Rapid Fire Reviews (2 Chainz, Maren Morris, Juice WRLD)

Image result for 2 chainz rap or go to the league2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Usually one of the most cartoonish and comedic faces in rap, 2 Chainz’s fifth studio album Rap Or Go To The League – apparently executive produced by basketball star LeBron James – sees him dial the punchline bars back and address some more serious issues, all while maintaining the vibrant personality we know him for. A lot of Chainz’s recent work has been seriously inconsistent, but this project is a huge improvement, showing sides of him that we’ve never seen before and varying his instrumentals a lot more. With the addition of a litany of great guests, there’s always something surprising around the corner on this project. It’s definitely his most well-rounded work yet, even if there are a couple moments where we’re reminded that 2 Chainz is far from the most technically gifted rapper out there.

The project opens with the lengthy and contemplative slow burner “Forgiven” which emphasizes the themes behind the album’s title, signifying to the listener that this isn’t exactly the same 2 Chainz we’ve gotten in the past. It opens with a recording of Chainz being announced in a basketball starting lineup before speaking from the perspective of his younger self reflecting on gun violence in his neighbourhood, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and thinking that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. A spoken word piece emphasizes the way others view the value of black people before the track ends with a police siren and a gunshot. It’s an incredibly heavy start to a 2 Chainz album, and it’s certainly some very compelling material especially coming from the less rhythmic, more confessional delivery Chainz is known for. Chainz’s heavier material is concealed by some fun instrumentals as the project goes on, transitioning to the beautiful soul sample of “Threat 2 Society” that continues retelling his upbringing.

The opening run of 4 tracks is very strong, especially the celebratory “Money In The Way” that combines trap hi-hats with an OutKast-esque horn section. It’s essentially a giant flex that exists outside the more mature themes of the project, but the unbridled joy that can creep into 2 Chainz’s delivery at times is one of the greatest things about him – it’s great to hear him on these more soulful instrumentals after going full minimalist trap recently. Young Thug and Travis Scott actually show up on the next two tracks, but they’re easily some of the weakest here because 2 Chainz’s personality should never be restrained by a basic trap framework – “High Top Versace” and “Whip” fit in most with what’s going on at the moment, and I had been enjoying Chainz switching it up more until that point.

2 Chainz seriously went all-out with his guests on this project, and most of them seriously elevate these tracks. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Kendrick Lamar’s lower-key appearance on the experimental and quirky trap banger “Momma I Hit a Lick”, but this has become my most played track on this project by far. I absolutely love how much these two switch up their flows and voices as the track goes on, it fits with just how weird that instrumental is. The track is such an exhilarating, trippy experience … when that unsettling extra synth comes in halfway through Lamar’s verse? Perfect. “Rule The World” with Ariana Grande is another excellent track, dropping right into Grande’s wheelhouse with a throwback 90s piano jam. Grande knocks the chorus out of the park and paves the way for Chainz to come in and complete the picture with some smooth bars as he dedicates the track to his wife, who he married last year. It’s great that these two have connected so well after the whole “7 Rings” controversy too – Chainz even introduces the track “I Said Me” with a sample of the original Sound of Music tune. We get a couple more great verses at the end from Lil Wayne and E-40 on the retro track “2 Dollar Bill” and even the odd combination of Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black on the track “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is” – even if that hook from Chainz drones on a bit.

Even with all the features, my favourite track of all on this project might be the solo track “NCAA”, which is essentially the perfect storm of goofy 2 Chainz lines, the themes of the album, and a huge adrenaline shot of an instrumental. “Who me?” 2 Chainz grins at the beginning. “I take this open beat”. Then it drops, and each line is more ridiculous – in a good way – than the last. The gang vocals of the chorus roar in, serving as both a criticism of the mentality Chainz introduces on the first track and the most genuinely thrilling moment on the whole project.

Rap Or Go To The League essentially brings together all the best things about 2 Chainz, and then adds a surprising degree of poignant political commentary on top of it all. There are certainly quite a few moments where his weaknesses as an actual rapper are exposed, but this is one of the most simultaneously fun and important rap projects in a while.

Favourite Tracks: NCAA, Momma I Hit A Lick, Money In The Way, Rule The World, Threat 2 Society

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

An image of Morris lying down on a bed of leaves while holding a pink flower, wearing a pink bikini top and yellow fur coat.Maren Morris – GIRL

The latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, Maren Morris’ sophomore album GIRL is here after breaking through to the mainstream with a Zedd collaboration. If Morris was going to pop, there were a lot of worse ways she could have done it. Superproducer Greg Kurstin shows up sporadically across this project, and someone like him knows exactly how to maximize the potential of Morris’ powerhouse vocals. She doesn’t abandon her country roots entirely either, with a couple of tracks still fully in that lane, but honestly Morris is most exciting here going in a pop/soul direction. Despite a few awkward lyrical shortcomings, GIRL for the most part evades the sophomore curse.

The opening title track is one of Kurstin’s, and it’s certainly a strong way to kick it off. Most of Morris’ instrumentation is still slightly twangy and guitar-driven, but the vocals on top of it are undeniably pop. We get a couple of pretty standard chord progressions here, but what we’re really being introduced here is the soulfulness in Morris’ vocals as she attacks some high notes and harmonies before dropping into an anthemic and uplifting chorus. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s not a lot that voice couldn’t carry. The real crossover fun starts on the next track, “The Feels”, featuring an old-school bouncy country guitar riff and an electric finger-snap pattern that’s used perfectly when the instrumental drops out for a full two counts, Morris storming back to hit a huge note that kicks off the chorus with a rapid-fire swung delivery. It’s about as perfect of a marriage between her two styles while keeping her infectious and playful spirit that I could have imagined. “Gold Love” is another one that does it pretty well, mostly a catchy, somewhat soulful pop track, but it features a brief country breakdown where Morris drops her vocals down for a quick break that keeps it interesting.

Most of the greatest tracks here are actually Morris going full soulful R&B diva, however. She’s got the vocals to flit through some seriously impressive vocal runs and a full range that not a lot of her country contemporaries do, and when they’re applied to something as direct as a track like the doo-wop inspired “Make Out With Me”, it’s pretty moving. Morris is out here to take exactly what she wants, and you can hear it through the power and conviction in her vocals – she attacks her biggest notes with some country gravel! The best track of all is “RSVP”, hiding in the back half of the album. The track also plays into the more sensual side of Morris’ vocal tone, simultaneously assertive and inviting, but the energy provided by the trap hi-hats and that layered, harmonized chorus that shows off the best parts of her high range make it an easy standout.

Some of the most overtly country tracks on here do fit in well with Morris’ energy, but I can’t help agreeing with the pop producers who initiated this change in feeling that the tone of her voice was meant more for another style. Of course, as the “yeehaw agenda” creeps further and further into pop culture, it’s a lot of fun to hear Morris collaborate with the Brothers Osborne, who have just about the most traditional country vocals going right now, but their juxtaposition feels a little too far removed, and when Morris is given huge vocal moments that require the heavier country instrumentation to stop it feels like they’re trying to hard to mix genres – it works better just hearing her natural accent on a melody more suited to her vocal style.

There are quite a few tracks where Morris and her collaborators are embracing a more country-based singer-songwriter storytelling style of lyrics as well that feels somewhat inauthentic. Morris clearly has a lot of fun portraying the disruptive, flirtatious party girl, and hearing her sing something like the starry-eyed, acoustic “A Song for Everything” makes my eyes roll just a bit. Although “Common”, her duet with Brandi Carlile, is pretty fantastic! Their harmonies together give me goosebumps, Carlile’s natural ruggedness and emotion anchoring Morris’ cleaner high notes. On the other hand as well, a track like “Great Ones” is a nice track with more poetic lyrical content as well – for whatever reason, I always love when country artists take a lyrical concept that’s typical to their genre, usually religion for Morris, and use it in an entirely different context. The last couple tracks on the project are a nice calm-down, especially “To Hell & Back”, a well-written country pop melody that once again frames some great areas of Morris’ voice.

