Rapid Fire Reviews (Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y, Avril Lavigne, Betty Who)

Image result for Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y - 2009Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y – 2009

Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa has been seriously prolific coming out with projects over the past couple of years, and he’s back in a team-up with veteran rapper Curren$y. The two previously joined forces for one of the best songs on Khalifa’s last album Rolling Papers 2. The dynamic between the two still holds up here, but 2009 mostly falls victim to the curse most rap collaboration tapes do. Most of the project sounds like it was conceived rather quickly, the song lengths rather short and ending before they really get going. Khalifa is charming as ever at times and Curren$y brings a surprise amount of technical skill, but can we stop with the trend of these rushed hip-hop collaboration projects?

The project opens with the track “Garage Talk”, and I’m starting to be very convinced over the last couple projects that Wiz Khalifa is at his best when he’s pulling from older-school techniques – he drops a great, animated verse on the 90s-influenced track “The Life” as well – There’s something about his slower flow, blunt delivery, and personality-infused bars that doesn’t fit in with the pretending-not-to-care generation of new school SoundCloud rappers – though he tries to a lot more often than he should. The beat here is an endlessly fun boom-bap loop that Wiz and Curren$y both play pretty straight as they tap into that bounce. And then of course we immediately drop off a cliff into the hazy smoke clouds of “10 Piece”, Curren$y opening the slowly creeping instrumental slurring his words a little off the beat. Khalifa fares a little better, but the instrumental doesn’t fit his livelier mic presence. A lot of the project unfortunately falls into this lower-key vibe, and I guess I should come to expect it from them at this point. When the subject matter essentially revolves around one thing, can I blame the two for adapting their sound to a chilled-out smoke session? For everyone else, though, it’s not enough to be compelling or exciting. The next track, “Benz Boys”, is similar, misusing a Ty Dolla $ign feature as he fades into the background.

It’s unfortunate as well that most of the best tracks on this project are also some of the shortest. Curren$y isn’t on top of his game for most of this project, but he definitely finds his groove on the beat of “Eastside”, which livens up the contemplative synth lines with a quicker hi-hat pattern, though each rapper only drops a single, short verse. The next track “From The Start” is even shorter, and it’s easily the best instrumental on the whole project, calling back to the G-funk era with a rubbery bassline and some soulful female vocals thrown into the mix. Why did they give so much more time to their sluggish weed raps? Wiz Khalifa exists in such a strange place for me – Curren$y at least knows his role, but Khalifa’s delivery seems so much better suited for goofy rap tracks that don’t take themselves too seriously. If he doesn’t know where his true strengths lie, why does he always drop these tiny moments displaying them?

Most of the tracks at the end of the project don’t do much to surprise either – the track “Getting Loose” is probably one of the closest attempts to a modern-sounding rap track here, but the hook from Problem is delivered like he’s half-asleep, offsetting the one time across this whole project Curren$y actually sounds like he’s trying, while “Stoned Gentleman” is just as lethargic as you might expect. “First Or Last”, yet another fun old-school track that references Ricky Bobby and complements Khalifa’s best sensibilities, is the highlight as the album winds down.

I essentially stole my rating system from Anthony Fantano, and if this was one of his videos I would probably slap that huge red NOT GOOD across the screen for when there’s not even enough substance to the album that he can even bother to give it a score. Too many of these ideas don’t come together, or are simply too sleepy to be interesting. Get fun again, Wiz!

Favourite Tracks: Garage Talk, From The Start, First Or Last

Least Favourite Track: 10 Piece

Score: 3/10

Image result for avril lavigne head above water coverAvril Lavigne – Head Above Water

The quintessential Canadian pop-rock singer, Avril Lavigne has released her first album in 6 years after being absolutely memed to death for some of her past material and going through a struggle with Lyme disease. Seeing this album perform so well commercially was a nice sight to see after all that Lavigne has been through over the years, but is it any good? Lead single “Head Above Water” was met with a lot of pleasant surprise online, and most of the project follows a similar, more subdued singer-songwriter angle. While some of the lyrics relating to her real-life health struggles can be genuinely moving and emotional, past a couple particularly inspired tracks most of the album unfortunately falls back into awkward songwriting and bland and outdated instrumentation.

Let’s talk about that lead single, though! “Head Above Water” is a dramatic and emotional ballad with high stakes that Lavigne absolutely sells with her genuine delivery – it’s clear that this was written in the midst of a seriously terrifying time for her. The way the orchestral aspects swell in make the track very reminiscent of something like Kesha’s comeback single “Praying”, another singer mostly written off as a joke that comes back with a knockout ballad about a difficult subject. The track found a lot of success on Christian radio, Lavigne calling out to the divine to save her from an early death. Some of those lyrics are incredibly harrowing. While most of the rest of the tracks on the album follow a similar overall vibe, many of them also introduce a lot more elements of traditional pop music and sound like they’re stuck in the past. We immediately transition to the track “Birdie” after this, which sounds similar except for the introduction of these Imagine Dragons-esque booming drums and a shimmering synth line that sounds like it’s straight out of 2009. It’s almost as if hearing what Lavigne is capable of on the opening track it feels wrong hearing her on some more dumbed down material. It sounds like the track refers to similar events, but refers to it in much more ambiguous terms and a caged bird metaphor we’ve heard in endless pop tracks.

