Justin Bieber – Changes

Image result for justin bieber changes album coverFame hasn’t been particularly kind to the man they call the Biebs. Returning from a litany of personal struggles with a new album for the first time in 5 years and a slew of interviews where he seems to need to really convince the public of just how happy he is in his newfound marriage, Changes was affectionately billed as an “R&Bieber” project in a departure from his world-dominating pop anthems of the past. Seeing even his biggest haters admit that he radiated a certain kind of magnetic charisma during his last era made this a highly anticipated project for me, hoping for another massive hit that everyone could get behind. Then, of course, he dropped “Yummy” and that anticipation self-destructed. Featuring 16 nearly identical tracks as Bieber leans hard into the sleepy alt-R&B trends of the current moment, the lack of any genuine emotion behind awkward and clinical lyrics about the joys of matrimonial lovemaking really sounds like Bieber is straining to convince himself, too, that he’s finally taken the right path in life.

The project opens to the spacey and psychedelic slowly strummed guitar chords of “All Around Me,” a track that essentially sounds like Bieber doing a self-indulgent freestyle over a beat he knew would get added to the nearest “chill vibes” Spotify playlist the second he heard it. Falling off the beat a couple times and hurriedly shoehorning in syllables so he can fit in one cliché phrase or another, the track is meant to introduce the album as a full-on tribute to his wife but contains the lyric “never thought I could be loyal to someone other than myself,” which is appropriate for the remainder of the oddly aloof lyrical dedications that follow. Bieber has essentially gotten to the Drake-like point in his career where he realizes that he can fill up the lyrical space of a song with a single catchy soundbite fit for an Instagram caption and literally whatever else he wants and it’ll still sell millions, and there are a couple songs here where it feels like he essentially chose a word for the title – “Habitual,” “Intentions” – and then wrote a song around it, fitting in some clunky rhymes and filling up the rest of the space with common platitudes and sexual bars so juvenile they come across as creepy. One of the only times he idolizes anything but his wife’s physical beauty or what she can provide for him is on “Running Over” in the awful lyric “you made me laugh with personality,” like he knows he’s SUPPOSED to say it at some point but doesn’t really believe it. One of the next couple lines is “Had to get a lesson in anatomy,” because of course it is.

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The sonic palette across this project is absolutely nothing new, each track opening with that same watered-down iPhone ringtone-core synth tone that echoes through car radios nationwide and the most basic and universally appealing of trap beats, removing any of the sense of fun and rhythmic surprise that his last album had. These beats are static, they arrive and never change as the forward movement of the song is placed solely on Bieber’s vocals, which can often be the biggest thing that prevents this project from being completely unlistenable. His smooth and airy delivery certainly works for the style he’s aiming for here, even if his lyrics make him sound more like an excitable 14-year-old boy than the dark and mysterious figure it calls for. “Available” is one of the better tracks in the early goings for that reason, his effortless flips into falsetto injecting some much-needed levity to a 16-track slog that takes itself far too seriously.

It’s fitting that we have Post Malone here as a feature on the track “Forever,” because most of these instrumentals come from the same inoffensive, genreless playbook that he works with, but with much less of an uncanny penchant for creating hooks. The watery synth textures and trap beats set in the back of the mix on tracks like “Come Around Me” and “Take It Out On Me” can get so boring and uninspired that it honestly starts to make me wonder if I actually might like the upbeat and dynamic instrumental of “Yummy,” which is definitely still an absolute nightmare of a track due to, well, everything else it embodies. I’ll never hear the word the same way. Quite a few ideas here are pretty shamelessly lifted from other places, most eye-rollingly obviously on the track “E.T.A.,” which sounds pretty decent until you realize the instrumental is copy-pasted from Khalid’s “Location,” and Bieber didn’t even care enough to make the subject matter of the song about literally anything other than waiting at home for your special someone to arrive. The features don’t do much to help either, with Travis Scott lending one of his most phoned-in takes of all time over a beat that sounds eerily similar to Frank Ocean’s “In My Room” on “Second Emotion” and comedic rapper Lil Dicky inexplicably being present at all, his sexual jokes not sounding all too different to Bieber’s straight-faced quips.