I’d love to see Morris work with an even wider range of more pop-oriented producers in the future, because this crossover is a pretty solid effort that could easily be expanded upon – I hope something from this project eventually catches on at pop radio! Morris’ soulful vocals are the shining centerpiece, with a couple outstanding tracks I’ll be returning to a lot.

Favourite Tracks: RSVP, The Feels, Make Out With Me, Common, To Hell & Back

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

Image result for death race for loveJuice WRLD – Death Race For Love

Juice WRLD, and the movement that he takes up de facto leadership of in the wake of some unfortunate losses, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical phenomena going on right now. His brand of melodic emo-trap, taking the energy and spirit of mid-2000s pop punk and funneling it into a modern hip-hop context, is a combination that I never could have anticipated having such a profound impact on so many listeners. After exploding into the mainstream with “Lucid Dreams”, Juice’s sophomore project is here – and apparently, he made it in only 4 days. With a length running well over an hour, I was dreading going into this project – more often than not, the melodramatics of the genre aren’t really for me – but Juice WRLD honestly pulls things off pretty well here. The album is still way too long and loaded with filler tracks and questionable lyrics, but Juice’s ear for melody and refreshing musical presence fills out Death Race for Love with more hits than misses.

The project opens with one of its strongest, “Empty” – Juice is honestly at his best when he leans furthest into the pop-punk direction his delivery is so clearly lovingly inspired by, rather than coming at it trying to make a hip-hop or a trap song first and foremost. We get this somber piano loop and a rather subdued section of hi-hats as Juice drops this catchy but overwhelmingly dark chorus on top, nailing that emo inflection in the process and just making me marvel at how well this collision of genres works. “I was put here to lead the lost souls”, he sings, and judging by the way people have received his work, he’s not too far off. These young artists who drop lyrics like Juice does have found a unique way to connect with people and open up about depression in an eye-opening and vivid way. The only track that does this pop-punk-with-a-trap-beat thing better might be the single “Robbery”, where Juice drops his catchiest and most heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery chorus yet over a legitimately beautiful twinkling piano instrumental. This genuinely could have been something like a Simple Plan song from the early 2000s, and it’s so fascinating to hear.

“Fast” is another one that people immediately gravitated to when this dropped, and it absolutely sounds like a smash hit. There’s a kind of glossy sheen on it that makes it sound like an inescapable Post Malone track, but Juice’s softer singing voice is honestly really nice to hear. I also really appreciate how Juice opts to switch things up a bit, it would have been easy to fall into one sound across a long and boring hour and 12 minutes, but there are a couple surprises like the tracks “Syphilis” and “Ring Ring” along the way. The former sounds like an XXXTENTACION tribute, Juice pulling off the hyper-aggressive scream-rap style a lot better than I would have expected, while the latter teams up with electronic artist Rvssian for a bass-heavy and filtered track with crunchy guitars and another great hook.

There’s a lot about Juice that might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I think I’ve listened to “Lucid Dreams” enough at this point to get it. Quite a few of these songs open and seem a little disjointed and messy, but then something about the melody Juice sings, or his cadence, or just how earnest about it he is, clicks together and sticks in your brain. A song like “HeMotions” (awful title aside) seems like an obvious skip at the start with his spacey and awkward “muddy emotions” hook that features an emoji reference in the first of a line of pretty bad lyrics across the whole project, but it seriously sneaks up on you as the beat adapts to fit it by the end of the track.

With a largely improvisational and overlong hip-hop album, there was bound to be quite a lot that falls completely flat. “Big” is the first huge miss on the project, and really makes it clear that a lot of this project was improvised on the spot while not completely sober. There are a lot of videos where Juice makes it clear just how impressive of a freestyler he is, but on these looser tracks his melodies go out the window, killing his biggest strength of all. He essentially becomes a below-average Auto-Tuned mumble rapper with a couple awkward moments trying to shoehorn too many words into a bar. Juice sometimes has a tendency to put some of his most off-putting lyrics directly in his choruses, and elongating that “gorgeous” in “Flaws & Sins” so much he sounds almost country is probably the worst offender here. Most of the 2nd half of the album is considerably weaker, with more than a few tracks where the charm that’s barely holding things together finally gives out and Juice’s lack of musical ability is really revealed – tracks like “Desire”, “10 Feet” and “Rider” are pretty headache-inducing and could easily have been cut.

Juice is a young and inconsistent artist still trying to find his footing, but its undeniable how many people he’s able to genuinely reach out to and comfort. It’s really looking like his is the next major wave in music going forward, and I’m sure he’ll only improve with time.

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

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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

Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V

Image result for tha carter v album coverSeven years after the previous installment in the series, after endless delays and contract disputes Tha Carter V is finally here. Its undeniable that Lil Wayne is one of the most influential rappers on the modern era of hip-hop, his specific cadence, punchlines and ventures into rock music seen in the wave of both Soundcloud rappers and mainstream superstars today. Although the project is overlong and doesn’t exactly come across as a cohesive album listening experience, some tracks clearly being from a few years ago, Lil Wayne comes through on this project with his best work in a very long time. While we all thought he was falling off, he was just saving his best for his genre-defining Carter series. Despite a few awkward moments, this is the version of Wayne we look back on with nostalgia.

After a spacey, emotional opening track that features one of Wayne’s most obvious offspring in the late XXXTENTACION, the project explodes immediately with the back to back tracks “Dedicate” and “Uproar”. These two tracks are some of the greatest indications that Wayne is the product of another time, having to adjust my 2018 ear for a second, but that isn’t a bad thing at all – it’s nice to hear where this all came from. “Uproar” sees him navigating deftly through one of those boisterous Swizz Beatz tracks that don’t exist anymore (complete with Swizz’ ad-libs!), but “Dedicate” is the most present and upbeat we’ve heard Wayne this decade, taking some old-school Memphis keys and the same kind of quirky, excitable flow that made Carter III classics so much fun. Samples from 2 Chainz and Barack Obama himself proclaim Wayne’s influence, and hearing him destroy an instrumental like this in the year 2018 really brought a smile to my face.

Image result for lil wayne 2018

Wayne’s wordplay is back in full force here, often taking a simple word or rhyme scheme and drawing every possible usage out of it to fill up half a verse – the ridiculous internal rhymes and use of “mind” and “line” on “Let It Fly” come to mind – or dropping some of those clever punchlines that it takes you a few listens to get. One of my favourites? “She said ‘I will’, like ill with an apostrophe”, from the excellent Ashanti-featuring early 2000s dancefloor throwback “Start This S**t Off Right”. There really are so many aspects of Wayne that were and still are so far ahead of his peers, and his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar here, “Mona Lisa”, shows that. A classic storytelling track, Wayne paints some strikingly vivid imagery in a dark narrative of a double-crossing girl working with Wayne to rob Kendrick, who storms in in-character with a spastic and distressed verse straight from his Butterfly era. The fact that this track, the antithesis of radio friendly, is projected to debut at #1 is a true mark of the thirst for Wayne’s specific skillset. “Used 2” is another great track where he gets aggressive, buried late in the tracklisting. He gets up to a full shout that had my eyes wide open in surprise as he issues threats to his enemies over a Metro Boomin beat.

Wayne’s penchant for melodies and fun, anthemic choruses was always a particularly underrated part of his work, even if he certainly doesn’t have the greatest singing voice to deliver them. Even as the album stretches past an hour in length, some of the later tracks here still managed to surprise with just how catchy they were. This album would have hits on hits in 2011. Tracks like “Took His Time” and “Demon” are perfect examples – the former is almost a combination of styles of the past and present with an upbeat trap-esque instrumental and a gleeful sung chorus from Wayne, but “Demon” is just his lovable weird side coming out in full force, singing “a de-mon with de-mands” in a variety of repeated, intoxicating cadences over a soul sample. You submit to Wayne’s rollercoaster ride as soon as he drops into the verse with a grinning “ooh kill em” on “Dope Ni**az”, another wonderfully dated track with Snoop Dogg. “Dark Side Of The Moon” is a slow jam R&B duet with Nicki Minaj, and not only does she sound incredible, but Wayne sounds legitimately soulful and emotional on his lower harmonies.

