, Gyalchester

Least Favourite Track: Teenage Fever

Score: 4/10

Sampha – Process

Image result for sampha processBritish R&B singer-songwriter Sampha, whose distinctive vocals and electronic sound attracted the attention of critics back in 2013 with his EP Dual, has finally released his much-anticipated debut album after appearing on some of the biggest projects in recent memory. Last year alone he racked up guest spots with Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”), Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), and Frank Ocean (“Alabama”, from Blonde‘s accompanying visual album Endless. Breaking away from the low-key sound that resulted from recording in his own bedroom on his previous material, Process is a diverse mix.

The project features tracks buoyed equally by the simple melodies of Sampha’s piano, which he has been playing since the age of 3, and frantic, skittering electronic beats. To take things to an even higher level of significance, the majority of the album is framed around Sampha’s reactions to the death of his mother, who introduced him to music, after a battle with cancer. While the lofty ambitions outlined by its sound aren’t always fully realized, carving out this kind of an identity on a debut album is an admirable risk.

Image result for sampha

Process is almost entirely made by Sampha himself which is yet another commendable move – there are only two tracks that have anyone else credited, the only recognizable name being Kanye West’s co-writing credit on “Timmy’s Prayer”. This is a very ambitious debit and the artistic vision he displays here has me very excited for the future, mostly because the sonic landscape is all over the place. There are surprising twists and turns that frequently occur mid-song, “Kora Sings” being a great example – we start with some very exotic-sounding instruments giving off almost a Bollywood vibe before a brief electronic click signals the song’s second half, featuring an electronic tribal drum pattern reminiscent of West’s own 808s and Heartbreak.

Sampha is mostly reliant on this upbeat and electronic style to complement his emotive and frequently falsetto vocals but when we drop back into piano arrangements in the middle of the album we see just how talented he is in this area too. The weakest link is unquestionably the vocals, which frequently have effects placed on them in a clear attempt to aim for the kind of sound that becomes undeniably the artist’s own, in a similar way that Francis & The Lights is doing currently. However, in the context of this album, it never really works the way it’s meant to.

The lyrics are the primary strength of the album, not incredibly complex but displaying genuine and harrowing human emotion in a tying time in Sampha’s life. The project is very rich in sound, as to be expected from a very technicall skilled musician and a necessary step to take in establishing a place at the forefront of this relatively new genre combining electronic music with R&B vocals. The energetic percussion that shows itself on about half of these tracks is innovative and very carefully crafted. “Blood On Me” might be the catchiest melody here which is only buoyed further by its beat, while “Reverse Faults” features Sampha’s version of a trap beat as it drops into its chorus.

You can really feel the Kanye influence on “Timmy’s Prayer” as well, showing his magical innate ability to craft lyrics that hit you hard despite their simplicity. Sampha describes his relationship simultaneously as “heaven” and “a prison”, continuing the surprising twists of sound as his voice flits over what sounds like a bagpipe playing a catchy riff in the background before the time signature is attacked by an oscillating, tripleted melodic electronic beat in the second half.

Image result for sampha live

When the percussion drops out, however, there is far too much empty space. Songs like opener “Plastic 100 C” never really pick up off the ground in terms of energy and I don’t think Sampha is as stellar a singer as he needs to be to carry tracks that don’t feature other interesting musical aspects. The slower tracks like “Take Me Inside” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?” feature more of a sluggish and atmospheric landscape that ultimately comes across as quite boring. I feel like Sampha is at his best when the huge amount of emotion he pours into his vocal delivery is accompanied by chaotic music that captures the feeling he is trying to express better.

In terms of song structure, the choruses could be worked on more. Sampha applies the same vocal effect to most of them, a choice which I suppose is meant to add momentum to the song but is ultimately a bit too dissonant to remain enjoyable. He seems to enjoy playing in the chaos that results from a few crunchy chord patterns, going as far to open “Blood On Me” with some layered isolated vocals that are clearly off-kilter, but contrasted with the rich instrumentals they fall flat. “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” is another great song that I get taken out of by the chorus.

Sampha’s Process is fantastic in theory, but doesn’t fully deliver on the execution. I understand where the rave reviews it is currently receiving are coming from, as the idea he set out to achieve shows some serious potential and artistic vision, and does display quite a few aspects of an artist who could become visionary in the future. But this is just the debut album, and a lot of the excess in the form of rookie mistakes still needs to be trimmed before what is truly great about Sampha can shine.

Favourite Tracks: Timmy’s Prayer, Reverse Faults, Kora Sings, Blood On Me

Least Favourite Track: What Shouldn’t I Be?

Score: 5/10