gnash – we

Officially back for the new year – this should hopefully be the first of three new posts this week.

Image result for gnash weGenreless artist gnash finally puts together a debut studio album after dropping a flurry of singles over the past couple of years – some of which made it onto this project, alongside the now-ancient smash hit “I hate u, I love u”. Difficult to pin down, gnash both sings and raps over the duration of the project with a sort of distinctive, almost pop-punk inflection to his voice. While his introspective lyrics surrounding struggles with self-worth and dealing with loneliness often border on eye-rollingly melodramatic, there are certainly a few instances here where he strikes a genuinely moving emotional nerve. The instrumentals are similarly inconsistent, some more exciting upbeat, electronic material breaking up the safer acoustic patterns, but we shows sparks of potential in gnash that I wasn’t sure were there.

After the shorter intro track “happy never after” that awkwardly combines some near-spoken word rapping, minimal acoustic chords, and some badly mixed harmonies on one of the poppiest choruses here, the project drops into its clear best song “imagine if”. Featuring some soulful piano chords supporting a chorus where gnash’s singing is at its best, they mute in favor of a more electronic segment in the verse that better fits his speedier delivery. Good luck getting that ay-oh-ay segment that shows up with the slightest of trap beats out of your head – along with gnash’s more subdued vocal performance, not leaning into his more obnoxious nasal tone, the various segments of the track from decidedly disparate musical worlds are added and subtracted at perfect times.

Image result for gnash

There are a couple tracks across the rest of the project that sound just as good as “imagine if” in theory, but gnash’s execution brings me out of it. “nobody’s home” is another smartly composed pop track featuring a tried-and-true chord progression that’s augmented in the chorus in a satisfying way, but the 25-year-old gnash’s lyrics make him sound like an overly dramatic teenager going through his first breakup and the nonchalant delivery of his raps doesn’t sound like he’s taking it seriously, just using the form due to its popularity.

There are quite a few times where gnash’s lyrics really bring me out of the whole experience, like he’s going way too far to describe his pain in melodramatic and sensational terms rather than hitting something more poignant through a less-is-more approach – especially on a track like “insane”, which concludes with a spoken-word segment explaining that he no longer agrees with its sentiment, the joy with which he gets oddly morbid seems out-of-place. “the broken hearts club” is another one that seems almost like it’s trying to manipulative the listener into feeling something, inviting the listener to join him in a community wallowing in sadness – “it’s easier than love”, he sings at the conclusion.

“dear insecurity”, on the other hand, sees gnash’s songwriting at its best. His approach is really not all that different, but there’s something a lot more believable in his words, listing his various anxieties but then flipping his verses at the end to be more embracing of himself for a more complex analysis of the issue. The deep-voiced and soulful Ben Abraham makes you really feel the hook, and The Broken Hearts Clubgnash singing it himself at the end over some more minimal chords is a genuinely affecting moment. gnash embraces the more guitar-driven style his vocals seem more suited for on the track “t-shirt”, featuring some live drums and a genuinely pop-punk chord progression as he reaches up into his upper register, his emotional delivery actually matching up to some of his more dramatic claims. Again, despite some pretty laughable songwriting (“karma tends to be a b-word”…??), the track functions pretty well as an homage to a sound of the past that gnash should explore more rather than his hip-hop acoustics.

Image result for gnash live

“pajamas” and “feel better” are fun enough pop tracks that has me wondering if gnash would be more effective as a producer on other people’s material – the latter especially is a welcome change from the dark clouds that colour the rest of the tracklisting as he sings about that one person’s ability to bring him out of the dumps with a more hopeful, upbeat vocal performance.

Despite some of the better aspects of the tracklisting here, we is weighed down by some more confusing choices that are too prominent to fully ignore – mostly on the lyrical side of things. While his combination of genres and ear for catchy pop hooks have the potential to be exciting, gnash’s debut is inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: imagine if, dear insecurity, t-shirt

Least Favourite Track: insane

Score: 4/10

 

Advertisements

Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgUncategorizable alternative duo Twenty One Pilots release their fifth studio album, and first after becoming household names with 2015’s uneven but hugely successful Blurryface. While I’ve often struggled with the duo’s consistency in the past, as they seemingly mashed disparate styles together for no reason other than the fact that they could, Trench sees them take better control of their more outlandish artistic impulses, combining it with the catchy pop songwriting and heart-wrenchingly descriptive and personal lyrics that made them such a success previously. While their mid-song transitions could still use some work, Trench is the best kind of wildly versatile project that somehow works cohesively, and it’s likely their best work yet.