Image result for lil wayne 2018

We also get a lot of emotional insight to Wayne that we’d never heard before – on “Can’t Be Broken” he speaks out on his legacy, emphasizing all of the impact that he’s had that can’t be taken away by the amount of time he wasn’t allowed to release his best work, but closing track “Let It All Work Out” really delves deep into his story. He references suicidal thoughts and searching for a purpose on the extended 4-minute verse of “Open Letter” as well, but here he tells the story of the specifics of his suicide attempt at age 12, angry at his mother for doubting his rap career when he was approached by a label at a young age. A sample from Sampha sings the title in the background, and the album closes: “And it all worked out”, his mother saying “Love you, Dwayne”.

There’s so much great stuff here that I never thought I’d hear again from Wayne, so I don’t want to nitpick the filler tracks and misfires too much, but the middle sees him revert back to his worse tendencies of crooning and awkward beat selection a few times as well, on tracks like “What About Me” and “Problems” that could have easily been cut.

As another installment in Tha Carter series, this project isn’t anything like the cohesive, carefully thought out classics of the past. Taking Wayne’s situation into consideration though, this is just about the best thing we could have ever expected. It’s incredible that we get this much new great Wayne music in 2018. One of the biggest forefathers of modern rap has returned to reign supreme.

Favourite Tracks: Dedicate, Start This S**t Off Right, Used 2, Mona Lisa, Demon

Least Favourite Track: Problems

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (6ix9ine, MGMT, Nipsey Hussle)

Bensbeat is back for the summer and I’ll be catching back up to the present with a lot of these quicker posts.

6ix9ine – Day69

Controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine delivers a debut project infused with the unique scream-rap energy he brought to the singles that made him famous, but it lacks the lyrical content and adaptability to back him up over the course of a full-length project, even one that stands at only 29 minutes. Despite this, his production from some pretty unknown names (save for rising star Pi’erre Bourne on hit single “Gummo”) is frequently top-notch, riding a surprisingly melodic wave and adapting to a style that is distinctly 6ix9ine’s. The sheer blunt force and energy of some of these songs is hard to deny, but more often than not, there just isn’t enough here.

The album opens strong with the quick intro “Billy”, which is one of the most intense and cinematic beats on the whole project. The trap hi-hats and orchestral, almost operatic instrumental is such an interesting sonic playground to drop the unstoppable force of 6ix9ine’s vocal cords into, and it’s over before it even began. For some reason here, it works – he’s established himself as a quick jolt of energy and you can’t expect him to give much more as he pours everything into his delivery. I always preferred single “Kooda” to “Gummo” – the latter is a preview of where the remainder of the album can fall flat. Pi’erre’s beat is chilling, yet perhaps a little too reserved for 6ix9ine’s yelps. The repetitive songwriting found here persists throughout the project, some tracks like “Chocolaté” content to repeat the same lines for most of the track, and not in a fun, “Gucci Gang” way. The subject material never deviates from threats to others, references to his weaponry, and the like. When he switches up his flow on that delightfully melodic beat on Kooda – “You can talk hot on the Internet, boy!” – even that is enough of a distinct artistic choice to push the track over the edge. The track is a pure adrenaline rush. “93”, as well, features a great grinding, industrial instrumental that pummels the senses.

The tracks with features, “Rondo” and “Keke”, each try to fit three quite distinct artists into songs that barely exceed two minutes and make such a unique presence in 6ix9ine feel incredibly out of place. There’s nobody else in the realm of old-school hardcore rap he is trying to revive and artists like Young Thug and A Boogie wit da Hoodie are gone before you were even able to appreciate that they were there. The largely unrelated track names don’t help much with identifying the differences between the tracks in the back half of the project either – most of it blends together, 6ix9ine’s voice abrasive and threatening over instrumentals that never quite accommodate it.

Day69 is certainly a breath of fresh air – if 6ix9ine can incorporate more tracks like more recent single “Gotti”, where he introduces a more melodic vocal delivery, he might have a shot at outlasting his peers.

Favourite Tracks: KOODA, BILLY, 93, DOOWEE

Least Favourite Track: MOOKY

Score: 5/10

Image result for little dark ageMGMT – Little Dark Age

The indie-pop duo returns with their fourth studio album, a pretty fun, occasionally humorous and surprisingly dark set of breezy, psychedelic synthpop tracks. The band offers some critiques of modern society disguised behind some maddeningly catchy pop hooks, pointing the finger not only at others but themselves as well. Working with Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, many of these tracks assert their slightly off-kilter position and somber lyrical content with the slightest uneasy twinges in the instrumental, revealing the lurking foreboding warnings underneath the shimmering pop veneer. Frontman Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice is as calm and soothing as ever.

We open with the hilarious “She Works Out Too Much”, which intersperses the happy yet disengaged voice of a workout tutorial instructor behind lyrics of a relationship not “working out”. The relationship in the song is described on the surface as legitimately failing because of the man’s disdain for exercise, but the catchy female voice delivering that hook contrasting with VanWyngarden’s existential crises in the verses reveals something else. “He didn’t work out” – his issues – “enough”. It’s a great build up to the chaotic conclusion, a frantic saxophone roaring in. These tracks are frequently driven by pulsating synth patterns, pushing themselves to the forefront ahead of the vocals. The title track delves into an area of synth-funk, snapping into a decisive minor chord at the end of the chorus as VanWyngarden delivers some confessional lyrics about depression.

I didn’t realize how dark the album really is until “When You Die”, which plays off this dichotomy perfectly. It’s genuinely shocking when you hear such a pleasant voice declare “Go f*ck yourself” in monotone, kickstarting a chorus where he contemplates suicide and happily declares “It’s permanently night” at the end. The track contains genuinely the most cheerful melody on the whole project. Later on, the band criticizes dedication to electronics and dives into political commentary with the beautiful closer “Hand It Over”, the closest thing we get to dreampop – “The joke’s worn thin, the king stepped in”, VanWyngarden sings, the track culminating in a gospel-tinged singalong repetition of the title. The band can still write a soaring chorus – a sparkly synth pad and backing vocals support the celebratory “Me and Michael”, changed from the original “my girl” for the sheer purpose of ambiguity.

The chillwave sound has died down a bit, and MGMT still proudly carries the torch. It’ll be tough to get any of these tracks out of your head. It’s a great return to form, coming closer to the joys of the late 2000s tracks that catapulted them into the mainstream.

Favourite Tracks: Hand It Over, She Works Out Too Much, Me and Michael, When You Die, Little Dark Age

Least Favourite Track: One Thing Left To Try

Score: 8/10

Image result for victory lap nipseyNipsey Hussle – Victory Lap

The veteran West Coast rapper finally drops his debut studio album, abandoning his dedication to numerous mixtapes. He continues his partial revival of the G-funk sound on this project, bridging the gap to the modern era with some more trap-oriented sounds. Spanning over an hour, Hussle clearly had a lot to say saved for a debut project of this magnitude, but not all of it connects. His delivery and lyricism are his strong suits much more than his flow, and quite a few of these tracks can slip into filler territory by extending themselves past their welcome without much of a catchy, driving rhythm to keep them going. Hussle brings out some impressive guests in fellow Californians YG and Kendrick Lamar, even getting an appearance from Sean Combs himself. It’s a lot of content, but not enough of it sticks.

