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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: make up

Score: 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Peach

Score: 7/10

Image result for luis fonsi vidaLuis Fonsi – VIDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Sola

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, 6ix9ine, Mariah Carey)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

Anderson .Paak’s highly anticipated third studio album Oxnard, executive produced by Dr. Dre himself, sees the James Brown-esque rising funk star continue to exude charisma and mic presence like no other, even if his style is a little less immediately unique and personal. Dre spins the album more towards his own musical world of 90s G-funk, meaning the album is more hip-hop oriented than Paak has ever been as he explores some darker sounds for the first time. Part of what I loved so much about him in the past was his exuberant soulful delivery and boundless musicality – he’s far too talented to be just a rapper. So, although it took a while to grow on me, there’s still a lot to love about this project. Paak is one of the most exciting artists out right now.

Once again opening with the sounds of the beach, “The Chase” is an incredibly cinematic way to draw us into the album, continuing with Paak’s previous themes of drawing from the Blaxploitation-era sound as the mostly-instrumental track and accompanying sound effects makes you envision a car chase, some angelic and soulful backing vocals reminding us of the funk space Paak occupies. Especially as it transitions into the additionally vehicle-centric themes of the tracks “Headlow” and “Tints”, you can tell that the album is structured deliberately and it makes me especially appreciate a single like “Tints” even more in the context of the story Paak paints here. Easily one of my most listened-to songs of the year, a collaboration between Paak and Kendrick Lamar is all that I could have ever dreamed of. I love the complexity of the layered funk instrumental, especially as the chorus drops and Paak starts interlocking a couple of catchy hooks on separate vocal tracks – the harmonized female voices on the outro is such a cool moment as well. Both of these two just ooze charisma, dropping some humorous quotables.

Things take a turn for the political on “6 Summers”, a rollercoaster of a track that switches from inflammatory rapped jabs at the President to a more contemplative R&B section that sees Paak’s singing voice at its most beautiful as he wonders how to deal with the pain. He gets pretty explicit about his concerns here, dropping some lines about a lack of gun control reform. That lyrical flip is brilliant – the track will “bang” at least 6 summers, but so will the guns for the duration of the presidency. The back half is full of big-name features, one of the best coming from Pusha T on “Brother’s Keeper”, sinister as ever over some explosive bluesy guitar chords embellished with the most subtle of trap beats. The two are a surprisingly great match, Paak serving as the emotion Push would never show. “Cheers”, with Q-Tip, is a beautiful way to close the album out as well, as the two pay tribute to departed friends Mac Miller and Phife Dawg over one of the most upbeat and prominent instrumentals here – the whole track sounds like a celebration.

One of the main things I think I’m missing here from Paak is the prominence of soul samples in the mix, mostly from his collaboration project Yes Lawd! While there are still definitely elements of the genre in the mix at all times here, quite a few times it feels like it’s taking a backseat to a more West Coast hip-hop flair courtesy of Dre. “Headlow” is one of those tracks that adheres to the breezy sounds of the coast, but Paak’s lower-key approach to the track as the percussion knocks feels like he’s holding back from what he’s really capable of – he has one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard (it pops up briefly on “Smile/Petty”), and maybe it’s because of the lyrical themes of the track as he tries to keep quiet, but it comes across as a little low-effort. “Mansa Musa” is a heavy rap track that features Dre himself, but it feels a lot more rhythmically straightforward than a Paak song ever should be, sticking to some rap clichés. “Who R U?” is perhaps Paak’s most through-and-through hip-hop track ever, consisting of little more than a heavy drumbeat. Still, even when the funk is the most missed, Paak manages to impress, delivering some surprisingly technical bars and saving it with his personality.

I honestly think Paak’s previous projects were so spectacular that I had set my expectations for this one far too high, disappointment being inevitable. Oxnard is far from being a bad project, it’s just not what I expected from him. Paak still has one of the most unique and diverse skillsets in the game, and a project this great being his worst is the sign of a great artist.

Favourite Tracks: Cheers, Tints, Brother’s Keeper, 6 Summers, Saviers Road

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

We weren’t sure we were actually going to get this album at all. 6ix9ine, the controversial rapper and walking meme, is still embroiled in court hearings and facing life in prison after being charged for racketeering a few days before its scheduled release. Officially his first studio album after dropping the Day69 mixtape early this year, DUMMY BOY was released without fanfare a couple days after the scheduled release date. Loaded with high-profile features, it sees 6ix9ine tone down his abrasive and energetic vocal delivery for a few tracks, venturing into a more pop and even Latin-oriented space. There’s almost nothing that can match the pure shot of energy 6ix9ine can give you when he’s on his game, and that does give him a lot of credit here, but most of these tracks seem rushed, the features inconsistent.

As much as it’s easy to hate on 6ix9ine, you can’t deny how exhilarating opening track “STOOPID” is. Over a Tay Keith beat that sounds like a ringing alarm, when it hits at the end of that line of chopped up “dumb-d-dumb”s is one of the most energetic moments of the hear. One of the main reasons 6ix9ine immediately occupied such a huge space in the public consciousness (other than his rainbow hair of course) is that there was such a void for this style of hardcore, gangsta-oriented material that 6ix9ine’s voice is so well-suited for. It’s also why so many of these tracks that see him taking the gravel out of his voice, seemingly for more pop appeal, are so disappointing – he shouldn’t be holding that machine-gun of a voice back. “FEFE”, his biggest hit so far with Nicki Minaj, feels so much emptier than a 6ix9ine song ever should, the main hook a sluggish crawl. Nicki shows up later on “MAMA” with Kanye West, a track that let me down for how much hype it’s gotten since release. The instrumental and 6ix9ine’s hook are pretty basic trap material, while the slower pace of the track isn’t quite enough to accommodate the huge personalities of the two guests. I want to hear a more powerful instrumental behind those supercharged “Maaaan, oh my god”s from Kanye!

