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

Advertisements

Future/Juice WRLD – WRLD On Drugs

Image result for wrld on drugs coverIn yet another of the recent long line of surprise hip-hop collaboration projects, prolific Atlanta superstar Future teams up with the 19-year old upstart emo-rap artist Juice WRLD, who recently has a huge hit on his hands with “Lucid Dreams”. I often say that the best hip-hop collab projects are the ones that are the most unexpected, the two diverse styles complementing each other and adding some surprising twists and turns to the tracklisting, and this is certainly a pairing that I never could have anticipated – but this one might just be the slightest bit too weird to work out perfectly. WRLD On Drugs is a lot better than I expected and contains more than a few excellent tracks, mixed in with a fair share of blander trap filler. Produced mostly by fellow Atlantan Wheezy, the beats are frequently what makes the project more memorable than its counterparts. The tape sounds more like the straightforward Future trying to fit into Juice’s moodier WRLD more often than not, but Future’s lyrics have always been able to get surprisingly dark and reflective when he wants them to.

The project opens with two of its best songs, “Jet Lag” and “Astronauts”, some of the most immediately catchy and memorable tracks here that see Juice WRLD apply his softer, more malleable voice to some pretty intense trap instrumentals pretty well – his ear for melodies has him sounding like a more hip-hop oriented Post Malone here. “Jet Lag” is built around a watery synth bassline that bridges the gap between the two rapper’s worlds pretty perfectly, both menacing and melodic as the more traditional percussion crunches mixed in with the trap hi-hats line up for maximum energetic impact. “Astronauts” is another high-octane track with a high-pitched piano loop and rumbling bassline that sees Future take over hook duty and deliver a melody just as good – “Me and Juice astronauts”.

Image result for future juice wrld

The second half is considerably better than the first as the quality takes a steep drop after the initial two tracks – we pick up again on the melodic track “Shorty”, which has a lot more of an R&B vibe. This is a Juice song through and through, built on a shimmering, swung synth pattern that breaks up the standard rhythm of a trap beat a little bit, as Juice does what he does best and delivers a catchy melody with emotionally tinged vocals, Future adapting well in a supporting role. “Realer N Realer” sees the two find more synergy than usual, interlocking different vocal lines layered on top of each other. The beat here reminds me of a modern update of something like an early 2010s Lil Wayne track, very uptempo with some old-school elements thrown in like a reversed beat and a certain kind of synth tone that doesn’t exist anymore in the chorus. The melodic tracks and experiments here usually pay off, Juice often taking the reins. “No Issue” is another fun track with more of a unique approach to trap, Wheezy throwing in some Neptunes-style breakbeats on top.

After Nicki Minaj knocks her extended feature on “Transformer” out of the park with the zany energy we know and love from her, closing track “Hard Work Pays Off” might be the best of all, and it might be its poppiest. With some layered vocals and harmonies from Juice WRLD over a dreamy, ethereal background of major synth chords that makes for a warm, full sound, it’s the catchiest melody of all here. Those bouncy embellishments and Juice’s harmonized ‘whoa’s make this an excellent closer that just brings a smile to your face.

Single “Fine China” doesn’t resonate with me as much as everyone else, judging by its immediate success – it’s here where the lyricism of the two really falls apart most evidently. I’m not expecting anything profound from either of these two, but Juice’s chorus here raises a few eyebrows for a few reasons and seems pretty tone deaf in the current social climate. Yeah, this is trap music – but it’s so prominent in the chorus that it stands out as awkward. The lyrics here sound improvised more than a few times across the board here, and while these two have mic presence and charisma in spades these collab projects are sounding more and more like they were thrown together in a short amount of time – I really believe that the title for “7 AM Freestyle” is actually the circumstances for the track, the two barely sound like they’re awake and lose the personality they had, especially when they have nothing that isn’t generic to say on the track.