Then of course we get to the track “Dumb Blonde” with Nicki Minaj … yikes. I have no idea how this got approved in 2019, and she even released it as a single recently. Featuring one of those obnoxious shouted chants of a chorus that was fun for a little bit 15 years ago (including Lavigne just … fully enunciating the words “I am a freaking cherry bomb”), the drumline percussion and brass section bring to mind another time entirely. Why is someone trying to remake “Hollaback Girl” in 2019? I don’t understand. I can’t help but think this might have been a lot better as an EP, especially when the back half of the project falls into older pop tropes like the “yeah-yeah”s on “Souvenir” and some seriously terrible lyrics on tracks like “Goddess” and “Bigger Wow”.

There are quite a few moments here where it’s clear that Lavigne’s producers were trying their hardest to bring back an older star and insert her into the current musical landscape as well, but those don’t quite work either, being too derivative of other works. “Tell Me It’s Over” is a pretty well-written song and should work relatively well as a doo-wop/soul pop ballad – Lavigne’s vocals are seriously soulful! – but the instrumental is just far too close to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” to ignore, and the trap beat that they shoehorned in there is pretty laughable and doesn’t fit the tone at all.

The greatest strength of this project is the constant reminders we get of how impressive a singer Lavigne actually is after the years of … whatever she was doing in the early parts of the decade. Quite a few of these tracks have this beautiful layering effect where her high notes are at the forefront, but a supporting vocal a full octave down is mixed in pretty perfectly as support. The tracl “I Fell in Love with The Devil” is a great example of the vocal showcase, and the bridge where the layers become more evident and get chopped up is one of the best moments on the project. “It Was In Me” is another track that breaks through emotionally despite its datedness – it really sounds like Lavigne’s older track “Keep Holding On”, but it really works as a kind of career retrospective, speaking about finding little fulfillment from the fame and fortune and learning to believe in herself and her musical abilities through the tough times.

A lot of these tracks really do have aspects of something great, just held back by one different misguided thing on each one of them. If nothing else, it’s great to hear Lavigne sounding so good after all this time, but in terms of the current musical conversation it doesn’t really fit.

Favourite Tracks: Head Above Water, I Fell In Love With The Devil, It Was In Me

Least Favourite Track: Dumb Blonde

Score: 4/10

BettyBettyWhoAlbumCover.pngBetty Who – Betty

Synthpop artist Betty Who’s 3rd studio album and first since departing from RCA Records, wanting to release music at a faster pace than the label deal would let her, mostly brings back the same personnel that made The Valley so great and delivers another solid project full of upbeat and sugary, if not the most innovative, pop tracks. She’s been releasing singles since January 2018, but the final product here is pretty cohesive and meets expectations of the sheer sense of fun that her pure pop approach has delivered in the past – it just sounds almost a little too similar to her previous work.

The shorter track “Old Me” kicks things off and drops us directly back into Betty Who’s world, following a tried-and-true yet undeniably joyous and funky twist on traditional pop formulas. A bouncy bassline slinks around some higher-pitched synths and Who’s harmonized and summery vocals before the 90s piano chords kick in and the synths cascade for the chorus. I wish this track was so much longer, but its an absolutely excellent way to draw listeners in as it transitions to “Do With It”, as Who finally succumbs to the trends and puts some trap hi-hats on her song. She has enough of a unique approach to make it a lot of fun though, her excellent ear for harmonies appearing again in the build-up to the chorus, the music cutting out and featuring her a cappella harmonized chords. In a world where genres are quickly becoming a thing of the past, there aren’t many artists left who are so obviously gifted for making retro-pop but Who is certainly one of them. It’s a nostalgic feeling that makes it hard to legitimately criticize since it’s almost formulaically engineered to put a carefree smile on your face.

Continuing with the strong start, “Just Thought You Should Know” sees another angle that we haven’t really seen from her – she’s got the 90s high-octane dance tracks down, but this sounds just like those slower, passionate boy band tracks that still manage to hit the same kind of pop euphoria, and she pulls it off pretty perfectly complete with the retro percussion sounds in the mix. Later in the tracklisting we get some more of the slight innovations that keep the project interesting. I really enjoy what she’s going for on “Language”, a much lower-key track that coasts on the strength of Who’s rhythmic delivery more than a sparkly, distracting instrumental, presenting a quieter tropical vibe instead. “All This Woman” is another one that easily stands out for being unique, sounding like an old Justin Timberlake track with its Spanish guitar picking and jazzier harmonies – oh yeah, and that bridge that completely rips off “Cry Me A River”. Oops. It’s a compelling track regardless, even if the Timberlake similarities are pretty impossible to ignore on later track “The One” as well. “Between You & Me” is another standout, taking a similar 90s pop chord progression but coming at it with acoustics instead, showing off the sweeter parts of Who’s voice.

There are a couple moments where it falls just slightly short of what Who achieved on The Valley – particularly a few tracks where the instrumentals start to feel tiring listening to 13 straight songs of breakneck tempos. They’re still a lot of fun, but when Who doesn’t come as hard with her vocal delivery the high-speed and energetic feel of the track doesn’t feel as earned. On “I Remember” she goes for a breathier, seductive angle but the click-clack of the percussion is going by at warp speed and it doesn’t really fit. “Marry Me” kind of feels like a filler track only 5 songs in as well, it feels like we got the same kind of syncopated piano chords on a better structured song only a few songs ago. Most of these tracks would work fantastic on their own regardless, it’s just in the album format that they fall flat. Once we get to tracks like “Ignore Me” and “Whisper” at the end, the similarities start to show.