Quite a few of these tracks are taken over by their guests, 6ix9ine almost an afterthought on his own album. “WAKA” is almost entirely dedicated to A Boogie wit da Hoodie’s awful singing voice, while the engaging guitar-driven beat of “TIC TOC” is squandered by Lil Baby’s low-effort flow. Most of the final few songs seem like they might have been manufactured last-minute, giving too much mic time to his videographer TrifeDrew’s struggle raps on “DUMMY”, while “WONDO” sounds like a track that was left off the already-messy Day69 for not being complete enough of an idea.

“KIKA”, on the other hand, is pretty incredible. Featuring a carefree hook from Tory Lanez over a steel-drum instrumental, we’re reminded that 6ix9ine is actually capable of switching up his flows and finding himself in a rhythmic pocket, which is all the more exciting when he’s nearly blowing his vocal chords out – the track reminds me of why I enjoyed previous one “KOODA” so much. At this point 6ix9ine’s mere presence on a track is enough for virality, but it actually seems like he’s trying here. Latin pop track “BEBE” is way too sugary and fun to hate as well – I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger hit, that synth tone is such an earworm. “KANGA”, another track with Kanye, is the peak of both of these artists’ meme potential. Featuring ridiculously over-the-top and juvenile lyrics and a playground chant of a flow, it’s one of those tracks that’s so bad it’s amazing.

If this is really the end of 6ix9ine’s musical career, it’s safe to say that he’ll be remembered more for his antics and social media presence than the actual music itself. For a one-trick pony, his one trick is pretty great and succeeded at drawing attention towards him, but so much of his material seems like an afterthought.

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

15 studio albums in and her iconic Christmas classic once again shooting up the charts, Mariah Carey’s Caution proves that she’s still got something to offer – even if it’s not quite the same thing as before. We’ve all seen the internet criticism that her voice isn’t what it used to be, and while that’s all been exaggerated it’s easy to tell that the full power of one of the greatest vocalists of all time isn’t being utilized here. Carey tones down her vocals to a more subdued purr rather than the full belt here, which works fine fitting into the modern, more chill landscape of R&B anyway. Recruiting a few excellent collaborators, Caution is a mostly engaging 10-track breeze.

Lead single “With You”, a collaboration with DJ Mustard, is easily the best song here and shows just how captivating Carey can be even with her breathier vocals here. Reminding me a lot of why we’re all so captivated with Ella Mai this year, this is the kind of music that we’ve been missing, with some classic 90s R&B piano chords and a finger-snap beat. When she drops down to her more powerful lower register in the chorus, it’s just a very warm sound overall. Her vocal technique is still pretty unmatched, running through some impressive riffs and jazzy minor notes with ease. She even delivers some of those classic Carey whistle tones briefly as the song fades to a close. Transitioning into the title track “Caution”, she taps into her hip-hop side once again with a more aggressive faster flow in the verses and a hi-hat-embellished beat. With one of the catchiest melodies here, the track settles into a solid groove, Carey her flawless and flippant self as she warns her man about disloyalty.

She links up with the always-versatile Ty Dolla $ign on “The Distance”, another pretty classic-sounding track with a prominent rubbery bassline that kicks off with a cheerleading chant that’s smartly woven into the fabric of the track by its end. Ty holds his own with a legend, his lower tone laying the foundation for Carey’s trademark vocal acrobatics as the track closes. Blood Orange’s spacey, experimental style takes over for the 6-minute “Giving Me Life”, which also somehow features lauded rapper Slick Rick. The track never feels long, Carey’s newfound tone playing off of the icy piano notes – it’s almost hypnotic. The final two tracks are a good way to close it out, “Stay Long Love You” a dynamic upbeat pop track with an explosive and bubbling synth line and “Portrait” the best showcase for Carey’s voice here, a slower ballad.

There are definitely a couple weird decisions across the board here as well – I was surprised that promo single “GTFO” was on the album at all, but it’s actually the opening track here. After “With You” came out Carey herself was proclaiming how much better it was, referring to the former as just something fun she recorded – it’s a very awkwardly structured song, the rhythmic delivery in the chorus not landing well with me and the whole song staying rather one-note and not picking up in energy for 3 and a half minutes until a fadeout. “A No No” is similarly underwritten, the tempo almost too upbeat for Carey’s calmer vocals as the strangely staccato chorus drops, Carey simply repeating “no” throughout most of the song. The lazily rapped sample and the diversion into French at the end of the track just add to the confusion. Tracks like “One Mo’ Gen” and “8th Grade” still recapture the spirit of 90s R&B well enough, but at the end of the tracklisting they sound a little too similar to counterparts earlier in the album and have me wishing Carey still had more variation in her vocal delivery.

Caution is just about the best album I could have expected from 2018 Mariah Carey, still finding ways to surprise me almost 30 years into her career. While there are certainly a few inconsistencies here and there, this is a fully enjoyable R&B project.

