Rapid Fire Reviews (LSD, Cage The Elephant, Lizzo)

Image result for lsd cover artLSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD

While it seems like the oddest of pairings on paper, Diplo, Labrinth and Sia have teamed up for a brief project under the name LSD. Diplo is one of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business, and adding the nearly boundless voices of these British and Australian balladeers seems like a recipe for success … except that save for the standout tracks that they pushed as singles, most of this seems like Diplo reverting back to the most basic of pop formulas that he knows so well in order to stretch this musical partnership to a full-length project. While the vocal acrobatics are always engaging and there are a couple high-octane surprises in the tracklisting, most of this project is painfully safe.

The a cappella opening of the project previews just how good it could have been, Sia and Labrinth’s voices working surprisingly well together despite how distinctive and instantly recognizable they are. I would have loved to hear a lot more tracks that fit more into this slower tempo to really hear them thrive, but Sia’s attacked uptempo EDM tracks before and still brings the energy to a couple of these tracks. One of the best on the whole project might be the first full-length song, “Angel In Your Eyes.” It’s a seriously quirky electronic track that sees Diplo introduce us to a disorienting and woozy world that the cover art and the supergroup’s moniker suggests, though it’s really the only time this theme seems to fit here. The childlike backing vocals, hyperspeed tempo and chopped up melodies that bound madly around the soulful main hook and Diplo’s bleeps and bloops really demonstrate his strength as a pop producer. The last beat switch is a great shift in energy as well.

One of the greatest aspects that keeps up throughout this project is actually the way that Sia and Labrinth frequently trade off who sings every aspect of the verses and chorus, so you always get to hear both voices on every melody the song has to offer. It’s a nice twist that you weirdly don’t hear too often on pop duets. The triumphant “Genius” is another pretty great track before the project drops off in quality. Diplo makes his synths sound absolutely orchestral as the two make grandiose claims sounding like some mad scientists. The way Sia says “he’s a genius” is something that won’t leave my head in a while, and those belted harmonies at the end only reinforce the vocal talent on display here.

The other big single “Thunderclouds” doesn’t fare quite as well. There’s not much to say about quite a few of these tracks, they’re essentially made to not stand out. The melody doesn’t jump out at me like some of the others here, Diplo distilling the dying remainders of big, happy and upbeat pop music into one last swan song by amalgamating every trend there is.

So many of these other tracks fall so quickly into these pop tropes, with repetitive lyrics and dated dance breakdowns. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it feels like this project was released so late, most of these tracks quite a few months old without many new ones coming on this release … anything new that we’re getting now really doesn’t measure up and seems like a lot less effort was put into these just to call it a full album. The track “Audio” seriously sounds like it comes from 2013, though it’s one that would have shut down the clubs back then. There must not be more than 50 words in the track, the rest taken up by one of those chill dance breakdowns that used to be in every pop song on the radio.

“Mountains” and “No New Friends” have some great elements mixed with a couple of melodic decisions which really don’t make sense, which is surprising considering the man behind the boards. The heavenly opening of “Mountains” sounds seriously promising, sounding like some kind of choral hymn as Labrinth reaches up into that famous falsetto, but then the track drops out into this tropical-house groove with some generic lyrics about moving mountains and a chaotic, badly mixed dance drop. When it tries to bring back the same choral sound for the second verse, it’s laughably out of place at that point. The carefree “la-la” chorus of “No New Friends” makes me want to get up and dance, but everything else about the track is pretty phoned in.

The project ends a little stronger with the tracks “Heaven Can Wait” and “It’s Time,” which are built to show off the strengths of the vocalists a little more. The former has a hook so perfectly tailored for Sia’s range, her playing off of Labrinth’s emotional vocals in the verses with some soaring notes that sell the chorus over some steel drums, while “It’s Time” takes a break from the frenetic pop jams for a minimal piano duet where the vocalists can really show off – it’s the kind of thing they should really be doing just about all the time.

Diplo is probably one of the greatest pop producers working right now, so it’s weird to hear what happens when his hitmaking instincts are still clearly there with a little less effort put into them. There’s a lot of great aspects to this project and I’d even love to hear the three work together in the future, but LSD is a seriously inconsistent exercise for now.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven Can Wait, Angel In Your Eyes, It’s Time, Genius

Least Favourite Track: Audio

Score: 5/10

Image result for cage the elephant new albumCage The Elephant – Social Cues

The alt-rock veterans are still going and making a huge impact in the music scene. With their fifth studio album, Social Cues, the band that’s always had the slightest bit of a hip-hop influence adapts their sound to a more modern context pretty perfectly, linking up with producer-of-the-moment John Hill, who has recently given hits to both established pop stars and indie bands looking to crossover – his biggest success being “Feel It Still.” This is a strong project from the group, combining their immediately memorable hooks and fuzzy guitar charm with some more modern percussion and compelling lyrics about mid-career contemplations in a struggling genre.

The opening 5 tracks of the project are a very impressive run, easily making a case for radio play with some seriously catchy hooks even when a lot of these tracks are driven by some almost garage-rock sensibilities instrumentally. They know it too – “People always say, ‘at least you’re on the radio’,” they sing on the title track “Social Cues” with a tinge of sadness as they sing of creative struggles and dealing with fame. The opening track might be the purest rock song of them all with some punchy guitar hooks, but tracks like “Social Cues” and “Black Madonna” remove the fuzzy filter on the vocals and make plays for arena-sized anthems. You’d think someone would have done it before, but it’s so interesting to hear a modern beat with prominent hi-hats played on a real drumset, or at least, one that can alter the sound and mute them like they do on the title track – although they go full computerized with the track “Night Running” later on to similarly great effect. “Black Madonna” is an absolute knockout of a song, continuing the themes of the previous track by sarcastically comparing the allure of fame to some kind of entrancing goddess as awe creeps into frontman Matt Shultz’s voice. It’s a pretty simple but effective instrumental, the bassline driving the track and building up to the intoxicating falsetto chorus.

“Night Running” features Beck and takes more of a dive into his darker, woozy sound with some reggae influence – quite a bit of this project actually reminds me of what made Twenty One Pilots’ recent project Trench so effective – their general sound is quite far removed from everything else on this level of popularity, but they’re not afraid to apply their trademark style to just about anything else and try out some new things. Some catchy synth piano leads us into the slow-burning “Skin and Bones,” which slowly builds up to a dramatic orchestral conclusion, but “House Of Glass” demonstrates exactly what I mean – it’s the shortest track here, but you wouldn’t realize that listening it since it goes to so many unexpected and experimental places and makes a lasting impression. Shultz’s vocals are rapped with a deadpan delivery before the chorus brings in some of the most distorted and chaotic guitars on the whole projects and some gang vocals shouting about an illusion. A virtuosic guitar solo caps the whole thing off.

Another great thing about this album is its structuring – even if there’s not a fully realized story from beginning to end, the band knows how to put tracks with similar themes together. After their discussions on fame in the first half, the way tracks like “Love’s The Only Way” and “The War Is Over” transition into each other and expand on some of the points brought up in the previous track keeps the listener engaged at all times, in this case Shultz finding a love that ends all of the negativity – or the “war” – that he sung about in the early goings of the album. The former especially is a pretty beautiful stripped-back and calming track with a great story behind it – the ode to love is intentionally written in a key higher than Shultz can sing comfortably, so that his brother who plays guitar in the band has to help him out on some of the higher notes – love’s literally the only way it can be performed. Ending the album on the absolutely heartbreaking “Goodbye” is quite the choice as well – Shultz could apparently only bring himself to sing a single take and you can seriously tell how much pain is behind his words as he sings of the end of his seven-year marriage, repeating “I won’t cry” and “it’s alright” unconvincingly.