Betty is another strong project from the Australian singer that’s only really held back by listening to all of the songs in a row. Really, there’s not many more people with a better ear for pop music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Just Thought You Should Know, Old Me, All This Woman, Language, Do With It

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

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Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

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“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

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You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

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Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

gnash – we

Officially back for the new year – this should hopefully be the first of three new posts this week.

Image result for gnash weGenreless artist gnash finally puts together a debut studio album after dropping a flurry of singles over the past couple of years – some of which made it onto this project, alongside the now-ancient smash hit “I hate u, I love u”. Difficult to pin down, gnash both sings and raps over the duration of the project with a sort of distinctive, almost pop-punk inflection to his voice. While his introspective lyrics surrounding struggles with self-worth and dealing with loneliness often border on eye-rollingly melodramatic, there are certainly a few instances here where he strikes a genuinely moving emotional nerve. The instrumentals are similarly inconsistent, some more exciting upbeat, electronic material breaking up the safer acoustic patterns, but we shows sparks of potential in gnash that I wasn’t sure were there.

After the shorter intro track “happy never after” that awkwardly combines some near-spoken word rapping, minimal acoustic chords, and some badly mixed harmonies on one of the poppiest choruses here, the project drops into its clear best song “imagine if”. Featuring some soulful piano chords supporting a chorus where gnash’s singing is at its best, they mute in favor of a more electronic segment in the verse that better fits his speedier delivery. Good luck getting that ay-oh-ay segment that shows up with the slightest of trap beats out of your head – along with gnash’s more subdued vocal performance, not leaning into his more obnoxious nasal tone, the various segments of the track from decidedly disparate musical worlds are added and subtracted at perfect times.

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There are a couple tracks across the rest of the project that sound just as good as “imagine if” in theory, but gnash’s execution brings me out of it. “nobody’s home” is another smartly composed pop track featuring a tried-and-true chord progression that’s augmented in the chorus in a satisfying way, but the 25-year-old gnash’s lyrics make him sound like an overly dramatic teenager going through his first breakup and the nonchalant delivery of his raps doesn’t sound like he’s taking it seriously, just using the form due to its popularity.

There are quite a few times where gnash’s lyrics really bring me out of the whole experience, like he’s going way too far to describe his pain in melodramatic and sensational terms rather than hitting something more poignant through a less-is-more approach – especially on a track like “insane”, which concludes with a spoken-word segment explaining that he no longer agrees with its sentiment, the joy with which he gets oddly morbid seems out-of-place. “the broken hearts club” is another one that seems almost like it’s trying to manipulative the listener into feeling something, inviting the listener to join him in a community wallowing in sadness – “it’s easier than love”, he sings at the conclusion.

“dear insecurity”, on the other hand, sees gnash’s songwriting at its best. His approach is really not all that different, but there’s something a lot more believable in his words, listing his various anxieties but then flipping his verses at the end to be more embracing of himself for a more complex analysis of the issue. The deep-voiced and soulful Ben Abraham makes you really feel the hook, and The Broken Hearts Clubgnash singing it himself at the end over some more minimal chords is a genuinely affecting moment. gnash embraces the more guitar-driven style his vocals seem more suited for on the track “t-shirt”, featuring some live drums and a genuinely pop-punk chord progression as he reaches up into his upper register, his emotional delivery actually matching up to some of his more dramatic claims. Again, despite some pretty laughable songwriting (“karma tends to be a b-word”…??), the track functions pretty well as an homage to a sound of the past that gnash should explore more rather than his hip-hop acoustics.

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“pajamas” and “feel better” are fun enough pop tracks that has me wondering if gnash would be more effective as a producer on other people’s material – the latter especially is a welcome change from the dark clouds that colour the rest of the tracklisting as he sings about that one person’s ability to bring him out of the dumps with a more hopeful, upbeat vocal performance.

Despite some of the better aspects of the tracklisting here, we is weighed down by some more confusing choices that are too prominent to fully ignore – mostly on the lyrical side of things. While his combination of genres and ear for catchy pop hooks have the potential to be exciting, gnash’s debut is inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: imagine if, dear insecurity, t-shirt

Least Favourite Track: insane

Score: 4/10

 

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

Mitski – Be The Cowboy

Image result for be the cowboy mitskiOne of the most consistently critically acclaimed artists in the indie community, indie-pop and alt-rock singer-songwriter Mitski returns with her 5th studio album and first following her major-label breakthrough with Puberty 2. Be the Cowboy is a similarly eclectic and intentionally off-kilter collection of brief and often existential tracks. Blending her unassuming, indie-leaning vocal work and bleak and vulnerable lyricism with bombastic, distorted guitar instrumentals, there’s certainly nothing out there that comes even close to what Mitski is doing here. I’m all for experimentation, but it’s honestly hard to tell if I fully like the music here or I just respect it as a completely out-there idea. Although there are brief moments where things get a bit too chaotic here, for the most part the project is elevated by Mitski’s beautiful vocal moments and songwriting abilities.

Listeners are introduced to the kind of album it’s going to be pretty early on, some full, vibrant orchestral strings opening first track “Geyser” before the brief, horror-movie jumpscare type distorted noise honestly shocked me and the track eventually builds up to some underlying heavy distorted guitars as the rest of the pop elements of the track swell to their greatest cinematic peak. It’s all a little much, but it’s nothing if not ambitious. Mitksi’s use of distortion and chaos across the board is used to illustrate the mental state she describes in her lyrics, but it makes it hard to want to give a lot of these tracks repeated listens, especially when she intentionally doesn’t want to settle into a particular groove, switching things up immediately after they’ve begun.