Image result for future juice wrld

There are more than a few unquestionably strange decisions thrown into the mix here, and one of them is the unlistenable solo Future track “Oxy”, where he uses the high-pitched, squeaking, inhaled voice that was memed to death on Black Panther track “King’s Dead” for the entire song – it’s a shame, because the beat is honestly one of the best here, but who is telling him this is a good idea? I learned to love it on “King’s Dead” because it was a brief, funny diversion, but I can’t handle it here. The clashes in tone between the two is made evident quite a bit as well, sections of certain tracks like “Different” sounding empty when the wrong rapper for the instrumental style is present, this lurching, minimal bassline here doesn’t fit Juice’s more vibrant voice at all.

WRLD On Drugs’ highlights are so memorable because of how unlikely they were to work on paper – even the age disparity between the two is huge at 15 years. Juice WRLD is definitely an exciting new artist to watch, and his collabs with a steady veteran here show that he can just as easily adapt himself to any area of hip-hop. Sure, there’s some filler here, but when isn’t there anymore in the streaming era?

Favourite Tracks: Hard Work Pays Off, Jet Lag, Realer N Realer, Transformer

Least Favourite Track: Different

Score: 6/10

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

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverVirtuosic R&B-pop princess Ariana Grande’s 4th studio album, Sweetener, might not be her best work yet – but it’s certainly her riskiest and most groundbreaking. With production shared between the omnipresent Pharrell Williams and old friends Max Martin and Tommy Brown, who we haven’t seen since her soulful debut, it’s the work of the former that truly distinguishes it from the rest of her work. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop beats weren’t something I could have ever foreseen working with Grande’s dynamic and powerful instrument as well as they do at times here, and while there certainly is the odd time the experimentation falls flat, Sweetener stands as Grande’s most sonically cohesive album. Along with the unashamedly joyful declarations of love in the lyrics that you can’t help but smile at, it’s an exciting step forward in her career.

While I’ve still been holding out hope for Grande to go full Whitney Houston on us and deliver some R&B power ballads, I’ll take her diverting from pop formulas and adapting more to the current hip-hop influenced state of R&B as well. The first track that truly blew me away on the project is it’s 4th song, “R.E.M”, reportedly a repurposed Beyonce demo, and Grande really does step into her role as a kind of Beyonce figure here. “You’re such a dream to me”, she sings, lowering her register and singing with what might be the calmest voice we’ve ever heard her use, getting lost in the dreamscape. She absolutely commands the instrumental, stopping it and pushing it into different sections with spoken asides and the occasional “shh”. There’s an incredible moment where Grande turns into a full a cappella group for a second, layering some notes in the middle of a verse out of nowhere. This immediately contrasts with the power of next track, “God is a woman”, which still stands out as the album’s best. The song perfectly blends Grande’s vocal power with immediately career-defining lyrical themes and the modern, upbeat sound she aims for. Her quick, confident delivery in the verses slowly builds up to some of the most impressive vocal moments of her career in its final minute, unexpectedly layering her vocals into a full choir to repeatedly proclaim the title as she riffs into the stratosphere in the forefront.

Image result for ariana grande 2018

Pharrell’s production is frequently the most interesting thing about Sweetener, pushing Grande into some unfamiliar territory where she excels all the same. Williams himself appears on “blazed”, which features a rapid-fire slap bass and quickly darting jazzy synths. For the first time, we’re not focusing completely on Grande’s voice, and she quickly proves that she can shine above a more chaotic instrumental as well, jumping out in the mix with some sudden impressive and layered harmonies and a lower-key delivery that contrasts the unique instrumental well. He and Grande both bring their more fun-loving sides to title track, “sweetener”, where Williams provides some booming percussion and synth melody reminiscent of her earlier, more cutesy work that lays the framework for a repetitive hook immediately made for dancing and a joyous, celebratory hook – it’s pure happiness in a song. Williams continues to introduce sounds I never expected on a Grande project on “successful”, built on some kind of low-pitched brass instrument, old-school hip-hop shuffling beat and a steel drum, of all things. The beat switches infuse the track with energy, and Grande sounds perfectly at home anyway as she celebrates her successes with a wink on the hook. That repeated “issa surprise” hasn’t left my head since.