Kicking the project off with their heaviest song in years, we’re immediately dropped into the droning guitars of single “Jumpsuit”, which introduces just how great the production across the board is going to be on the project – there are so many little details that enhance the world of the song, especially as it ties into the conceptual landscape of the fictional city of Dema that each song is tied to. Something like cutting back to just the menacing bassline for a second in the paranoid second verse works wonders. One of the most consistently engaging things here is how well they’ve fit their more commercially oriented pop choruses so well onto the darker, heavier instrumentals of their past. Writing an inescapably catchy chorus is still one of frontman Tyler Joseph’s greatest strengths, a few of these tracks drawing on 80s synthpop in their most pop-oriented moments. Not many of them stay in that mode for the whole song, but “My Blood” does, and it’s a pretty euphoric experience.

Image result for twenty one pilots 2018

“Chlorine” might be the catchiest hook of all here, though. A more low-key track, the cascading piano embellishments and major-key fanfare of a bassline add to its memorability. The back-to-back tracks “Nico and the Niners” and “Cut My Lip” both dive back into the subtle reggae influence the band has borrowed from in the past and do it better than ever before. The way the vocal modulations on “Nico” frame the drop into the final, speedy rap verse on the track makes my heart skip a beat every single time, while “Cut My Lip” features a final, repeated refrain built for an arena to sing along to. It’s one of the most emotionally sung tracks here as well, Joseph reaching into his upper register. “Pet Cheetah” is just … absolute madness. The glitchy, lurching synth-bass collides with in-your-face hip-hop production for a track that quickly switches back and forth between the panic-inducing hellscape (in the absolute best way!) of the former and the softer, sung sections of chorus.

As usual, Joseph addresses some pretty heavy topics across the board here as well. On the track “Neon Gravestones”, he muses on the romanticizing of celebrity suicide over a somber piano loop and skittering drumbeat, acknowledging how much more famous he’d get if he killed himself. As he’s acknowledged having these thoughts in the past, he bluntly sings that if the worst does happen, he doesn’t want his fans to feed into the culture of celebrity and move on. At the end, he switches the narrative, saying to celebrate grandparents who have lived a full and accomplished life instead – the dedication is particularly poignant due to the death of Joseph’s own grandfather, who appears on the cover of the duo’s 2013 album Vessel. The track “Legend” here is a heartfelt dedication to him, featuring a final verse where Joseph outright states that he recorded it on the day of his passing.

Image result for twenty one pilots live

In an album that goes to so many interesting and diverse places so well, a track like “The Hype” feels far too one-note, essentially just structured like an everyday pop song. The falsetto delivery almost reminds me of an older song from a band like Foster the People. As well, Joseph’s rapping has always sounded a little off to me, and while he’s certainly improved here there are a still a few moments where it sounds like it’s just not something he should be doing at the time. On tracks like “Pet Cheetah” and “Levitate” something about the places he emphasizes his syllables throws the rhythm off slightly. “Levitate”, especially, has a pretty great throwback hip-hop percussion groove with the off-kilter Twenty One Pilots edge, but Joseph’s higher-pitched delivery doesn’t fit right with the tone of the track. Follow-up track “Morph”, on the other hand, sees him settle in perfectly. Another exquisitely produced track, the emotion creeps into his delivery over the chilling synth-piano eerie carnival ride of an instrumental. I love how many different places the track goes without losing its essence – through the almost future bass swells, the falsetto pop chorus, the tropical house synths at the end … it’s boundless creativity at work.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have essentially done the best possible thing they could do here after skyrocketing to fame, taking some of the greatest elements of what the general public were drawn to and combining it with some of the greatest elements of what made them unique in the first place. I’m sure their diehard fans are getting even more enjoyment out of the complicated lore behind the project as well. Another contender for the Most Improved Award.

Favourite Tracks: Morph, Neon Gravestones, Nico And The Niners, Pet Cheetah, My Blood

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

Logic – YSIV

Cover art for Young Sinatra IV, which features a photo of Logic mimicking the famous Frank Sinatra mugshot.Maryland rapper Logic offers the conclusion to his early Young Sinatra series of mixtapes as his fourth studio album, and the second project he’s dropped this year alone after Bobby Tarantino II. Undeniably skilled and possessing one of the most impressive flows in the game today, Logic’s explosion into the mainstream has also seen him step into an assumed role of changemaker and motivational speaker, not quite backing up the huge ideas he throws around with lyrical substance. On YSIV, he steps back from the preachy and heavy-handed subject material for a bit in his return to the boom-bap sound where he got his start, paying homage to rap history in more ways than one and legitimizing himself in the genre. Of course, many of the things that make Logic so frustrating at times still manifest themselves here, but this is his best work since The Incredible True Story.