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Mitski is at her best when she embraces the quirky indie-pop singer-songwriter angle: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” uses the guitars more sparingly, punctuating powerful moments instead of taking everything over. There are some serious 80s synthpop vibes on the song, driven by a pulsating bassline and catchy synth hook that frames the sweeter areas of her voice well. On the song, Mitski expresses disappointment that an ex doesn’t want her back, even though she’s the one that ended it in the first place, and her confused and chaotic mindstate regarding romance continues to show up as a theme here. Almost all of these songs don’t even break the 3-minute mark, making the project resemble a series of disjointed, impulsive thoughts – and her lyricism and even her melodies often reflect this. Mitski has expressed in interviews that she didn’t necessarily want everything to come together perfectly, the distress she expresses on these tracks evident through the music itself. She discusses conflicted feelings on returning to a toxic relationship out of fear of being alone on “A Pearl”, where her vocal lines fluctuate around and never really settle on a direction, and continues to return to the theme of a kind of existential loneliness that has her losing her mind on tracks like “Lonesome Love” and “Blue Light”.

At the same time as this disjointedness works well for what Mitski is trying to express here though, many of my favourite moments on the album are over before they have even begun. “Lonesome Love” is one of the more instrumentally simple tracks here, Mitski adopting an almost folk/Americana cadence over little more than acoustic strumming, and the increased focus on her voice is welcome – but we don’t even hit the 2-minute mark here. “Me And My Husband” is another great moment here, the instrumental reminding me of the kind of old-school piano rock that appears on a Father John Misty project. Hearing Mitski’s vocals on an instrumental capable of turning her emotional vocal delivery into an anthemic mantra as she desperately clings on to a fading partnership.

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In the middle of all of this genre-bending madness, there’s what is essentially a perfect pop song in the single “Nobody”. Mitski’s voice already has such a Lana Del Rey-like automatic flair for the vintage, and there’s something about the chorus melody that captures it perfectly here, underscored by those low piano chords and almost disco synths. So many worlds collide on the track in the best possible way – the live percussion on the track elevates it to another level as well, and we’re catapulted into an off-kilter ethereal section of the track as it comes off the rails, Mitski’s voice becoming filtered and robotic as the song ends abruptly after a key change, repeating the title over and over to further illustrate the loneliness she outlines elsewhere. “Washing Machine Heart” is another great track where the almost too-perfect, adorable tone of Mitski’s voice is made to sound detached and robotic with the kind of childish yet eerie melody you’d hear at a carnival, the song ending with a single, terrifying second of static as the speaker becomes unhinged.

Be the Cowboy is certainly one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve had all year, but from everything I’ve heard Mitski say about the album its clear that she has a clearly defined artistic vision and she’s executing it about as well as she possibly could. There are quite a few very powerful musical moments on this album, and despite the lack of replayability, it’s a lot better listened to as a full experience than returning to single songs.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody, Washing Machine Heart, Me And My Husband, Why Didn’t You Stop Me?, Lonesome Love

Least Favourite Track: A Horse Named Cold Air

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Shawn Mendes, Father John Misty, Kanye West)

Image result for shawn mendes self titled albumShawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes releases his third self-titled studio album at the age of only 19, expanding his musical influences to explore genres past his trends of safe, acoustic pop balladry. Working with a high-profile set of collaborators, Mendes delivers a solid set of pop tracks that splits about half and half with working what he knows and trying his hand at more upbeat pop tracks or venturing into more of an R&B The experimentation works out for him more often than not, the tracklisting weighed down by just a bit too much of what we’ve already heard from him – or someone like him (looking at you once again, Ryan Tedder).

Single “In My Blood” opens the album, and it’s probably the strongest single Mendes has ever released, transcending the cheesy and derivative pop tracks for a more rock-leaning song featuring live instrumentation and a nice build-up to a passionately sung chorus, his trademark crackles creeping into his delivery – those huge drums in the background are a nice break from the trap hi-hats we hear everywhere. The opening run of the album contains it’s best tracks, two of them co-written by the frequently outstanding Julia Michaels: “Nervous” is an R&B-funk adventure with a quickly delivered falsetto chorus and persistent bassline, and it’s the first time I could ever imagine a Mendes song on a dancefloor. Michaels actually sings on quiet acoustic duet “Like To Be You”, and they blend together shockingly well for two artists with very distinct voices. Mendes is surprisingly believable as an R&B vocalist, stating that he drew inspiration from artists like Justin Timberlake. “Where Were You in The Morning?” is his most obvious draw from the Man of the Woods, some lazy guitar chords and the slightest hint of a trap beat framing Mendes’ smoothest vocal yet, sounding much older than his age. Ed Sheeran lends his reliable hand to “Fallin’ All In You”, which sounds like a huge hit, blending his old and new styles impressively with the hint of a doo-wop bassline and Sheeran’s tendency to pack in as many syllables as possible.