Production is handled mostly by underground west coast duo Mike & Keys, who broke out with a hit in G-Eazy’s “Him & I” this year and do a great job of emulating the old-school West Coast style despite the temptation to give into trends of today. “Last Time That I Checc’d” makes up for Hussle’s disinterested delivery with a bouncy synth bass instrumental that sounds like it could be a classic E-40 track. The homage to the past continues on “Hussle & Motivate”, one of the album’s best tracks, in which Hussle settles into the flow nicely over a slowed down sample of Jay-Z’s classic “Hard Knock Life” instrumental. The ordering of the album can be confusing, most of the weaker tracks present at its beginning. The back half meets expectations pretty consistently, Hussle sounding more urgent – “Status Symbol 3” is carried by a great melodic hook from Compton rapper Buddy and a harder-than-usual beat pattern that Hussle adapts to with a faster flow. Many of these tracks take the form of a long, winding story, Hussle speaking about his tumultuous upbringing and rise to the top, hence the title “Victory Lap”, and these streams of consciousness can be quite compelling.

Hussle doesn’t develop nearly enough of a distinct personality despite the expansive runtime he had to do so. When guests appear, especially Kendrick Lamar on “Dedication”, Hussle clearly attempts to emulate their styles in order to make the track sound more cohesive, but I really wanted to hear more of his own artistry in a world quickly becoming inundated with rap as its top genre. It’s a perfectly solid project without much obviously wrong with it, there’s just not enough to make me pay attention.

Favourite Tracks: Hussle & Motivate, Status Symbol 3, Keyz 2 The City 2, Dedication

Least Favourite Track: Succa Proof

Score: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Supplies

Score: 3/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: I Am

Score: 8/10

Amen RichBrian.jpgRich Brian – Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Glow Like Dat

Score: 7/10

BensBeat Top 25 Albums of 2017

Without further ado, here are my favourite projects of 2017. Happy new year!

Honourable Mentions:

  • blackbear – digital druglord
  • Migos – C U L T U R E
  • Tove Lo – Blue Lips [lady wood phase II]
  • Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom
  • Betty Who – The Valley
  • Kelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life
  • Bleachers – Gone Now
  • Kelela – Take Me Apart
  • Niall Horan – Flicker
  • Jay-Z – 4:44

25. Metro Boomin/Offset/21 Savage – Without Warning

Image result for without warningIn one of his many collaboration projects this year, quintessential trap producer Metro Boomin recruits two rappers who couldn’t be more different for a Halloween-themed mixtape. Court jester Offset perfectly counteracts the blunt, deadpan 21 Savage as they enter a villainous partnership through song.

24. Alvvays – Antisocialites

Image result for alvvays antisocialitesThe dreampop quintet blends genres together in an overall vintage sound, frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals possessing the quieter sensibilities of dreampop but juxtaposing this with the louder guitar instrumentals that verge on punk-rock. The project is a brief whirlwind of energy.

23. Poppy – Poppy.Computer

Image result for poppy.computerThe greatest viral marketing scheme of all time? Poppy’s surreal YouTube videos prepared us perfectly for this project, where the …character…? continues to satirize our cultlike dedication to all things technological and celebrity through a series of upbeat, bubblegum pop tracks.

22. Thundercat – Drunk

Image result for thundercat drunkThe virtuoso jazz-funk bassist, now with a wider audience after his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s work, releases a conceptual and incoherent experimental jumble of sounds that makes you feel just as the title suggests. The whole album is framed as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and the rapid bass playing and Thundercat’s comedic lyrics as his mind wanders to absurd topics complete one of the most ambitious projects of the year.

21. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Image result for flower boyTyler drops the shock value raps of his past here for more lavish instrumentals and contemplative, confessional lyrics as he finally comes to terms with what he feels the toxic masculinity of the hip-hop industry often tried to repress – his homosexuality. Tyler’s lyrics always offered a deep journey into his consciousness, but now hearing his stories of his struggle with acceptance are truly captivating.

20. Charli XCX – Number 1 Angel

Image result for number 1 angelHer first of two mixtapes this year, Number 1 Angel excels by offering experimental spins on pop music but not getting so obscure as to lose the party-girl personality that made her music so fun in the first place. Her collaborations with PC Music producers mean the beats hit harder than most pop music, and the whole thing is just a sassy, confident snarl that’s hard not to love.

19. Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgThe versatile DJ reinvents himself on his 5th studio album, moving away from the bland pop sound of his past for a more musically complex journey into the world of funk and hip-hop. In a tweet, Harris denied that this was “feel good music”. No, he says, it’s “feel INCREDIBLE music”. He’s absolutely right, tapping into exactly what summer sounds like with a diverse roster of guests that never fails to surprise.

18. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1

Chris-stapleton-from-a-room-volume-1.jpgThe first of two albums this year in his “From A Room” duo, the seemingly limitless vocalist blends together his brand of outlaw country music with aspects of soul, blues and southern rock, genres which better accommodate the gravel in his emotional delivery. His harmonies with his wife on most of these tracks are something to behold, but the pure emotion he puts into every note is what makes his stories stand out.

17. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Image result for masseductionThe futuristic pop artist delivers another rock-influenced album featuring her own impressive guitar playing, teaming up with producer-of-the-moment Jack Antonoff to deliver satirical takes on how easily we can be indoctrinated to advertising, religion and the like. Her voice is extremely dynamic and capable, making magic out of the minimal as much as she does the genre-defying chaos here.

16. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life

Image result for lust for lifeFor the first time, Lana Del Rey smiles on her cover artwork, and it’s a great representation of the new direction of her music. While her tropes were getting somewhat tiresome, she switches things up on her fourth album. Adding a political edge we hadn’t really seen before, her music is made more compelling by adding an element of hope in the dismal times she sings about. Her voice is still instantly recognizable, her lyrics high-concept and darkly brilliant. Del Rey is finally coming into her own.

15. Kesha – Rainbow

Image result for kesha rainbowKesha drops the dollar sign – and the contract with an abusive producer – and flourishes in this comeback project that’s all about her own personal strength. Finally able to let loose with her musical ambitions, this project runs effortlessly through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock as Kesha displays an incredible singing voice that most people never knew was there.

14. Miguel – War & Leisure

Image result for war and leisureLike most this year, Miguel’s fourth studio album is more political than usual. He draws explicit reference to the threat of nuclear war, but like the album title suggests, is frequently trying to find ways to stay positive despite everything we see in the news. His funk-heavy R&B tracks always sound like a celebration, many songs clearly inspired by Prince here in their psychedelic reverence.

13. Kehlani – SWEETSEXYSAVAGE

Image result for sweetsexysavageBreaking the sophomore curse, Kehlani continues to establish herself as a leading voice in the R&B scene with this project. The title derived from a classic TLC album, Kehlani would have fit right in with the girl group as the project is broken up into the 3 categories the title suggests. While I prefer her lyrics when they’re at their most savage, the harmonies across the board and overall musicality here is pretty incredible.

12. Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for tell me you love meOne of the most technically skilled pop vocalists finally returns to her strengths after two albums of bland electropop, taking much more of an R&B direction with this project and demonstrating just how effortless her singing ability can be. Not only does she rediscover that dramatic soprano belt, her low register is just as passionate and intense.

11. SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlWhile my initial reaction wasn’t as immediately strong, this project grows on you like no other and you’d be hard-pressed to find another album that made as much of a cultural impact this year. SZA’s honest lyricism carries this project, finally a female in the urban scene that speaks as bluntly as the men do. Her delivery is more like a rapper’s here, replacing bigger vocal moments with lyrical smacks in the face.

10. Ed Sheeran – ÷

Image result for divide edOK, OK, maybe it’s not the perfect score I initially gave it. The project received criticism for being too safe, but I still believe that Ed Sheeran is one of the strongest male vocalists and songwriters at the moment, and he demonstrates this across the board here. His passionate rasp and immersive romantic lyrics paint a picture of something that we all strive for.

