XXXTENTACION – SKINS

XXXTentacion – Skins.pngSince his death this past June, it’s becoming much more evident just how much of an incredible impact XXXTENTACION had on the direction of music and culture. While his projects were uneven and his career was mired in endless controversies, there was always a clear creative spark and an urge to put out something different, something uniquely him. SKINS is his first posthumous release, and standing at only 19 minutes in length, it’s clearly unfinished, most of these songs having issues with mixing and mastering or instances where X was recording a demo vocal to be replaced with something more substantial later. Although there are definitely a few issues with putting this out so quickly to capitalize on his name, looking back at how much the genre he kickstarted has grown has honestly made me appreciate the ideas presented on this tape for what they are – I can tell that if these were turned into full songs, it’d be a huge step forward from 17 and ?. If I’m evaluating this just on the music presented though, this barely qualifies as an album.

It’s immediately evident just how little new material we’re actually going to get here when the instrumental of the first full track, “Guardian angel”, starts playing – it’s just the beat of one of his biggest hits, “Jocelyn Flores”, reversed. X’s rapping on the track is honestly some of the best I’ve ever heard him, urgent and powerful, but the track ends before it even begins – this is just a tiny chunk of something he recorded. I always enjoyed his calmer raps, without the overuse of distortion, the most out of any of his wide variety of styles, and it continues on the next track “Train food” which sees X do something new and put together a full narrative and concrete idea – at almost 3 minutes, it’s an unusually long track for him. X’s lyrics are vivid as he paints the picture of encountering the figure of Death while walking home, enhanced by the sound effect of a punch before he wakes up tied to a railroad track. The repeated lyrics and very minimal instrumental suggest that this could have been even more powerful than it already is – that last verse is chilling and prophetic, as X raises his voice to a shout.

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The track “STARING AT THE SKY”, standing at under a minute and a half in length, sees X revert back to his full-voiced distorted yells and heavy metal production style interspersed with acoustic emo-folk delivery. It’s the kind of material that really made me worried for him on his previous projects, but the addition of a sinister whisper under his repeated yells of “WE’RE GONNA BREAK” is an absolutely terrifying touch that shocked me. It’s not something I’d ever want to return to, but it definitely made me feel something.

The heavy guitars continue to much better effect on “One Minute”, which recruits Kanye West and Travis Barker. Despite some seriously questionable lyrics, West absolutely demolishes his verse, the distorted guitars behind him injecting his confident and charismatic flow and delivery with some serious energy before X enters with a bloodcurdling scream – even if his part is minimal and clearly looped, it’s a pretty mindblowing track all in all.

It’s strange to accuse a 19-minute album of having filler tracks, but some of these songs are blatantly unfinished and it makes me worried that X’s team are suggesting that there is more to come if this is all they could muster to put on his first posthumous release. The tracks “whoa (mind in awe)” and “what are you so afraid of” are painfully repetitive and consist of little more than X’s whoa-ohs, suggesting that they were demos he recorded before adding actual lyrics. Most of the time, it doesn’t sound like he’s fully present in recording, like these were obviously nothing close to the final takes he was going to record.

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A track like “BAD!” sounds like it would have been an obvious hit if it were actually put together with some more effort – X’s words are barely clear, like he was unsure if he’d replace them later. The studio wizardry throughout is so clear, constructing tracks out of bits and pieces that it might not have ever been his intention to fit together. “I don’t let go” is another track that I can see coming together with more work – the glitchy instrumental from Cubeatz reminds me of “Moonlight” and X’s falsetto chorus is pretty enjoyable, despite its repetition without much else to switch up the energy of the track. Like everything else here, the idea is there, but the execution is far from complete.

Most of what I enjoyed from this project is simply from my fascination with the creative processes of one of the most culturally influential artists in recent memory – hearing X’s ideas in their bare-bones form gives me hope that he was moving in a more positive artistic direction, and that some of these tracks could have been a lot better than his previous work. There are a lot of things to like here, but the fact that we never really get to hear them come to fruition makes this a seriously underwhelming release that makes me nervous for just how long we’re likely going to be milking X’s work after he’s gone.