The main problems with this project come when, standing at 14 tracks, Mendes and his collaborators can’t help but exercise a few tried and true ideas that edge closer to the slower, minimalist ballads that don’t capture my attention quite as easily. Other than “Perfectly Wrong”, a track where Mendes’ songwriting shines above the less showy instrumental with some heartbreaking commentary on forcing himself out of a toxic relationship he desperately wanted to save, tracks like “Youth”, a duet with similarly minded artist Khalid, and “Because I Had You”, itself a complete rip-off of Justin Bieber’s hit “Love Yourself” never really pick themselves off the ground. The notoriously unoriginal Ryan Tedder also contributes to “Particular Taste”, which lifts a few too many elements from Prince’s catalogue – someone else has already delivered the word “particular” like that in an iconic fashion. Most of the back half of the project feels too similar to its counterparts and I feel like the tracklist easily could have been shortened. “Why” shows potential with an extravagant, dreamlike instrumental, but as Mendes reaches up into his falsetto the breaks in the instrumental reveal a few awkward transitionary places in his range.

Mendes’ steps towards risk-taking on this project easily make it his best collection of songs – still very young, he’s showing a definite upward trajectory and is beginning to understand where his greatest strengths lie. For now, Shawn Mendes exists as a pleasant surprise that shows his potential despite a few of his old ways still sticking around.

Favourite Tracks: Fallin All In You, Where Were You In The Morning?, Perfectly Wrong, Nervous

Least Favourite Track: Love Yourself, uh, I mean Because I Had You

Score: 6/10

Image result for god's favorite customerFather John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Master songwriter Father John Misty’s fourth narrows his focus on his fourth studio album, dialing back the wide range of topics he addressed on his sprawling breakthrough Pure Comedy, a satirical takedown of politics, religion and everything under the sun. While he does return to some similar musical themes across this project, his trademark blunt and darkly humorous songwriting makes his tales of his mental health and familial relations just as compelling.

“Hangout at the Gallows” introduces listeners to the kind of material that will be featured on the album well, Tillman in complete command of a piano rock instrumental that previews the darker thoughts of suicide and paranoia he brings up over the course of the project. Tillman makes this kind of thing work perfectly for him, like a modern-day, extremely cynical Elton John. “Mr. Tillman” is a hilarious track spoken from the perspective of a worker at the front desk of a hotel, observing Tillman’s clear signs of a mental breakdown while he sings in a cheerful melodic loop intended to be just a little obnoxious. It’s not the only moment where Tillman picks up another character on the album, the incredible “Please Don’t Die” being sung from the position of his wife. It’s just as bluntly, beautifully Tillman as the track suggests, as it turns into something of a country ballad, a slide guitar twanging in the background as he softens his voice and expresses concern that Tillman might kill himself with some somber, falsetto harmonies.

Tillman has one of the most poignantly expressive vocal deliveries I’ve ever heard, capable of delivering raw emotion believably even when he doesn’t have much of an instrumental to support him. “God’s Favorite Customer”, the title track, continues his troubled relationship with religion, turning back to a faith he stopped believing in long ago in his time of mental instability. His knowingly futile calls to an angel on the stark chorus is just another example of his brilliant songwriting ability.

The instrumentals on this project are largely similar to what we’ve heard from Tillman in the past, potentially even sparser and more minimal on this one than something like Pure Comedy as he shows a clear focus on the clear delivery of his lyrical content. Without issues so enormous and pressing to offer his philosophical thoughts on, a few of these tracks with little more than a slow piano accompaniment aren’t carried by Tillman’s thoughts alone. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is a pretty straightforward love song that rides on a very familiar acoustic strumming chord progression without much of the hilarious turns of phrase we’re used to, while the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is one of the first times I’ve ever felt like Tillman tried to make a huge statement and didn’t actually manage to say anything, offering baseline analysis while I wait for the twisted joke to land.

It’s clear that Tillman decided to play it safe a bit coming down from such an ambitious project released only last year, but he has the skills that even that elevates him over most singer-songwriters of his kind. He’s certainly the only person that can deliver the lyric “Last night I wrote a poem, man, I must have been in the poem zone” with as much genuine emotional weight as he does.

Favourite Tracks: Please Don’t Die, God’s Favorite Customer, Mr. Tillman, Hangout at the Gallows, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

Innovative rapper Kanye West’s eighth studio album is the second of five he plans to produce this summer, a brief 7 tracks like its predecessor DAYTONA. Supposedly completed in a matter of a couple weeks after the originally planned Love Everyone was scrapped due to controversy, ye is a journey through everything we’ve come to love about West’s music over the course of his entire career. Although I have come to expect West to completely reinvent the wheel on every project he releases, ye utilizing old themes of industrial beats and soul samples, the production is still on a level no other artist comes close to touching.

ye sees West at perhaps his most introspective and confessional in his whole career, revealing his inner thoughts on his troubled years post-Saint Pablo Tour with his bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. The album opens with “I Thought About Killing You”, West delivering a spoken-word intro over some beautiful Francis & The Lights Prismizer work where he details his need to speak his mind freely to exorcise demons, even his darkest thoughts concerning suicide, directing threats at himself in second person emphasizing his bipolarity. The first half of the project resembles Yeezus more than anything, as the opener explodes into a chilling scream and knocking industrial beat. “All Mine” is an aggressive and minimalist grinding carnal track, eerie, breathy vocal samples and crashing percussion framing West’s hilariously blunt lyrics, while “Yikes” is the most immediately commercially viable song here. Pi’erre Bourne assists with the production as West delivers his best flow on the project and a great melodic hook – “find help, sometimes I scare myself”.

