A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie – Artist 2.0

Image result for artist 2.0 coverOne of the pioneers of the melodic trap movement that’s dominating in a whole new way after Roddy Ricch’s chart-topping single “The Box,” A Boogie Wit da Hoodie returns after his previous project, Hoodie SZN, far exceeded everyone’s expectations in terms of sales and staying power – mostly due to overwhelming support in his home state of New York. While it would be easy for an hour-long, 20-track album like this to fall back into filler and formulas in order to bolster its streams (and it does very briefly), A Boogie certainly steps confidently into his own lane here and his penchant for crafting maddeningly catchy hooks is fully on display, linking up with some well-placed features as well. A Boogie recently called all his past hits “mediocre” in an interview, acknowledging their repetitive nature – this project is the sound of someone who knows how to easily craft a hit song, but wants to go a little further than that at the same time.

Essentially 80% of what A Boogie ever says into the mic functions like a hook, his excitable and nasally vocals firing listeners up as he croons his way through repetitive and instantly memorable melodic patterns. The project opens with a string of tracks that see him relying heavily on the guitar carrying an instrumental, the riffs ranging from the Latin flavour of “Hit ‘Em Up” or the pop-punk influenced “DTB 4 Life,” and the uncharacteristic authenticity and layering of the instrumentals really help with A Boogie forging his own path. Your typical rap beat essentially functions as a loop, but a track like opener “Thug Love” has textural changes as the emotion of the track wavers between bravado and vulnerability, a quieter piano taking over as he questions himself. “Me and My Guitar” sees him link up with proven pop hitmaker Louis Bell as A Boogie continues to dive deep into his romantic struggles over a massive boom-bap beat and a slowly plucked acoustic riff – there are quite a few times where you can step back and wonder how something so seemingly improvisational can be so catchy as he stumbles over syllables, but the outbursts of genuine emotion in the verses centered by an anthemic chorus is essentially his calling card across this whole project. A Boogie gets choked up and angry talking about romantic betrayals quite a bit here, but there’s nothing more impactful than the closer “Streets Don’t Love You,” especially after the recent death of a collaborator in Pop Smoke. In a track devoid of a chorus, A Boogie mourns his fallen friends and details some of the horrific things he’s witnessed. You can really feel his pain.

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Then, of course, there are the tracks that are genetically engineered to become ubiquitous. “Might Not Give Up” and “Numbers” are two of the most immediately catchy tracks here, and it’s interesting that A Boogie recruits three artists across the two tracks that are very similar to him tonally in Young Thug, Roddy Ricch and Gunna, demonstrating just how much he can match punches with legends and skyrocketing upstarts alike. “Numbers” in particular could easily be a future #1, the acoustic chords hitting some Latin flair and a very sticky triplet sequence as A Boogie, Roddy and Gunna do the Migos routine better than the Migos, quickly jumping in and out with brief verses and quick syllables.

The use of the features across the board here is actually one of the strongest things about the project. DaBaby’s deep-voiced deadpan juxtaposes perfectly with A Boogie’s high-pitched yelps on “Stain,” but the project really excels when A Boogie ventures into the realm of R&B. Summer Walker is completely in her element on “Calm Down (Bittersweet),” laying down a smooth and confident chorus as she tries to get A Boogie’s attention, and even a guy like Khalid works strangely well with A Boogie’s croons on “Another Day Gone,” his poise grounding A Boogie’s spastic quips and vocal runs. And while the acoustic guitar is his weapon of choice, he really thrives over the piano as well. “Blood On My Denim” might be the hookiest track here as alliteration runs wild over a somber piano melody, but “Right Back” is the easy highlight of the back half, A Boogie flipping a jazzy Tupac piano sample and staying in his lower register to display some surprising talent as a singer.