Mostly produced by in-house producer and Logic’s close friend 6ix, these beats certainly hit hard in your headphones and it’s easy to see how much Logic truly loves the style – one of the most appealing things about him has always been how much he comes across as one of us, a rap fan who made it big. He’s the kind of guy to use one of J. Cole’s old ad-libs (on “The Glorious Five”) and immediately beam about the fact that he did it on the track. The genuine excitement and earnestness with which he does what he does is obvious from the start, and his legions of fans seem to have gravitated to him just because he’s a good guy – the back half of opener “Thank You” is full of 4 minutes of voicemails from fans from all over the world that confirm this, as they proclaim love for the man himself and how much he inspires them.

Image result for logic rapper 2018

At the same time as he gets caught up in this excitement though, he never really breaks out of emulation of others, or gets stuck on single topics. On almost every song here he throws in a line about boom-bap over mumble rap, using the same rhymes. The opening run from “Everybody Dies” to “The Glorious Five” is essentially 3 of the same song, with a standard heavy percussion boom-bap instrumental and Logic’s breakneck flows and punchline bars. Of course, these songs are still very enjoyable and an excellent showcase for Logic’s talents, it’s just that it feels like he can still give more. He certainly is finding a better way to deliver some of his more inspirational ideas, integrating it into the larger conversation of a song instead of repeatedly hitting us over the head with it – even the Ryan Tedder-featuring single “One Day”, the most Everybody-esque track here where Logic essentially implores his fans to follow their dreams, is pretty great. The bouncy piano instrumental and wide-eyed chorus fits better with Logic’s message.

The middle and back half of the album is where Logic really starts to do some more interesting things. He gets every living Wu Tang member to feature on the 8-minute long “Wu Tang Forever”, and for the most part everyone, including Logic, brings it – enough to keep me completely engaged for the entire duration. Logic might essentially be doing his best Ghostface impression, but he’s always worn his influences on his sleeve and he sounds great on a more menacing instrumental. Best verses? I’ll give it to Method Man and Raekwon. “100 Miles and Running” features one of Wale’s greatest verses in years, and Logic accelerating his flow to a ridiculous speed while bragging about how many syllables he can fit in a sentence. It’s as old-school a beat as you can get with a funk bassline, high-pitched guitar riff and falsetto chorus from John Lindahl, and this seems to be Logic’s element. The more impressive thing is it sounds like he’s just freestyling and having fun – it doesn’t matter if he’s not actually saying anything if he always sounds as in the moment and engaging as that delivery on those repeated ‘everybody ALIIIIVE’s.

Image result for logic rapper 2018

He shows off some of his most impressive lyricism in a while as well as the album comes to its conclusion: “Street Dreams II” is a vivid and engaging storytelling track as Logic runs through an action movie dream sequence, but the track “Legacy” is where we really get some insight on the perspective he has on his rap career. Logic envisions a future where he devotes so much time to music and cementing his place in rap history that he neglects his family: the fictional Logic states he’ll be remembered for generations, before someone reminds him he won’t even be remembered by his own son. We get some pretty striking verses as he depicts dying of cancer regretful, and some verses from the perspective of his wife and children before deciding as the track fades out “f**k a legacy, imma live my life”.

Logic pays tribute to the late Mac Miller on the track “YSIV”, which shares the same sample as the other Young Sinatra title tracks. A standard 6-minute Logic track of straight bars, at the end he echoes some of Miller’s early lines and reveals that he was one of his first inspirations to start rapping, using the same sample on a track from his 2010 mixtape on the first Young Sinatra.

The really impressive thing here is that this might be the first project where the only reference to Logic’s biracial status is a joke on “ICONIC” about how much he references it. Kidding, but there really is more variety on this project than usual, and it helps. As we close with an 11-minute half-spoken story of his come up titled, what else, “Last Call”, there’s almost nothing here that can’t be directly tied to one of Logic’s peers, but his fandom is part of what makes him so endearing – and with “syllability” like he has, sometimes you just have to sit back and be impressed by a technical showcase.