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Some of the final tracks venture into more of an acoustic territory and are actually easily the best material here, Bieber finally sounding somewhat authentic as he takes the rawer instrumentals as an opportunity to emote a bit more with his vocal delivery. The track “Confirmation” actually begins with a false start that helps with that sense of realness, Bieber dropping some great harmonies as he looks forward to the rest of his life. “That’s What Love Is” sees him singing over a plucked acoustic pattern and nothing else with some of his most heartfelt dedications and melismatic vocals of all, though some of the lyrics seem to suggest that he’s singing about his faith in line with the religious themes briefly touched on earlier in the album.

Don’t get me wrong, you can absentmindedly nod your head to almost every song here, but this project is essentially nearly devoid of both musical innovation and Bieber having anything interesting to say. I’m glad he’s happy and seems to have found a refuge from everything that’s been plaguing him over the years, but it sure doesn’t translate to engaging music.

Favourite Tracks: That’s What Love Is, Available, Confirmation

Least Favourite Track: Yummy

Score: 4/10

Oh Wonder – No One Else Can Wear Your Crown

Oh Wonder - No One Else Can Wear Your Crown.pngUK indie-pop duo Oh Wonder are back with another album of beautifully understated melodies as their worldwide profile continues to grow. While I definitely thought their sophomore effort, 2017’s Ultralife, was mostly played safe and was ultimately uninspired and unmemorable, the duo returns to some interesting high-powered synthpop production quirks here that often provide a thrilling contrast to just how whispery and intimate their vocals can be at times. Their songwriting still isn’t always there, but hearing them experiment more than usual in combination with the always hypnotic vocals of Josephine Vander Gucht make this one an enjoyable listen for its brief runtime – it only stands at 10 tracks and 30 minutes – and what is likely their best work so far.

The project opens with one of its strongest songs in “Dust,” the duo singing a warm and inviting melody from the very first second accompanied by some skittering percussion clicks and letting the listeners know that this one might be a little more energetic and faster-paced than their previous releases. The ascending synth tones and brief moments of silence remind me of some of Disclosure’s recent production work, elevating things into a much more electronic place than their singer-songwriter acoustic tones would suggest. As they sing the album’s titular lyric in a song about celebrating everyone’s individuality, their perfectly complementary voices wrap around each other, Anthony West’s deeper, fuller tone supporting Vander Gucht’s airy and angelic upper register. While they previously denied it for years, it would be clear to anyone that the two are a couple – they musically melt into one another and feed off of each other’s quirks. “In And Out Of Love” is another track that really showcases the musical marriage of their vocals, a slower piano ballad as the two get emotional imagining their exciting, yet unfulfilling dating lives if they hadn’t ultimately settled down with each other.

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While hearing the duo venture into a more EDM-inspired area can be an engaging new musical adventure in some areas of the album, a couple tracks make it clear that it shouldn’t be a permanent direction for them, the instrumentals getting just a little too overpowering and drowning out the quiet and sweet-sounding vocals underneath them. “Happy” was clearly the duo’s attempt at capitalizing on some dance-pop trends of the moment, opening with Vander Gucht’s muted vocal on some uplifting piano chords before the track builds up with speedy percussion hits and drops into some overly loud synths resembling huge and dramatic orchestral tones a la Chainsmokers or Avicii. If the sound levels were mixed better, they might have been able to pull it off and made use of the pleasant surprise of the musical contrast, but I want to hear the little imperfections in their vocals more than an overproduced wall of sound.

The next track “Better Now” is another one where it would have been a clear highlight if a little more restraint were shown – I love the chorus, especially the way the backing vocals abruptly cut out after the catchy main melody is delivered, but the switches to a slower-paced Auto-Tuned breakdown and the massive booming drums at the track’s conclusion don’t feel earned, or even necessary – my favourite track of all here might be one of the album’s quietest, “How It Goes.” While it’s still driven by a steady beat present in the mix, the rest of the instrumental isn’t much more than a jazzy piano loop, the odd saxophone or rumbling bassline popping up just barely audible in the mix and giving the entire thing a coffee-house vibe that fits their vocal delivery, literally whispering the ends of some lines. The album concludes powerfully in a similar way with the love song “Nebraska,” closing the album out with the whispered refrain “you’re still home.”