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The brief track “Good Girls Gone Bad” really signals that the back half of the tracklisting isn’t going to be quite as consistent as the opening run, some of A Boogie’s lofty ambitions not as fleshed out as they could have been. A couple tracks here sound a lot more like A Boogie treating the recording studio like a personal diary to exorcise his demons, freestyling about whatever was afflicting him that day and not paying as much attention to his hitmaking ways. It’s admirable that he wants to showcase a bit more range here, but something like the chorus of “R.O.D.” where he sounds out of breath and falls off the beat trying to get everything out through a cloud of emotion and a freeform guitar solo feels off when it’s juxtaposed with so many surefire hits. It would have been pretty difficult to go for 20 tracks on this thing without playing into some of the more basic trap music trends that I’m sure come far too easily to someone like A Boogie, and “Big Sh*t” and “Reply” are those tracks that don’t come close to hitting the same level of innovation that he displays with his reliance on real instruments elsewhere.

Ultimately for review purposes, Artist 2.0 suffers from the same problem that most triple-A rap releases do – cut a few tracks off of this thing, and it would have easily made my year-end list. A Boogie Wit da Hoodie is the rare case of someone who has clearly settled into a certain wave, but has also created his own unique vibe that comes across as innovative more often than not. He uses the formulas we know and changes them up just enough, centering it all with one of the best ears for a hook in the game.

Favourite Tracks: Right Back, Calm Down (Bittersweet), Numbers, Blood On My Denim, Hit ‘Em Up

Least Favourite Track: R.O.D.

Score: 7/10

Justin Bieber – Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Yummy

Score: 4/10

Pop Smoke – Meet The Woo 2

Image result for pop smoke meet the woo 2The internet would have me believe that at the moment it’s impossible to walk the streets of New York City without hearing a car driving past blaring the music of 20-year-old drill rapper Pop Smoke. After a high-profile collaboration with Travis Scott and some genre-bending remixes of his track “Welcome To The Party,” he already has quite a few eyes on him as he releases what is only his second mixtape. Meet The Woo 2 is a brief collection of dark and grimy trap cuts, but for the most part I fail to see what distinguishes him from so many of his contemporaries. Of course, I shouldn’t be expecting new musical trends to suddenly appear out of thin air as the decade switches over, but there isn’t a single moment on this project where my eyebrows raise in surprise. It’s the sound that you hear everywhere you go, except that Pop Smoke’s approach to creating it comes from such a place of nonchalance that there are a couple moments where it’s clear he doesn’t care if he falls off the beat, or leaves too much dead air filled with only ad-libs. That attitude certainly works for a lot of people, but this is far from an engaging listen.

The main thing that Pop Smoke has going for him is his vocal delivery. With a dark and husky tone resembling some kind of combination of Desiigner and Rick Ross, there’s something visceral about a heavy trap beat punctuating his menacing flow that would be sure to get people moving in a live setting. It’s always essentially flat and monotone, but there’s something personality-driven about having a lack of personality with the kind of drill stylings he taps into here, elevating his threats and braggadocio and making them absolutely believable. I wish there were more interesting musical elements supporting a refreshing mic presence like this one. Or at least, any at all.

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Almost all of the enjoyment this project has the potential to deliver is sucked out of the room by these run-of-the-mill trap beats. They’re aggressive and hard-hitting, yes, but they put me to sleep all the same because it’s the soundtrack that echoes around in my brain at all times simply by virtue of going out in the world. When a Quavo feature is one of the best parts of your entire project, it’s never a good sign. The trap maestro appears on “Shake The Room,” a track built on a completely empty chorus of “swerves” “skrts” and “woos” – the rumbling bass and vocal sample on this track deserve so much more of a lyrical attack.

Quite a few of these tracks have a pseudo-Blueface quality of not paying all too much attention to what the beat sounds like and letting your charismatic vocal presence do all the work. Tracks like “Get Back” and “Christopher Walking” have these rapid-fire looping beats that always feel like Pop Smoke’s phrases overshoot the most percussive kicks by the tiniest bit and making for a rather chaotic sound of the beat and his words hitting their peaks at scattershot times that I assume plays into the kind of riotous response he’s aiming to produce but ultimately just annoys this listener. Pop Smoke is far from a lyrical mastermind as well, blatantly using the exact same bars and punchlines on more than a few occasions even across such a brief project – it only makes it all the worse that one of his absolute favourite punchlines, used in exactly the same way on three different tracks, including being the opening line of the entire project and having the beat cut out to emphasize it more on the track “Foreigner” – contains a pretty outdated and offensive word.