Favourite Tracks: 100 Miles and Running, Wu Tang Forever, ICONIC, Street Dreams II, Legacy

Least Favourite Track: The Adventures of Stoney Bob

Score: 7/10

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 (James Bay, BTS, Pusha T)

Image result for james bay electric lightJames Bay – Electric Light

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Stand Up

Score: 6/10

Image result for love yourself tearBTS – Love Yourself: Tear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: So What

Score: 7/10

Image result for daytona album coverPusha T – DAYTONA

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Hard Piano

Score: 9/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Post Malone, Janelle Monae, Leon Bridges)

Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

Breakout artist of the year Post Malone plays it safe on his first album since exploding into the mainstream, offering over an hour of the same admittedly very addictive and fun formula that made “Rockstar” one of the year’s biggest hits. Malone is a master at making the kind of bland, inoffensive music that can be played in the background at almost any kind of function due to it’s ability to transcend genres. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to hate. However, listening to a full project, the formulae begin to make themselves far too clear, and while Malone does offer some surprises in terms of the strength of his singing voice and hooks that are too much fun to ignore, Beerbongs and Bentleys is a bit of a chore to get all the way through.

Despite being frequently grouped amongst the hip-hop community, I see Post Malone as more of a singer with pop and even country elements that uses the popularized structure – and vernacular – of trap music in order to attracted a widespread audience, situating himself perfectly in the middle of multiple diverse worlds. It’s a pretty respectable business plan, and the hooks across the board here show that Malone has more of a grasp on how to write a catchy, marketable chorus than anyone. Someone who has risen to popularity this quickly and completely has to be doing something right. With producers like Frank Dukes and even Scott Storch on board, Malone’s team help him as much as they can, allowing his melodic instincts to shine. Dukes’ “Rich & Sad” is built over a bed of plaintive, falsetto human vocal samples and synth-bass that make his repetitive hook work. Repetition works when the grasp of melodic ability is so strong – “Psycho” is somehow a great track despite it containing little more than two alternating musical phrases.

Quite a few of these songs go a bit too far into the territory of being catchy, inoffensive background music and never really pick themselves off the ground, the instrumentals too empty. A track like “Spoil My Night”, laughable lyrical content aside, has lost all of its energy in the middle of the Swae Lee feature, the trap hi-hats dropping out in favour of the moody, watery creeping synth instrumentals that dominate most of Malone’s sad trap cowboy routine. The lyrical content ultimately wears thin on an 18-track album, Malone delivering the same generic lines about partying with some ridiculous metaphors and references. It also reveals that Malone doesn’t have much artistic ambition of his own, existing as the most readily available amalgamation of all the current trends across the music industry. None of this music forces itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness. Listening to song after song of hooks built to be the soundtrack designed to keep a party going and nothing more gets exhausting. The album could easily have been cut at the surprisingly decent ballad “Stay”, the 12th track – there are 6 more afterwards consisting of the same ideas that we’ve heard expressed elsewhere with so much more musicianship, polish and charisma.

It’s tough to talk about individual tracks across this album, because there is almost nothing that distinguishes each instrumental from the next, Malone singing a different, intoxicating and repetitive hook over each one. And while this works incredibly, impressively well in the right situation, an album length just reveals Malone’s lack of ambition.

Favourite Tracks: Better Now, Psycho, Rich & Sad, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Over Now

Score: 5/10

Image result for dirty computerJanelle Monae – Dirty Computer

R&B artist Janelle Monae takes a detour away from her android character Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis Suite album series in order to drop a poppy and poignant look at the plight of minorities through the lens of technology that she is so fond of using. With a slew of great collaborators and Monae’s exuberant declarations of self-assertion in her lyrical content, juxtaposed with instrumentals that would make mentor Prince proud, Dirty Computer is sure to be one of the year’s – or the decade’s – greatest albums.

The album is introduced to us with the opening title track, featuring Monae’s calm and smooth alto tone introducing the concept of the album with backing harmonies and instrumentation from the master of harmonies himself, Brian Wilson. The accompanying “emotion picture” depicts a society in which minority groups’ identities are seen as a computer virus, their memories removed and “cleaned” up. The majority of the album consists of tracks depicting experiences that needed to be removed from Monae’s memory, a full-out celebration of all the things that make her unique in an embrace of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality through an exuberant funk-pop shimmer. Monae has said she was very influenced by Prince, who she knew well, across this project and it definitely shows – especially on lead single “Make Me Feel” that lifts the same funk guitar chords from his hit “Kiss”. Many of these tracks are carried by rattling hi-hats and a funk bassline, Monae applying her very capable vocal abilities in a completely unapologetic shout, usually dropping at least one rap verse onto each song.