The album is somewhat frontloaded, placing most of the best tracks in the first half as it loses a little steam towards the end, but most of these tracks have at least something to like about them. Tracks like “Dance Dance” and “Tokyo Smoke” have the same kind of enjoyable upbeat garage-rock strut that persists throughout the project, but they don’t distinguish themselves much from other tracks on the project, especially when most of them have some kind of instrumental surprise or genre-defying flourish that individualizes them.

This band has come a long way since “Ain’t No Rest for The Wicked.” Social Cues is a project that’s both surprisingly modern and true to their roots at the same time, with frequent surprises and no shortage of hooks that you’ll be absentmindedly singing along to in no time.

Favourite Tracks: Black Madonna, House Of Glass, Social Cues, Skin and Bones, Love’s The Only Way

Least Favourite Track: Dance Dance

Score: 8/10

Image result for cuz i love you album coverLizzo – Cuz I Love You

2019’s most explosive breakout star is finally ready to explode into the public eye with her third studio album, Cuz I Love You. Lizzo has already been somewhat of an icon in the LGBT community for years with her special brand of overwhelmingly self-affirming and confidence-boosting lyricism, but more and more people are realizing that the messages of inclusivity she preaches are so fun that just about anyone can get involved regardless of who they might be. Lizzo is a lot more than just a rapper, running through sparkly pop hooks, fully-belted R&B ballads and neo-soul, and even bringing her famous flute on board in a complete obliteration of genre conventions. Her off-the-cuff effortless charm is hilarious and she certainly has the talent to back it up.

Cuz I Love You is a project infused with Lizzo’s infectious personality, dropping quotable and fun rap lyrics while also translating her loud, unapologetic nature into passionate and impressively soulful R&B material. Thirty seconds into the opening title track, Lizzo has already sung a full-voiced a cappella soul belt, referenced a meme and giggled as she raps “what the f**k are f**kin’ feelings, yo.” “Cuz I Love You” is a doo-wop throwback with bouncy piano rap breaks and immediately introduces the listener to just how fun and dynamic Lizzo can be. Structured more like a series of fun dancefloor fillers than a cohesive album, the project still works because Lizzo’s all-out celebration of all aspects of her identity is genuinely inspiring – for example, she celebrates body positivity on “Tempo,” interracial love on “Better in Color” and enjoys the single life on “Soulmate.”

She puts some of her most pop-oriented tracks right up at the front and shows why she’s ready to break through to mainstream audiences. The second track “Like A Girl” sees her referencing some successful women in pop culture in her rap verses and a 90s-influened massive pop hook as she backs herself up with some shouted chants, cheering herself on in the way that only Lizzo can before a rhythmic switchup in the bridge where she takes full control, but “Juice” is the real shining centerpiece here. Lizzo’s music is essentially the perfect “getting ready to go out music”, strutting down the runway and proclaiming herself “goals” with a funky throwback instrumental and confident half-sung delivery. “Soulmate” continues the self-love theme with one of the most uplifting hooks on the whole project, a syncopated synthpop beat accentuating her flow as she sings “bad b*tch in the mirror like yeah I’m in love” with an audible smile on her face.

The most Lizzo song of all here might actually be “Jerome,” which blends together everything great about her into a song that’s simultaneously legitimately emotional and absolutely goofy, dropping into a waltz tempo as Lizzo introduces the track with a “Look, listen, shut up,” going for the Oscar and putting on her best melodramatic and theatrical voice as she instructs her man “take your ass home.” It’s so hard not to make this entire review quotes of Lizzo’s lyrics – everything she says is absolute gold, and her mixed vitriol and lingering affection for the song’s target generates some of her funniest and most relatable lines, all while demonstrating her ever-surprising talent with some seriously soulful falsetto notes at the track’s conclusion.

Lizzo’s got huge ambitions, and for someone who was dropping meme-raps like “Phone” back in the day, it’s always a shock to hear her legitimately pull them off. The next two tracks see her link up and hold her own with an idol of hers in Missy Elliot and go full Prince with the Minneapolis-funk inspired track “Crybaby,” where she completely abandons her rap persona and transitions fully into a soul diva.

The end of the project is just as strong, even if the lack of cohesion and Lizzo coasting through some of the less-organized off-the-cuff moments on sheer charm alone starts to become a little more evident as it hurtles towards its ending. “Tempo” is a great club track, but there’s not much about it that really comes together , while tracks like “Exactly How I Feel” and “Heaven Help Me” feel underwritten, just leaving a lot of space for Lizzo to show off her booming vocals without much attention paid to song structure – smooth Gucci Mane feature aside. Except for the fact that that sheer charm I mentioned is probably more powerful than just about anyone working in the game right now – you can’t possibly listen to Lizzo and not have a great time. It ends with the track “Lingerie,” a much quieter sensual track that moves through three different chord changes and leaves things off with the impression that Lizzo could seriously be a leading R&B artist if she wasn’t busy doing just about everything else as well.

Songs written for the primary purpose of being a feel-good anthem can often elicit eye-rolls, but Lizzo is both authentically herself and inclusive enough that it’ll make anyone want to join her party. She represents the perfect antithesis to the wave of sadness taking over popular music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Jerome, Juice, Soulmate, Better In Colour, Like A Girl

Least Favourite Track: Exactly How I Feel

Score: 8/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, Sara Bareilles, Khalid)

Image result for ventura anderson paakAnderson .Paak – Ventura

Only 5 months after his rap-heavy third studio album Oxnard, which kept a high level of quality but ultimately disappointed some fans searching for the feel-good charisma that coloured his breakout project Malibu, Anderson .Paak returns with the soul-based companion piece Thank goodness he did. The singer, rapper and BEST teeth in the game worked on both of these projects simultaneously with executive producer Dr. Dre, originally planning to drop them as a double disc but ultimately deciding to space them out. While I still did enjoy Oxnard quite a bit, like many I thought it wasn’t making the most out of Paak’s strengths. With this project, that perfect balance of his half-sung, half-rapped bouncy cadence and tongue-in-cheek lyrics returns in a huge way, alongside some seriously impressive straight-up soul cuts featuring some absolute legends. Not just anyone can sign to Aftermath, and it’s looking more and more like Paak might follow in the footsteps of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar before him.

The opening track “Come Home” immediately takes us back to the sunny shores of Malibu Beach, Paak unleashing his raspy singing voice over a lazily strummed guitar pattern and a recurring choral break in the music that immediately sets up the entire album as something grandiose. Not only that, you know it’s going to be good when you get Andre 3000 himself to guest on your opening track. He completely shuts it down with his feature verse, running through dizzying flows and internal rhyme schemes. Paak begs his love interest to return on the track, which segues nicely into the Smokey Robinson(!!!)-featuring “Make It Better,” a smooth slow jam that sounds like it could be directly out of the 70s. This is the kind of timeless-sounding song that anyone from age 8 to 80 could enjoy no matter when it came out. A seriously underrated part of Paak’s songwriting is the winking charisma he brings to his romantic bars, sounding like the most successful pick-up artist of all time and delivering it all with the giant, goofy grin we all know he has plastered on his face. Robinson provides some supporting harmonies, sounding incredible at 79 years of age and validating Paak’s foray into classic soul.

Robinson and Three Stacks aren’t the only legends on this project – we also see Lalah Hathaway, Brandy and even the late Nate Dogg. Most appear in small supporting roles, but it works all the same to show just how well a new artist like Paak fits amongst them. It’s very reminiscent of what labelmate Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, especially as the project ends in a similar way as Paak has a conversation with a recording of Nate Dogg. Hearing the two happily trade lines on “What Can We Do?” is a very touching tribute – honestly, I had never realized before just how huge of an inspiration Nate must have been to Paak.

