21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

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It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10

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

Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Over Now

Score: 5/10

Image result for dirty computerJanelle Monae – Dirty Computer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 10/10

Image result for leon bridges good thingLeon Bridges – Good Thing

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Bad Bad News

Score: 7/10

Migos – Culture II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Flooded

Score: 6/10