James Blake – Assume Form

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

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

Image result for james blake

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

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

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

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

Image result for james blake

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Chris Stapleton, Miguel, Big Sean)

Image result for from a room volume 2Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 2

Country/soul superstar Chris Stapleton releases the second half of his From A Room series, following the excellent Volume 1 early this year. Despite mostly restraining himself from the explosive moments and outlaw country lyrics on this second half, opting instead for safer, pleasant balladry, Stapleton’s vocal talent is unmatched not only in his genre, but across most of the music industry, and his ability to convey emotion in his delivery continues to ring throughout this follow-up.

Stapleton continues to bring his wife, Morgane, on board to back him up with some pretty incredible harmonies – it’s tough to match up to the vocal presence Stapleton delivers, but she’s more than up for the job. He continues to show his versatility as well, diving directly into the heavier guitars of southern rock on a track like “Hard Livin’” while stripping things back to show the soulful side of his vocals on “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”. Back to back tracks “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” are the highlights here, the former showcasing Stapleton in country storytelling mode as an impressive display of speedy guitar riffs back him up, playing a character once again as he taps into the mindset of a farmer and his undying love for the land that had been passed down for generations. The latter, however, taps into an almost doo-wop style instrumental as Stapleton does what he does best, communicating complete dejection and heartbreak though his vocal delivery. The song honestly doesn’t contain much lyrically, but when Stapleton sings the few words he does here he absolutely makes them count – “What’s love but just some confusion we don’t need?”, he sings, his voice perfectly stretched to its emotional breaking point.

While the cover song on Volume 1, “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, was perhaps its best track, the covers that begin and end Volume 2 are perhaps its weakest points, as Stapleton taps into some overly sentimental material with cheesy lyrical content that contrasts the rugged outlaw character he attempts to portray. Both tracks detail the value he places in his friendships and relationships, but lack the lyrical depth and complexity I’ve come to know him for, remaining on some baseline metaphors. Volume 2 is still a very solid collection of tracks, but most of these songs through its middle aren’t as immediately impactful as their predecessors. Still, Stapleton is at the top of his genre.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody’s Lonely Tonight, Scarecrow In The Garden, A Simple Song, Midnight Train To Memphis

Least Favourite Track: Friendship

Score: 7/10

Image result for miguel war and leisureMiguel – War & Leisure

Miguel’s fourth studio album continues his streak of connecting on his lofty ambitions of R&B psychedelia and strong songwriting, taking a slightly more political angle than usual but maintaining that devilish grin you can feel through his delivery when falling back on the Prince-emulating sensual slow jams he is known for. Miguel’s vocals are assured and confident, the lavish instrumentals behind him contributed by established veteran R&B producers like Happy Perez and Raphael Saadiq layering on top to create a sonic world to get lost in.

After introducing us to the album with “Criminal”, a slower track featuring some laidback musings from Rick Ross, the party begins with “Pineapple Skies”, which pays homage to a long legacy of soul music that Miguel adopts flawlessly. The track borrows some instrumental elements from Marvin Gaye’s classic track “Sexual Healing” while acknowledging the legacy Prince left behind in its lyrical content detailing the purple sky above them. Miguel settles into the upbeat groove of the project, and you can almost envision him doing the suave choreography present in his live performances as he breezes through the chorus with a “backslide … everything gonna be alright”. Miguel is a master of the extended metaphor, declaring “there’s a war on love” at the start of “Banana Clip” before an impressive number of comparisons of his devotion to a soldier at war, while delivering one of the most unique song concepts of the year on “City of Angels”, imagining a post-apocalyptic future where Los Angeles was eviscerated by bombs while Miguel was out of town, as he laments not being there to die together with his girlfriend, lost to the attack. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but his tender vocals absolutely sell it.

While he’s sung in Spanish before, another interesting direction the project takes is “Caramelo Duro”, sung almost entirely in his native language – I didn’t think it was possible for Miguel to sound more at home in the sonic landscape he commands, but he is completely in his element here. “Come Through and Chill” is another excellent track, based around a calming acoustic guitar loop while Miguel shares the mic with J. Cole, returning to form with two great feature verses as the two invite the listener over with a wink. War and Leisure is easily one of the best R&B projects this year, refreshingly relying more on authentic-sounding instruments while Miguel steps comfortably and convincingly into his role as psychedelic lothario.