Paak does rap a couple times on this project, honestly sounding better over these more complex soul instrumentals than the out-of-character harder hip-hop beats on Oxnard, but his experiments venturing further than he ever has before into soul music are the true standouts here. “Reachin’ 2 Much” is a near-six-minute neo-soul monster of a track with two distinct sections and mindblowing freeform work from the bass and synths in the back. The groove never lets up, and Lalah Hathaway only enhances it with her otherworldly scatting and polyphonic abilities. The scat influence continues on the next track “Winners Circle,” a catchy main riff leading into Paak’s laid-back refrain and rap verse where he brings back that “YES LAWD!” and a hilarious shot at the President. The political undertones continue on “King James,” where Paak delivers a verse from the perspective of Colin Kaepernick and praises LeBron James’ work on using his money on change-inducing projects.

The strength of the project continues all the way through, with later tracks “Chosen One” and “Jet Black” keeping up the unbridled energy that the first track kicked off with some more fusions of Paak’s rap verses and the classic soul elements that give the entire project a nice amount of cohesion.

The somewhat unstructured and freeform nature of the jazz and funk sound that Paak pursues here can make for a couple moments where he underwrites a bit and makes for a couple sections that feel a little empty, especially on the track “Yada Yada,” but regardless it’s always engaging when you hear how much fun he’s having. The Pharrell-produced track “Twilight,” as well, is one I enjoy a lot but it seems like it might have fit better on Oxnard, which some of Williams’ classic hip-hop tendencies.

Looking at Oxnard and Ventura together, it just becomes all the more clear how much of a multitalented force in the game Anderson .Paak is. I’m sure there’s people out there with wildly differing opinions on what exactly it is that he does the best, but what he’s proven time and time again is that he’s good enough to do just about anything at all.

Favourite Tracks: Make It Better, Reachin’ 2 Much, Winners Circle, What Can We Do?, Come Home

Least Favourite Track: Yada Yada

Score: 9/10

Image result for Sara Bareilles - Amidst The ChaosSara Bareilles – Amidst The Chaos

After being nominated for Album of the Year 6 years ago and then diving straight into Broadway with her original musical, Waitress, Sara Bareilles has been rather busy over the years, but enough chaos in the world has seemingly caused her to start writing once again. She’s said that Amidst The Chaos, her fifth project, was a direct response to the political climate of the USA, with more than a couple songs on the project containing some direct references to recent events – of course, mixed together with some of her classic romantic songwriting style. Bareilles’ vocals are as impressive as ever – she was on Broadway after all – and really succeed at carrying this project past most of its shortcomings, including some awkwardly shoehorned political commentary (though some of it is very powerful!) and Bareilles not making much of an effort to fit the project into any modern musical context and spark replayability, but this project is full of some pretty breathtaking tracks.

After a couple of slower romantic tracks to kick things off, things really pick up once we get to the single “Armor,” which Bareilles put out much earlier than anticipated as a response to the Brett Kavanaugh trial. Out of all of the political commentary on this project, this song is easily the most effective at getting its point across, a fiery low piano riff leading into a defiant chorus as she finds strength in the women around her and prepares for battle. The next track “If I Can’t Have You” is even better. Co-written with R&B veteran Emily King, Bareilles demonstrates that she truly has the kind of stunning vocal capabilities to deliver some old-school soul material – why doesn’t she do this more often? The harmonized backing vocals and piano chords actually give the track an almost gospel flavor as Bareilles delivers some of her most emotionally-charged delivery on the whole project, tossing out some surprising notes effortlessly and sounding like a Motown star. “Miss Simone” is another quieter showcase for Bareilles’ voice, this time showing off her lower range in the chorus … it really is shocking how dynamic and she can be at times. The track was written with country songwriter extraordinaire Lori McKenna, who adds some vivid detail only a country artist could to the ode to Nina Simone and how her music has always been there for her.

Out of all the times to be wowed by Bareilles’ vocals, though, the best one of all comes on the track “Wicked Love.” It opens as a bouncy pop cut, but this honestly might draw the most inspiration from her Broadway days, the feel-good major key nature leading up to an aching chorus with a beautiful high harmony and a repeated vocal run that just gets more impressive as it goes along, adding a couple more notes to the end each time she sings it. The closing track, “A Safe Place To Land,’ is another powerful political message. In a duet with the incomparable John Legend, the two offer some striking words from the perspective of families affected by the border crisis trying to find a shred of hope – and sound fantastic doing it.

The run of four tracks near the project’s end, from “Orpheus” to “Saint Honesty,” is where I start to lose a little interest in the album despite the fact that all four of them are pretty fantastic ballads. Bareilles’ style is great for a single, powerful experience, but there’s not much desire for me to return to tracks like this that are all somewhat similar. She’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but that one trick is absolutely spectacular.

The track “No Such Thing”, on its surface, sounds like a great romantic ballad on the subject of struggling to get over a breakup, which really showcases Bareilles’ range as she ascends a full scale to a stunning high note in the chorus … but she’s given interviews where she’s explicitly stated that the song is about missing Barack Obama, which adds a profoundly strange contextual twist to enjoying it. I get that the world is in a bit of a crisis, but her musings on her complete devastation here are a little over the top.

There are a couple tracks that have some instrumental choices that just seem completely off to me, but maybe that’s just a product of the fact that there aren’t many people using the same kind of singer-songwriter style of live instrumentation who are still selling as well as Bareilles. One of these is actually on the opening track “Fire,” which kicks into this upbeat, almost country-sounding acoustic strumming on its prechorus that is so raw it throws off the rhythm of the song a bit as we hear the fingers squeaking over the strings. It also contrasts with Bareilles’ softer vocals, intentionally smoother to make way for the impressive moment of harmony at the chorus’ end. “Eyes On You” is another track with a very powerful concept that’s undermined by some strange instrumental decisions. Bareilles wistfully recounts the struggles of real-life people she met at a meditation class, naming each one, before the track suddenly kicks into a higher gear with a very present rock drumbeat that takes me out of its reminiscent, thoughtful nature.

Sara Bareilles is probably both one of the most impressive songwriters and the most capable voices in the game right now, so its easy to see why she has continued to stay so relevant to music consumers even after being gone for so long. This is an important project, so even if it doesn’t have much staying power, it’s still a great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Wicked Love, If I Can’t Have You, Armor, A Safe Place To Land, Miss Simone

Least Favourite Track: Eyes On You

Score: 7/10

Image result for free spirit khalidKhalid – Free Spirit

It’s clear with the current trends – the way the vast majority of people consume music is changing as a result of Spotify – and here we have the newly crowned king of streaming, Khalid, with his sophomore full-length project. Spotify’s curated algorithmic playlists to fit a certain “vibe” encourage less exciting music, music that’s designed to be played in the background and not paid attention to with nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary to draw focus and potentially incite a request to skip it. Songs that don’t force themselves to the forefront of your mind generate more streams, and the perfect embodiment of this phenomenon is Khalid. While this project is a bit of an improvement on his sluggish debut, its hour-long length still devotes quite a lot of time to slow-burn, filler tracks with cliched lyrics, fitting nicely into what sounds like a computer-generated alt-R&B algorithm. I can’t get over the fact that one of the featured artists is named, oh-so-perfectly in all caps, “SAFE.”

Any project that starts with a track called “Intro” that’s the same length as all the rest of the tracks you know is bound to get a little self-indulgent. Khalid’s voice is essentially the universal solvent of music right now, existing in a nice happy middle ground between The Weeknd, Post Malone and Auto-Tuned falsetto rappers like Swae Lee, and most of these tracks are designed to be a bit of an empty space for him to show it off. It’s definitely serviceable, it’s just that the melodies and lyrics that go along with it are all vaguely reminiscent of other big hits. I bring up another wildly popular artist in Post Malone, the two are truly equals in tapping into exactly what draws attention right now and amalgamating it into one sound – which I suppose is admirable in a way.