It’s far from being all about Pharrell, though – “breathin” looks like a likely single candidate and is easily her most impressive purely pop track since “Into You”. Another intoxicating slow build, the first prechorus is electric as she makes some impressive vocal jumps and we wait for the track to explode. The beat drops heavy, the track cutting out at just the right moments, and we even get a roaring guitar solo overtop of it all. The combination of the two hooks at the end completely sells it. “better off” places Grande’s vocals front and centre in the mix, and it’s the closest she’s come to sounding like Yours Truly. An emotional ballad, this time Grande isn’t mourning a lost love, but standing up for herself and exiting a toxic situation. It fits in with the overall maturation displayed across the whole project. Oh yeah, and “no tears left to cry”? Still an amazing opening single.

Image result for ariana grande 2018 live

Of course, anyone going into a Grande album not looking primarily for her famously impressive vocals is looking in the wrong place, and there are a few times on this project where it does disappoint slightly as a specifically Grande track due to the more experimental work on the project. Single “the light is coming” never got the best reception, and while the infectious energy of the track has grown on me, the repetitive, spoken hook seems pointless for someone with so much vocal power, while Pharrell’s work on the track mirrors some of his recent N.E.R.D. work. The track “borderline”, as well, feels out of place removed from the other Pharrell cuts in the tracklisting, featuring a 20-second uninspired verse from Missy Elliott and really the only lack of an immediately catchy hook here.

By the time we close with “get well soon”, an instrumentally minimal track where Grande regathers herself mentally in the wake of the Manchester tragedy that occurred at her concert that ends with a moment of silence, it’s clear that Grande has taken time to move forward in a space that makes her happiest. The emphatic declarations of love and personal gain feel genuine, and her forays back into the genre that inspired her from the beginning are a natural step forward. Grande is still one of the most consistently impressive megastars.

Favourite Tracks: God is a woman, breathin, R.E.M, better off, sweetener

Least Favourite Track: borderline

Score: 8/10

Nicki Minaj – Queen

Image result for nicki queen coverRap superstar Nicki Minaj continues to adapt and thrive, dropping her most rap-heavy album yet, Queen. Her fourth full-length project, we see Minaj raising her defenses a bit and reverting back to her classic hip-hop tactics of biting lyricism and an always surprisingly technically proficient flow. In a world quickly becoming more accommodating to the presence of more than one wildly successful female rapper (there are 4 of them in the Billboard Top 5 at the time of this posting), Minaj reminds us why she was regarded as such a powerful force to begin with. Despite the messy rollout that accompanied the project, the best tracks here are equal parts infectiously energetic and unflinchingly tough, the two sides that have always made up her appealing persona. At 19 tracks, not everything comes together and there’s certainly some filler and material that sounds slightly dated, but the highs are fantastic.

The album opens with “Ganja Burns”, a fantastic track that places the listener in the world of the album immediately. Drawing slightly from the dancehall wave that Drake kicked off, Minaj drops a deep-voiced speedy flow that navigates through the prominent, clicking percussion perfectly and immediately sends a shot at Cardi B 30 seconds in. Her dramatic singing on the chorus adapts to the hazy acoustic guitar loop, reminding us that pop Nicki isn’t gone either – just before she starts completely annihilating her foes, as she hits us with the one-two punch of “Majesty” and “Barbie Dreams”. The former features none other than Eminem, who delivers his greatest feature verse in years, Minaj keeping up with him over the menacing siren of a low, buzzing synth – an upbeat piano chorus from Labrinth tries to interject before she cuts him off midway with more vitriol. This doesn’t compare to her coming for THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY on the next track, set to the classic instrumental of Biggie’s “Dreams” as she sends some comical, absolutely savage shots at almost every relevant rapper, outlining the reasons why none of them will see her in the bedroom – it really establishes herself as more of a classic hip-hop figure than we anticipate, and her lyricism and delivery is top notch here.