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“Hallelujah” is a track that does the genre contrast correctly, opening with what we know best from Oh Wonder over some quiet piano before more and more instrumental aspects are added and the lyrics speed up, continuing to build up and surprise with each new section as the bassline pounds until the triumphant, harmonized chorus as they repeat the “hallelujah” refrain. It drops back to the quiet part just once, before the final chorus brings everything roaring back. The track is an absolutely exhilarating experience for someone familiar with Oh Wonder’s previous work. The duo have their strengths, and hearing them used in new and exciting ways here easily made this their best project, but they have to be careful not to lose what was originally so appealing about them in the process. Most of the tracks in the back half of the album hit a consistently good area in trying to intersperse some more high-octane moments with their vocals, “Drunk On You” building up to a breakdown with chopped-up vocals and “I Wish I Never Met You” doing the trap-orchestra thing right by keeping too many extraneous musical elements away and focusing on a single violin melody that punches through the mix.

No One Else Can Wear Your Crown is a huge step up from Ultralife, the duo getting more musically adventurous and delivering some absolutely adorable odes to their romance with their tones that were clearly destined to meet from the start. It’s all the more admirable the project is entirely self-produced, save for one helping hand who assisted on two of the tracks. The sophomore jinx is over, and the duo have nowhere to go but up.

Favourite Tracks: How It Goes, Dust, Hallelujah, I Wish I Never Met You, Nebraska

Least Favourite Track: Happy

Score: 8/10

Kesha – High Road

Image result for kesha high roadYou have to give Kesha credit for continuing to push onwards. After returning from a long legal battle with former producer Dr. Luke with the cathartic and triumphant Rainbow, one of the most successful pop artists of the early 2010s is back with her fourth studio album. Blending together the over-the-top party girl rap persona of old and the soaring pop-country styles she finally showcased to the world on her previous project, High Road can come off as a disorganized mess that firmly establishes Kesha’s early music as the product of another time – but at the same time, it’s impossible not to respect her for finally harnessing full creative control and doing what Kesha has always done absolutely best: whatever she wants, with no regard for the opinions of others. High Road is nowhere near as impactful and brilliantly structured as Rainbow, but it’s definitely a wild party.

It’s impossible to predict what you’re going to get on a Kesha album, but opening track “Tonight” sums things up pretty well. Opening with Kesha sounding excellent at full belt over some emotional piano chords, the track suddenly sets the entire concept on fire and drops a rhythmically dissonant bassline as the old Kesha returns in full force with an off-key crowd of her inebriated friends singing backup. The track tries to blend the two aspects later on, but it’s a herculean task. There’s nothing about this album that works well together, but the eccentric and fun-loving spirit with which Kesha approaches her work here often yields moments of brilliance as well.

The following track, “My Own Dance,” sees Kesha addressing people’s expectations of her, dismissing online demands that she return to her original style – “could you kinda rap and not be so sad?” – and insisting that she’s too multidimensional to be categorized, celebrating this fact by … doing exactly what people wanted of her for the remainder of the album. It overshadows the whole thing with a bit of tonal weirdness, Kesha not feeling quite as free as she wants us to believe she is, especially when nearly every rap verse here brings to mind a simpler musical time when LMFAO, Pitbull and Flo-Rida were popular. We were all younger, happier, and there was less bad news everywhere to be found – for some reason, her cheerleader-style delivery on tracks like “High Road” just doesn’t feel right anymore. However, it is a lot more fun to reminisce when she jokingly recalls a bit more of the shameless and hypersexual character she once was.

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The back-to-back songs “Birthday Suit” and “Kinky” – which actually bills Ke$ha, yes, with the dollar sign, as a feature – feature some of that irreverence. “Birthday Suit” is still a little disjointed with combining her rap verses and a glossy pop chorus, but it’s tough to resist that Mario sample. “Kinky,” though, is easily the best pure pop track here. It’s interesting how much you actually can distinguish Ke-dollar sign-ha from the other raps. There’s just a tiny bit of an added slur on her words. The track “Honey” is a pretty fun one as well: it sees her link up with Tayla Parx as they fire some hilarious – and angry – punchlines at a former friend who seemingly betrayed her. “Find my pictures under ‘legends’ if you Google me” is an all-time status bar.