Dirty Computer is an extremely sexual album in a world that suppresses it, especially for someone like Monae, and her matter-of-fact statements on its unavoidable presence and importance on tracks like “Pynk” are just as confidence-inducing as her braggadocious rap track “Django Jane” where she runs through her many achievements and declares herself the greatest of all time. “Screwed” is an absolute show-stopper of a song, fuelled by handclaps and shiny guitar riffs that sound like a double-time HAIM track. It’s the most immediately catchy melody and the most overtly political song here, using the title as a double entendre calling for a final party before the bomb drops – “everything is sex, except sex, which is power”. The album itself feels like this party at times, not letting the listener take a breath once as it continues to deliver high-octane pop tracks with an overarching message of universal love.

Many of the instrumentals’ funk elements here remind me of Pharrell Williams’ early work, and Williams shows up on the rap track “I Got The Juice”, Monae’s delivery at an all-out energetic scream as the hi-hats crash into each other perfectly, her chopped vocals in the background. My favourite track of all might be “I Like That” however, one of the calmer ones here that lets us hear the prettier side of Monae’s singing voice, carried by an incredibly catchy musical phrase looped by backing vocals as she speaks on her intentional diversion from the norm. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs, and I like that” has to be one of my all-time favourite lyrics. The whole thing culminates in “Americans”, a gospel-influenced track that sees Monae slip into the character of various individuals blindly dedicated to outdated ideals of the what the American flag signifies before the bouncy, singalong chorus simply declares “Love me for who I am” with some beautiful harmonies. As the refrain echoes, a reverend’s voice starts a speech calling for the rights of various marginalized groups, some that Monae belongs to and some she does not.

Dirty Computer and its accompanying visual are incredibly powerful, brilliantly conceptual stuff, and it might be the most important sociopolitical message delivered through music next to “This Is America” this year. I’ll be surprised if anything comes out this year that knocks this from my top spot.

Favourite Tracks: I Like That, Screwed, Make Me Feel, Americans, I Got The Juice

Least Favourite Track: Take A Byte…? I guess?

Score: 10/10

Image result for leon bridges good thingLeon Bridges – Good Thing

Texas retro-soul and blues singer Leon Bridges takes a bit of a step back from his triumphant debut Coming Home, falling prey to the sophomore jinx and turning to pop producer Ricky Reed for the majority of the album. As a result, the poppier tracks here are actually the album’s best, Reed losing his way at producing the classic sounds that Bridges’ smooth vocals fit so cleanly over. Still, even if many of these tracks don’t stick as well as many of his past endeavours, it’s always a delight to hear a voice like Bridges’ – there aren’t many people making albums this popular that sound like him, and his simple love songs call back to an earlier era of songwriting.

The opening track “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” is the kind of music that bridges should be making all the time, the opening flurry of sound almost like a montage transporting us back in time like a cinematic flashback. The song places his vocals front and center, strings echoing in the background as he hits the best part of his upper register in the chorus, the slight rasp that makes his vocals distinctive complemented by some great high harmonies. The majority of the tracklist makes it all too clear that this was an album produced by a guy who has worked with people like DNCE and Maroon 5 recently. Quite a few of these tracks are loose, upbeat tracks where Reed attempts to replicate the vibe of a blues or jazz song, instrumental solos often taking up the empty space, but eliminates the complexity often found in the instrumentals for a straightforward rhythmic pattern that makes the music more accessible for the many people who made this the top-selling album of the week. It becomes less about Bridges in complete command of his element, and it makes his more subdued style of delivery less likely to stand out on tracks like “Bad Bad News” and “Beyond”. Bridges excels when the instrumental molds to his direction, rather than the other way around.

“Shy” is another great track that sees the return of the vocal harmonies and jazzier chords that aren’t as present elsewhere, Bridges slowing the track down and commanding attention with his dynamic vocal presence and charisma. Of course, Reed is still one of the better mainstream pop producers, and this shows on the danceable, all-out pop tracks “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “You Don’t Know”. Bridges’ voice is versatile enough to be believable as a John Legend-esque pop vocalist, sounding like the GOOD Music artist on the former especially, vocoder harmonies backing him up on the kind of early guitar-funk pop bounce that’s quickly becoming popularized. The problem lies when these poppier elements aren’t mixed as well with elements from Bridges’ musical territory, awkwardly shoehorning in modern sounds where they shouldn’t be, like the percussion on a track like “Forgive You” that clashes with the acoustic guitars.