Image result for nicki minaj

“Chun-Li” still holds up as well, a track that perfectly plays into her over-the-top, cartoonish nature – Minaj embraces the cheese to full extent, and it works. Minaj succeeds at some of her rarer forays into pop territory here as well – the Ariana Grande-featuring “Bed” is a serviceably catchy, chill tropical pop song featuring production from Actual Reggae/Dancehall Artist Supa Dups, but “Come See About Me” really stands out. A legitimately heartfelt piano ballad, I’ve never heard Minaj’s singing this passionate, her vibrato hitting in just the right places before building up to a powerful, harmonized chorus.

The album definitely sags in the middle, quite a few of these tracks lacking the direction and energy that Minaj needs to excel – at the end of the day, most of her appeal really does come down to that expressive delivery. “Thought I Knew You”, a track with The Weeknd, doesn’t seem to know what exactly it wants to be, Minaj and Abel trading brief sections of awkwardly varying lengths, his sing-rap style not fitting at all with the poppier instrumental here – and Minaj’s stuttered chorus sounds pretty low-effort as well. “Chun Swae” extends to 6 minutes in length, Swae Lee’s lilting high-pitched delivery getting grating – though there really are some great elements of the track – that first verse is seriously technically impressive, Minaj extending a rhyme scheme to ridiculous length and then dropping into her fastest flow on the project. The features do let her down on more than one occasion here, Future delivering what might just be his worst verse of all time on paint by numbers trap cut “Sir”.

Image result for nicki minaj live 2018

It’s a shame that Minaj herself seems to be playing into the idea that there can only be one female rapper at the top of the game here with some of her lyrical references, since it makes a few of these tracks feel like she’s going through the motions to reassert herself in a variety of areas, and the last thing she can afford to lose is the amount of fun it always seems like she’s having. Her last-minute addition of 6ix9ine hit “FEFE” to the end of the tracklist is a move of an artist undoubtedly more interested in her numbers than her music – it shouldn’t matter if she gets this #1, and she really might not – this rap-centric album was an opportunity to prove herself through her talent more than her brand, and the segments where she does this more than she has in years are the parts that stand out. Tracks like “LLC” and “Good Form” stand out in the middle for being upbeat, characteristically quirky and off-kilter, dynamic and technically proficient.

Ultimately, Queen is a mixed bag that might possess both some of Minaj’s best and worst tracks of her career, with slightly more of the former. After seeing her take more of the pop direction over the last few years, her reminder to us all that she’s much more of a rapper than many give her credit for was certainly very welcome, but she might have lost a bit of the spark trying to do too much here.

Favourite Tracks: Come See About Me, Majesty, Barbie Dreams, Chun-Li, LLC

Least Favourite Track: Sir

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rae Sremmurd, Charlie Puth, Playboi Carti)

Image result for sr3mmRae Sremmurd – SR3MM/Swaecation/Jxmtro

Brotherly hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd embrace their inner OutKast on the third in their Sremmlife album series, branching out and turning into a sprawling triple disc edition that allows a full album for each member to shine individually. Rae Sremmurd’s youthful, jubilant cloud-rap sound is often a joy to listen to, with great beat selection and the two rappers balancing each other out – but individually I begin to miss some of that interplay that makes them so unique. The lesser known of the two, Slim Jxmmi, definitely gains the upper hand with his grittier Jxmtro, but for most of the project I just want the heights that they reach together on SR3MM.

The main appeal of Rae Sremmurd is contrast of the boyish, carefree yelp of Swae Lee brought down to earth with a more technical verse delivered in Jxmmi’s growl, and they demonstrate this over some pretty impressive production handled mostly by proven hitmaker and frequent collaborator Mike Will Made It here. He delivers his trademark high-tempo and erratic material that fits perfectly with someone as eccentric as Lee. Single “Powerglide” is one of the best tracks across the whole project – it’s 5 and a half minutes of absolute madness, a speedy violin instrumental, Swae Lee’s melodic rap delivery giving way to Slim Jxmmi’s goofy, old-school flow. It’s a constant rush of energy. The Weeknd lays down a great, melodic feature over the clicks and clacks of the contemplative 90s piano instrumental of “Bedtime Stories”, but for the most part SR3MM works so well because you can hear how much fun the duo are having bouncing ideas off of each other, and the instrumentals are creative enough, yet still maintaining the basic tenets of modern hip-hop, to just be an engaging and fun time.