Favourite Tracks: Pineapple Skies, City Of Angels, Told You So, Caramelo Duro, Banana Clip

Least Favourite Track: Wolf

Score: 9/10

Image result for double or nothing big seanBig Sean & Metro Boomin – Double Or Nothing

All-star trap producer Metro Boomin releases yet another collaborative project, this time with a much more unlikely guest in Big Sean, who he slightly alters his beats for to adapt to his speedier flow. Double Or Nothing is some of Metro Boomin’s best work this year, interpolating some beautiful choral and orchestral elements, but most of the time Big Sean’s inconsistency lets the project down.

Metro Boomin opens strong on the track “Go Legend”. Regardless of the repetitive hook from Travis Scott, the track is carried by a modified trap hi-hat pattern on top of a legitimate orchestral piece complete with swelling violins and twinkling piano that accentuates Sean’s slightly deadpan delivery. The first half of the project is much stronger, Sean staying focused and showing the technical ability we know him for. Hearing Metro’s aggressive beats with a more technical, lyrically-focused rapper is an interesting exercise, even if Sean’s approaches eventually become half-baked. “Big Bidness” and “Pull Up N Wreck” are both grandiose, cinematic rap tracks, 2 Chainz and 21 Savage delivering great, lower-key verses contrasting Sean’s confident boasts, while “Who’s Stopping Me” just continues to show Metro Boomin’s versatility, sampling the guitar pattern from a Brazilian song and bringing the Spanish lyrics back in the chorus. Sean himself declares it “the best beat thus far” on the track, adapting his flow to the swung, Latin flavour and offering the kind of quotable lyrics that only Sean could come up with.

As the album goes on, Sean’s lyrical content here crosses the line past the kind of goofy punchline rap that we accept because of his confident delivery to some pretty inexcusable lines that not even his big personality could save, taking you out of the song quickly. “So Good”, regardless of being Metro Boomin’s most derivative beat, fails miserably at being the kind of sensual anthem Sean’s whispery delivery would suggest due to line after line of middle school-quality punchlines that are too egregious to be effective. You need at least some degree of metaphor there, Sean. Even his flow seems a little off on some of these filler tracks, somehow becoming more conversational when speeding up and attempting to cram as many syllables as possible into a line with a tenuous connection to the song’s rhythm.

He continues to insist on singing on “Savage Time”, a tactic which hasn’t been anywhere close to being good since his first album 6 years ago, while simply sounding checked out on tracks like “Even The Odds” and “In Tune”, extending a single lyrical concept to the entire length of a song, filling in the blanks with different bars each time to tedious effect. While Metro’s production can frequently revive the energy of these tracks, he might be better off sticking to trap artists.

Favourite Tracks: Who’s Stopping Me, Pull Up N Wreck, No Hearts No Love, Go Legend

Least Favourite Track: So Good

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rap Collabs, Kelly Clarkson)

Super Slimey cover.jpgFuture/Young Thug – SUPER SLIMEY

On this collaborative project, two of Atlanta’s most genre-defining rappers come together to continue to assert their dominance over some good old-fashioned trap beats. Future’s straightforward approach and Young Thug’s quirky eccentricities are an interesting contrast that frequently sinks or swims as a result of the instrumental. Thug works well on Future’s hard-hitting beats, but Future has a harder time crossing over into Thug’s jovial and airy world. While the project seems rapidly thrown together at times, as there are some mixing issues present, it’s a lot of fun to hear these two superstars playing off of each other.

If nothing else, the project immediately reminds you just how punishingly hard Future can go as it drops into the first wailing siren and hi-hat roll of “No Cap”. It is one of the most disgustingly grimy instrumentals this year and producer Southside quickly brings us into his world. It’s the shortest track here and ends far too quickly, emphasizing the slapdash quality of the mixtape, but it’s an incredible shot of energy. Southside’s other two beats here, “Three” and the Offset-featuring “Patek Water” are equally impressive as he shows why is the most accomplished producer on the project.