Favourite Tracks: With You, Caution, The Distance, Giving Me Life, Stay Long Love You

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

Ella Mai – Ella Mai

Image result for ella mai album coverUK throwback R&B artist and signee to DJ Mustard’s label Ella Mai explodes onto the scene with her debut self-titled studio album, after breaking through in a big way with the unlikely success of excellent single “Boo’d Up” – which has what is easily the cleverest flip of a lyric this year had to offer. While she might not reach the heights of her singles, Mai offers a full album of equally smooth vocal moments, navigating easily through vocal runs and DJ Mustard’s production offering up the classic R&B percussion and other sounds of yesteryear. It’s easy to criticize throwback acts for not bringing anything new to the table creatively, but there’s something interesting about an artist like Mai re-figuring an old sound that we’re sorely lacking with the moody alt-R&B wave, packaging it in a way that fits commercially into a more modern mould. You can see it in her speedier, rap-influenced flows and hints of newer drums. Regardless, I’m always automatically hooked by one of those upbeat 90s piano numbers anyway.

The album is framed by an acrostic poem of sorts, spread throughout the tracklisting in a similar way Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, as each of the 7 letters in “Ella Mai” correspond to a theme for the next couple of songs: “Emotion”, “Lust”, “Assertive”, “Mystery”, and the like – it really works in grounding the album in a concrete structure, Mai giving a few spoken word explanations of each section.

Image result for ella mai

Most of these tracks are carried completely by the refreshingly silky-smooth vocals of Mai over some classic 90s R&B soulful guitar and piano loops with the faintest hint of modern hi-hats. In total command of the rhythms of the track, most of these tracks are accompanied by some breezy higher harmonies that center everything in the most fun aspects of music from that era even more. The Chris Brown-featuring track “Whatchamacallit” is a complete blast from the past, Mai dropping into an immediately memorable hook as she speeds up her delivery to convincingly sing of a discrete encounter in her adorably innocent higher range, sounding frantic yet assured. Her range is something else that can really take you by surprise, going a lot lower at the start of  follow-up track “Cheap Shot”. The track represents one of the more trap-influenced cuts here. Still, Mai manages to make it fit in with the vintage feel of the rest of the project with the classic-sounding harmonies – the sparse vibes of the hook playing off the skittering rhythms of the percussion is another thing that stands out immediately, Mai closing the track with some Mariah-esque higher runs.

The immersive old-school production across the board here can almost distract you from just how great of a singer Mai really is, until she closes the project with the piano ballad “Easy” that puts all the focus on her as she delivers a seriously beautiful emotional vocal that fits right in with the 90s divas she loves so much. It’s over when that choir comes in to back her up. “Shot Clock” is a great concept for a song, as Mai waits impatiently by the phone for someone to confirm their desires as the time on the clock ticks down. Mai gets a little more aggressive lyrically, the funk bassline and minimal synth chords framing a place for the spotlight to be more on some impressive vocal acrobatics as she reasserts her own worth and criticizes a missed opportunity. “Own It” is another track that fits perfectly in the “Assertive” section, as she takes a smooth Adina Howard sample and knows just how to use her flexible vocals on one of the more sensual tracks here.

Mai links up with some pretty great guests as well, bringing the EGOT winner himself John Legend aboard for the almost doo-wop track “Everything” and fellow rising R&B star H.E.R. for “Gut Feeling”, a bouncy piano track where the two similar voices melt into some nice harmonized moments.

Image result for ella mai

I can’t get enough of current single “Trip” right now either – it’s essentially a perfect follow-up building on the momentum of “Boo’d Up”. There’s something about the staccato phrasing in the hook and classic piano instrumental combined with a much more capable mainstream singer than we’re used to that makes it feel so unique and refreshing amongst the other popular music at the moment. So much of Mai’s appeal is an indescribable kind of X-factor.

The album does take little bit to pick itself off the ground at the start, some of its weaker tracks opening it up. I’ve seen people criticize Mai’s lyrics for being repetitive, but it doesn’t usually get as annoying as it does on the song “Good Bad”, the verses opening with the same set of lines before the chorus features a couple lines that try to shoehorn the song’s title in as many awkward ways as possible, going on for too long without one of the inescapable earworms of a hook she’s so good at. The next track “Dangerous” is one of the more instrumentally disparate tracks here, and for now Mai occupies such a particular niche that the distorted synth guitar here feels a little over-the-top.

A lot of these tracks do feel somewhat similar to each other, but at this point I’m just so glad that there’s someone bringing this sound at its purest essence to the mainstream again. Mai’s vocals are outstanding throughout this project, and it’s endlessly replayable since the hooks are so strong and its easy to get lost in just how smooth everything sounds. This is a pretty excellent exercise in throwback material.

Favourite Tracks: Boo’d Up, Trip, Whatchamacallit, Everything, Easy

Least Favourite Track: Good Bad

Score: 8/10

Brockhampton – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgHip-hop/R&B supergroup (or “boyband”, according to leader Kevin Abstract) Brockhampton, fresh off the success of their Saturation Trilogy last year, have had one of the most meteoric rises in popularity in recent memory. Formed through interactions on a Kanye West fan forum, the group certainly emulates his flair for the experimental, blending together abrasive, complex instrumentals, introspective and personal lyricism, and calmer singing performances. Their fourth (but debut major label) album, iridescence, kicks off yet another trilogy as their frantic release pace continues. While it’s easy to pick out the clear best and worst contributors in the 14-member group and there are a few experiments that don’t quite connect, the project throws a gauntlet of novel ideas and adventurous choices at the listener – and surprisingly, most of the chaos comes together to create a degree of cohesion I’d never expect. The group moves seamlessly past the departure of main mic presence Ameer Vann, removed from the group after sexual misconduct allegations. Brockhampton aren’t perfect, but in today’s musical landscape, they’re a very exciting and dynamic force.