The thing about Khalid is most of the time listening to his music, I find myself mindlessly nodding my head along without really paying attention to it at all or trying to formulate an opinion on It’s so easy to get caught up in the trap of not paying serious attention to it, his soothing vocals essentially dropping my senses down into this lowered state. The beats are fun and engaging while they last, but there’s nothing at all memorable about most of these tracks. A song like “Bad Luck” that kicks off the project is structured like a smash hit single and is sure to soundtrack numerous high school parties to come, but most people would probably be hard-pressed to hum it or recite the words if asked. The next track, “My Bad,” is of course soundtracked by an irritatingly similar minimalist guitar riff and sparse hi-hats. Most of this project sounds like filler, Khalid slowly slinking around in his falsetto with a basic chord progression, a strong focus on a simple pop drumbeat and usually some kind of guitar-based pattern that makes it impossible to tell these tracks apart. Every so often you get a track like “Hundred,” that stands out for the wrong reasons, coasting on this creeping synth-bass and almost nothing else as it extends about two minutes too long with a repetitive hook and Khalid’s most obnoxious “suffering from success” bars.

The final three tracks on the album were clearly meant to be Khalid emotionally touching on some big picture issues of anxiety and depression, but his lyrical approach approaches Logic “1-800” levels of cliched and shallow – it’s hard to believe that Khalid is actually suffering through what he sings about. The lyrics don’t improve much elsewhere on the project, tracks like “Free Spirit” and “Twenty One” essentially coming across as teen and young adult-bait, with the same kind of Chainsmokers-esque tired messaging he had on his last project about living in the moment, man.

With 16 tracks and the definitive sound of the moment, however, a couple of these tracks were bound to stick somehow, and most of that is thanks to the collaborators Khalid invites on board. The two biggest singles here, “Better” and “Talk,” are actually some of Khalid’s best songs of his career, especially the latter produced by acclaimed deep-house duo Disclosure. Reliable hitmakers Stargate are responsible for “Better,” which drops into one of the truly memorable hooks on the project and an accompanying low-key trap groove, but “Talk” is what I’ve been hoping for all along, Khalid proving that he can thrive doing something even slightly different. Riding this fizzy 80s electronic synthpop instrumental, he finally gets to show off what he can do on a bit of a quicker tempo, delivering some great harmonies, but the tiny sparkles and quirks of the instrumental are what really gets my attention. I really enjoy that it transitions into “Right Back,” a track in a similar mindset that continues to satisfy my desires for Khalid on some more rhythmic material, speeding up his flows on a tried-and-true chord progression that brings to mind what made recent soulful hits like “Sorry Not Sorry” and “No Problem” so good. If he’s going to be derivative, at least do it like this.

“Outta My Head” welcomes John Mayer, and his guitar has a similar effect making the track rhythmically interesting, while the track “Bluffin’” veers closer to blue-eyed soul than he ever has in another successful experiment. Wouldn’t it be great if he tried things like this more often? He really does have the voice to make quite a lot of different things work.

I usually record scores of how much I enjoy each track as I listen, but Free Spirit is honestly so boring that I zoned out and forgot to do it, making giving out a score to this project more difficult. While there are a couple individual tracks that I do enjoy, as a whole Khalid represents too much of a worrying turn in the way music is consumed.

Favourite Tracks: Talk, Bluffin’, Outta My Head

Least Favourite Track: Free Spirit

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Nav, Yelawolf, Billie Eilish)

Nav - Bad Habits.pngNav – Bad Habits

A signee to The Weeknd’s XO label and one of the first Punjabi artists to make it this big with North American audiences, Nav’s Auto-crooned trap melodies have been getting more and more attention leading up to the release of his sophomore solo project, Bad Habits. Of course, there have also been no shortage of memes, whether it’s from his poorly mixed contributions to other people’s music or the fact that, at times, it appears that Nav is simply along for the XO ride and has no idea what he’s doing, seemingly zoning out during his public appearances and performances. The unfortunate part is that I’d believe it – once again, Nav is perfectly happy to simply adapt every trend he sees around him and apply his grating, nasal vocal delivery to them as he creates carbon copies of a trap sound that’s already starting to get tiresome. At 16 tracks, this project is hard to get through when he offers nothing that I haven’t already heard done better.

You forget just how much of why Nav’s music can be so unenjoyable is directly attributed to his voice and delivery – the project’s opening track, “To My Grave,” actually has a pretty great beat featuring a triumphant horn section that makes you anticipate what you’re going to get on this project immediately. Until Nav comes in with that shaky, Auto-Tuned falsetto, nasal sound and generic trap lyrics that aren’t saying much of anything and pulls all the focus away. One of the biggest criticisms of his collaborative project with Metro Boomin was that Metro wasted some of his best beats on someone like Nav, and that continues here even though most of the producers on this project are actually a lot less well-known. You really get the sense that Nav must just be a close friend of some member of the XO team, and either has delusions of grandeur or really good connections to have gotten to the spot he has. Half the time on this project it doesn’t even sound like he’s invested in being a musician, like he’s only recording these tracks for the clout and can’t wait to get out of the studio and onto Instagram where he can really make an impact.

Nav sounds bored out of his mind on tracks like “Taking Chances,” one of the many tracks here with more of a creeping, alt-R&B beat that exposes Nav’s awkward songwriting and making him sound all the more sluggish. It’s hilarious when Meek Mill hops on the next track “Tap,” because I couldn’t think of two people with more completely different energies. Meek opens the track with his spastic and excited cadence, then Nav comes on and sucks all the air out of the room, barely staying on the beat. Most of the features here aren’t even that great, but they sound incredible in comparison because it’s such a breath of fresh air to not be hearing Nav’s voice anymore – except of course for the usually reliable The Weeknd, who drops one of his worst hooks of all time onto the track “Price On My Head,” finally finding the notes that are too high for him after pushing the boundaries all these years.

The track “Tussin” with Young Thug is a decent track thanks to Thug and that fun trap-piano instrumental … though it doesn’t mean that Nav doesn’t still completely kill the energy during his verses, even if his singing is probably at its best here. The trap beat on the next track “Snap” is nothing innovative or new, but it’s upbeat and fun and present in the mix, which is enough for it to be one of the better tracks here as well. And while it’s far from an engaging song musically, hearing Nav actually earnestly expressing something that isn’t a trap cliché on “Why You Crying Mama” draws attention and is effective simply because it’s so surprising to hear that he has real emotions. “Stuck With Me” is the only hook on the project that I remembered playing through the album a second time, so again it meets the very low bar for a standout track.

Other than that, though, I really don’t have the energy to try to talk about distinguishable things about most of the other tracks in the back half of this project, everything really starts to blend together in a faceless, soulless wave of modern hip-hop trends.

I’m sure you’ve already read a lot of people criticizing this very line, but Nav saying “what’s the game without me” in a contemplative tone on the track “I’m Ready” is absolutely laughable – truly, what is Nav without the game? He’s never offered something that someone in his immediate circle hasn’t already done in his entire career.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck With Me, Snap

Least Favourite Track: Tension

Score: 1/10

Yelawolf Trunk Muzik III.pngYelawolf – Trunk Muzik III

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town r- wait, sorry, wrong country-tinged rapper. The Alabama rapper and Eminem protégé since signing to Shady Records in 2011 has always embraced elements of the country lifestyle in his work, even if his music stays pretty solidly in the hip-hop lane (with a couple diversions into heavier rock music). Now 39 years old, Yelawolf has been a huge force in the underground game for a while and has released numerous projects in the last couple years. Trunk Muzik III is the first in the series to get the full studio album treatment, and serves as his 5th While Yelawolf’s faster flow is seriously impressive and can usually elevate a track on its own, he’s frequently brought down by some awkward musical combinations of genre and the usual curse that quicker rappers fall victim to – sacrificing lyricism in the name of flow. This project is southern hip-hop through and through, and while it’s usually rather inconsistent, there are a couple highlights to remind us what caught someone like Eminem’s attention in the first place.