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“Foreigner” is one of the biggest messes of a track on this project, complete with a completely misplaced feature from the smooth melodic rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie who sounds ridiculous on these grimy beats and a hook where the title is repeated ad nauseam and nothing else, Pop Smoke content to cut off his verse in the most rhythmically awkward place and simply let out a growl. He tries to sing on the next track, “Sweetheart,” which has the exact same hook problem except repeated in the background throughout the entire track in a grating high-pitched voice this time.

Most of the tracks on the remainder of the project are brief snippets that all blend into each other, Pop Smoke almost never switching up his flow and leaning into the energy rush that his unique voice genuinely does provide on these ominous looping beats. It makes me think that there’s definitely a possibility that as Pop Smoke continues to grow his profile and probably gain access to better producers, there’s a decent chance that he could come out with a great project eventually and become a kind of 21 Savage figure. But for now, this can remain in the streets of New York.

Favourite Tracks: Invincible, Get Back

Least Favourite Track: Foreigner

Score: 2/10

Oh Wonder – No One Else Can Wear Your Crown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Happy

Score: 8/10

Kesha – High Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 5/10

Lil Wayne – Funeral

Image result for lil wayne funeral"Man, it used to be a much bigger deal if Lil Wayne and Eminem were to release albums in the same month. Regardless, one of the most influential figures on the modern rap landscape has returned – despite being a couple years older than the age at which he threatened retirement – with his first non-Carter album since 2013. Gliding over some of the most unique instrumentals of his long and storied career, Wayne continues to put out some quality music that maintains his legacy and solidifies his placement in the rap history books, even if his albums don’t have as much effort put into their structure as the genre-defining masterpieces from back in the day. Yet another endless affair at 24 tracks in length, you’re also bound to stumble across a litany of filler tracks and more than a few washed-out trap beats that are already starting to sound dated. Still, Wayne is regarded as one of the greatest alive for a reason, and just listening to his bizarre inflections and turns of phrase that could only come from his mind shows that the lovable Martian still has quite a bit going for him as we head into a new decade.

Always one for the dramatic, the project opens with a full orchestra as Wayne loosely croons about bursting into someone’s funeral and interrupting the proceedings – it’s certainly fitting for someone who disrupted the rap game as much as he did, and some of the first couple tracks on this project prove he can still innovate. To be honest, the entire opening run of 10 tracks is pretty incredible. Wayne unleashes a flurry of words on the technically impressive “Mahogany” and “Mama Mia” which kick things off, the former a smooth-flowing display of just how many different places he can take a single concept – he does the same to impressive effect on the namedrop-heavy “Ball Hard” – and the latter seeing him bring in a series of absolutely twisted punchlines and wordplay over a lurching, distorted beat, prompting the titular outcry in response from everyone’s favourite red-suited plumber.

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For all of Wayne’s ability to completely harness attention with the uniqueness of his delivery, most of what carries the best moments on this project actually comes down to the instrumentals. With Wayne’s unique cadence applied to some experimental beats, a lot of this stuff reminded me of Danny Brown’s weirdest works. A club anthem like “Clap For Em” could have been made on autopilot at another point in his career, but instead he flips some spastic high-pitched synth notes into what sounds like some kind of Middle Eastern keyboard – it’s certainly a sound I’ve never heard in a hip-hop track. “Not Me” is another one that steps up the dramatics, some slower-paced ghostly synth tones underscoring Wayne as he essentially boasts about evading death. He brings some heavy-hitting features on board as well, some highlights being Big Sean’s unparalleled confidence on the hook of “I Do It” and feature king Jay Rock over the uneasy industrial synths of the LeBron-referencing “Bing James,” which ends with a 24-second moment of silence for Kobe Bryant. Adam Levine of all people contributes to a pretty catchy radio track on “Trust Nobody,” Wayne stepping up the melodic flow over some paranoid minor-key acoustics.