Some of the worst times on this initial section are segments where the energy is lost through an extended Swae Lee singing section, and that’s basically what we receive for a full project on Swaecation. Lee definitely has a good grasp of what makes a good melody, delivering some pretty catchy choruses on tracks like “Touchscreen Navigation”, but most of these songs are one-note and go on for too long, needing an appearance from Jxmmi to return the track’s sense of direction and forward momentum. After the constant knocking hi-hats of SR3MM, Lee’s meandering, indulgent falsetto singing tracks feel a lot more boring. Not even Young Thug, a master of this element, can save “Offshore”, a track that goes on forever returning to a melody that ends abruptly before it gets good. Lee’s flow is too sparse to keep the spacey cloud-rap style interesting most of the time, repeating the same melody line with too much empty space on tracks like “Heartbreak in Encino Hills”. I do like those panflutes on “Heat of the Moment” though.

Jxmtro, by contrast, is a more straightforward album where Jxmmi draws on the more aggressive side of his flow to deliver some hard-hitting, short tracks. Often utilized less than Lee in their collaborative work, it’s great to hear Jxmmi hold his own by himself. “Brxnks Truck” and “Players Club” are an insane one-two punch to open up the album, Jxmmi delivering a rapid-fire triplet flow over a beat that keeps on cutting out at just the right moments on the former while the menacing piano instrumental of “Players Club” makes it sound like OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” if it were actually … a real song. Even this starts to lose steam as we get into the later segments though. It almost sounds like he’s trying to emulate Lee’s style on some of the later tracks, especially “Growed Up”, and while he’s great on these short tracks he’s ultimately not charismatic enough to carry a full album.

Swae Lee’s appearance on Jmxtro, on the ecstatic “Chanel” that also features a show-stealing verse from Pharrell Williams, proves that even when the two brothers are in the midst of discovering what works for them on their own, they work best together. SR3MM is overall an interesting experiment, an inconsistent mixed bag with some incredible highs.

Favourite tracks: Buckets, Powerglide, Brxnks Truck, Chanel, Bedtime Stories

Least Favourite Track: Offshore

Scores:

SR3MM: 8/10 – Swaecation 3/10 – Jxmtro 7/10

Overall: 6/10

Image result for voicenotesCharlie Puth – Voicenotes

Nostalgic pop singer Charlie Puth makes one of the most incredible improvements I’ve ever seen on his sophomore album Voicenotes, losing the Motown-emulating cheesiness of his obnoxious debut project and venturing into a soundscape of 90s R&B and pop which is much more comfortable for him. It’s clear that he drew heavily from Boyz II Men, who actually appear on the project on the song “If You Leave Me Now”. Overall, Voicenotes is full of the same kind of retro-pop bliss that artists like Bruno Mars and Carly Rae Jepsen have perfected, and it makes for an enjoyable journey through those classic 90s chord progressions.

Opening track “The Way I Am” introduces listeners to the kind of syncopated hooks and dramatic synth swells we can expect over the course of the album, one of the most unapologetically 90s songs here that could easily fit on an album like Justin Timberlake’s Justified. Puth’s speedy delivery mirroring the main guitar riff that ultimately creeps back in underneath the explosive chorus is a great use of layering. I knew we might be getting something enjoyable when I heard the surprising singles “Attention” and “How Long”, carried by a fun bassline groove and some jazzier chords than I expected from Puth. It’s all the more impressive that Puth produced the album nearly singlehandedly – coordinating all the vocal layering and interlocking musical elements here takes some serious skill and musicianship that I had no idea he possessed. Apparently a classically trained musician with perfect pitch, Puth knows how to structure chords to their greatest potential. Puth dives directly into the world of 90s R&B balladry with tracks like “Patient”, an earnest, somber track pleading for foregiveness directly from the Boyz II Men bag of tricks. This stuff was so popular back then because it really works – we don’t hear much of those classic pinging percussive noises or harmonies quite like this anymore.