While I talk about country-rap making a resurgence years after Yelawolf ventured into the territory, another thing that’s huge right now that you can partially credit to Yelawolf is the resurgence of hardcore aspects in the mainstream from people like 6ix9ine – the way Yelawolf yells at the top of his voice as the album opens seriously reminds me of him. “TM3” is a pretty great opening track that really demonstrates just how great Yelawolf’s flow is over a rumbling bassline that never lets up and a crunchy electric guitar riff. It’s a nice way to get immersed in Yelawolf’s world and probably one of the most impressive technical showcases on the project. It’s been interesting to see how rappers who pride themselves more on their flows and “old-school” rap sensibilities have adapted to the omnipresence of trap music – the best ones usually find a way to incorporate the aspects of it that are undeniably fun while still offering enough variation to maintain their individual artistry, and that’s exactly what Yelawolf does on the track “Catfish Billy 2,” diving into the Migos flow a couple times but breaking away from it for a standout chorus that’s immediately memorable and very fun to rap along to due to that crazy internal rhyme scheme – I even love the way it abruptly cuts off after the final chorus, leaving it ringing in your mind.

It seems like Yelawolf puts in efforts to make his serial tracks always high quality – the piano instrumental and Pimp C sample on “Box Chevy 6” is great too. The soul sample and his calmer demeanor on “Drugs” is another great turn for Yelawolf that allows for more focus on what he’s saying alongside of that catchy fast flow, Yelawolf speaking on his complicated relationship with addiction after his family more or less introduced it to him. The heartfelt track “Addiction” takes this further as Yelawolf contemplates all that he’s lost due to it and his own struggles with beating it. Even on some of the weaker tracks here, Yelawolf’s flow is always a highlight and it’s always engaging to listen to him splice those syllables.

A huge part of Yelawolf’s music has always been more of an embrace of the “Slumerican” lifestyle and the hardcore partying tracks that go along with it, Yelawolf edging closer to his aggressive, screaming flow with less of a focus on his rapping abilities and more of a focus on getting the people who are listening absolutely ready to tear the place apart – these kinds of tracks are where the enjoyability of the project falls off a cliff for someone who’s just sitting and listening to this on the couch. He and featured artist MGK do rap quickly on a track like “Rowdy,” but it’s clear that the true focus is on that aggressive hook and there was less effort put into the structure, just using it more as a party trick than something meaningful. Other songs like generic trap cut “No Such Thing As Free” and “We Slum” are similar.

There are a couple of tracks here that are a strangely inconsistent combination of some of the best and worst aspects of what Yelawolf does that just leave me a little confused. On the chorus of “Special Kind of Bad,” Yelawolf drops into this genuinely stunning, smoky singing voice that he’s never really displayed like this before, with some engaging lyrics, but everything else about the track is pretty unlistenable … I don’t understand why this was placed on a track like this where the rest consists of Yelawolf’s awkwardly sexualized lyrics and hardcore, slower flow, and whatever that modulated effect on his voice was at the end. He actually sings for most of the next track, “Like I Love You,” as well, but the lyrics are similarly far too blunt to be effective. The structures of tracks like these are pretty incredible, they’re just let down by one strongly negative aspect that brings them way down. The hook of “Trailer Park Hollywood,” the no-name features on “All the Way Up.”

The last 5 tracks on the album are all very strong and display the natural skills that Yelawolf has. While a lot of these tracks are brought down by inconsistencies, this is a respectable effort from a veteran in this lane.

Favourite Tracks: Catfish Billy 2, Drugs, TM3, Box Chevy 6

Least Favourite Track: Special Kind of Bad

Score: 5/10

Eilish sits on the edge of a white bed, in front of a dark background. She wears white clothing, while smiling at the camera.Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Another post, another huge, culturally shifting project that I’m reviewing a couple months after the fact. Looking back on something like this after it’s remained in contention for the #1 spot on the album charts every week since it’s been released is quite the experience. Also, let it be known that I called it, giving one of my rare 10/10 scores to the then-15-year-old Eilish who had released her first EP only two weeks before. Watching her dominate pop culture has been surreal for someone who’s been there from the beginning, and Eilish has now fully arrived with her debut album that takes her eerie concepts and unsettlingly adorable vocal delivery to the next level with a series of immaculately produced tracks, thanks singlehandedly to her brother Finneas (the layering on her voice, though!). The public have spoken – they’re looking for something completely new in a world of peak trap, and this is it.

After a brief intro, the project opens with the stunning track “bad guy.” This song absolutely blew me away the first time I heard it, and now it’s a global smash hit, which is pretty incredible for a song that sounds like this. The minor-key harmonies and layering on her voice sounds like it’s directly out of some kind of Halloween movie, that persistent, menacing bassline interacting with the higher-pitched synth hook and not much else. If there was a way to introduce us to Eilish’s character across the full project, there’s not a much more perfect one. “Duh“. Eilish and Finneas’ absolute command of the best spots of her voice and how to layer them in the most haunting and effective way is a standout tactic across the whole project, and it only serves to make both the bangers and ballads much better. “when the party’s over” might actually be my favourite song on the entire project, and it’s the one that uses the layering the absolute best. Eilish’s range as she ascends during the verses is something to behold, and the ocean of her many vocal tracks supporting the whole thing is an absolute treat for the ears with every tiny nuance and new harmony. The bridge is so powerful and moving, Eilish pouring her heart out about loneliness. “i love you” is another dramatic ballad that pulls a little too strongly from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but her vocals are strikingly beautiful in a similar way.

There are so many little details of Eilish’s music that serve to make the world she’s singing about so much more vivid, especially to a headphone user, since they’re so buried in the mix you’d miss them unless you were really paying attention – as you should be. Whether it’s the sounds of the party as Eilish’s friends slowly kill themselves via substance abuse on “xanny,” that unsettling scraping on the absolute punch-to-the-face of a track “you should see me in a crown” or the ambulances arriving after she climactically jumps off the roof on the heart-wrenchingly tragic track “listen before I go,” (did I mention how powerful – and worrying – it is for a 17-year-old to be singing about all of this?) Eilish makes the biggest effort to make sure her tracks are a cinematic experience. The sound seems to be tailored to the headphone-based experience as well, Finneas’ basslines always at the forefront of the mix and a unique effect where Eilish’s voice rapidly cuts in and out turn her into what I can only describe as an ASMR popstar. The music is designed to give you a physically positive response.

A common criticism of Eilish’s music is how similarly she approaches each one of her tracks from a vocal standpoint, her quiet, near-whisper of a voice a constant across the project, but the way she makes it fit in on all of these different instrumentals is the truly impressive part. “all the good girls go to hell” features a beat that sounds almost as if it’s directly out of the 90s G-Funk movement, but that intense vocal centers it and turns what should be a party track into something much more sinister with her religious themes, like what Jordan Peele did with “I Got 5 On It” in the Us trailer. “wish you were gay,” on the other hand, is another favourite track with a completely different approach, opening like a doo-wop ballad from the 60s as Eilish’s smart songwriting comes into play with the wordplay centered on numbers, before the chorus brings some modern electronic aspects in. When the music cuts out in the climactic bridge and that paper-thin vocal sings “I’m so selfish,” you feel her emotions at their peak when her vocal is at its quietest.