The back half, on the other hand, reverts back to the soulful “Old Kanye” sound that troll song “Lift Yourself” hinted might return. “Wouldn’t Leave” is a touching track dedicated to his famous wife’s loyalty despite his many mistakes, thanking her for remaining by his side in the wake of a breakdown about her own career repercussions and West himself suggesting she leave if she needed to. Harmonized soulful backing vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, an uncharacteristically passionate PARTYNEXTDOOR hook, and somber synth-piano chords complete the emotional track. The love is affirmed with a triumphant Charlie Wilson hook on “No Mistakes”, West’s flow coming a little unhinged but coasting through on a fun, rhythmic gospel sample from Edwin Hawkins. The best track is the emotional peak of “Ghost Town”, however, featuring a shimmering, soulful organ sample and Kid Cudi getting so into the hook he falls off the pitch in his usual endearing way. West’s verse is the best singing (no Auto-Tune!) he’s done in a long time, but new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake steals the show, turning the second half into a repeated anthemic mantra, the music cutting down to an enormous stomp-clap. I can’t wait to sing it in a huge crowd. It’s great to hear more adept lyricism from West after Yeezus and Pablo as well, acting as an adorably overprotective father towards his daughters on “Violent Crimes” and delivering some of his best wordplay in a while on “Wouldn’t Leave”.

Since the project was so quickly assembled and West’s favourite subject material in his lyrics is, of course, himself, many of the current topical references to his life that happened mere weeks or days before its release makes the project feel less larger-than-life than his past albums, his quotables becoming law, or at least Instagram captions. Referencing things like G.O.O.D. Music’s war with Drake on “No Mistakes” or drawing specific attention to that fateful TMZ interview, regardless of how interesting a light he paints on the intrapersonal repercussions of his actions, on “Wouldn’t Leave” will end up sounding extremely dated in comparison to something like The College Dropout, which still resonates 14 years later.

West hasn’t made a perfect album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he’s getting a lot better at finding beauty in the chaos. Although the album could use a little more polish, his artistry is still unquestioned and a closer look into his psyche and personal life is appreciated for the 9-year old in me who overplayed “Gold Digger” to death.

Favourite Tracks: Ghost Town, Yikes, All Mine, Wouldn’t Leave

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Weeknd, Kacey Musgraves, Hayley Kiyoko)

MyDearMelancholy - album by The Weeknd.jpgThe Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy,

Canadian pop/R&B superstar The Weeknd releases a 6-song EP a year and a half after the successes of Starboy that sees him return to a sound that many fans have been missing. My Dear Melancholy, is much darker than we’ve heard him get in a while. While it’s difficult for Abel to completely shed his pop sensibilities at this point, this EP is as close to Trilogy as we’re going to get, the production more open and allowing his vocals and lyrics to shine. This is the version of The Weeknd that kickstarted the entire genre of alt-R&B, and he recruits a list of great collaborators to make it happen.

Opening track “Call Out My Name” became the biggest track to come from this project, and it’s easy to see why. It rides a similar vibe as “Earned It”, a song that served as somewhat of a transitionary period from one style to the next, but the passion with which he delivers that soaring chorus, his haunting pitch-shifted and distorted vocals repeating the refrain behind him, is what sells the track. We can tell that Abel is back in that tortured emotional place that allowed him to deliver his best music. Lyrically, we’re back to the nihilistic and debaucherous artist that knowingly lives a lifestyle that is mentally and physically damaging – there’s some pretty dark content on here inspired by real life events, and the creeping, grim soundscapes of Trilogy infused with parts of the synth beats and Daft Punk-esque production on tracks like “Try Me” and “Hurt You” is an interesting place to put them. The Weeknd’s persona has always been incredibly fascinating to me, and this is him at a complete juncture of an artist, almost like a career retrospective over 6 tracks.

Abel has an impressive list of producers here – Frank Dukes and Skrillex hold things down on the pop side, while Yeezus auteur Gessafelstein and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo himself appear as well. Dukes and Skrillex’s “Wasted Times” is the poppiest instrumental here, a skittering, glitchy breakbeat that drops into an EDM-style breakdown with pitch shifted vocals – but Abel’s rhythms and state of mind are pure Trilogy, repeating “I ain’t got no business catching feelings”. The calming falsetto outro shows just how much we forget how great his vocals can be, something he displays in full on heartbreaking closer “Privilege” – the track, combined with “I Was Never There”, contains some truly compelling and deeply disturbing references to Abel’s substance abuse in dealing with pain. “Hurt You” might be my favourite track of all, a great combination of his old and new styles as Abel delivers a catchy falsetto melody over the same kind of old-school dance breakbeat as we hear on hits “Starboy” and “Pray For Me”.

There have been rumours that there will be forthcoming EPs, possibly playing off of the comma in the title of this one. If this is the case, The Weeknd knows exactly what he is doing and I’m very excited for a more commercially viable 2018 update of Trilogy.

Favourite Tracks: Hurt You, Call Out My Name, Wasted Times

Least Favourite Track: Try Me

Score: 8/10

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegKacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Critically acclaimed country-pop artist Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album sees her trade in her cynical and witty lyrics for an incredibly adorable celebration of her new marriage that sees the world in a much more positive light. Musgraves’ warm and inviting vocal delivery has always been one of my favourite singing voices in the entire music industry, and hearing it on some more personal material here is very affecting. Musgraves’ music has never truly been pure country, and she takes some of her most ambitious cross-genre leaps yet on this project that showcase her crossover potential. With Golden Hour, Musgraves has delivered a stunning opening trilogy of albums.