The project opens with the blistering track “NEW ORLEANS”, featuring a relatively simple yet endlessly energetic repeated siren blare punctuated by the occasional tribal ad-lib and crunching percussive bass as four of the group’s best rappers each offer their own, uniquely competent verse. One of the greatest things about Brockhampton is just how different the strengths each of their members can bring to the table can be, working together regardless. Joba immediately stands out from the pack on the opener with his distinctly high-pitched tone and double-time flow before Merlyn Wood’s layered, more aggressive approach closes the track that drops us head-on into the sensory overload that is iridescence (Can we just talk about how much Merlyn demolishes the short interlude “WHERE THE CASH AT” as well?). The transition into the soulful piano and backing gospel choir of “THUG LIFE” is absolutely flawless, the two really sound like a single song. We’re frequently whiplashed back and forth between the calmer and more abrasive sections of the album, but the transitions are so well-executed that it just feels like the exhilarating rush of a single project with surprising twists and turns.

Image result for brockhampton 2018The group can be so hyperactive at times that you get caught off guard by the poignant and personal lyricism from a few of the members, especially with something like Kevin Abstract’s verse on “WEIGHT”, speaking openly about his struggles with accepting his sexuality as the track explodes from the orchestral opening into a drum-n-bass breakbeat as other members discuss other “weight” hanging on them since the fame, delving into topics like depression, substance abuse and artistic pressures. It’s a shifting, changing odyssey of a track, Joba’s chopped and frantic vocals sounding like the inner voice in his head as more of a boom-bap beat re-energizes the track as it rushes towards its conclusion.

The back half of the project is just as strong. “J’OUVERT” is a monster of a track, establishing an eerie ambience that’s perfect for both Matt Champion’s deep-voiced snarl and Joba’s erratic and panicked delivery as he builds up to a full-on horrorcore-esque scream on his verse. Inspired by a street festival in the Caribbean and producer Jabari’s Grenadan heritage, the brief motifs of celebratory percussion and horns, as well as a patois sample from Grenadan artist Lavaman, that fight through the industrial muck to be heard just enhance the madness even more. Kevin Abstract and quiet standout Dom McLennon take some of the more direct approaches on the project as they rhyme over a Beyonce sample on “HONEY”, displaying some impressive flows before the 2nd half picks up even more with a half-time hi-hat beat and beautifully layered vocals – it’s just a random moment of instrumental tacked onto the end of a song that might be the best musical moment on the album.

A few times, Brockhampton throws way too much at the wall and the track slowly starts to disintegrate and fall apart as it goes on. “BERLIN” begins as another great punishing, minimal experimental hip-hop track that almost reminds me of a Die Antwoord song with bearface’s falsetto rap chorus and grinding industrial bass before the track awkwardly shifts through a few calmer phases, closing out with what seems like an improvised synth solo as the huge percussion hits return. The group try to blend completely disparate sounds together, one lingering behind and fading out as a new one enters, and the handoffs aren’t always as perfect as the transitions between songs here. “DISTRICT” is another one that you can’t help but nod your head to with that glitchy, distorted synth line in the background, but the disparities between the various members begin to make themselves clear.

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It’s hard to know exactly what I want to be different on these tracks, since there are so many different elements at play here. At times, it feels like the disparate approaches of the members succeed to varying levels on one instrumental, and I want more changes to suit their individual styles, but the group can’t always figure out exactly how to maximize the potential of all of their members at the same time. The explosive tonal shift in the outro here is an example, being completely unexpected and awkward. At the same time, I can’t fault the group for experimentation – there aren’t many people who are trying out the kinds of crazy ideas here with this rate of success at making them work. I find myself impressed by the sheer audacity to try laying these ideas down even during the weaker parts of the project, enjoying them anyway. The final three tracks of the album slow things down, the softer sides of Brockhampton’s talents taking over, but the return of the London Community Gospel Choir at the close of “SAN MARCOS” over an introspective acoustic guitar loop is an emotional peak that not just everyone can reach.

A lot of people are very excited about Brockhampton for good reason – there’s almost nothing about them, from the construction of the group, to the topics they address, to the sonic adventures they take us on, that isn’t a complete breath of fresh air in hip-hop and music in general. With more focus, they have the potential to contribute to some all-time classics.

Favourite Tracks: SAN MARCOS, HONEY, NEW ORLEANS, J’OUVERT, WEIGHT

Least Favourite Track: TAPE

Score: 8/10

6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter

Lowkey alt-R&B crooner 6lack (yes, pronounced “black”) unleashes his sophomore project East Atlanta Love Letter after the success of his Grammy-nominated debut Free 6lack. Not changing up the formula that worked out for him in the past, 6lack still represents yet another of the scores of alt-R&B artists that rose to popularity in the wake of The Weeknd’s unlikely ascent to pop superstardom, many artists emulating the nihilistic lyrics, somber, moody instrumentals and intentionally emotionless and desensitized delivery of some heavier topics that he helped popularize in the early 2010s. While there isn’t much we haven’t already heard before on this project, the main thing that distinguishes 6lack from his contemporaries is the gravel in his voice and his very open approach to relationships in particular in his lyrics, especially after recently becoming a father. Still, most of this 14-track project fails to capture my attention, lingering in the hazy alt-R&B sludge.