Most of the greatest moments here actually come from the tracks that sound like they could have fit right in on Rainbow. Kesha’s message of embracing your true self and showing overwhelming love to those who are doing the same is an admirable one, and when she wants to, she can deliver it in extremely powerful ways. “Shadow” is a slow-burning track that kicks off with just piano and violin as Kesha sings about being happy in spite of the vitriol thrown at her, three quick percussion hits immediately turning the track into an exuberant and highly emotional stadium-pop anthem.

Kesha tapping into her country roots always yields some pretty great results as well. “Cowboy Blues” is essentially an acoustic campfire song as Kesha crams as many syllables as she can into telling the story, exactly how it was, of feeling like missing out on the one: a man in a Nashville dive bar she can’t get out of her mind. It definitely applies her off-kilter brand of humour to a track that strangely turns a ridiculous concept into something that’s genuinely thoughtful and affecting. “Resentment” invites both psychedelic country-rocker Sturgill Simpson and THE Brian Wilson for a massive sad-cowboy singalong about a decaying relationship. “Father Daughter Dance” is an absolute gut-punch with some of the best vocal moments here as Kesha contemplates the sadness she oddly doesn’t feel about her absentee father, unable to miss something she never had.

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Of course, an album where a completely unrestrained Kesha is unleashed on the world is also bound to have some tracks that are so laughably awful that they have to be heard to be believed. “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” takes an oom-pah beat and vocal distortion as Kesha essentially pulls out every buzzword of a Myspace teenager who thrives on being “random” as she paints an escape fantasy of her own rainbow-filled island where she becomes a potato farmer. There are kazoos. It’s an absolute nightmare. “BFF” is an ode to the longstanding friendship between her and singer Wrabel, but often feels like it was written by a little kid with its non-rhyming lyrics containing the most generic sentiments about friendship and slowly plodding tempo. The last thing I’d expect on a Kesha album is blandness, but we also have lead single “Raising Hell” and “Little Bit of Love,” essentially the most obnoxious elements of millennial pop distilled down into faceless tracks that could have been sung by anyone – complete with a chopped-up saxophone riff functioning as a chorus.

It’s honestly tough to know how to score this album – it’s wildly inconsistent, with some extreme highs and lows … some of the lows being admirable in a strange way and some of them being an indisputable mess. But no matter what, it’s hard to imagine that Kesha would care in any way whatsoever if she were to stumble across my blog. Kesha is who she is. Sometimes that’s a little – or a lot – messy, but that’s why we love her.

Favourite Tracks: Kinky, Shadow, Father Daughter Dance, Cowboy Blues

Least Favourite Track: Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)

Score: 5/10

Tate McRae – all the things i never said EP

Image result for tate mcrae all the things i never said coverLast night, Billie Eilish became only the 2nd person in history to sweep the Grammys’ “Big 4” categories and the third to even win all four of the awards over a career. Do you think it might be possible that music labels are trying desperately to find the next off-kilter teenage success story? Tate McRae is a 16-year-old from Alberta who attracted quite a bit of attention on YouTube with her covers – largely, of Eilish songs – and has now received the fast track to working with some of the best producers in the game, including Eilish’s superstar brother FINNEAS, who co-wrote one of the songs here with Billie herself. I hate to so overtly measure someone’s work up against someone else’s, but McRae’s vocal delivery and lyrical content clearly draw heavy inspiration from someone who is rapidly becoming the voice of a generation. However, while her music isn’t as groundbreakingly unique as Eilish’s, McRae proves that with an injection of her own personality the style is going to stick around for a while. With more traditional pop sensibilities applied to the dark bedroom-pop framework that’s running rampant in the industry, McRae delivers 5 pretty great pop tracks here to appeal to those who are just a little creeped out by Eilish’s horror imagery.