My absolute favourite albums are always deliberately structured to tell a story, and Eilish clearly appreciates the art of creating an album in the same way, as evidenced by the closing track “goodbye.” It’s not much of a track on it’s own, but the way it takes the listener on a reverse journey of the narrative of the album as Eilish sings a line from each of them in reverse order, ending with the original and overarching proclamation, “I’m the bad guy,” is a great way to wrap it up. There are a lot of great little lyrical references to preceding tracks as well.

There are a couple decisions that prevent the project as a whole from being as perfect as her debut EP, like the baby voice on “8” and lack of variation in the slower tracks that bring the project to its end, but this is the kind of self-assured debut you could expect from an artist who’s going to be here for decades to come.

Favourite Tracks: when the party’s over, wish you were gay, bad guy, all the good girls go to hell, listen before i go

Least Favourite Track: 8

Score: 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y, Avril Lavigne, Betty Who)

Image result for Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y - 2009Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y – 2009

Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has been seriously prolific coming out with projects over the past couple of years, and he’s back in a team-up with veteran rapper Curren$y. The two previously joined forces for one of the best songs on Khalifa’s last album Rolling Papers 2. The dynamic between the two still holds up here, but 2009 mostly falls victim to the curse most rap collaboration tapes do. Most of the project sounds like it was conceived rather quickly, the song lengths rather short and ending before they really get going. Khalifa is charming as ever at times and Curren$y brings a surprise amount of technical skill, but can we stop with the trend of these rushed hip-hop collaboration projects?

The project opens with the track “Garage Talk”, and I’m starting to be very convinced over the last couple projects that Wiz Khalifa is at his best when he’s pulling from older-school techniques – he drops a great, animated verse on the 90s-influenced track “The Life” as well – There’s something about his slower flow, blunt delivery, and personality-infused bars that doesn’t fit in with the pretending-not-to-care generation of new school SoundCloud rappers – though he tries to a lot more often than he should. The beat here is an endlessly fun boom-bap loop that Wiz and Curren$y both play pretty straight as they tap into that bounce. And then of course we immediately drop off a cliff into the hazy smoke clouds of “10 Piece”, Curren$y opening the slowly creeping instrumental slurring his words a little off the beat. Khalifa fares a little better, but the instrumental doesn’t fit his livelier mic presence. A lot of the project unfortunately falls into this lower-key vibe, and I guess I should come to expect it from them at this point. When the subject matter essentially revolves around one thing, can I blame the two for adapting their sound to a chilled-out smoke session? For everyone else, though, it’s not enough to be compelling or exciting. The next track, “Benz Boys”, is similar, misusing a Ty Dolla $ign feature as he fades into the background.

It’s unfortunate as well that most of the best tracks on this project are also some of the shortest. Curren$y isn’t on top of his game for most of this project, but he definitely finds his groove on the beat of “Eastside”, which livens up the contemplative synth lines with a quicker hi-hat pattern, though each rapper only drops a single, short verse. The next track “From The Start” is even shorter, and it’s easily the best instrumental on the whole project, calling back to the G-funk era with a rubbery bassline and some soulful female vocals thrown into the mix. Why did they give so much more time to their sluggish weed raps? Wiz Khalifa exists in such a strange place for me – Curren$y at least knows his role, but Khalifa’s delivery seems so much better suited for goofy rap tracks that don’t take themselves too seriously. If he doesn’t know where his true strengths lie, why does he always drop these tiny moments displaying them?

Most of the tracks at the end of the project don’t do much to surprise either – the track “Getting Loose” is probably one of the closest attempts to a modern-sounding rap track here, but the hook from Problem is delivered like he’s half-asleep, offsetting the one time across this whole project Curren$y actually sounds like he’s trying, while “Stoned Gentleman” is just as lethargic as you might expect. “First Or Last”, yet another fun old-school track that references Ricky Bobby and complements Khalifa’s best sensibilities, is the highlight as the album winds down.

I essentially stole my rating system from Anthony Fantano, and if this was one of his videos I would probably slap that huge red NOT GOOD across the screen for when there’s not even enough substance to the album that he can even bother to give it a score. Too many of these ideas don’t come together, or are simply too sleepy to be interesting. Get fun again, Wiz!

Favourite Tracks: Garage Talk, From The Start, First Or Last

Least Favourite Track: 10 Piece

Score: 3/10

Image result for avril lavigne head above water coverAvril Lavigne – Head Above Water

The quintessential Canadian pop-rock singer, Avril Lavigne has released her first album in 6 years after being absolutely memed to death for some of her past material and going through a struggle with Lyme disease. Seeing this album perform so well commercially was a nice sight to see after all that Lavigne has been through over the years, but is it any good? Lead single “Head Above Water” was met with a lot of pleasant surprise online, and most of the project follows a similar, more subdued singer-songwriter angle. While some of the lyrics relating to her real-life health struggles can be genuinely moving and emotional, past a couple particularly inspired tracks most of the album unfortunately falls back into awkward songwriting and bland and outdated instrumentation.

Let’s talk about that lead single, though! “Head Above Water” is a dramatic and emotional ballad with high stakes that Lavigne absolutely sells with her genuine delivery – it’s clear that this was written in the midst of a seriously terrifying time for her. The way the orchestral aspects swell in make the track very reminiscent of something like Kesha’s comeback single “Praying”, another singer mostly written off as a joke that comes back with a knockout ballad about a difficult subject. The track found a lot of success on Christian radio, Lavigne calling out to the divine to save her from an early death. Some of those lyrics are incredibly harrowing. While most of the rest of the tracks on the album follow a similar overall vibe, many of them also introduce a lot more elements of traditional pop music and sound like they’re stuck in the past. We immediately transition to the track “Birdie” after this, which sounds similar except for the introduction of these Imagine Dragons-esque booming drums and a shimmering synth line that sounds like it’s straight out of 2009. It’s almost as if hearing what Lavigne is capable of on the opening track it feels wrong hearing her on some more dumbed down material. It sounds like the track refers to similar events, but refers to it in much more ambiguous terms and a caged bird metaphor we’ve heard in endless pop tracks.

Then of course we get to the track “Dumb Blonde” with Nicki Minaj … yikes. I have no idea how this got approved in 2019, and she even released it as a single recently. Featuring one of those obnoxious shouted chants of a chorus that was fun for a little bit 15 years ago (including Lavigne just … fully enunciating the words “I am a freaking cherry bomb”), the drumline percussion and brass section bring to mind another time entirely. Why is someone trying to remake “Hollaback Girl” in 2019? I don’t understand. I can’t help but think this might have been a lot better as an EP, especially when the back half of the project falls into older pop tropes like the “yeah-yeah”s on “Souvenir” and some seriously terrible lyrics on tracks like “Goddess” and “Bigger Wow”.

There are quite a few moments here where it’s clear that Lavigne’s producers were trying their hardest to bring back an older star and insert her into the current musical landscape as well, but those don’t quite work either, being too derivative of other works. “Tell Me It’s Over” is a pretty well-written song and should work relatively well as a doo-wop/soul pop ballad – Lavigne’s vocals are seriously soulful! – but the instrumental is just far too close to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” to ignore, and the trap beat that they shoehorned in there is pretty laughable and doesn’t fit the tone at all.

The greatest strength of this project is the constant reminders we get of how impressive a singer Lavigne actually is after the years of … whatever she was doing in the early parts of the decade. Quite a few of these tracks have this beautiful layering effect where her high notes are at the forefront, but a supporting vocal a full octave down is mixed in pretty perfectly as support. The tracl “I Fell in Love with The Devil” is a great example of the vocal showcase, and the bridge where the layers become more evident and get chopped up is one of the best moments on the project. “It Was In Me” is another track that breaks through emotionally despite its datedness – it really sounds like Lavigne’s older track “Keep Holding On”, but it really works as a kind of career retrospective, speaking about finding little fulfillment from the fame and fortune and learning to believe in herself and her musical abilities through the tough times.