Dwayne Carter is an incredibly strange guy, and his ability to completely own his off-kilter approach to the rap game inspired clones upon clones – you can hear parts of him in everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Young Thug. It’s part of the reason I’m so glad we’re still getting tracks like “Dreams,” which would fall completely flat if it was literally anyone else on the mic. Opening like an introspective trap musical, Wayne emotionally sings about a dream he had where he never made it, his trademark nasal voice breaking as he wakes up screaming at the top of his lungs and a gargantuan trap instrumental drops. Everyone can try their hardest, but there’ll never be anyone quite like Wayne.

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No one could have possibly expected the consistency in the first portion of the album to continue all the way through, and it certainly doesn’t, as the tracklisting starts falling away into a long procession of run-of-the-mill trap beats that are saved from complete unlistenability by Wayne pulling the odd surprise out of his bag of tricks. There are a couple highlights, like the look into Wayne’s difficult relationship with his father on “Bastard (Satan’s Kid),” the hard-hitting “I Don’t Sleep” and him finally using a Wayne’s World sample on the closing track of the same name, but if most of these tracks were left on the cutting room floor we might have had an album that could have rivalled some of his best. We’ve heard so much average Auto-crooning from a long list of trend-hopping Soundcloud rappers in recent years that when Wayne dials up the vocal distortion on less out-there tracks like “Wild Dogs” and “Know You Know” it’s enough to put me to sleep despite their aggressive sound. The final stretch is perfectly fine for absentmindedly nodding your head to, but they’re all ideas we heard done better in the earlier goings of the album. By the time you get to the point where you’re not even bothering to give a real name to a track like “Piano Trap,” it might not be an idea you need to repeat on track NINETEEN.

It’s been said that Wayne isn’t exactly all there these days and entrusts others to the material that actually ends up on his album, and there are certainly a couple completely bizarre sonic diversions here where Wayne pretty much sounds like he’s fooling around, unaware it would end up a finalized version. “Sights and Silencers” is an R&B slow burn that never picks up off the ground, but the most egregious example is Wayne completely off the beat riffing on yet another awful posthumous XXXTENTACION iPhone recording demo on the eye-rollingly edgy “Get Outta My Head,” which results in absolutely nothing clicking together and resembling disorienting chaos more than music.

After everything that’s happened with Wayne and the whole Young Money debacle that prevented him from releasing music for a while, there’s a lot that I’ll essentially let slide from Wayne because I’m just thankful that we’re able to get as much great music as we do from him this long into his career. Funeral certainly has its fair share of flaws, but the opening run is some of the most creative music we’ve ever heard from him and his mic presence is unparalleled. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Favourite Tracks: Mama Mia, Dreams, Mahogany, Clap For Em, Not Me

Least Favourite Track: Get Outta My Head

Score: 7/10

Ekali – A World Away

Image result for ekali a world awayCanadian electronic artist Ekali has released his first full-length project after tearing it up on the festival circuit for the last couple years with a blend of hard-hitting future-bass and trap-inspired tracks and the ethereal and atmospheric sound of many of his contemporaries. He certainly exhibits both sides working at their full potential on A World Away. A short and consistently surprising project, Ekali’s sonic diversity and excellent placement of guest vocalists across this album’s runtime makes it one of the best electronic works I’ve heard in a while.

The album opens with one of its longest and most overwhelming tracks in “Fairy Tale,” opening with a sparkling wall of sound that builds up to an undulating future-bass pulsating synth rhythm phasing in and out. For an album that’s frequently quite nuanced and understands exactly when to bring out the big guns, it’s honestly a strange choice for an opener – the album’s title suggests a unfamiliar and unique world to explore, and there’s absolutely no time to walk with trepidation and admire the surroundings, you’re thrown into the midst of the madness immediately. Featured artist Elohim repeats “life is a fairy tale” in an angelic and high-pitched voice, and signifies the fantastical world of sounds to come. The next track “Runaway” encompasses in one track what the rest of the project does over a couple of cycles of two or three – the only rap song here, it mostly restrains itself with some creeping synths but keeps up the energy just enough with a charismatic mic presence in Reo Cragun until the exhilarating and off-kilter future-bass rhythms storm in for the chorus.