9. Tennis – Yours Conditionally

Image result for yours conditionallyA love letter to all things 70s pop, the husband-and-wife duo get minimalistic with their production and allow Alaina Moore’s calming vocals to shine through as they search to find the purest sense of human emotion. The harmonies and the earnest, joyful way Moore sings about her romantic life here never fail to put the widest smile on my face, and watching videos of the two performing together is the most wholesome thing you’ll ever see.

8. N.E.R.D. – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES

Image result for no one ever really diesOne of the most experimental albums of the year, one of 2017’s greatest albums dropped in the final week of music releases. Pharrell Williams and his old bandmates return for the first time in 7 years, recruiting a diverse roster of guests to build their brand of funk production around as Williams channels his inner James Brown to deliver some rallying chants. You lose track of how many beat switches this project has – it’s something to get lost in as it never stays the same for long.

7. Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa coverThe debut album from the 21-year old DJ never takes its foot off the gas pedal. He brings a unique take on the rising tropical house style to his music, flying through a diverse array of guests but frequently connecting them all through his trademark chime patterns. Many of these tracks impress with their rhythmic complexity and layering, bringing the musical motifs all together at the end for a euphoric climax. The vocalists all sound like they’re inviting you to join them at some kind of an incredible party, and if the DJ is as competent as this rising star it should be a good time.

6. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe folk artist’s third album perfectly encapsulates all that was 2017 in his darkly comedic lyrics and satirical analysis of … just about everything, taking a more rock-influenced route than his quieter tracks of the past. Yes, the album can be crushingly depressing at times, but like he consistently reminds us over its lengthy runtime, what can we do but laugh about it? Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. This album is so dense it’s impossible to sum it up here, but it’s a very rewarding listen.

5. Jhene Aiko – Trip

Image result for trip jheneThe closest thing we got to a sprawling, interconnected concept album this year, the hour-and-a-half long Trip never feels like its length due to the hypnotic quality of Aiko’s mesmerizing and comforting vocal tone. The entire album framed as a drug trip, the hallucinations taking numerous positive and negative twists and turns as Aiko begins to envision her real personal events such as the death of her brother and her new romance with “soulmate” Big Sean, the spoken interludes here help to tell a complete story as the sound of the project is broken up into sections corresponding to different drugs. Aiko has given extensive description on deeper, personal meanings to the thematic layers she explores here, showing just how authentic the emotion she shows throughout really is. Trip is less of an album, and more of an experience.

4. Paramore – After Laughter

Image result for after laughterAnother complete reinvention, Paramore’s first album since 2013 arrives in the wake of numerous legal disputes and lineup shuffling, emerging on the other side with a brilliant 80s-pop revival nobody could have expected. After Laughter contains some deceptively despondent lyrics amid the sunny melodies, both sides colliding into  the band’s most fully realized album yet. A track like “Fake Happy” signifies just how far the band has come, a complete musical journey that offers about three surprising musical twists midsong that includes both their most poppy synths of all and the return of their heaviest guitars. Hayley Williams is still one of the most capable leads in the industry, her dynamic vocals guiding the band through this new direction with ease.

3. Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me

Image result for don't smile at meYes, an 8-track EP by a 15-year old is this good. The indie pop prodigy teams up with her brother, actor and producer Finneas O’Connell, Eilish’s aching, paper-thin voice serves in stark contrast to the energetic trap and EDM-flavoured instrumentals behind her and her dark and disturbing lyrical content. An artist having such a clearly established sense of artistic identity and creative vision at such a young age is hard to come by, and as she completely harnesses her brothers’ skittering and rhythmically complex beats while singing about a killing spree in the sweetest voice she could imagine, you can only imagine how bright her future will be. The capability to write a song as beautiful and affecting as “ocean eyes” at the age of 13 is something very special, and she has flawless vocals on top of that.

2. Lorde – Melodrama

Image result for melodramaJust as Lorde perfectly documented the complete experience of being a 16-year old on her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde transitions to adulthood here in a believable way. In collaboration with another great songwriter in Jack Antonoff, she details her accompanying rapid accumulation of interpersonal relationships and a growing sense of place in a frequently depressing world now at the age of 20. Lorde both revels in the greatest parts of youth and criticizes the romanticization of other aspects, especially with regards to partying, which most of the album revolves around. Lorde’s voice is very distinct, and it helps many of her narratives become more personalized and believable. It is much lower than most female voices in pop music, verging on a menacing whisper at its lowest. Packed with emotion and frequently weary of the ways of the world, it delivers some pretty heavy stuff with just the right cadence. Lorde takes aim at a Frank Ocean-style lyrical exercise in turning the pedantic into the poignant here and pairs it with some minimalistic and experimental pop instrumentals for one of the most well-thought out projects of the year.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Image result for damn“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?” Lamar’s latest work is all about dichotomies, many of his high-concept, single-word album titles serving as direct opposites. On DAMN., the dense and conceptual rapper swings in a slightly commercial direction for the first time, turning up the pure hip-hop energy but maintaining the important messages he began delivering on his previous works. If anything, the blunt, angrier deliver that results  only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made albums like Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process. Simply put, nobody else in hip-hop has as much of a complete toolkit as Lamar does, and he shows off different parts of it on different tracks here. We hadn’t seen him make a pure pop song in “LOVE.”, but he shows us he excels at the slower, melodic rap too as the song shoots up the charts as we speak. We hadn’t really seen him go just as hard as he does on “DNA.” either. Regardless, the best part of any Lamar album is always the running themes – “Nobody praying for me”, he continues to assert, as the album continues to return to the same motifs and wraps itself up by rewinding to the beginning at its conclusion. With his incredible trilogy of albums, Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation.

BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2017

2017 saw a lot of music spin in a political direction, and while we didn’t necessarily receive the high-concept masterpiece I’d been waiting for after last year’s Lemonade and Blonde, we still bore witness to a lot of pretty incredible firsts. Here are my top 50 songs that got us through the tumultuous year:

Honourable Mentions:

  • Charli XCX – 3AM (Pull Up) [Ft. MØ]
  • Ed Sheeran – Perfect
  • Demi Lovato – Daddy Issues
  • St. Vincent – Smoking Section
  • blackbear – chateau
  • Galantis – Love On Me (Ft. Hook n Sling)
  • Bleachers – Goodmorning
  • Lil Yachty – Better (Ft. Stefflon Don)
  • Halsey – Eyes Closed
  • HAIM – Little Of Your Love

50. Gorillaz – Saturnz Barz (Ft. Popcaan)

Image result for gorillaz humanzGorillaz try their hand at dancehall, Damon Albarn’s softer tones bouncing off Popcaan’s patois over an instrumental that sounds like it’s fresh from an eerie carnival ride.

49. Bonobo – Surface (Ft. Nicole Miglis)

Image result for bonobo migrationThe downtempo EDM DJ brings Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis aboard, her beautiful, folksy voice carrying the atmospheric track.

48. Fifth Harmony – Deliver

Image result for FIFTH harmonyThe band shows they’re still capable of making great music as a quartet, imbuing this classic R&B track with a retro flair and bouncy piano instrumental.

47. 21 Savage – Bank Account

Image result for issa albumOver the course of the year I’ve come to appreciate 21 Savage as a comedic presence, and I’ll never forget the crowded bus I broke out laughing upon the first time I heard him count up how many M’s he had in his bank account in his deadpan voice.

46. Kelela – LMK

Image result for kelela take me apartKelela brings her electronic take on alt-R&B and impressive lower vocals to a more laidback track from her album.

45. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life (Ft. The Weeknd)

Image result for lust for lifeThe 2 nihilistic stars fire up their perfect collaborative partnership once again, contemplating the things that make life worthwhile as they sit perched on the edge of the Hollywood sign, deciding not to jump off.

44. Tove Lo – shivering gold

Image result for blue lipsThe Swedish songstress finally reaches the level of pop euphoria we knew she had in her, her voice soaring to new limits as the punchy synths explode behind her.