All you have to know about how attitudes towards pop culture are changing as the generations shift is represented in how the 2nd song on this project, “all my friends are fake,” came to be. Featuring some rather poetic lyrics in the verses about how certain people are a perfect match for handling someone else’s pain, the chorus immediately throws the flowery language out the window and bluntly repeats its title. McRae called this “title clickbait,” throwing something that everyone has felt at one point or another – that, by the way, wasn’t born from any of McRae’s actual experiences – in the middle of her personal diary. And it really does hurt when most of the music drops back and she blurts out “fake” in a pained whisper.

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Most of this project functions in the same way, dropping relatable lines in the middle of highly personal content. You’d think that hearing the ramblings of a 16-year-old would strongly appeal to that demographic, but wouldn’t be able to cross many boundaries, but the direct, confessional way McRae writes about her own experiences and what goes on in the deepest recesses of the mind of someone born to an anxiety-riddled generation in a terrifying world is endlessly fascinating. The title, after all, is all the things I never said.

The project opens with the track “stupid,” which is built around a somber acoustic guitar loop and builds up to a trap-beat drop in the chorus – pretty standard radio fare at the moment, but we haven’t heard a voice quite like McRae’s used with these traditional formulas yet. Just as lilting and vulnerable as Eilish’s, but with a bit more of a powerful punch behind it when she needs to articulate something, McRae tells the story of how she recognizes that her IQ drops a few points when she’s around a less-than-spectacular guy, but she just can’t stay away. It’ll be a tall order getting any of these choruses out of my head for weeks, but this is one of the better ones here, her syncopated vocals and the persistent guitar melody linking up to create a sneakily hidden dancehall rhythm. It’s the sound that’s been making the entire world move for years now and has become embedded in the pop consciousness. Eilish lends her pen to the track “tear myself apart,” and the rattling bass and densely layered harmonies certainly recall the dramatics and hip-hop balladry of a track like “when the party’s over.”

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The best tracks here might actually be the only two that weren’t already released beforehand, “that way” and “happy face.” “happy face” sees her reaching new heights in her vocal range with one of the most immediately memorable melodies, but “that way” is easily one of the most emotional tracks here. McRae uses her heartbreakingly specific lyrics to describe a friendship that always comes tantalizingly close to taking the next step but never does, the friendship itself on life support as it hangs around in an awkward limbo. There’s not much supporting McRae’s sorrowful vocals here than some muted percussion hits and slowly moving piano chords, but she doesn’t need it – she has enough conviction and genuine heartfelt emotion behind what she’s saying to make the listener hang onto her every word. Each chorus subtly adds a new musical element, building tension as McRae becomes increasingly exasperated, then finally drops back as she delivers the final line a cappella, her voice crumbling into a strained croak.

It’s true that McRae does draw a lot from what makes Eilish’s music so successful, but it’s successful for a reason: we all needed someone to bluntly outline was actually going on in the twisted minds of the youngest occupants of our planet, those belonging to that demographic especially. McRae tells her own stories here, and has the catchy pop instincts and sharp songwriting ability to make her fully stand out on her own. I can’t wait for a full project.

Favourite Tracks: that way, stupid, happy face

Least Favourite Track: all my friends are fake

Score: 8/10

Halsey – Manic

Image result for halsey manicAlt-pop singer-songwriter Halsey’s third studio album Manic is meant to be a journey into the way her mind works – named after her bipolar disorder, formerly referred to as manic depression. Sonically, it’s certainly a fitting title as the project dips tentatively into quite a few genres, all smoothed over with the glossy psychedelic pop sheen that some of her biggest tracks are known for. For an album with a concept and a sonic palette this interesting, it comes as a big surprise that it’s far from memorable outside of a couple of very strong singles. Halsey has always been an artist that seems like she doesn’t know exactly where she wants to go – during her last, very 90s-pop inspired era, she became offended when people referred to her as a pop singer rather than alternative. While there are some great individual tracks here and her songwriting certainly continues to improve, touching on some very powerful personal material, as a creative musical vision Manic plays it safe all too often for what it could have been.