He keeps it up through most of the back half, breaking out the vocoder for “Slow It Down” and closing with the beautiful piano ballad “Through It All”, reaching down into his lower register over a jazzy backing choir comprised of himself. The crown jewel might be penultimate track “Empty Cups”, a bouncy ode to house parties that’s endlessly replayable. The way the music cuts out before Puth drops into the chorus with that trademark wispy falsetto is perfect. Puth stated that he tried to write his chorus like a verse here, and the quicker delivery works well over the sparse bursts of inviting synth-bass chords.

This is still the guy who put out a single like “Marvin Gaye” we’re talking about, and he definitely doesn’t lose all the cheese, he just learns how to deliver it in a way that’s less annoying. Still, tracks like “Change”, featuring the legendary James Taylor, and “BOY” come across as awkward in their lyrical content – the first a fake-woke anthem as Puth attempts to capitalize on the troubled political climate without actually saying anything of consequence and the second dealing with rejection by an older woman and containing some pretty ridiculous lines: “You won’t wake up beside me cuz I was born in the 90s”.

This is guilty pleasure material through and through, and Puth’s defiance of pop trends to explore a dearly departed area of music to this particular reviewer is much appreciated. His capable vocals and musicality make Voicenotes a surprisingly great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Empty Cups, Slow It Down, The Way I Am, Attention, Patient

Least Favourite Track: Change

Score: 8/10

Image result for playboi carti die litPlayboi Carti – Die Lit

Well, here we are. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. Then the rave reviews started coming in so I started wondering if I’d missed something about Playboi Carti, the trap rapper who is essentially nothing but one giant ad-lib, distilling the most obnoxious trends about trap music into one pointless exercise in minimalism. I was right the first time. Die Lit is the first major label studio album for Carti, teaming up with enigmatic trap savant Pi’erre Bourne across an hour of repetitive phrases, uninspired delivery and Carti making a bunch of really, really strange noises.

Die Lit is a long 19 tracks, most of which consist of repeating the same couple lines for the entire duration. While others claim that Carti’s unorthodox approach “recalibrates the brain’s pleasure centers”, as Pitchfork claimed, Carti isn’t present or likable enough on these tracks for me to submit to his jubilant disregard for song structure. His vocals often feel muffled behind the production, a strained, nasal bark that’s frequently buried behind the 5 adlibs he sticks onto the end of every line. His guests often make things a small bit better, but even someone who is pretty much the antithesis to Carti in Skepta – an aggressive, technically skilled grime rapper – gets lost in the watered-down sludge of “Lean 4 Real”. Nicki Minaj’s feature on single “Poke It Out” is the most enjoyable moment on the whole album, and it’s a pretty average verse by her standards – it’s pretty fun to hear her try to emulate Carti’s style for a bit though.

The whole thing is just exhausting to listen to in a world where trap is the most popular style, since Carti is just a reflection of these trends without anything that makes him unique, like trap that was created in a lab by robots without any semblance of anything human infused into the music. It’d be great if Carti could ever string a phrase or a complete idea together – there are so many other artists who are uniquely funny, more skilled, vary their flows, and still have fun with the trap format that gets them attention. It’s a testament to just how much Carti can bring down a track with his lack of musicality when all of these beats are hitmaker Bourne’s – there are genuinely some decent instrumentals on here that just have the energy completely sucked out of them by Carti’s disinterested drawl – “Shoota” is quickly becoming a hit with its shimmering, orchestral synth lines.

Die Lit is certainly unlike anything we’ve heard before, but at the same time, it’s only this way because I previously thought it impossible to replicate trends to such a degree that the artist loses a distinct sense of self. I criticize people for using the Migos flow or riding dancehall or tropical waves, but at least you can still usually identify something unique and worthwhile that each person brought to the table. Carti is trap minimalism for the sake of minimalism, and simply ad-libs and mumbled triplets do not a decent trap song make.