The track “Unfair” opens the project, a shorter track in which 6lack emotes about two parties failing to see eye to eye on their desires in a relationship with some Auto-Tuned falsetto notes, the track opening with some frigid synths and watery piano notes before the telltale trap beat picks up in the second half – 6lack is back to the same tricks, and this track definitely establishes the atmosphere of the project. There are times here when his producers come through and craft an engaging instrumental around his unique voice and we get some pretty fun trap-flavoured material – the track “Loaded Gun” is another trap-piano cut from producer Bizness Boi where 6lack comes across like a more charismatic Bryson Tiller on the mic with a quicker, slightly melodic flow, the instrumental cutting out at the right times for his gravelly voice to shine through. He even demonstrates some pretty great harmonies on the track. The same producer returns on another upbeat track in “Let Her Go”, which is an equally catchy trap instrumental where 6lack’s hooks don’t really match up – the repeated note in the chorus doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason, and neither do his lyrics where he is indecisive over whether he would regret leaving the mother of his new child for one of the “distractions” on tour.

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6lack’s singing voice is at its best on the track “Sorry”, and it shows that he really does have potential with the right kind of approach – the track is only slightly different instrumentally, but this time the piano is accompanied by more prominent orchestral swells, the percussion sounding like more traditional R&B which frames his vocals better. J. Cole’s appearance taking over the second half of “Pretty Little Fears” is another highlight of the album – Cole has really retuned in a huge way, and he elaborates on the world 6lack builds with a calmer verse proclaiming his love for his wife with some genuinely heartwarming lyrics, a nice break from 6lack’s outlook.

Most of the project is a chore to get through, however. I thought an appearance from Future on the longer title track would inject some energy into 6lack’s meandering vocalizations over sparse percussion that colours most of the tracks here, but Future actually adapts to 6lack’s style instead. The two trade lines, even repeating some of each other’s motifs and verses as they both attempt some complex vocal runs through their Auto-Tune machine that just ends up sounding like a mess … that thing can’t make just anything at all sound good! Too many of the tracks here end up sounding the same, the instrumentals mostly comprised of isolated trap hi-hats and orchestral-themed creeping and moody soundscapes. When 6lack brings more of his hip-hop side to the table, injecting some energy into an instrumental like that can be a lot of fun, but we mostly just get the over-indulgent and melodramatic singing material that he can’t pull off as well as most of his contemporaries.

The back half is essentially all filler, even featuring some issues with mixing and mastering that are too obvious to ignore – especially regarding Offset’s awkward feature verse bringing the Migos flow to an environment that doesn’t accommodate it in the slightest on the track “Balenciaga Challenge”. The choice of tracks “Switch” and “Nonchalant” as singles instead of anything in the first half is a truly strange decision. The presence of a Drake-esque knocking hi-hat beat (produced by one of my favourites in pop producer Joel Little) on the former is definitely a nice change of pace, but the melodies still come together awkwardly, like he’s just slightly off-key in a few places, and the effect placed on his vocals make it sound like he’s singing underwater – it’s a very rare miss for the New Zealand producer.

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“Disconnect” is another track that sounds like they were going for a hit with some of 6lack’s most melodic hooks on the project, but the tempo of the song is a complete snail’s pace and since 6lack has far from the greatest singing voice in the world, it’s hard to get through. The final four tracks are essentially the same alt-R&B slow ballad copy-pasted and it’s tough to find individual things to comment on. I did enjoy the concept of closing track “Stan”, flipping the narrative of the Eminem classic to speak on his own pursuit of a fan, while Khalid’s feature on the track “Seasons” is as underwhelming as most of his solo work.

East Atlanta Love Letter doesn’t have much going for it in the way of showing 6lack’s personality, artistry or originality, falling short of the successes of his debut project. It’s clear that this trend and this genre are here to stay for the foreseeable future – would it hurt anyone to switch it up in the slightest?

Favourite Tracks: Pretty Little Fears, Loaded Gun, Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Nonchalant

Score: 3/10

Tori Kelly – Hiding Place

Hiding Place Official Album Cover by Tori Kelly.jpegR&B singer/songwriter and one of the most impressive technical singers in the game Tori Kelly finally releases her second studio album after 2015’s Unbreakable Smile, teaming up with multiple Grammy-Award winning gospel artist Kirk Franklin to go in a heavily Christian-influenced direction. Franklin has recently contributed to albums by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper and is credited as a writer and producer on every track here, matching up his always enjoyable brand of jubilant soul to the vocal clinics that Kelly puts on here. While a few of the slower tracks here do extend a little long and verge into the territory of prioritizing the ideology behind the lyrics more than the enjoyability of the song itself, old-school gospel music is a great fit for Kelly’s ridiculous vocal runs, and she certainly shows off her skillset here.

The project kicks off with a bang on the track “Masterpiece”, which features Christian rapper Lecrae. A church organ slides into the enormous and uplifting chords coming from the backing gospel choir and horn section as Kelly breezes through some truly Aguileran vocal acrobatics before the breakbeat drops and the track turns into a pretty standard upbeat R&B track you’d find on one of her albums regardless. Tori Kelly’s voice would be instantly recognizable anywhere, usually staying in an impressively high belting range accompanied by the trademark emotional little breaks and squeaks that make her so distinctive as she ascends up and down the scales in seconds on almost every end to a musical phrase. The track really picks up near the end with more of a trap-influenced breakdown, the choir returning to shine over the more minimal, half-time instrumental before Lecrae drops in with an enjoyable verse.