43. Kelly Clarkson – Cruel

Image result for meaning of life kellyClarkson wanted her latest project to return to her R&B/Soul roots, and no track shows more of what she’s capable of than this one. Sounding like a classic Motown record as the horns blare, she shows her impressive range, singing the chorus in 2 different octaves.

42. Miguel – City of Angels

Image result for miguel war and leisureThe most creative song concept of the year, Miguel sings this heartfelt ballad to his lost romance when LA was destroyed by bombs while he was away from his girl in Venice Beach.

41. N.E.R.D. – Lemon (Ft. Rihanna)

Image result for no one ever really diesHearing Rihanna deliver such a flawless rap verse over Neptunes-style production in the year 2017 was something never could have anticipated, but I’m so glad N.E.R.D. are back with their take on experimental hip-hop.

40. Kehlani – Piece of Mind

Image result for sweetsexysavageKehlani’s harmonies are at their absolute best on this breezy R&B track that sees her putting the negative feelings she had regarding her self-image in the past, taking some time for herself.

39. Poppy – Let’s Make A Video

Image result for poppy computer albumThe best manifestation of the mysterious Poppy character, taking on the role of a bubbly vlogger with a darker undercurrent. And oh yeah, the song is pretty good too.

38. Alvvays – Dreams Tonite

Image result for antisocialitesThe indie-pop quartet goes back in time for a vintage sound on this project, mastering the slow build with this track. Frontwoman Molly Rankin’s vocals progressively layer as she envisions romance with a passing stranger.

37. Camila Cabello – Havana (Ft. Young Thug)

Camila (Official Album Cover) by Camila Cabello.pngI knew this would be a hit as soon as I heard it, the ex-Fifth Harmony member bringing her authentic Cuban flair to Frank Dukes’ intoxicating and sensual instrumental. The upcoming album sounds promising.

36. SZA – The Weekend

Image result for sza ctrlOne of the biggest growers of the year, SZA brings us into relatively unexplored territory with this bluntly honest song from the position of a side girl treating romance like a timeshare.

35. ODESZA – Boy

Image result for odesza a moment apartElectronic duo ODESZA puts listeners in a trance with their shimmering instrumentals that inexplicably give off this sense of wonderment, and do so at their best on this more upbeat track from A Moment Apart.

34. Tennis – Fields Of Blue

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyAlaina Moore’s gentle, soothing vocals are irresistible on this blissful ode to romance. Her husband’s catchy guitar pattern backs her up as she harmonizes with herself perfectly.

33. Chris Stapleton – Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning

Image result for from a room volume 1The country/soul vocal powerhouse offers his stripped-back cover of a Willie Nelson song, letting the emotion in his voice tell the whole story in the most heartbreaking song of the year.

32. Kendrick Lamar – FEAR.

Image result for damnThe nearly 8-minute centerpiece of Lamar’s album DAMN. explaining the concept behind the single-word, high-concept track titles, he delivers three powerful verses here detailing his fears at ages 7, 17 and 27.

31. Harry Styles – Sign Of The Times

Image result for harry styles albumThe expansive, cinematic rock ballad from the former OneDirection member shocked the world with its quality – I love a slow build, and this is one of the best I’ve ever heard. The emotion at the end gets me every time.

30. St. Vincent – Pills

Image result for masseductionSt. Vincent calls on actress and ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne to deliver a singsong, nursery rhyme chorus about over-reliance on medication to get through the day, the distorted instrumental produced by none other than TDE’s Sounwave.

29. Paramore – Hard Times

Image result for after laughterThe first we heard of Paramore’s shift in sound, the lead single perfectly encapsulates the 80s-pop revival they mastered across the project as soon as those first tropical chords hit.

28. Jhene Aiko – Overstimulated

Image result for trip jheneWhile it’s tough to pick out individual tracks from such an interconnected musical journey like Jhene Aiko’s Trip, this track offers the most immediately memorable melody, delivered in the dreamy, psychedelic way only Aiko can.

27. Ed Sheeran – Galway Girl

Image result for divide edCreatively interpolating some traditional Irish fiddle melodies into a beat more grounded in the world of hip-hop, Sheeran’s rapid-fire delivery and constant ability to write an inescapable chorus make this a standout on ÷.

26. Kesha – Praying

Image result for rainbow keshaOne of the most powerful pieces of songwriting this year, Kesha aims this track at producer Dr. Luke, relishing in proving him wrong through her success – all while displaying the incredible vocal talent we never saw in the past.

25. Billie Eilish – my boy

Image result for don't smile at meDon’t let her playful tone fool you – this menacing track sees 15-year old Eilish telling some hapless soul to “go trip over a knife”. That initial beat switch is incredible.

24. Miguel – Pineapple Skies

Image result for miguel war and leisureDedicated to Prince, this track sees Miguel step into a long line of sensual soul men with ease, dancing across the surface of the track that samples Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”.

23. Lana Del Rey – Tomorrow Never Came (Ft. Sean Ono Lennon)

Image result for lust for lifeIn a duet with John Lennon’s son, playing the instrumental on one of his father’s vintage instruments, Lana Del Rey taps into her old soul persona and delivers a heartbreaking ballad that could easily pass for a classic Beatles song.

22. Jay-Z – 4:44

Image result for 4:44The best apology Jay-Z could have ever hoped to make. This response to the allegations of infidelity in Beyonce’s Lemonade shows Jay-Z stripping back the confident rap persona to deliver some conversational, confessional lines on just how much he messed up.

21. Lorde – Perfect Places

Image result for melodramaThe closing track to the expansive Melodrama sees Lorde continue to perfectly sum up the experience of those close to her in age, as she’s done throughout her career. The track offers a takedown of the modern party, criticizing those who see it as some kind of mystical haven where anything might happen.

20. Charli XCX – Dreamer (Ft. Starrah & Raye)

Image result for number 1 angelOne of the most confident tracks of the year, Charli XCX opens her first project of the year with a commanding strength of the trap-influenced instrumental, her vocalizations possessing a percussive quality that just helps the track as a whole hit you like a freight train.

19. Mura Masa – 1 Night (Ft. Charli XCX)

Image result for mura masa coverCharli had a great year, and here she assists one of the most promising young talents in the EDM scene with a catchy and carefree chorus over his trademark chime instrumentals and tropical flavour.

18. Jidenna – Bambi

Image result for jidenna the chiefLike if you threw a trap beat on an old standard. Jidenna embraces his Nigerian heritage by paying homage to the popular highlife genre and speaking from the perspective of a polygamous chief who really only wants one of them.

17. Kendrick Lamar – LUST.

Image result for damnOne of Lamar’s most unnerving tracks, the creeping guitar pattern and almost monotone delivery of his verses fits the track’s overarching theme well. DJ Dahi’s reversed instrumental and Lamar’s trademark shifts in perspective make this a standout on DAMN.

16. N.E.R.D. – 1000 (Ft. Future)

Image result for no one ever really diesPharrell summoned some kind of ancient, mystical energy here. This song makes me want to set something on fire. The skittering breakbeat, distorted synth bass, and frenzied rallying cries to start a riot, with a pretty great Future verse thrown into the mix, caps one of the most experimental songs of the year.

15. Future – Mask Off (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for future album coverI’ll never forget the first time I heard the beat drop on this flute instrumental – I felt like I was levitating. Producer Metro Boomin puts you in a trance with this one, and the remix featuring Kendrick Lamar just revs up the energy of the track even more with a spectacular verse where he declares “I am Prince”.

14. Demi Lovato – Cry Baby

Image result for tell me you love me album coverWith her recent, poppier output before this album dropped, I almost forgot that Lovato is one of the greatest vocalists in the music industry right now. Returning to her powerhouse R&B ballads, “Cry Baby” is the biggest vocal clinic of the year.