Favourite Tracks: Poke It Out, R.I.P. Fredo

Least Favourite Track: Home (KOD)

Score: 2/10

Migos – Culture II

Culture II.pngAtlanta rap trio Migos return with the sequel to the album that catapulted them to superstardom, which extends to a gargantuan hour and 45 minutes in length and recruits some high-profile guests as they flex their newfound muscles in the industry in the way only they can.

While the project is very excessive, not varying as much as it certainly should for such a long runtime, the album frequently surprises you by how much the Migos still have a firm grip on the sound that they helped popularize, their technical skill elevating them to another level amongst the scores of trap-rappers today and still finding ways to surprise the listener despite the oversaturation of the group and its individual members. Sure, the album is a chore to get through, but Culture II is full of sure-fire hit singles.

Image result for migos

Can we just talk about “Narcos” for a second? This might be my favourite song associated with the rap trio yet, displaying their ridiculous personalities and quotable lyrics (“Magnifico!”), technical skill and a more innovative beat than usual all in the same place. I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t explode – it’s set over a great Latin-sounding guitar sample that actually originates from Haiti, Offset settling into that chorus perfectly while Quavo provides the melodic hook and Takeoff absolutely demolishes the final verse in a technical showcase. This is the interplay between the trio’s strengths working at its absolute finest.

Speaking of innovative instrumentals, Migos are at their best on this project when they deviate from their formula and still succeed at displaying their chokehold on the pulse of current hip-hop music. They recruit Pharrell on single “Stir Fry”, apparently a leftover beat from T.I. in his prime, and demonstrate their versatility on the more Neptunes-esque production, adapting their flows to more of a swung tempo for a rare moment of deviation from the norm. Also, none other than Kanye West appears on the 21 Savage-featuring “BBO”, which still has a trap beat provided by co-producers – but West’s flipped brass section sample is still refreshing for the group.

Although we’ve heard the least from Takeoff since the Migos takeover, he is the star of this project, often trusted with the final verse and displaying some serious technical skill. We’ve heard everything the other two can do at this point, and the increased role for Takeoff is still giving us some new surprises. There’s too much content on this album to fit into a short review, but some other highlights include Post Malone’s hook on “Notice Me”, and the great piano instrumental, actually produced by Quavo himself, on “Crown The Kings”.

Image result for migos live

Major production contributor DJ Durel recently confirmed that Migos only spend 45 minutes at most on each song – and you can tell that they’re basically on autopilot here (They even have a song with that title on this project!). When you’ve defined an entire cultural movement, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but listening to 24 tracks straight is tiring, especially when you begin to recognize the same tricks they use on many tracks. The lyrical themes become increasingly thin and repeated, a chorus of repeated lines such as the disappointing Drake-featuring “Walk It Talk It” or a carbon copy of an earlier song like the “Deadz”-emulating “Open It Up” leaving me wondering why the album wasn’t cut down to the pristine effect of the trap masterpiece that was the original Culture.

There are far too many filler tracks on here to proclaim the successes of the project’s highest highs – I will never listen to this album in full again, simply picking out my favourite tracks and forgetting about the rest. Not that the album doesn’t go as hard as you’d expect it to at all times, but for so many tracks, when the beat or the hook is just a bit subpar in comparison to its counterparts, songs quickly become expendable.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting something that even closely resembled an album after the nearly endless stream of Migos content we’ve received since “Bad and Boujee” hit #1, but in comparison to the original Culture this plays as more of a mixtape quality project. It’s not enjoyable as an album at all, but it’s still absolutely impossible to deny that Migos energy and the interplay between the members that sparked the whole resurgence of a genre. Culture II is just fun enough throughout.

Favourite Tracks: Narcos, Stir Fry, Notice Me, Crown The Kings

Least Favourite Track: Flooded

Score: 6/10

Katy Perry – Witness

Witness artworkIn a world where the idea of the “pop girl” is holding less and less weight, the mainstream sound shifting to a more urban area, trend-setter and record-breaker Katy Perry drops her fifth studio album, Witness. It is her first in nearly four years, surprising fans with her new appearance, politically geared messages and new ventures in sound on singles like “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”. Perry certainly takes a lot of risks on Witness, and seeing her venture out of her comfort zone is very welcome, even if a few of them are more successful in concept than in execution.