Bridges is a great vocalist that’s always a breath of fresh air in the landscape of what’s popular right now, but the team up with Reed here doesn’t make much sense and holds it back from being a truly great project – I trust he’ll be back with a vengeance on his next.

Favourite Tracks: Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand, Shy, You Don’t Know, If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Mrs.

Least Favourite Track: Bad Bad News

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Macklemore – Gemini

Image result for macklemore geminiSeattle rapper Macklemore’s third studio album and first without producer Ryan Lewis sees him largely abandon the maudlin and misguided political exploits that colored his 2015 effort This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, falling instead into a cycle of trend-hopping that is so specific I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t wind up with a few lawsuits on his hands. Macklemore’s brand of bombastic, stadium-sized rap tracks still has its fair share of thrilling moments, as he demonstrates how capable and technically skilled of a rapper he is at points on Gemini, but far too often the project falls into lyrical oblivion and painful unoriginality. The Heist seems like a distant memory.

The album actually opens in promising fashion, as Macklemore recruits “Downtown” collaborator Eric Nally for a pump-up anthem on “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight”. No matter how often Macklemore uses one of these bouncy piano beats with a trademark horn section, he can carry a track with his charisma when he wants to. The added funk bassline, stadium-sized chorus and self-confident lyrics make it a track to throw on for any occasion.

Image result for macklemore

Macklemore’s reliance on slower, introspective tracks is pretty disappointing given how great of a technical rapper he actually is. Remember “Jimmy Iovine”? He demonstrates some quite impressive speedy flows briefly on “Willy Wonka”, but he combines it with some legitimate star power on goofy dance track “Levitate”.

Gemini feels like parody much too often, either of another artist or of himself. Macklemore is seemingly completely unable to latch onto any particular thing that makes him special as an artist in any way, as the project boasts a featured artist on every single song but one and nary an original idea. Macklemore has clearly been studying the rap charts recently, as you can easily match about half of the tracks here to a better executed rap hit counterpart.

“Marmalade” has not only the exact same piano chord progression as D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”, but THE SAME FEATURE ARTIST in Lil Yachty. You could probably tell from the title, but “How To Play The Flute” sounds like a bootleg “Mask Off” made by a YouTube DJ. “Corner Store” recruits fellow Seattle rapper Dave B, who does his best Chance the Rapper impression as the Social Experiment-emulating horns blare, while “Willy Wonka” sees Macklemore try his hand at Migos’ trademark style of trap with Offset, awkwardly yelling his own ad-libs after every line in the way only the Migos can.

Lead single “Glorious” feels like an outsider checking all the boxes of a typical Macklemore song but not putting as much effort into it. The incredibly general “inspirational” lyrical content, stadium chant backing vocals and piano beat just bring to mind a watered-down “Can’t Hold Us”. Macklemore attempting to blend into the modern rap scene and aping what everyone else is doing is such an antithesis to the sound he presented on The Heist, which blew up because there was nothing like it at the time. When he tries to put a Travis Scott-style effect on his voice on a track like “Ten Million”, it just doesn’t fit him at all.

Image result for macklemore

Macklemore’s lyrics on this project are frankly embarrassing and almost make me wish he tried to say something of consequence again. Tracks like “Marmalade” make me wonder what kind of a mindstate he was in when he wrote these bars down. A couplet sees his criticizing Tinder users before immediately admitting he’d use it too if he were single, and bellows “Watching Toy Story 3, that’s a great f*ckin moooovie” with absolutely no context.

“Intentions” is easily one of the worst tracks of the year, as Macklemore offers some sleepy rhymes over a repetitive acoustic guitar loop while doing what he does best – whining about his first world problems. Oh no everyone, Macklemore wants to read a book but all he can do is watch TV. “I wanna be a feminist, but I’m still watching porno” is a real line on a recorded album this year. But it’s fine, as the chorus repeatedly asserts, Macklemore is “Okay with who [he] is today”. His striving to be relatable continues on Kesha collaboration “Good Old Days”, which sounds exactly how you think it does as the two play on the ever-popular theme of nostalgia without actually saying anything of interest.