13. Carly Rae Jepsen – Cut To The Feeling

Image result for cut to the feelingAnother year without an album release, and another of the year’s best tracks regardless. This movie-soundtrack gem was another cut from her outstanding E•MO•TION, and that soaring chorus is just another exercise in Jepsen pop escapism – it fits the formula too, LOOK IT UP, NO I’M NOT A CARLY RAE CONSPIRACY THEORIST!!!

12. SZA – Drew Barrymore

Image result for sza ctrlOne of the biggest vocal moments on SZA’s confessional Ctrl, the chorus is introduced with some quick drum strikes before she explodes into that beautiful high note on “Warm enough for ya?” The rhythmic guitar pattern behind it never leaves your head either.

11. Tyler, the Creator – 911/Mr. Lonely (Ft. Frank Ocean & Steve Lacy)

Scum Fuck Flower Boy cover.jpgTyler continues to deal with the realization of his sexuality in the most Tyler way possible on this track – with a series of complex metaphors and tortured internal monologues. He details his compensation for his loneliness and confusion with some disheartening lines on filling the void with materialism, answered by a crowd yelling “OHHHH” like he just dropped the bar of the year. It’s a beautiful analysis of the trouble with assumptions and expectations.

10. Paramore – Rose-Colored Boy

Image result for after laughterIn addition to that infectious bassline, this song turns all the focus to Hayley Williams. Her vocal command of this track is impressive, showing just as much – if not more – power when she chooses to turn up the intensity by being quiet rather than delivering a huge note. I awarded my favourite musical second of the year to Childish Gambino last year, and this year it is the moment where Williams unexpectedly drops down to that quieter lower harmony at a crucial moment in the final chorus.

9. Julia Michaels – Issues

Image result for julia michaels nervous systemOne of the most incredible new voices of the year, I fell in love with former superstar pop songwriter Michaels’ quirky vocal inflections and surprisingly dark lyrical content. Another great slow build, that beautiful string instrumental is ultimately complemented by a distorted bassline and stratospheric harmonies. Despite its popularity, this track still gives me chills.

8. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyThe title track of folk artist Father John Misty’s satirical, sarcastic takedown of everything 2017 – politics, religion, reliance on technology, nothing is left unscathed by Father John Misty’s hideously dark sense of humour on this track. By the end, he proclaims the doom of humanity while laughing at the ridiculousness and irony concealed in the ways we tore our own civilization apart. He concludes “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got”. Indeed.

7. Rina Sawayama – Cyber Stockholm Syndrome

Image result for rina sawayama rinaThis brilliant callback to the sound of early 2000s pop music delivers the catchiest chorus of the year while being the most successful experiment in the experimental pop genre. Sawayama sings of the futility of romance in the digital age, while the sheer volume of producer Clarence Clarity’s twinkling, layered synths make you feel like you’ve entered another dimension where nothing matters but the sound you’ve been completely immersed in. “Flying high speed across the distant galaxy”, she sings in the most chaotic segment, and that’s basically the effect.

6. Calvin Harris – Slide (Ft. Frank Ocean & Migos)

Image result for funk wav bounces vol 1Has any song ever sounded more like summer? Calvin Harris’ latebreaking foray into funk instrumentals was a resounding success, and inviting the nonchalant delivery of Frank Ocean onto such a sunny, bright instrumental was the best feature he could have grabbed. Offset’s verse is absolutely ridiculous on here, his triplet flow at its bounciest before conceding the track back to Frank for its final chorus where Harris introduces another layer of guitar that sends it into maximum joyous overdrive. It’s even more impressive that every instrumental aspect of the track was played by Harris himself!

5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow

Image result for bodakThis track dropped on us like a bomb, and no end-of-year list would be complete without it. The Love and Hip Hop star’s abrasive New York accent and confident lyrics absolutely obliterating her foes are the best thing to happen to hip-hop in a long time, and she achieved the first solo number one hit by a female rapper since the inimitable Lauryn Hill. If you’ve never yelled the chorus to this song at the top of your lungs, preferably in the midst of a large crowd of people, I’m quite confident in saying you haven’t lived your life to the fullest. The best part is, Cardi B is surprisingly technically proficient – you need some serious ability to deliver that 2nd verse!

4. Lorde – Liability

Image result for melodramaThis stark piano ballad is easily the most emotional song of the year, and it doesn’t even clock in at 3 minutes. Lorde reaches all the way down to the bottom of her range, her voice breaking and crackling for maximum emotional effect as she sings of her inability to maintain relationships with others due to her fame and all that is associated with it, unable to enjoy the joy that she finds with people while it lasts because she’s already anticipating the pattern that will lead to its end. Producer Jack Antonoff knew just the right chords to capture this vulnerability, and their live performances where they sit back to back on the piano bench are something to behold.

3. Kendrick Lamar – DNA.

Image result for damnLamar’s delivery is more urgent than ever on the hardest beat he’s ever rapped over. I wish I could go back and hear the beat switch as the track shifts into its second half for the first time again – I absolutely lost my mind as his performance shifts into a second gear as his delivery speeds up and his tone becomes angrier. Partially a shot at Fox News, partially a celebration of the prestige of his kingly ancestral heritage, this song is just 3 solid minutes of Lamar demonstrating why he’s the best rapper alive with the technical performance of the year. To keep the beat over such an unconventional and sparse instrumental in the track’s second half is nothing short of superhuman.

2. Billie Eilish – idontwannabeyouanymore

Image result for don't smile at meThis is a perfect storm of things I’m a complete sucker for in a single song – the juxtaposition of innocent-sounding vocals with darker subject matter, a 3/4 time signature, soaring soprano harmonies and vocal layering – it’s all here. The emotional depth Eilish shows at 15 speaking about her personal insecurities, told with such sweet-sounding vocals as she examines the problems that make things so difficult for women in this regard, is one of the most moving listening experiences of the year. The resignation in her voice as she delivers her final lines to the mirror, “I don’t wanna be you anymore”, shows a promising future ahead for the young songwriter.

1. Tennis – In The Morning I’ll Be Better

Image result for tennis yours conditionallyThe perfect exercise in simplicity this year, lo-fi dreampop duo Tennis continue to pay homage to 70s pop music with this harmonized and softer-toned track in which Alaina Moore sings about sublimating the energy contained in romantic passion into spiritual betterment of oneself. Like their inspirations, Tennis revolves more around musicality than lyricism, delivering the purest essence of simple human emotions with just a few words, but Moore’s voice is what truly draws you into the track. Soft and unassuming yet playful and inviting, she is the perfect fit for this style of music, and she demonstrates her impressive range on this track in particular, pleadingly delivering the song’s title in the song’s climactic outro as she reaches for the higher end. The bass guitar riff and twinkling piano melody complete the year’s best song.

Check out the list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/7gvb5F1jj6tWpXsKIt2JKi

SZA – Ctrl

Image result for sza ctrlTop Dawg Entertainment signee SZA, their solitary female artist, finally unleashes her long-delayed debut album on the world. We last heard from her in 2014, on the EP Z, which reached for lofty heights with its neo-soul style and atmospheric soundscapes but was ultimately too underproduced to be exciting. Now with a few more years to hone her craft, SZA’s debut is certainly a surprising breath of fresh air. While her previous work didn’t offer a lot of insight into her life or personality, here she adopts a very confessional tone that could only be compared to what Frank Ocean was doing on his recent masterpiece Blonde. As the album progresses, she takes us on a sexually charged and brutally honest ride through her relationship struggles. This is exactly what a burgeoning talent finally coming into her own should sound like.

SZA, like most of her labelmates, keeps as many of her collaborators as possible within the TDE family. Some of TDE’s lesser-known in-house producers show up here, as well as label rappers Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar. Surprisingly, it is Travis Scott who delivers the best feature verse on “Love Galore”, elevating himself over Rashad’s sleepy verse and Lamar’s turn on “Doves in the Wind”, in which he references a certain female body part 20 times. Lamar is there more to add to the dry humour of the song than to add a technically amazing guest verse. Pharrell Williams is the only big producer here, and he sets the tone perfectly with the opener “Supermodel”.