Solo tracks here, especially Young Thug’s “Killed Before”, which is creatively built from a bass-heavy trap beat and a tropical acoustic guitar loop, are often better executed than the collaborations, as the two never quite click perfectly. Bringing together one of the most consistent and one of the most endlessly creative rappers doesn’t mesh, they are better excelling in their own lanes. At times, someone like Future sticks to his formula so much that a lower-effort project like this sees him becoming derivative as well. For two established hook men, you’d think there would be more sticky hooks here than there are – the project is more like a streamlined trap experience than clearly defined ideas. Of course, there are bound to be more than a few incredibly fun moments in that experience, and the project is still a necessary listen for a trap fan despite its shortcomings.

Favourite Tracks: Three, Patek Water, Killed Before, No Cap

Least Favourite Track: 200

Score: 6/10

Kelly Clarkson - Meaning of Life (Official Album Cover).pngKelly Clarkson – Meaning Of Life

Kelly Clarkson, now on her eighth studio album and under a new label, has been speaking recently of her desire to return to her American Idol roots, straying from her pure pop sound and coming back to the realm of R&B/soul music. She certainly has the voice to do so, and Meaning Of Life has become one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Despite the first third of the album being standard pop fare that fails to excite (why does a singer of this caliber deliver a lead single in “Love So Soft” where she stays on a single note?) we soon get into Clarkson’s incredible passion projects as the album continues to get better and better through the middle.

The album doesn’t pick up until “Whole Lotta Woman”, a confident and sassy half-rapped track reminiscent of Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic. But Clarkson’s true power comes in tracks like “Medicine”, “Cruel” and “I Don’t Think About You”, where she gets to show off her technical ability and R&B sensibilities. “Cruel” especially stands out as an old-school R&B track where Clarkson demonstrates some incredible range and more soul than we’ve heard from her in years. Her reassertion of that incredible chorus an octave higher over the groove of the funk bassline shows some serious emotion as well. Her voice is dynamic and capable, running through whistle tones, more subdued and sensual tracks like “Slow Dance” and the full-voiced belt that comes up on the more upbeat piano jams and huge ballads. Clarkson compared “Medicine” to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” and dedicated the album to Aretha Franklin – these are the lofty vocal aspirations she has here, and for the most part, she delivers.

“I Don’t Think About You” is an incredibly powerful track as the instrumental is reduced to just piano chords, directing all the focus to Clarkson’s vocals. As she sings about her newfound confidence and happiness in the wake of a destructive relationship and throws some gospel harmonies on top, we build into a chorus where she progressively hits higher and higher notes at a crucial point to spine-tingling effect. The ordering of the album is slightly concerning, opening and closing with its safest tracks and misguided political angle on “Go High”, but Clarkson’s new soulful tone is a very welcome surprise and should introduce the singer to an exciting new chapter in her storied career.

Favourite Tracks: Cruel, I Don’t Think About You, Slow Dance, Medicine, Don’t You Pretend

Least Favourite Track: Heat

Score: 8/10

21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin - Without Warning.png21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin – Without Warning

21 Savage and Migos’ Offset team up with top tier trap producer Metro Boomin to deliver a horror movie-inspired project on Halloween. It’s almost impossible not to compare it to SUPER SLIMEY, but Without Warning is a much more well planned out and unique project, as Metro Boomin continues to be the only man keeping trap fresh with his constant reinventions and the diametrically opposed styles of Offset and 21 Savage complement each other surprisingly well. Where Offset brings out complex flows and those goofy ad-libs we know and love, 21 Savage’s menacing deadpan gets straight to the point. While 21 can frequently get annoyingly monotone, his ruthless and desensitized lyrics and persona are right at home over Metro Boomin’s eerie sounds here, especially with someone like Offset to play off of.