The entire album is infused with a sense of wonderment that creeps its way into Musgraves poignant lyrics, previously used for biting satire but now settling into “I’m alright with a slow burn, taking my time let the world turn” as she sings sweetly on the opening track. Backed by little more than a pop-country acoustic guitar pattern, the track eventually swells into a string section bridge and uplifting backing vocals. Musgraves accepts that she can’t maintain her previous position as a holier-than-thou sass machine and steps back to marvel at the beauty she can find in the world, and it’s amazing to witness. Musgraves’ instincts to write a great pop melody are still top notch, as emphasized by single “Butterflies” and especially standout track “Lonely Weekend” – the charming country background of most of these songs simply provides an interesting instrumental twist to these sensibilities. “Butterflies” is characterized by a mixture of twinkling, poppy piano chords and the acoustic, slide guitar patterns that appear across Same Trailer, Different Park. The softly delivered honesty in her vocal performance easily welcomes harmonies, and they strengthen her heartfelt declarations. When the music drops back and she reaches into her falsetto to deliver “You give me butterflies”, it’s too cute to handle.

Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting – it should have been tough to convince us of her belief in this completely new view of the world, but the way she pours genuine emotion into every note and word makes us feel every aspect of her love for her husband. Even when tracks like “Oh, What A World” are relatively samey, Musgraves’ awestruck persona is captivating. Her classic wordplay is still present on “Space Cowboy” – which still gives me chills, and “Happy & Sad” brings back the creeping cynicism as she anticipates the inevitable end of “the time of [her] life” through the greatest harmonies on the project– it’s still the same Kacey. The most interesting track, however, is “High Horse”, a disco-influenced track that marks a completely new direction – it’s pretty incredible that she manages to keep some country aspects in the background and pull it off so well, judging by the huge 80s dance beat, synth bassline and adorably kitschy harmonies in the forefront. Closing track “Rainbow” is such a beautiful, earnest love letter that it still almost makes me cry a month later, but this review is getting too long.

I wish I had space to talk about every single track on this album, they are all perfect in their own, tiny, personal way. Musgraves’ subject matter finally matches the extremely pleasant tone of her voice, and the result is an album that successfully blocks out all the bad in the world for 45 minutes.

Favourite Tracks: High Horse, Lonely Weekend, Rainbow, Space Cowboy, Happy & Sad

Least Favourite Track: Wonder Woman

Score: 10/10!

Hayley Kiyoko - Expectations.pngHayley Kiyoko – Expectations

Dreampop artist and outspoken LGBT activist Hayley Kiyoko finally releases her debut studio album after a string of EPs, and for the most part connects with a series of upbeat, danceable pop tracks. While her songwriting could likely benefit from the hitmaking spark of someone like a Max Martin, a few melodies and chord progressions often going a different way you expect them to, in general Expectations lives up to them, especially once single “Curious” signals a seismic shift into the much more fun second half of the project.

Quite a few of these tracks ride over energetic synth basslines and ethereal, dreampop harmonies. Despite the lack of recognizable contributors to the project, the production across the board carries the project where Kiyoko’s vocal performance lacks a distinct sense of personality and artistry. After a world-establishing overture featuring the sounds of the beach, we drop into “Feelings”, a pristine pop track that takes a central melody and plays with it in as many ways as it can, dropping into a half-time trap section and a Prismizer-esque vocoder section near its back half. It’s a very well-written and catchy track that shows just how much Kiyoko still has room to grow as she gains a more mainstream audience. This is the kind of stuff a lot of people could quickly and easily latch onto. Single “Curious” is the centrepiece and is sure to be one of the greatest pop tracks released all year despite its January release date. The synth swells leading up to the tiny pause before the infectious chorus drops electrifies the track with energy, and Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals are something to behold – that bassline reminds of a Fifth Harmony track on steroids.

The last 5 tracks of the album are pure pop magic as well, especially “Palm Dreams”, a bit of a 2000s-pop throwback perfect for summer which features pitch-shifted vocals and an almost new jack swing percussive feel, inviting listeners to an electrofunk party. “Wanna Be Missed” uses a trap hi-hat to its utmost rhythmic potential, complementing a baseline swung synth melody and earth-shattering bass as the intense chorus kicks in, while “Let It Be” is a great closer – a calm-down of sorts with a quieter instrumental that can still support a huge singalong chorus. It’s one of the best written pop melodies here, minor notes in just the right places.

Expectations can feel slightly generic at times, especially as so many of Kiyoko’s contemporaries are rapidly expanding the boundaries of just what pop music can entail – most of these tracks possess the same kind of basic structure, the same chords building up to a more explosive, percussive chorus. A track like “Sleepover” never really gets going, featuring the same synth-bass stabs as the preceding tracks without as strong or energetic of a melody. The back to back mashup tracks “Mercy/Gatekeeper” and “Under the Blue/Take Me In” continue to lose the energy and direction of the project before “Curious” snaps us back in – there are a few weird melodic decisions and abrupt shifts between ideas across the whole saga, as we wait for the pop sugar rush that we know she can deliver to kick back in.