The opening track makes it abundantly clear that we’re going to be getting a lot more emotional content about Halsey’s own life and experiences on this project – it’s titled “Ashley,” after her real name, and makes a couple lyrical references to the fact that she wasn’t being entirely honest with the stories she told on her previous works, “Halsey” essentially being a now-dead character. She honestly sounds like a mid-2000s alt-rock frontwoman on the chorus as she pushes herself to her emotional peak, something that I wish there was more of later on in the tracklisting. Halsey has too many things that make her unique to be making the relatively basic pop content that follows.

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Most of the greatest tracks here are actually the singles that had been previously released: “Graveyard” might be the most engaging of all with its combination of thunderous stomping percussion and a looping instrumental melody that shifts from folksy acoustic guitar to a watery synth line. It leads directly into latest single “You should be sad,” which is easily the most successful and admirable of all the cross-genre experiments Halsey tried to pull off here. Undeniably and unexpectedly country-tinged, Halsey takes out all of her frustrations with former flame G-Eazy’s infidelity and uses the more storytelling-driven form to disgustedly spit out some of her most acerbic lyrics on the project. With some stunning half-yodeled harmonies and a couple surprise roaring guitar flourishes, this is everything the alternative, genre-fluid Halsey wants to be. As another example of Halsey’s huge aspirations in this area, there are three interludes her named after artists that couldn’t come from more different musical worlds: R&B upstart Dominic Fike, alt-rock legend Alanis Morrissette and Korean boy-band BTS’ SUGA. Then of course there’s worldwide smash hit “Without Me,” which still refuses to leave the recesses of my brain despite its 2018 release date. In terms of the album cuts, the track “3AM” is the clear standout, a much heavier alt-rock track that legitimately features Chad Smith, the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The moments when Halsey’s sweet-sounding vocal performances are juxtaposed with chaotic instrumentals and fiery lyrics are always her best, and this is a track that makes me think she would have done much better in a different decade.

Quite a few of the other instrumentals here actually end up being the opposite, however, lingering back in a quiet, washed-out place featuring muted pianos and synths that are intended to accommodate Halsey’s softer tone. We know how fully capable she is of hitting dramatic highs and lows with her vocals and instrumental choices, but tracks like “clementine” and “killing boys” that meander along without much of a surprising peak or climax are easy to zone out to and eventually forget about. I can’t ignore how much of a ripoff of Lady Gaga’s “You & I” “Finally // beautiful stranger” is either. It’s clear that we’re meant to be focusing a lot more on what exactly Halsey is saying as she pours her heart out about her many romantic struggles and the difficulties of living with two different voices in her head, and the dynamic she presents between Halsey and Ashley struggling for power here is certainly a compelling one when you look into the lyrics after the fact, but when the tracks resemble a calming lullaby more than anything else it’s difficult to pay close attention.

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As a storytelling-based album, there are also quite a few moments that Halsey has explained are intentionally more transitional, including the entire three-song stretch from “Forever … (is a long time)” to “I HATE EVERYBODY.” It almost feels like half of the tracks on this project don’t become fully-realized ideas as a result, jumping from one idea to the next to move the narrative along but failing to create any musical moments that truly stick. SUGA and Morrissette’s interludes are placed with only a single song separating them later on in the tracklisting.

There’s almost nothing about Manic that is below average, but there’s not much that’s spectacular either. Part of me wonders if I would have received a project like this slightly better if Halsey didn’t frequently speak about how she is fulfilling her huge artistic ambitions and would like to be viewed as avant-garde and then coming out with enjoyable, yet unsurprising pop material. Halsey has so much artistic potential, she just needs to fully commit to her direction.

Favourite Tracks: You should be sad, 3am, Graveyard, Ashley

Least Favourite Track: clementine

Score: 6/10

Selena Gomez – Rare

Image result for selena gomez rareSelena Gomez has described her first album since 2015 as a “diary,” and if you wanted to know exactly what’s been going through her mind during the many struggles she’s had since then, it’s essentially all here in crystal-clear detail. After some highly-publicized health struggles – both physical and mental – and a lengthy breakup with a certain Canadian pop heartthrob, she finally returns, and as one of the dual lead singles repeatedly states, “Look At Her Now.” While we can’t fault her for the many delays and restructurings this album has undergone, I certainly didn’t expect it to turn out quite this cohesive and compelling. This is an album in line with the image of the shattered, but strong, tangible and human pop star that something like thank u, next presented so well, as Gomez uses upbeat dance-pop production and lyrics centred around self-love as an opportunity to move past the pain. After all, going through trauma can’t be easy when you’re one of the world’s most-followed people on Instagram.