One of the best things about this project is that it clearly is not a throwaway mixtape – the transitions here are incredibly well-executed, especially as “Nightmare” is introduced by 21 closing the preceding track by repeating “It’s a nightmare on elm street”. Metro Boomin’s work here is chilling, as wolves howl in the background and he programs his synths to sound like the wind whistling through the trees or the unsettling ambiance of a horror film. Adding his trademark hi-hats makes these beats exhilarating – On “Run Up The Racks” he extends a hi-hat roll longer than I’ve ever heard, nicely accentuating 21’s simpler flows on his solo track.

While 21 is so far into his character it becomes almost hilarious, Offset displays a side of himself here we don’t really see with Migos – while it was always clear that he’s the most technically skilled of the group, his flow switches and speedy deliver here is seriously impressive. “Ric Flair Drip” is the solo track that shows he could be just as much of a superstar as Quavo, while “Mad Stalkers” shows the best contrast between the two. 21 comes in with the hook after a particularly speedy string of syllables and metaphors from Offset, not mincing his words and issuing threats in that inhuman drawl. If Offset is the Joker, 21 Savage is Bane. The combination is deadly.

Favourite Tracks: Ric Flair Drip, Mad Stalkers, My Choppa Hate N****s, Run Up The Racks, Ghostface Killers

Least Favourite Track: Darth Vader

Score: 8/10

Kodak Black – Painting Pictures

Image result for painting pictures kodak black19 year old Florida rapper Kodak Black releases his debut full-length studio album surprisingly quickly after the meteoric success of single “Tunnel Vision”, considering the fact he is in prison more often than not. While graduating past his mixtape days and working with some larger names in the industry has improved the overall production value of his music considerably, Kodak’s grating nasally voice and eye-rolling lyricism are still far too prevalent to get past. Painting Pictures is over an hour of repetitive trap beats – though there are a few diamonds in the rough – and immature, cliched lyrics delivered by an individual whose success baffles me.

Painting Pictures is a trap album through and through, as the all-too-familiar 808 bass and snare rolls echo for the hour-plus runtime of the album. However, Kodak did attract some of the genre’s best innovators to the studio and sometimes the beats can actually be good enough to save a song here and there.

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One of the biggest contributors to the album is frequent Weeknd collaborator Ben Billions, who brings along some of his XO labelmates to co-produce. His joyful piano melody on “Patty Cake” surprised me in its ability to make me genuinely enjoy a Kodak Black Song. Mike Will Made It shows up on one track, choosing to showcase the bland trap side of him rather than the genuinely very creative side we see sporadically, while the flutes on “Tunnel Vision” were of course made by the now-ubiquitous Metro Boomin and Southside. Still, all of this unfortunately becomes largely irrelevant.

Some of the features on here make the best of their appearances, or perhaps they just sound like hip-hop savants next to Kodak. The production is the only consistently strong aspect of the album even if it does get rather uninspired after 18 tracks, and better rappers like Bun B, Future and Young Thug make the most out of these beats. Honestly, if Kodak has anything going for him it is a knowledge of how to make a catchy rap melody – “Tunnel Vision” is by no means a good song but I still find myself singing the hook often, while “Candy Paint” is one of the better songs on here due to the sing-song chorus. If Kodak had a better voice, the album might have been much more enjoyable.

Kodak is largely incoherent and even arrhythmic at times. In fact, everything about his delivery is some of the worst I’ve heard on a major label hip-hop release. Incredibly monotone, making the chorus of a song like “Coolin and Booted” sound like a playground chant from hell, he brings new meaning to the term “mumble rap” and when you can understand him he’s delivering sexual lines about mac and cheese and Caillou. Sometimes it fits a rapper’s style to sound like they don’t care, giving the impression that it is effortless, but as Kodak’s voice drones on you start to wonder why someone who raps like this bothered to make an 18-track album.

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Kodak completely lacks the charisma to stand out in any way despite all of his vocal shortcomings, and I could really go on all day about all the many ways he makes me want to swat the mosquito buzzing in my ear for an hour. And yet, the lyrics are still somehow the worst part of the album. They are frequently unnecessarily vulgar, or terrible attempts at making a Lil Wayne-level punchline. You could make a hilarious list of all the worst bars on this album. For all the material here, there is really nothing that makes me come anywhere close to taking Kodak Black seriously.