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There really is something undeniable about the specific chords associated with gospel music, and Franklin is the best man to turn to in order to bring them out. The combination of old-school gospel sensibilities with the 90s R&B style Tori brings to the table with her vocal delivery makes for the kind of display of musicality that makes your face scrunch up and make some involuntary noises of excitement. Take me to CHURCH! The track “Help Us To Love” plays out like a late-90s slow jam, featuring soul singer Anthony Hamilton’s backing vocalists the Hamiltones sounding like Boyz II Men as they complement Kelly’s emotional pleas for a world full of more love. “Sunday” is another great track where Franklin adds some classic 90s hip-hop sounds to an acoustic funk guitar pattern and walking bassline. Tori comes through midway through the track with a beautiful harmonized scat solo and it really reminds you just how boundless her talent is – classically trained, she can tackle anything from pop to jazz to gospel effortlessly.

After the opening three songs, the lyrical content of the album gets more explicitly Christian as the songs become more traditional, taking away from my personal enjoyment and replay value of the album even as Kelly continues to display some seriously impressive vocals. Apparently, she will release another, more commercial album relatively soon, and I’ll be waiting impatiently for that one. “Just As Sure” is more of a pop/folk style song, Kelly dropping down to a lower range than usual in a duet with singer Jonathan McReynolds over a calmer acoustic guitar pattern. With McReynolds’ higher tenor voice, it’s interesting to hear Kelly’s capable vocals in support rather than taking the flashier role in a duet and the two really do sound great together – I can’t deny how beautiful their harmonies and the backing choir that appears at the track’s conclusion are, but there’s only so many ‘Jesus I love you’s I can take seriously.

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The track “Psalm 42” is based off of the words of an actual Biblical psalm and is the most low-key track here, extending to 5 and a half minutes as Kelly repeats most of the same phrases for the whole duration – turning these ancient words into a pop song makes for some awkward syllable emphasis as well, making the chorus easily the least memorable on the project. “Soul’s Anthem (It Is Well)” closes out the project with an extended, percussion-less display of Kelly pushing her voice to its limits in praise in a kind of freeform call-and-response with the choir that leaves me in awe of her talent but unlikely to return to the song due to it losing its sense of rhythmic structure that holds everything together. “Questions” is another slower track that features some awkwardly phrased and painfully blunt Christian doctrine referring to important world issues in its lyrics, but gave me the most visceral reaction of any here as Kelly layers her vocals to incredible, chills-inducing effect in the second verse.

As a huge fan of Kelly’s musical style without the faith she speaks of, it’s hard to know how to quantify or analyze the project due to its ability to resonate differently with different people. The combination of the massive talents of Kelly and Kirk Franklin do create some of the most incredible musical moments I’ve heard all year – but for me personally, its hard to get over some of the less contemporary aspects of the project.

Favourite Tracks: Masterpiece, Sunday, Help Us To Love

Least Favourite Track: Psalm 42

Score: 7/10

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Negro Swan.jpgBritish producer and psychedelic pop/R&B artist Dev Hynes, better known by his alias Blood Orange, releases his fourth studio album which offers both his most accessible music yet and his most powerful message. Negro Swan is mostly inspired by tales of discrimination against Hynes, an LGBT black man, in his youth, as multiple spoken word interludes from activist Janet Mock regarding confidence and perseverance tie the project together. Hynes still acts mostly as a producer here, often letting a featured vocalist take over a track when he sees that they suit the instrumental better than him, but the sound he delivers is much more cohesive and consistent than something like his last project Freetown Sound. Leaning in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, parts of this project sound like the kind of soulful, upbeat pop tracks we’re missing from the 80s revival appearing around modern music at the moment.

We immediately get what might be the album’s two best tracks in openers “Orlando” and “Saint”, which fully embrace the soulful, harmonized jazzy funk tracks that are still somewhat of a new venture for Hynes. His falsetto delivery on the opening track is aching and vulnerable as he speaks about his troubled adolescence, recalling a time when he was physically assaulted and moving past it. “First kiss was the floor”, the lyric repeats. The transitions and instrumentation across the board here are pretty flawless for how complex the backgrounds are at times, often either a completely seamless musical transition or dissolving into a frantic saxophone solo.

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Janet Mock introduces the track “Jewelry” with a monologue questioning why people criticize others for “doing the most”, stating that people who have been previously marginalized especially should embrace doing the most as they continue to slowly permeate the culture – it feels like Hynes tried to reflect these sentiments in his production work, often featuring some solos doing their own thing in the background of a track or layering vocals to an overwhelming, ethereal degree. “Saint” seriously brings to mind an almost gospel territory, featuring some great female harmonies on the chorus. The track picks up with some light gospel piano chords and an aggressive breakbeat, Hynes touching on the inescapability of discrimination with some touching vocal moments, saying he’s unable to escape his skin colour but committed to spreading love regardless. The gospel theme continues on the powerful “Holy Will”, featuring some explosive high-pitched vocals from church singer Ian Isiah as he covers a track from gospel group the Clark Sisters, Hynes bringing it into his world with some of his trademark synth textures.

Quite a lot of the album’s power comes from just how raw and unfiltered most of the vocal takes on the project are here, Hynes actually stating that he sang through most of them in one take multiple times rather than recording different sections separately, simply selecting his best take. For this reason, more experimental, sparse tracks like “Take Your Time” and “Dagenham Dream” take on an added degree of power, focusing on the pure, natural emotion in Hynes’ vocals as the chaotic instrumentation jostles about behind him.