A lot of these tracks really do have aspects of something great, just held back by one different misguided thing on each one of them. If nothing else, it’s great to hear Lavigne sounding so good after all this time, but in terms of the current musical conversation it doesn’t really fit.

Favourite Tracks: Head Above Water, I Fell In Love With The Devil, It Was In Me

Least Favourite Track: Dumb Blonde

Score: 4/10

BettyBettyWhoAlbumCover.pngBetty Who – Betty

Synthpop artist Betty Who’s 3rd studio album and first since departing from RCA Records, wanting to release music at a faster pace than the label deal would let her, mostly brings back the same personnel that made The Valley so great and delivers another solid project full of upbeat and sugary, if not the most innovative, pop tracks. She’s been releasing singles since January 2018, but the final product here is pretty cohesive and meets expectations of the sheer sense of fun that her pure pop approach has delivered in the past – it just sounds almost a little too similar to her previous work.

The shorter track “Old Me” kicks things off and drops us directly back into Betty Who’s world, following a tried-and-true yet undeniably joyous and funky twist on traditional pop formulas. A bouncy bassline slinks around some higher-pitched synths and Who’s harmonized and summery vocals before the 90s piano chords kick in and the synths cascade for the chorus. I wish this track was so much longer, but its an absolutely excellent way to draw listeners in as it transitions to “Do With It”, as Who finally succumbs to the trends and puts some trap hi-hats on her song. She has enough of a unique approach to make it a lot of fun though, her excellent ear for harmonies appearing again in the build-up to the chorus, the music cutting out and featuring her a cappella harmonized chords. In a world where genres are quickly becoming a thing of the past, there aren’t many artists left who are so obviously gifted for making retro-pop but Who is certainly one of them. It’s a nostalgic feeling that makes it hard to legitimately criticize since it’s almost formulaically engineered to put a carefree smile on your face.

Continuing with the strong start, “Just Thought You Should Know” sees another angle that we haven’t really seen from her – she’s got the 90s high-octane dance tracks down, but this sounds just like those slower, passionate boy band tracks that still manage to hit the same kind of pop euphoria, and she pulls it off pretty perfectly complete with the retro percussion sounds in the mix. Later in the tracklisting we get some more of the slight innovations that keep the project interesting. I really enjoy what she’s going for on “Language”, a much lower-key track that coasts on the strength of Who’s rhythmic delivery more than a sparkly, distracting instrumental, presenting a quieter tropical vibe instead. “All This Woman” is another one that easily stands out for being unique, sounding like an old Justin Timberlake track with its Spanish guitar picking and jazzier harmonies – oh yeah, and that bridge that completely rips off “Cry Me A River”. Oops. It’s a compelling track regardless, even if the Timberlake similarities are pretty impossible to ignore on later track “The One” as well. “Between You & Me” is another standout, taking a similar 90s pop chord progression but coming at it with acoustics instead, showing off the sweeter parts of Who’s voice.

There are a couple moments where it falls just slightly short of what Who achieved on The Valley – particularly a few tracks where the instrumentals start to feel tiring listening to 13 straight songs of breakneck tempos. They’re still a lot of fun, but when Who doesn’t come as hard with her vocal delivery the high-speed and energetic feel of the track doesn’t feel as earned. On “I Remember” she goes for a breathier, seductive angle but the click-clack of the percussion is going by at warp speed and it doesn’t really fit. “Marry Me” kind of feels like a filler track only 5 songs in as well, it feels like we got the same kind of syncopated piano chords on a better structured song only a few songs ago. Most of these tracks would work fantastic on their own regardless, it’s just in the album format that they fall flat. Once we get to tracks like “Ignore Me” and “Whisper” at the end, the similarities start to show.

Betty is another strong project from the Australian singer that’s only really held back by listening to all of the songs in a row. Really, there’s not many more people with a better ear for pop music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Just Thought You Should Know, Old Me, All This Woman, Language, Do With It

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Ariana Grande, Broods, Luis Fonsi)

I’ve been gone for a while but my school commitments are once again slowing down and I’ll be able to catch back up to the present with some quick posts here. I just completed my first year at journalism school and will be writing music reviews in major publications this summer! Here are my thoughts on some February albums:

Image result for ariana grande thank u next albumAriana Grande – thank u, next

It’s great to take a look at this album a couple months after its release, seeing just how much of a cultural impact it’s had. Ariana Grande is the pop star of the moment for a reason – she switched up her release schedule for a world reliant on streaming, dropping two stellar albums in the span of 6 months, and succeeded in turning the worst year of her life into so much success by shattering the fourth wall, being so human, vulnerable and incredibly specific about it and using her music as therapy for both her and her audience. Grande has flawlessly taken control of her narrative and become a pop star for the social media age – and oh yeah, the music is pretty great too.

“imagine” is a pretty perfect opening track, reminiscing on the perfection of her relationship with Mac Miller before delivering the crushing blow in the chorus – “imagine a world like that”. The track returns to her R&B roots more than almost any single she’s dropped since 2013, even bringing back her mindblowing whistle tones at the conclusion of the song. It’s a very touching tribute, but in terms of emotion that Grande was able to put into these tracks from her personal life, there’s nothing like “ghostin”. I honestly think this might be her greatest track of her career, even if I might not want to give it repeat listens because it’s just so profoundly sad. Opening with a sample of Miller’s song “2009”, the last song he ever performed live, Grande sounds like she’s on the verge of tears at all times as she sings about worrying that her grief over Miller’s death is hurting then-fiancé Pete Davidson. The track is beautifully somber and ethereal, Grande even referencing a couple of Miller’s lyrics from his love songs to her that make it all the more emotional.

The tracklisting has some of her classic upbeat, Max Martin-produced pop material as well, but a lot of it is now tinged with some depressing and self-destructive lyrics, like Sweetener’s dark cousin displaying the hidden underbelly of Ariana’s perspective on romance after her split from Davidson. “bloodline” and “bad idea” are both certified bangers, the former riding an enormous horn section in the chorus and the latter possessing a skittering trap beat and what is easily the catchiest and most radio-ready chorus here. However, both of them also see Grande at her most cynical as she throws the ideals of her previous albums away, denying the existence of true love and following through with an impulsive hook-up despite knowing it’ll likely make her even more emotionally distraught later. In between them is “fake smile”, which really sums up everything Grande is feeling perfectly – she finally puts down her façade, saying that after what she’s been through she can’t pretend that she’s feeling fine anymore. “F**k a fake smile”, she dismissively sings, the track dropping into a fantastic tropical groove as Grande once again turns her despair to a message of strength and persistence. The track “NASA”, as well, is the one that’s really been stuck in my head the most through all of this time, Grande drawing out that “staaaar, space” in one of the most powerful vocal moments here.

From the start of her career, I’ve always wanted Grande to evolve into a Whitney Houston-esque figure due to the sheer technical ability she possesses, but after hearing these back-to-back albums, this is exactly where she belongs. She’s found her voice, and even when she’s not delivering the biggest vocal moments, she sounds incredibly comfortable and at home on this new blend of laid-back trap, pop and R&B. Tracks like “needy” and “in my head” have her perfectly in her element, not being pushed into any corners and sounding incredibly natural speaking the truth of her experiences.

Then, of course, there’s the 1-2-3 punch of singles that close the project. “thank u, next” was an enormous, undeniably powerful surprise, a gracious break-up anthem that preaches learning from the pain and coming out stronger for it, and it still easily stands out here as Grande’s inspiring modus operandi. “7 Rings” is now Grande’s most successful song, an essential perfection of the trap-pop formula that is the necessary flex after the courteous “thank u, next”.