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The project opens with its lead single, and I’m glad that this is the next one being sent to radio – it’s a relatively minimal pop groove that fits nicely with her whispery vocal delivery, but that only makes it all the more special when the trap beat and synths suddenly drop in and support her harmonies halfway through the chorus. On an album full of somber tracks reflecting on the hurt her relationship and other issues caused her, hearing her open with three of its most confident, empowering tracks is a great start. Seeing her perform a song like “Look At Her Now” is pretty inspiring, everything considered, even if the jarring mixing levels and “mm-mm” chorus annoy me to no end. “Dance Again,” however, is one that I can certainly see growing on me. The melody didn’t instantly grab me and reminded me of some of her earlier Disney-adjacent material, but it’s set to one of the clubbiest beats here, a pulsating techno groove underscoring her celebration of finally being able to go out and have a good time again without everything weighing on her. There are a few other tracks here that don’t quite connect – on an album full of highly personal tracks that sound like they couldn’t have been delivered by anyone else, the Latin and tropical-pop trend-hopping of tracks like “Ring” and “People You Know” feel disingenuous.

The biggest strength of the project actually comes from an unexpected area – its lyricism. Gomez has forged a close friendship with songwriter extraordinaire Julia Michaels in recent years (the two even have matching tattoos!) and while she only appears in the credits of a couple songs here, it’s abundantly clear that Gomez has drawn inspiration from her writing style. Quite a few of the sadder songs here hit much harder emotionally because of their vivid lyrical specificity. She even casually drops references to her medication or other aspects of her mental health struggles in the context of more upbeat tracks like “Fun.”

“Lose You To Love Me” was a risky choice for a lead single, but it certainly paid off – it’s full of less-than-subtle shots at The Biebs. People were drawn in to the drama, and were rewarded with a fantastic ballad that is equal parts angry, heartbreaking and ultimately, reclamatory as she once again steps out confidently on her own. It’s not the only track where he draws her ire, as she makes it quite clear who she’s talking about on tracks like “Cut You Off” and “Kinda Crazy.” Laying it all out on the table and essentially making lists of all of Bieber’s questionable behaviours seems cathartic for her. When it sounds this good and we can understand exactly where the little emotional breaks in her vocals are coming from, the project is all the better for it. “Vulnerable” might be the perfect marriage of the album’s emotional content and the percussion-heavy grooves, Gomez flitting through some truly Swiftian rapid-fire vocals and Prismizer harmonies before everything the track appears to be building up to drops away to nothing as she softly sings “I’ll stay vulnerable.”

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One of the most powerful moments of all comes on the final track, where Gomez links up with an unexpected collaborator and kindred spirit in Kid Cudi, who has had his own share of mental health struggles. Much like the camaraderie and healing of Kids See Ghosts, Gomez and Cudi come together to celebrate their new senses of self-discovery. 6lack drops a pretty smooth feature onto “Crowded Room” as well – it’s surprising well much these prominent voices in the hip-hop and R&B scene fit together with Gomez, but there’s always been something soulful in the breathier, sensual side of her tone. It’s used to its full potential on this track.

We’re starting to see a shift from the larger-than-life image of the picture-perfect pop-star in a social-media dominated age. We want to know exactly what’s going on in their head, and if they’re not perfect, all the better to relate to. It’s a pretty great achievement that Gomez was able to pull an enjoyable project like this out of development hell, and like one of the tracks states, her vulnerability is the biggest reason for its success.

Favourite Tracks: Vulnerable, Lose You To Love Me, Kinda Crazy, Rare, Cut You Off

Least Favourite Track: Look At Her Now

Score: 7/10

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

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