Another element that we haven’t seen from Hynes in a while is the addition of rap and hip-hop influence to his work. He brings Diddy on board for a catchy, repeated hook on “Hope” that contrasts with a silky soprano main vocal from Colombian singer Tei Shi – Shi’s vocals and the lush piano and shuffling percussion remind me of Hynes’ Carly Rae Jepsen track “All That”. A$AP Rocky and Project Pat’s contributions to “Chewing Gum” are a lot less immediately memorable, feeling unrelated to the message Hynes is attempting to convey here, but Hynes himself actually raps on tracks like “Jewelry”. Especially on an album where Hynes attempts to embrace his identity, hearing him rap “I’m feeling myself” is encouraging. Hynes even takes a thinly veiled shot at Miley Cyrus on “Vulture Baby”, regarding her recent comments about her renouncement of hip-hop culture and going back to her roots after her appropriative Bangerz era. Hynes is completely comfortable in his element here.

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Hynes continues to hit us with some great tracks as the album winds down to its conclusion, delivering one of the catchiest hooks on the project straight out of the bouncy funk areas of Prince’s catalogue on “Nappy Wonder”, offset by a disjointed and distorted guitar solo – those high harmonies feel like they keep shimmering for a few seconds after the track ends. Another one is “Out of Your League”, in collaboration with young producer Steve Lacy. Lacy’s production style fits right in with Hynes’ here as the two essentially have a jam session on their opposing instruments, Lacy on the keys and Hynes playing bass guitar – the percussion on the track is a lot of fun, this one feeling less like a profound statement and more like two really talented dudes messing around in the studio.

Some of Hynes’ ethereal and psychedelic R&B tracks can tend to blend together a bit and make the album more one-note than its masterful instrumentation in other areas would suggest, but the real strength of Negro Swan is the degree to which Hynes expresses his message to the listener through a series of smart lyrical references that cleverly disguise lifetimes of sadness, not lingering on the past too long as he takes control of who he is in the present. The superproducer delivers some of his best production work yet here, and I’m going to remember Negro Swan at the end of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Saint, Orlando, Hope, Out Of Your League, Charcoal Baby

Least Favourite Track: Chewing Gum

Score: 8/10

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

Image result for sweetener coverVirtuosic R&B-pop princess Ariana Grande’s 4th studio album, Sweetener, might not be her best work yet – but it’s certainly her riskiest and most groundbreaking. With production shared between the omnipresent Pharrell Williams and old friends Max Martin and Tommy Brown, who we haven’t seen since her soulful debut, it’s the work of the former that truly distinguishes it from the rest of her work. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop beats weren’t something I could have ever foreseen working with Grande’s dynamic and powerful instrument as well as they do at times here, and while there certainly is the odd time the experimentation falls flat, Sweetener stands as Grande’s most sonically cohesive album. Along with the unashamedly joyful declarations of love in the lyrics that you can’t help but smile at, it’s an exciting step forward in her career.

While I’ve still been holding out hope for Grande to go full Whitney Houston on us and deliver some R&B power ballads, I’ll take her diverting from pop formulas and adapting more to the current hip-hop influenced state of R&B as well. The first track that truly blew me away on the project is it’s 4th song, “R.E.M”, reportedly a repurposed Beyonce demo, and Grande really does step into her role as a kind of Beyonce figure here. “You’re such a dream to me”, she sings, lowering her register and singing with what might be the calmest voice we’ve ever heard her use, getting lost in the dreamscape. She absolutely commands the instrumental, stopping it and pushing it into different sections with spoken asides and the occasional “shh”. There’s an incredible moment where Grande turns into a full a cappella group for a second, layering some notes in the middle of a verse out of nowhere. This immediately contrasts with the power of next track, “God is a woman”, which still stands out as the album’s best. The song perfectly blends Grande’s vocal power with immediately career-defining lyrical themes and the modern, upbeat sound she aims for. Her quick, confident delivery in the verses slowly builds up to some of the most impressive vocal moments of her career in its final minute, unexpectedly layering her vocals into a full choir to repeatedly proclaim the title as she riffs into the stratosphere in the forefront.

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Pharrell’s production is frequently the most interesting thing about Sweetener, pushing Grande into some unfamiliar territory where she excels all the same. Williams himself appears on “blazed”, which features a rapid-fire slap bass and quickly darting jazzy synths. For the first time, we’re not focusing completely on Grande’s voice, and she quickly proves that she can shine above a more chaotic instrumental as well, jumping out in the mix with some sudden impressive and layered harmonies and a lower-key delivery that contrasts the unique instrumental well. He and Grande both bring their more fun-loving sides to title track, “sweetener”, where Williams provides some booming percussion and synth melody reminiscent of her earlier, more cutesy work that lays the framework for a repetitive hook immediately made for dancing and a joyous, celebratory hook – it’s pure happiness in a song. Williams continues to introduce sounds I never expected on a Grande project on “successful”, built on some kind of low-pitched brass instrument, old-school hip-hop shuffling beat and a steel drum, of all things. The beat switches infuse the track with energy, and Grande sounds perfectly at home anyway as she celebrates her successes with a wink on the hook. That repeated “issa surprise” hasn’t left my head since.

It’s far from being all about Pharrell, though – “breathin” looks like a likely single candidate and is easily her most impressive purely pop track since “Into You”. Another intoxicating slow build, the first prechorus is electric as she makes some impressive vocal jumps and we wait for the track to explode. The beat drops heavy, the track cutting out at just the right moments, and we even get a roaring guitar solo overtop of it all. The combination of the two hooks at the end completely sells it. “better off” places Grande’s vocals front and centre in the mix, and it’s the closest she’s come to sounding like Yours Truly. An emotional ballad, this time Grande isn’t mourning a lost love, but standing up for herself and exiting a toxic situation. It fits in with the overall maturation displayed across the whole project. Oh yeah, and “no tears left to cry”? Still an amazing opening single.