It’s tough to decide which is Grande’s best work, but making something this cohesive that catapulted Grande to the forefront of the public consciousness in only 6 months easily puts thank u, next in serious conversation. Most importantly, this is Grande at her most authentic, and you can tell. This one’s for the year end list.

Favourite Tracks: ghostin, thank u next, NASA, bad idea, fake smile

Least Favourite Track: make up

Score: 9/10

Image result for dont feed the pop monsterBroods – Don’t Feed The Pop Monster

Broods, the New Zealand sibling pop duo and rare recipient of a perfect score on this website, release their third studio album Don’t Feed the Pop Monster and switch up their style in the process. Staying true to the album’s title, this latest project has less of the polished, clean 80s pop shimmer that coloured their last album Conscious and instead opts for a raw, sometimes experimental sound with more distortion. Bringing back superproducer and countryman Joel Little for a couple of tracks, the siblings’ knack for sharp pop songwriting is still here, but the success of the duo’s new sound is inconsistent.

The opening track “Sucker” could have easily been mistaken for a track on their last album, with the same pulsating synthbass notes and breathy lead vocal from Georgia Nott – until it goes in a completely different sonic direction once the chorus hits. The track doesn’t explode into an immediately memorable, celebratory pop hook like you’d expect it to, the rhythms of the percussion actually getting more complex while the synth chords distort. It’s clear that they were going for something a little more immersive and psychedelic with most of this album, I’m just not sure it delivers the same thrills I’ve come to expect from the band in the past, however listenable it remains. Most of these tracks are still pretty good regardless, they just don’t play to the band’s greatest strengths. The lead single “Peach” should have let us know that the band was going to take things to a weirder place – the track rapidly switches between multiple different sections that don’t complement each other particularly well, the tempo increasing with those annoying pitched-up vocals in the pre-chorus taking me out of it every time.

The tracks “Everytime You Go” and “To Belong” demonstrate even more ambition, each stretching over 5 minutes in length. The former is actually quite engaging, Georgia’s haunting higher register echoing sparsely around a driving and upbeat interlocking percussion section that switches up enough to keep me interested, but “To Belong” is one of those repetitive songs that pick a single motif and build the instrumental out around it for far too long. A couple of these tracks actually have more of a rock edge, featuring more traditional drum patterns and guitar chords at the forefront of the mix, and although the songwriting remains the same catchy pop material, the combination with a heavier instrumental doesn’t fit as well as their more synth-oriented material. Georgia Nott’s vocals are so beautiful in their breathy subtlety, and on tracks like “Dust” and “Old Dog” the best aspects of her voice are drowned out in the mix – even if the tracks themselves are still pretty excellently structured. The dreamy, almost doo-wop sound of the closing track “Life After” hits the perfect sweet spot in showing off her vocals – it’s a perfect way to send listeners off as her voice fades into the vintage crackle and an orchestra.

“Why Do You Believe Me?” might be my favourite track here, the instrumental taking a more minimal approach as we get these computerized yet complex harmonies from Georgia over some of the most traditionally warm and welcoming synthpop chords here and huge percussion fills – it sounds like you put an entire HAIM track through Prismizer. I don’t often like voices as perfect as Georgia’s being put through so many effects but the sound somehow fits with their spacier new material, returning even stronger on a track like “Falling Apart” – the call and response section towards the end of the track is another standout on the album. “Hospitalized” is another track that I can’t help but love and perhaps the best execution of some of the duo’s quirkier tendencies that they explored on the project – the chorus is delivered in a carefree and confident rapid-fire, the walking bassline going mad in the back as Georgia sings of her self-destructive nature, her vocals fittingly getting chopped up by the end.

If the score doesn’t match the review, it’s just because Conscious has set my expectations so high that even the perfectly solid pop album in front of me feels like a bigger disappointment than it should. There’s a lot that’s still far ahead of their contemporaries here. However, it’s strange that the duo doesn’t seem to like Conscious at all, not playing it at their shows. A lot of artists treat “pop” like a dirty word – what’s wrong with feeding the monster?

Favourite Tracks: Why Do You Believe Me?, Life After, Falling Apart, Hospitalized, Everything Goes (Wow)

Least Favourite Track: Peach

Score: 7/10

Image result for luis fonsi vidaLuis Fonsi – VIDA

It feels strange reviewing an album with “Despacito” on it in April 2019, but here we are. As we’ve seen over the past few years, Latin music has been slowly but surely securing its placement in the trendy sounds of the mainstream. Nobody came with a more Earth-shattering hit than the veteran Luis Fonsi, who finally has a full album to back it up after becoming a household name. Fonsi doesn’t break any new ground here, “Despacito” remaining one of the better tracks on this collection, but his powerful voice certainly surprises at times especially on a couple of the ballads.

“Sola” immediately drops into a familiar reggaeton sound and minimal, tropical-sounding acoustic chords, Fonsi coasting off the strength of his vocals despite there not being much to the song itself, what’s intended to be the catchiest part of the chorus reverting to a single, repeated note and syllable. “Apaga La Luz” fares a little better, switching up a couple of the rhythmic patterns with the guitar and bringing in a little bit of an electronic edge as the chorus drops despite the same reggaeton beat as Fonsi triumphantly reaches up into his falsetto as he delivers the title – meaning “turn off the lights”. While a couple of the most generic tracks open the project, there are also a couple gems to be discovered later.

Before “Despacito”, Fonsi was actually mostly known for his emotional and passionately delivered ballads, and there’s no shortage of tracks to uphold his reputation here. “Le Pido Al Cielo” is the first one on the tracklisting, and the track honestly sounds pretty timeless, like it belongs in a Disney movie or something. Fonsi’s voice is surprisingly pretty incredible, endlessly expressive and communicating the emotions of the song to me despite the language barrier. His higher range is what really sells the song though, showing off some impressively belted harmonies mixed perfectly into the back for a solid foundation. The chorus was strong enough already, but dropping back everything but the percussion for the finale puts the track over the edge. “Dime Que No Te Iras” is another, stripped back to just the piano to put Fonsi’s voice more in the spotlight, instead displaying some of the contrasting aspects as he alternates between a breathy, almost whispered vibrato and a full-voiced knockout chorus.

Fonsi brings out a roster of pretty engaging guests as well – fellow superstar Ozuna guests on “Imposible”, which is a pretty fun duet despite sounding essentially like Despacito 2 – it’s nice to hear the interaction between the raspier Ozuna and the full-voiced Fonsi. “Echame La Culpa” with Demi Lovato is almost as old as “Despacito”, but bringing someone else with this much sheer vocal power on board was a smart move, the two combining for some great tropical harmonies. “Calypso” is another summery track that offers more of the same, but it’s interesting to hear two cultures with similar sounds come together when the Jamaican Stefflon Don appears on the track.

Most of the rest of the tracks here don’t offer much to comment on – most sounds that explode into the public consciousness quickly ultimately develop a formula that becomes easy and effective to follow and this is no exception. Tracks like “Poco A Poco” and certainly get me to nod my head, but there’s almost nothing that distinguishes them from most of the other Latin tracks that blow up. “Tanto Para Nada” might be the best of the more generic bunch, a slower-paced song that suddenly drops a trap beat and a ridiculously catchy guitar pattern onto the chorus.

VIDA is more dynamic than I expected it to be after the runaway success of a single song, as Fonsi partially succeeds in delivering something more than 11 more Despacitos. The guy has been at it for a long time and there’s certainly a lot about him to like, but most of this is too safe to truly excite.

Favourite Tracks: Le Pido Al Cielo, Dime Que No Te Iras, Despacito, Tanto Para Nada

Least Favourite Track: Sola

Score: 6/10

Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

Image result for julia michaels inner monologue

“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

James Blake – Assume Form

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

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

Image result for james blake

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

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

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

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

Image result for james blake

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

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You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

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Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

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.

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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.

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“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