Macklemore opens misguided rock venture “Firebreather” by saying “Got a Guns N Roses T-shirt, and never listened to the band. Just being honest, I just thought that sh*t looked cool”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Macklemore tries on everybody else’s style like an outfit to discard later on Gemini. I wish he went back to the thrift shop.

Favourite Tracks: Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight, Levitate, Corner Store

Least Favourite Track: Intentions

Score: 3/10

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Funk Wav Bounces 1.jpgVersatile DJ and frequent hitmaker Calvin Harris’ 5th studio album is a reinvention of sorts. While he has frequently incorporated some aspects of funk and hip-hop into his music in the past, he has never attempted to make this much of a fully-focused and cohesive project. Harris abandons the formulaic dance drops here, instead turning his attention to the creation of a compact, star-studded 10-track affair full of breezy synth-funk instrumentals. Harris has all but succeeded at making the perfect summer album here.

Although some of the logistics of the project leave a few things to be desired, most of the fun of Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 comes from letting loose and not caring about them. Harris said it best himself in a tweet – this isn’t “feel good music”, this is “feel INCREDIBLE music”.

Image result for calvin harris

As soon as you hear those opening piano chords on “Slide”, you know that what you’re about to experience is going to be a lot more musically complex than your typical Calvin Harris album. Harris has always been one of the more talented mainstream DJs, a multi-instrumentalist who plays all the piano and guitar parts on his albums among other things, but the many interlocking aspects of a funk album helps you understand just how difficult his job here was, more than in his previous work.

Harris may have assembled the most impressive guest list of the year here, recruiting legitimate superstars from the worlds of pop, R&B and hip-hop on every track. We have legitimate superstars like Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, rap heavyweights like Migos, Future and Young Thug and R&B stars both indie and mainsteam like Frank Ocean, Kehlani and Khalid all on the same project.

Many of these instrumentals sound rather similar, but the tracks are easily distinguishable due to the diverse roster of guests. The whole album flows well into each other, and Harris makes the most out of some collaborations that you never could have imagined. We have three excellent songs on this project in “Cash Out”, “Holiday” and “Feels” that feature artists that you could have never imagined in the same universe. ScHoolboy Q, PARTYNEXTDOOR and D.R.A.M. combine their three completely different takes on urban music into one beautifully oiled machine on “Cash Out” – ScHoolboy calms down a bit and channels his inner Snoop Dogg to glide over the bouncy, G-Funk inspired instrumental. The Dogg himself appears later on “Holiday” and sounds more comfortable and confident than he has in years.

The overall essence of the project is just so much fun. At one point as the song is fading out, Harris punctuates a critical beat intersection of “Prayers Up” with a loon sound effect. It’s the goofy, carefree spirit of a move like this that pervades the album as a whole. Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams sound like they’re recording the chorus of “Heatstroke” while reclining on a huge flotation device in a pool.

Image result for calvin harris live 2017

Pharrell’s more prominent turn on “Feels” is another standout moment, bringing to mind some of the better tracks on his similarly funky 2014 album, G I R L. Harris’ bassline is punctuated with guitar stabs on beats 2 and 4 that give the track somewhat of a reggae flair. Pharrell’s light vocals transition to a chorus from Katy Perry, whose frequently forced quirky persona finally fits in this environment, and we close with a beat switch and a characteristically relaxed Big Sean entering with an eye-roll and a “God damn”. If you’re looking for crowd-pleasing hits, this album really is an embarrassment of riches.

A few of these guests are simply not suited to this style of instrumental, and don’t really try all that hard to fit in either. Harris went all-out to land these features, but Future’s appearance on “Rollin”, flexing his characteristically disjointed flow over a pounding funk bassline, is completely misplaced. The appearance of other mumble rappers like Travis Scott and Lil Yachty don’t go over much better. Despite the detractions coming from vocal delivery on more than one occasion, the instrumentals are often enjoyable enough to overlook them. Nicki Minaj’s Auto-Tune drenched cadence on “Skrt On Me” is a little excessive, but the melody associated with it is so catchy that it doesn’t really matter either.

Trust me, when you roll down the windows and blast these tracks, the little nitpicks I’m making here aren’t going to make you turn it down. Harris has tapped into summer vibes perfectly and I’m going to be nodding my head to these bouncy funk instrumentals all summer and beyond. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the most fun album of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Slide, Feels, Heatstroke, Cash Out, Holiday

Least Favourite Track: Rollin … if I had to choose …

Score: 8/10

DJ Khaled – Grateful

Grateful by DJ Khaled cover.jpgOnly 11 months removed from the release of his last album, Major Key, DJ Khaled is back with a new purpose. Clearly fully embracing his status as the biggest walking, talking meme alive, Khaled delivers a double album that takes everything about Major Key and makes it bigger, and oftentimes, a lot more ridiculous than it needs to be.