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The most interesting thing about nearly all of these tracks is that you come away from them with a sense of calm relaxation, even though they’re quite loud and aggressive – one of his favourite techniques is to drop a fully blaring, extended single synth note to elevate the energy of a chorus, but there’s something about the chord progression and slower rhythms that makes even the roaring in your ears feel like laying in a field staring up at the sky. A track like “Drown” is built on one of the poppiest melodies here from Au/Ra and synth stab triplets that build up to what should be an overpowering synth-heavy drop, but the soft-toned and earnest vocals ground the track and make it seem primarily introspective – though the nature sounds interspersed certainly help as well, as the bird calls fall away to the flowing water that opens the more traditional techno track “Cage” – the chopped up vocal sample that emerges halfway through the track is one of many brief moments of sonic trickery that sell the whole project.

Ekali has always been mostly known for being someone who can fire up a festival audience with percussion-heavy trap bangers, but we don’t really get one that goes as punishingly hard as usual until the outstanding track “Power” halfway through, which comes immediately after what’s probably the most overtly calming track here in the synth piano and violin slow burn “Faithless” for a great contrast. Ekali has dropped a couple of Halloween-inspired tracks over the years and “Power” would definitely fit right in as the track kicks off with about a minute of unsettling minor key notes that steadily get progressively faster and faster – the track doesn’t fully begin until about halfway through, but the build-up is fully worth it as the distorted wobble bass notes finally show themselves – it’s a style that’s fallen out of favour in the EDM world recently due to lack of creativity, but when it’s placed as a contrast to a lush and complex sonic palette like this one it works fresh as new once again.

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The album’s most famous guest in Kiiara appears on the track “Back To You,” which takes a break from the experimentation for a pretty standard pop track that brings back the synth triplets – if there’s a chance for one of these to become one of the traditionally overplayed EDM tracks on Canadian radio, it’s this one – but the final stretch that comes contains some of the greatest tracks on the whole project. “Be Fine” reminds me of some Flume’s early work with its ability to translate the offbeat rhythms of future bass to incredibly catchy pop music – featured vocalist Wafia of course sings about a relationship that “got a little offbeat” before the chorus drops and the electronic flourishes play off of her descending melodies, and the final track “Hard To Say Goodbye” sees him team up with Illenium, who has a pretty similar style, for a track that plays off of the strengths of vocalist Chloe Angelides with some vocoder harmonies and more of a singer-songwriter angle with some plucked acoustic guitar notes thrown into the mix.

One of the main reasons that you don’t see a lot of albums like this from electronic artists is that it’s tough to keep a listener engaged with the style when they’re just sitting at home instead of a live music setting – but Ekali has managed to reverse that dynamic here. The structure of the album is set up so that the surprises come at the perfect time and you can’t wait to hear what the next track brings. Definitely got a bit of Vancouver pride with this one for a local act blowing up.

Favourite Tracks: Be Fine, Power, Hard To Say Goodbye, Drown, Runaway

Least Favourite Track: Back To You

Score: 8/10

Tate McRae – all the things i never said EP

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: that way, stupid, happy face

Least Favourite Track: all my friends are fake

Score: 8/10

Halsey – Manic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: clementine

Score: 6/10

Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By

Image result for music to be murdered byAlways one to play into the power of a good surprise, whether it be unleashing a dizzying string of syllables or a provocative bar that will get Twitter talking for months, Eminem’s 11th studio album Music To Be Murdered By came with absolutely no warning. Most people seem to agree that the majority of Eminem’s output for the last decade hasn’t quite been able to match up to the thrilling novelty of his earlier days – but Kamikaze was certainly a step up from the dismal Revival, and this one is yet another step in the right direction. Of course, there is still no shortage of corny dad jokes and subpar hooks, but in addition to his technical toolkit and wordplay – which is still nearly unmatched even as he nears 50 – quite a bit of what has been going wrong for Eminem lately is mended here, including his beat selection as he links back up with the increasingly prolific Dr. Dre, tossing aside lacklustre pop features, and finally finding a way to say something powerful about the social issues he has recently begun addressing in song. Inspired by the works of Alfred Hitchcock, whose voice appears throughout, even standing at over an hour in length its hard to say that this project isn’t, at least, highly entertaining.