Favourite Tracks: One Minute, Train food, I don’t let go

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

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Twenty One Pilots – Trench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts

Now that I’ve finally caught back up to the present with these reviews, I’ll be returning to the original, longer format and hopefully returning to a consistent release schedule starting next week. Jorja Smith review coming shortly, then back to Tuesday/Thursday or something similar. I’m also going to be back on Instagram, follow me at bensbeatmusic! Here are my thoughts on one of my favourite albums of the year:

Image result for kids see ghostsKanye West and fellow G.O.O.D. Music artist Kid Cudi bring the best out of eachother to maximum potential on the third of West’s 5 Wyoming releases, Kids See Ghosts. Saving his innovative production and completely new sounds for this project, West combines his style with Cudi’s alternative and grunge-rock influences for a collision of sounds we haven’t heard executed this well anywhere else before. Where ye felt hurried and open-ended, these 7 tracks all feel connected, deliberately sequenced and encapsulate a perfect microcosm of West’s incredible ability as a producer, with some old-school Cudi vibes and impressive political wordplay from West on top as well. It’s easily the best Wyoming release, and that’s saying a lot with the strength of DAYTONA and ye.

Image result for kanye west kid cudiInfluential artist Takashi Murakami designed the cover art.

The project opens with “Feel The Love”, a song that goes to three completely different places in under three minutes. Pusha T’s menacing intro verse gives way to West’s completely unexpected emulation of gunshot noises, completely upsetting the natural flow before the beat finally clicks and perfectly lines up for the most exhilarating musical moment I’ve heard in a while, feeding off primal energy. More contemplative synths reintroduce Cudi’s hook, as the rhythm of West’s vocalizations come back in on the percussion to complement it more quietly. The experimentation and energy only continues after the smooth transition to “Fire”, the track carried by a steadily driving deathmarch tempo backed by Cudi’s trademark hums and a distorted acoustic guitar. Cudi’s singing on this track and across the board is a lot more on key than usual, competently delivering hooks and tapping back into his older style to carry a longer track like “Reborn” almost all by himself. The song itself is a bit of a breather from the aggressive stranglehold of the first 4 songs here, Cudi singing about defeating his demons over a contemplative synth piano. As the hook – “keep moving forward” – continues repeating into the end of the track, Cudi continues to layer his vocals on top, emphasizing that it still isn’t that easy – “which way should I go?” he asks.

“4th Dimension” is one of the craziest ideas West’s ever had, and he pulls it off flawlessly. Taking a Louis Prima Christmas song from the 1930s, he orchestrates a sample flip, picking out the group vocals on the melody line from the original. He speeds up the tempo with a steady, knocking beat and uses reversed vocals to completely repurpose it. West sounds absolutely triumphant on his verse, like he’s fully aware of the incredible musical feat he’s pulled off with the track. He truly could turn anything into a hip-hop song. He brings Ty Dolla $ign on board once again for “Freeee”, a continuation of his own track “Ghost Town” that takes the emotion of the original and translates it into a grandiose, godlike rock anthem. The heavy guitar loop gives way to Ty’s vocals, layered multiple times for a deafening sound as he simply repeats “Free”. West and Cudi are on top of the world here, repeating the title as well in an echoed, booming deeper voice. It’s incredibly empowering stuff. I also love that quickly descending synth that comes in near the end of the track. The title track “Kids See Ghosts” is yet another track carried by West’s innovative beat, a more minimal, driving jungle rhythm with ominous synth bass and high-pitched clicks, Mos Def’s “civilization” verse at the end framing the artists’ words as some kind of ancient knowledge.

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Closing track “Cudi Montage” tastefully takes a very raw acoustic sample from Kurt Cobain, a man who suffered through clinical depression and bipolar disorder as Cudi and West respectively have. It’s a great wink to the audience after an album where the two artists repeatedly embrace their flaws and proclaim their freedom and supremacy over it all, moving forward where Cobain couldn’t. The track itself actually sees West turn poignantly political in his verse, speaking on the culture of gang mentality and its contribution to the crime rate in Chicago. West and Cudi’s repeated mantras to close out the album – “Lord shine your light on me”, “Stay strong” – see the two as having found a place of freedom, peace and empowerment outside the elements that hold them back, both in the form of West’s political talk and their own disabilities.

West and Cudi stand together as kindred spirits building each other up and helping each other through their respective personal hardships. It’s truly amazing to hear them speaking about these topics with such a level head, having moved past them. West’s production is at it’s most innovative here, creating a new movement of sound instead of reverting to old tricks like on his solo Wyoming project. Every track here feels like it belongs, and Kids See Ghosts stands as one of West’s all-time greatest works in a discography that has plenty of contenders.

Favourite Tracks: 4th Dimension, Feel The Love, Reborn, Fire, Cudi Montage

Least Favourite Track: Impossible. Each track serves a very specific, essential purpose.

Score: 10/10