The album is 23 tracks and runs for approximately an hour and a half, as Khaled and many of his collaborators appear to phone it in and provide quite a few obvious filler tracks. Major Key saw Khaled taking full advantage of his new public profile and making a clearer, focused effort, but outside of a few appearances of Khaled’s uncanny ability to be perfectly tapped in to exactly what music purchasers didn’t know they needed, Grateful is a disorganized mixed bag.

Image result for dj khaled 2017

Khaled albums have always been all about the collaborators, and Grateful boasts what might be his most impressive list yet. Despite the bigger names, Khaled still struggles with using his collaborators in the most effective way, as they are unevenly distributed across tracks and many could benefit from more recognition of what is working and what is not over each instrumental. Many of music’s biggest stars appear in the album’s early goings, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Drake and Justin Bieber, while hot rappers of the moment such as Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott, and Future appear multiple times across the album’s many, many tracks.

One interesting development on the project is Khaled stepping up more than he ever has before as a producer – Many of his contributions are rather generic takes on the popular trap sound, but he shows that he actually has some musicality and delivers some great chords on tracks like “Billy Ocean” and “Unchanging Love” as well. Still, many of the album’s best tracks were the ones he wasn’t involved in.

I might have gotten a little too excited for this album based on the two excellent singles “Wild Thoughts” and “I’m The One”, and they still stand tall on this jumbled tracklist. A flip of Santana’s “Maria Maria” with a megastar like Rihanna is something that only the culturally tuned-in mind of Khaled could come up with, and the results could not be anything other than an undeniable hit. And where is the fun-loving spirit and personality infused into every aspect of “I’m the One” on the rest of the album?

While Khaled has clearly just attempted to capitalize on his meme potential hitting the ceiling with the birth of his son, it is easy to forget how much quality music he has actually provided us with over the years, and the album actually starts picking up that energy again at the tail end of the tracklisting of all places. The run from “Iced Out My Arms” to “Unchanging Love” are some of the most melodic, creative tracks here with strong performances from everyone. I have to give out a few feature shoutouts as well – Nicki Minaj continues her hot streak and knocks her “I Can’t Even Lie” verse out of the park, Alicia Keys sounds great as always and 21 Savage and Migos bring it to “Iced Out My Arms”.

Image result for dj khaled son

Where nearly every song on Major Key had a memorable hook, quotables for days and at least one guest making the absolute most of their appearance on the track, many of these tracks just feel like a bunch of compiled leftovers. Leftover beats, leftover verses and leftover ideas. Too often a track is built around a hook that sounds like it was improvised on the spot overtop of a trap beat that I’ve heard a hundred times before. Travi$ Scott is really not the hook man Khaled seems to think he is, and his ability to sound off-key while still using Auto-Tune ruins all 4 tracks he’s on.

Not only this, but the mixing and mastering of the album is pretty noticeably unfinished on quite a few occasions, most notably “It’s Secured” – the levels are completely unbalanced. This album was clearly rapidly thrown together without any regard for organization – I hate to think what didn’t make the cut, if anything.

There are so many unfinished and terrible ideas on this project that it’s hard to think of a few to list, but some of the most egregious things include “I Love You So Much”, a track seemingly for Khaled’s son and his son alone in which Chance the Rapper legitimately raps the alphabet amidst Khaled’s proclamations of his son’s “genius”, a track featuring Future and Yo Gotti barely paying attention to basic structures of rhythm that was so much of an afterthought they couldn’t give it a better title than “That Range Rover Came With Steps”, and the sheer idea of putting Kodak Black on anything and thinking it’ll make it better.

There really are some good or even great aspects of almost every track here, but the nature of Khaled albums, loaded with collaboration, leaves too much opportunity for some less focused part of a song to bring it way down. Grateful was “executive produced” by Khaled’s infant son, supposedly meaning that only the perceived positive reaction of Asahd allowed a track to be featured on the album. You can tell. Congratulations Khaled, you played yourself.

Favourite Tracks: Wild Thoughts, Billy Ocean, I’m The One, Unchanging Love

Least Favourite Track: That Range Rover Came With Steps

Score: 5/10