After an intro where Eminem is still, for whatever reason, defending Revival despite essentially making an entire album doing so already, the track “Unaccommodating” is an excellent reminder of the full extent of what he is capable of to kick off the album. One of the most fun aspects of Kamikaze was hearing Eminem try his hand at modern-day flows, and this track essentially runs through every flow he knows and then some after an intro verse from Young M.A. You’d think it would get boring to hear Eminem essentially trying to turn nearly all of these songs into another “Rap God” for an hour, but it’s been said many times over – it’s almost hypnotic how well he does this stuff, switching things up at ease and running through complex rhyme schemes at warp speed. Speaking of M.A., it’s also refreshing to hear Eminem bring back so many rap features here, as legends like Q-Tip and Black Thought, classic collaborators like the Slaughterhouse gang, and new upstarts like Don Toliver and Anderson .Paak all appear. Of course, even with so much external firepower on these tracks, Eminem always saves his own show-stealing verse for last. Some say his legacy has waned, but it’s impossible to not keep him in the all-time great conversation after hearing him outmatch nearly everyone on this project.

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“This beat’s taking me back to my D12 days,” Eminem opens “Those Kinda Nights,” which sees him dial back the quicker flows for the return of the unapologetically provocative Slim Shady persona. There’s already been quite a lot of negative reaction to some of Eminem’s less politically correct bars across the project, but I’m happy he’s tapped back into what made him so interesting in the first place – if you’re separating Eminem from his characters as you should, it’s what you should come to expect, and it only makes for some disgustingly hilarious punchlines that make it feel like the old Eminem never left. Most of the beats here aren’t flashy – noticing the beat on an Eminem album isn’t usually a good thing – and give him enough space to show off his many tricks. It’s all very old-school hip-hop, and it’s a welcome return. My favourite beat on the project might be “Godzilla,” a simple but bombastic looping synth-bass melody that ultimately builds up to one of his speediest sequences ever (7.46 words/second!) to close it out. And then there’s the wordplay and puns, which always toe the line between brilliant and awful – but nobody else’s brain even works this way to come up with these lines. My favourite: “I get dough like Ed Sheeran, so call me the gingerbread man” from “Marsh.”

There’s certainly a lot of irreverent goofiness here, but lead single “Darkness” is one of the most emotionally affecting tracks he’s put out in a very long time. Told from the perspective of the Las Vegas shooter over a brilliantly repurposed Simon & Garfunkel sample, hearing Eminem return to telling a coherent and detailed story that examines all the grimy details of how something so horrible was created – especially as he calls for gun-control reform as news reports of shootings overlap and become incomprehensible due to the sheer volume – is an absolutely harrowing listen.

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If a little more quality control were exercised on this project, it honestly had the potential to be Eminem’s best album since the mid-2000s, but as it stretches into its final half some of Eminem’s worst tendencies start to become all the more evident and prevent it from being an engaging listen all the way through. Tracks like “Marsh,” “Never Love Again” and “No Regrets” continue his tradition of sung hooks that are awkward and ill-fitting, where it feels like he’s essentially waiting for them to end so he can start doing what he does best again. They really have the ability to destroy any replay potential no matter how strong the bars he’s spitting are. It’s also rather baffling that Eminem is still spinning the same tired revenge-fantasy narratives and fiery salvoes against his various parental figures at age 47 on tracks like “Leaving Heaven” and the laughable “Stepdad.”

There’s been a lot of discourse that Eminem’s brand and style doesn’t quite fit in the pop culture scene anymore, but at this point it’s part of the charm. It’s clear that he put a lot more effort into this one and returned to his roots in a lot of fantastic ways. Eminem’s an excessively strange guy, and he’s always going to be a bit rough around the edges. But 20 years in, we know what we’re getting at this point, and what we’re getting is one of the most spellbindingly impressive rappers of all time.

Favourite Tracks: Godzilla, Darkness, Unaccommodating, Yah Yah, In Too Deep

Least Favourite Track: Stepdad

Score: 7/10