Unfortunately, the other half of the album is weighed down by bland, filler pop tracks that sound like they were recorded years ago. We couldn’t expect Perry to be completely experimental now, could we? Still, this album ends up being better than I anticipated, and there are some standout tracks which rise far above the rest.

Image result for katy perry 2017

Perry ventures down more of an EDM path over the course of this album than she has in the past, often letting synth piano hooks or pounding basslines dictate the flow of the track in the chorus rather than her vocal melodies. She does recruit some interesting collaborators to bring these aspects out – Trip-hop duo Purity Ring appears on more than one occasion, standout track “Swish Swish” was masterminded by deep house DJ Duke Dumont, and the closing track is credited to indietronica band “Hot Chip”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Perry album without Swedish pop wizard Max Martin, who is in charge of about half of the tracks here.

There are a lot of misguided decisions on this project, to be sure, but when Perry hits, she hits hard. I never thought a Katy Perry song would give me chills, but here is “Roulette”. A dancefloor synth bassline slowly creeps in behind a breakbeat building up to a perfectly structured chorus. Perry’s range is in its sweet spot here, and the little alterations made along the way, like cutting out the music for a bit on the second chorus, only make it better. This actually kicks off a fantastic three-track run: “Roulette” is followed up by “Swish Swish”, which might be the best single of Perry’s career, and eerie ballad “Deja Vu”.

Really though, how much fun is “Swish Swish”? That SNL performance, with the dancing backpack kid, really brings out the insane energy of this track visually. Dumont’s deep house instrumental, Perry ruthlessly dishing out shots and Nicki Minaj delivering a hilarious, characteristically incredibly feature verse complete the dance floor banger. When Perry’s voice hits its emotional peak, her songs come across better, which is why it is unfortunate how disingenuous her current era seems. Some of the later tracks stand out as well for this reason: “Save As Draft”, in particular. It is one of the slowest tracks on the album, EDM influence being removed while Perry convincingly emotes about her inability to communicate in her relationship.

“Hey Hey Hey” is the biggest manifestation of the problems which affect the album as a whole. Perry has always attempted to have some sort of quirky edge to her lyrics, making outdated references or strange similes and metaphors to fit her fun-loving persona. It’s rarely worked, and I’m not sure why it continues here. All it does is make her look like an out-of-touch aging act trying to fit in with today’s culture. “You think that I am fragile like a Fabergé”? God…

The instrumentals of quite a few of these tracks don’t help rid her of that image much either. Some of the EDM aspects are simply completely outdated – the enormous breakbeat and wobble bass that backs “Power” hearkens back to the days when dubstep was inescapable, and the distortion on Perry’s vocals detracts from the song even further. “Mind Maze” is another inexplicable decision, as she is coated with excessive Auto-Tune for seemingly no artistic or meaningful reason.

Image result for katy perry snl

“Bon Appetit” as a whole is pretty inexcusable. Much like rival Taylor Swift’s track “Bad Blood”, it sounds almost as if the melody of its chorus was made up on the spot. The completely blatant and pervasive food metaphors and puns running throughout and repetitive instrumental only make things worse. There are so many times over the course of this album where Perry still opted to play it safe, which is confusing given how successful her artistic reaches on tracks like “Roulette” and “Swish Swish” were on the same album. Much of the second half- tracks like “Tsunami” and “Pendulum” – just devolve into the same tired pop tropes she’s been trying to push for her whole career.

And just as a final, weird nitpick – Perry tends to write lyrics so that she needs to emphasize the wrong syllable of a word in order to fit with the song’s rhythm. This persists here, infuriatingly.

Witness is ultimately an uneven and oftentimes contradictory compilation of tracks that shows promise to be so much more. Perry has a lot of people on her side, and it’s not like she isn’t a talented singer. Something better really should have come together here.

Favourite Tracks: Swish Swish, Roulette, Deja Vu, Save As Draft

Least Favourite Track: Mind Maze

Score: 5/10