Image result for sza

On this opener, SZA recites some rapid-fire lyrics over a sparse guitar instrumental, addressing the problems she faces with her own self-image in the wake of being cheated on. Her melody is all over the place, her lyrics rarely rhyme and her phrasing doesn’t follow a typical structure. But the thing is — it’s more human than anything else I’ve heard this year. These are real issues and emotions, and when she reveals, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” in a sudden burst of rage, you’re on her side.

The confessional and straightforward nature of her lyrics, many of them addressing female sexuality in a very open and refreshing way, carry the project far above any of the lingering issues from projects like Z. SZA lets the listeners eavesdrop at her bedroom window, and hearing things we aren’t supposed to hear is intriguing. It’s even better that her ex-boyfriend, as well, apparently didn’t know about the aforementioned line until the album dropped.

It’s easy to get lost in this album – SZA’s delivery really manages to hook you and draw you in to what she is saying like no other. She’s talking to us like a trusted best friend, and we want to hear the next part of the story. “Normal Girl” is another very compelling track, as SZA speaks on her desire to be more conventionally ladylike in order to have a better chance at maintaining a relationship. Punctuating all of these truth bombs are some pretty beautiful high harmonies, synth basslines and trap hi-hats that help accentuate SZA’s quicker delivery on tracks like “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”.

The biggest critique of SZA’s earlier work was a simple one – that she was boring. While she’s improved her lyrical aspects tenfold, a few of these instrumentals still call back to those earlier days. Many of them are minimalist, clearly inspired by tracks like Frank Ocean’s recent “Ivy”, but they are not as dynamic as Frank’s end up being, often looping endlessly. This might be fine if SZA had more to offer vocally, to give the track a few more “wow” moments – but she often opts for a scathing burn or a rhythmic, rambling stream of consciousness to make up for the lack of a big note or vocal acrobatics. Her delivery is a lot more like a rapper’s.

Image result for sza kendrick lamar

“Drew Barrymore” is a great example of one of these slow guitar instrumentals  which is saved when she kicks the chorus off with a beautiful high note – “Warm enough for ya?” – as the drums explode and guitar builds slowly. The instrumentals are frequently very similar, nearly an afterthought on this album. This makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between some of the lesser tracks here, as one song flows into the next and you wait for something to snap your attention back. Usually, it is one of those lyrics that makes you do a double take. The fact that this specific aspect of the project is the thing consistently doing this makes it a very unique listening experience, and is one of the main reasons why this album is so innovative.

For a few years, it was looking like SZA might be one of the members of TDE with the least to offer. She has now made it clear why the decision to sign her was made, and since this is technically considered her debut studio album, the quality and artistic vision she presents here is very impressive for a debut. There are still some lingering issues, but like she says on the album’s closer – she’s still just “Ms. Twenty Something”.

Favourite Tracks: Drew Barrymore, Garden (Say It Like Dat), Normal Girl, Broken Clocks, Supermodel

Least Favourite Track: Pretty Little Birds

Score: 7/10

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Image result for damn kendrickCompton rapper Kendrick Lamar, a mere two years after the release of one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time in To Pimp A Butterfly, releases yet another dense and conceptual collections of songs backed up by his outstanding technical skills and lyricism. DAMN. is Lamar at his most straightforward yet, abandoning the poetic and flowery verses set to freeform jazz for a more blunt and aggressive delivery set to radio-friendly trap beats. If anything, this angrier side of Lamar only conveys his messages to the listener better, even if some of the complex musical aspects which made Butterfly so great are sacrificed in the process.

Still, Lamar attempts to tackle some huge themes, reflected in the titles of these songs, and the creativity, artistry and musicality he reliably brings to the table at all times continue his hot streak. It looks like the general public has begun to catch on, if the projected first-week sales and streaming numbers are any indication. For such a short period in time between albums, it’s hard to believe just how good DAMN. is.

Image result for kendrick lamar

Lamar employs all of his collaborators perfectly, recruiting some obvious choices for the direction he chose, as well as some unexpected collaborators who fit in just as well. Outside of TDE in-house producer Sounwave’s contributions to many tracks, trap producer Mike Will Made-It contributes the three most energetic beats on the album in “DNA.”, “HUMBLE.”, and “XXX.”, while DJ Dahi, usually responsible for such beats, appears on four tracks as well.

Veteran experimental producers The Alchemist and 9th Wonder lend some old-school beats for Lamar to flex his storytelling muscles on, as he explains the concept of the album in its closing moments, while 2017 Grammy Producer of the Year Greg Kurstin (Taylor Swift, Adele), helps him cross over to the pop world on “LOVE.”. On the mic, Lamar and Rihanna trade bars effortlessly, TDE artist Zacari provides a thematically blissful chorus, and Bono’s eerie vocals complement the world Lamar paints on “XXX.”.

One of the best things about Lamar’s albums are his running themes, and the biggest one here seems to be dealing with the shock of his rapid critical and commercial success after Butterfly. He comments on people revering him as a sort of saviour or prophet figure, but repeats “nobody praying for me” on a few tracks, and states he was afraid of losing it all. As he examines these themes, pairs of songs serve in stark contrast to each other – “LOVE.” vs. “LUST.”, “PRIDE.” vs. “HUMBLE.” and so forth.

If anyone can tackle these broad concepts in a single song, it is Lamar, and his lyricism is once again top notch here. One of his greatest new tools is the emphasis of a message through repetition, used previously on one of his greatest verses ever – Butterfly track “Momma”s second.  “FEAR.” uses this best, as he pens three dense verses outlining his greatest fears at ages 7, 17 and 27, repeating the same words at the beginning of every line – his mother’s “I beat yo ass” at 7, and being convinced “I’ll probably die” in numerous ways at 17, before explaining the theme of the album in the third verse with his feelings after Butterfly‘s success. The insane true story he tells on closing track “DUCKWORTH.”, of how his father was nearly killed by eventual label boss Anthony Tiffith, is captivating as well.

Lamar’s poppier tracks are a nice deviation from his past, making catchy melodies more endlessly replayable than say, a monster like “How Much A Dollar Cost”. “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” may not be the best tracks on the album, but I’ve certainly played them more than any other. “DNA.”, on the other hand, might be Lamar’s best track ever, as he sounds more urgent than ever before on his most energetic beat of all time. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing the first time the thunderous bass hit as the track switches into its second half and Lamar’s performance kicks into another gear.

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Some aspects of these instrumentals are so beautiful that they deserve mention as well, such as the woozy and intoxicating chord progressions of “PRIDE.”, complete with a falsetto chorus that complements it perfectly, and the creeping guitar melody that introduces Lamar’s unnerving chorus and thematically appropriate dead-eyed verses on “LUST.”.

A few of these songs do fall a bit short musically with the shift closer to radio-friendly territory, but the reasons for the sound are all understandable within the full narrative context of the album. After a track like “DNA.”, “YAH”‘s failure to assert itself at the forefront of the listener’s consciousness feels a little underwhelming, while “GOD.” is the least developed of the pop tracks despite its instantly quotable hook.

As the album ends with the same gunshot that scared me half to death on opener “BLOOD.”, the album rewinds, and Lamar repeats the album’s first line, I realized that Lamar had released a cohesive and conceptual masterpiece once again. This stretch of three studio albums is the best hip-hop trilogy since Kanye’s first three, and Lamar has firmly established himself as a leading visionary artist and a voice of his generation. Believe the hype, DAMN. is damn good.

Favourite Tracks: DNA., PRIDE., FEAR., LUST., LOVE.

Least Favourite Track: YAH.

Score: 10/10

Thundercat – Drunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Where I’m Going

Score: 8/10