The bottom line is that this album honestly gave me a headache, and that hasn’t happened in a long time. This is the album that I needed to truly appreciate the return of Kendrick Lamar.

Favourite Tracks: Patty Cake, Candy Paint

Least Favourite Track: Side N***a

Score: 2/10

Future – FUTURE

Image result for future self titledWildly successful Atlanta rapper and reigning president of trap music Future continues his prolific output, surprise dropping this 17-track self-titled effort. The project is technically his fifth studio album and first since last year’s EVOL, but counting the mixtapes that get just as much attention it is stunningly his ninth body of work since 2014. Understandably seeing absolutely no reason to change up what he has been doing, FUTURE is more Future for Future fans, and the quality is up there with his greatest work. While it is simply in the nature of the genre he dominates to be somewhat repetitive, and a trap album of this length certainly begins to sag in the middle, Future’s energetic and rejuvenated delivery as he focuses more on his bars than his mumble-infused melodies elevates this album to one of his most consistently hard-hitting collections.

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The instrumentals across the board are absolutely incredible throughout, it only makes sense that the overlord of trap gets the best beats sent to him. Even if Future’s performances fall into certain patters from track to track, you can’t say that the distinctive features underlying the characteristic rolling hi-hats are. All of the beats succeed in conveying the mood of the track perfectly and all of the most prominent trap producers show up here and do what they do best. Southside is the most frequently called on here and is very consistent throughout, but some of the best work comes from trap savants Metro Boomin and Zaytoven. Up-and-comer The Beat Bully appears once on the explosive tone-setting opener, “Rent Money”, and if this is any indication this man is going to be huge. It speaks volumes to the compelling nature of Future as a character to deliver this album successfully without a single feature, and it isn’t even the first time he’s done this.

We know what the full project is going to be like as soon as the beat drops 20 seconds into the opening track, “Rent Money”. This is a trap beat on steroids and Future sounds like there is a gun to his head and he needs to convince everyone as well as he can that he really did steal all those girls. “Poppin Tags” is another example of attacking the mic like his life depends on it. “Mask Off” is another absolute highlight – I never anticipated a Future sing that would make me want to close my eyes and take in how beautiful it is. The song had me under its control from the beginning to the end on first listen, thanks to some brilliant work by Metro Boomin with the flute and choral samples. He is doing some inspired production right now, it seems like I’ve been praising him endlessly on every album he’s contributed to recently.

I enjoy Future a lot more when I can understand him, and there are a lot more tracks than usual on this project where he relegates himself to straightforward raps, his voice coming through more clearly as a result. Future has the kind of magical X Factor where he can quietly slink onto a track before the beat drops and immediately intrigue the listener as to where he is going with it. His voice is equal parts unique in sound and convincing in delivery. “Super Trapper” is a great example of this, opening with perhaps the most menacing chords on the project as Future drops in with the lower-key hook. His personality shines more than usual – even hilariously mocking imitator Desiigner’s ad-libs on the outro skit of “Zoom”.

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For someone who puts out so many songs about relatively similar subject material, you’d have to think that the writing isn’t going to be top tier on all of them. The structure of songs like “Good Dope” leave too much empty space, and the words are too repetitive and can contain awkward rhyme schemes. You wouldn’t expect Future to be one to pay much attention to logistics, and seeing as this project was likely put together rather quickly it can result in some problems with mixing and mastering. The beats can drown out Future’s vocals at times and it’s already hard enough to hear what he has to say normally. Some songs definitely could have been cut as well, as it all begins to feel like the same song over and over – all of this being said, however, never underestimate how easy it is to be distracted from almost anything by a great trap beat. Any of these songs come on in the club and it’s over.

Future is an truly interesting presence in the music industry because he essentially delivers the same project time after time, at an incredibly prolific speed, and it still works out for him and propels him to higher and higher levels of success. As long as he continues to work with beats like this, he can ride out this formula as long as he wants.

Favourite Tracks: Mask Off, Rent Money, Poppin Tags, POA, Super Trapper

Least Favourite Track: Good Dope

Score: 7/10