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Of course, anyone going into a Grande album not looking primarily for her famously impressive vocals is looking in the wrong place, and there are a few times on this project where it does disappoint slightly as a specifically Grande track due to the more experimental work on the project. Single “the light is coming” never got the best reception, and while the infectious energy of the track has grown on me, the repetitive, spoken hook seems pointless for someone with so much vocal power, while Pharrell’s work on the track mirrors some of his recent N.E.R.D. work. The track “borderline”, as well, feels out of place removed from the other Pharrell cuts in the tracklisting, featuring a 20-second uninspired verse from Missy Elliott and really the only lack of an immediately catchy hook here.

By the time we close with “get well soon”, an instrumentally minimal track where Grande regathers herself mentally in the wake of the Manchester tragedy that occurred at her concert that ends with a moment of silence, it’s clear that Grande has taken time to move forward in a space that makes her happiest. The emphatic declarations of love and personal gain feel genuine, and her forays back into the genre that inspired her from the beginning are a natural step forward. Grande is still one of the most consistently impressive megastars.

Favourite Tracks: God is a woman, breathin, R.E.M, better off, sweetener

Least Favourite Track: borderline

Score: 8/10

Mac Miller – Swimming

Image result for mac miller swimmingAfter taking a complete stylistic left turn on his previous album The Divine Feminine, Mac Miller returns two years later with a similar jazz-rap and funk sound that sees him singing more and taking the style even further into neo-soul territory. Dedicated to then-girlfriend Ariana Grande, Miller’s sudden metamorphosis from the goofy frat-rap persona into the soulful romantic on Divine produced his most enjoyable music yet. His fifth album, Swimming, finds Miller in recovery after having lost the inspiration for the sound that coloured his previous work in the wake of his public split from Grande. While the lyrical content of the project is very compelling – Miller trying to learn to rely on himself, rather than someone else, to mend the personal issues that contributed to the split, the music itself can often feel like a more subdued, less fun version of his previous album.

We’re introduced to the album with “Come Back To Earth”, a completely sung track over some orchestral strings and a funk bassline as Miller brings listeners into the emotional state of the album, still clearly affected and looking for a way to get out of his own head, but looking ahead to an optimistic future. This transitions into “Hurt Feelings”, produced by the unusual team-up of J. Cole and Dev Hynes, who I wish brought a little bit more to the table than the extended, moody synths and standard hip-hop beat that frame Miller’s return to more of a rap angle. It’s not the most exciting track, but hearing him describe his active attempts to prevent himself from getting stuck in a rut of depression and move forward continues the theme of the album and gives it more of a hopeful spin than I expected going into the project. Swimming truly picks up on the third track, “What’s The Use?”, which reminds me of Divine Feminine standout “Dang!” with Anderson Paak. Thundercat provides his always incredible contribution to the bassline as Miller picks up a faster flow and one of the catchiest sung choruses here that features backing vocals from Syd and Snoop Dogg. The ease of Miller’s nonchalant flow over a smooth funk instrumental was one of the biggest pleasant surprises in his career progression, and it’s similarly danceable and fun here.

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“Ladders” is another great funk-influenced track here, Miller’s flow at his brightest and most forward, sounding his happiest as the synths pulse in and out and accentuate his flow. The guitar on this track almost reminds me of some old-school Justin Timberlake material, and when the brass section roars in for an instrumental bridge it puts it over the top. It’s the most complex and involved instrumental here. “Small Worlds” reminds me of the shimmering dreamscape of The Divine Feminine more than anything here, as he makes his most obvious lyrical references to Grande as he sheepishly owns up to his faults over some pretty beautiful harmonized vocals, immersing himself briefly in that perfect fantasy world for just another second. DJ Dahi and Steve Lacy team up for another upbeat standout on “Jet Fuel”, where Miller acknowledges the damage he does to himself and his interpersonal relationships due to his drug and alcohol use.

Miller’s singing has never been the best, and it gets more of a focus than ever here to detract from the experience. I understand that he was trying to be emotionally vulnerable with it, but when the instrumentals are emptier than before, driven by some simpler funk loops and giving Miller more space to shine, it exposes that he doesn’t have to voice to carry the style all on his own. It’s fine as a contrast to another part of the song, but trying to carry whole songs with his lower, flimsy vocals can tend to lose the message of the tracks here. I see a lot of people gravitating to single “Self Care”, but Miller’s falsetto chorus and sliding vocal transitions in the interludes are simply not delivered well enough to make the longer track length worth it, despite the pretty decent verses.

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Quite a few of these tracks just never really catch my attention and end unceremoniously, Miller keeping the sound that I enjoyed so much earlier but staying in the murkier lower ends of things and not reaching the euphoric heights of his other tracks in the same style, not latching onto a meaningful motif or melody. The emotion behind it is obviously different, but for all of Miller’s talk of getting out of the stage where he’s “Swimming” in his overwhelming sea of feelings, you’d think the music would reflect this hopeful angle more often. Tracks like “Perfecto” and “Wings” don’t pick themselves up off the ground musically, the instrumentals getting stuck in the watery, creeping synths and sparse percussion, Miller’s off-key choruses not doing much to help the situation despite the strength of his rapping.

Getting lost in Miller’s inner thoughts over the course of this album is a very engaging experience, especially after we saw the aftermath of what he sings about here plastered all over the internet, but if he was going to try to recapture the sound that made his last project work so well, more alterations other than an attempt to make this the sad version could have been made to improve it overall.

Favourite Tracks: Ladders, Small Worlds, What’s The Use?, Jet Fuel

Least Favourite Track: Conversation Pt. 1

Score: 6/10