Expectations is a very solid debut pop project that doesn’t shy away from bringing something like a bisexual duet with Kehlani to the attention of the mainstream audience. When it connects, it’s high-octane fun – there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

Favourite Tracks: Curious, Let It Be, Palm Dreams, Feelings, Wanna Be Missed

Least Favourite Track: Under the Blue/Take Me In

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Vance Joy, Tory Lanez, Tech N9ne)

Image result for nation of two vance joyVance Joy – Nation of Two

Indie-pop singer-songwriter Vance Joy returns with his second studio album, almost 4 years after the runaway success that was “Riptide”, a song which was run into the ground to a rather annoying degree for this reviewer personally. Joy’s sentimental songwriting and catchy falsetto melodies are back on this project, and while a few of these breezy and instrumentally sparse tracks can seem overly simple or derivative at times, Nation of Two does stand out as a solid project due to its thematic cohesion and Joy’s undeniable ability to write uplifting tunes that we all want to sing along to. The album details the story of what Joy calls a “perfectly self-contained couple”, and the highs and lows of their blocking out most of the outside world.

The album opens with “Call If You Need Me”, potentially the closest thing on the whole album to exactly what we expect of him, the instrumental little more than a repetitive, plucked guitar pattern backed up by some ghostly indie-folk falsetto vocals that we’ve heard on his earlier work, and many others’. Joy knows what works for him and plays it safe to a degree that doesn’t really engage me quite a bit. There are more interesting musical choices than I would have expected after that intro, however, as the album starts to pick up immediately. “Lay It On Me” is a great track that sees Joy get more upbeat than usual, building into an explosive brass-backed chorus with some nice harmonies and a huge drum build-up. The fuller instrumentals work to his benefit, giving more power and support to his singalong choruses. Even if he uses some of the same tricks repeatedly, Joy’s earnest and confessional approach to songwriting fits as the instrumental raises and lowers volume in accord with the more emotional moments in his delivery. Joy’s voice is the perfect instrument to deliver the heartfelt declarations of love he is so fond of, accompanied by tiny wavers when he holds out a note and appropriately soaring for the bigger, celebratory choruses. There’s something indescribably unique that connects him to a listener.

Still, by the 5th or 6th time a song opens with the same basic picking patterns you’ve heard your friend play on the ukulele more than once the album starts to get tiresome. There’s a reason Joy was rewarded with a prime spot opening for the perfect exercise in pop marketing – Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour. Joy’s approach to songwriting can be intentionally formulaic and accessible to a lowest common denominator audience, not deviating from the song structures or content that is expected.

Joy went bigger on this project without altering too much of what got him here in the first place, and despite the lingering feeling that we’re simply being presented with a cookie-cutter “wholesome” façade, there’s enough underlying talent that it doesn’t matter much.

Favourite Tracks: Lay It On Me, We’re Going Home, Alone With Me, I’m With You, One of These Days

Least Favourite Track: Call If You Need Me

Score: 7/10

Tory-lanez-memories-don't-die.jpgTory Lanez – MEMORIES DON’T DIE

Toronto singer and rapper Tory Lanez’ second studio album, MEMORIES DON’T DIE, is just as overlong and derivative as his debut project I Told You. For someone who has had numerous conflicts with fellow Torontonian Drake in the past, his emulation of his processes and formulas on this project is surprising. While the production on this album can certainly save a few of its tracks, too often we return to uninspired piggybacking on OVO trends such as the fake dancehall tracks, Lanez possessing a small fraction of the charisma that allows Drake to pull it off.

Most of the album is backed up by the same spacey, moody R&B instrumentals and trap beats that can be found on every artist riding this new wave’s projects. Lanez is a much more engaging rapper than he is a singer, although even this comes with its clear influences from others – “Benevolent” is just a better than average Drake track with its soul flip and entrancing dark trap instrumental. Worse, Lanez has the audacity to suggest that others are copying HIM on “Old Friends x New Foes”. His singing can be overly indulgent, slowing songs down and contributing to the extensive runtime of the project. He does mix the two together, like another larger artist we might all know, but he can’t pull off the disinterested, barely trying attitude that makes these kind of mixed vocalizations sound listenable. He sounds downright obnoxious on a track like “Shooters”, falling off the tone at the end of his sentences and confusing his Auto-Tune machine. Lanez’ delivery doesn’t feel genuine or natural at times either, often adopting a higher, strained baby voice to accompany the fake accent he uses on dancehall tracks like “Skrt Skrt” and “4 Me”.

Certain tracks do possess some more interesting musical deviations in the instrumental. “48 Floors” is one of the catchiest tracks here, mostly thanks to a melodic panflute instrumental from lesser-known producer Mansa that blends well with Lanez’ repetitive earworm of a hook, while Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat’s trademark atmospheric pop style fits surprisingly well on “Hypnotized”. Still, tracks like “Real Thing”, with a pretty energetic trap beat, can still be pulled down by Lanez’ substandard delivery. The string of features near the albums’ tail end didn’t seem to put in much effort, with the exception of 50 Cent, who can still drop an engaging verse. NAV, Fabolous and Wiz Khalifa are just as inept as usual, however.

Tory Lanez doesn’t do anything on this project that isn’t done more effectively somewhere else. His team does everything they can to mask the fact that his personality is rather indistinct, but MEMORIES DON’T DIE falls flat.

Favourite Tracks: 48 Floors, Hypnotized, B.I.D.

Least Favourite Track: Shooters

Score: 3/10

Image result for planet tech n9neTech N9ne – Planet

Prolific independent rapper Tech N9ne releases yet another in a long string of albums over the past few years. Although he is heralded by his lightning-fast “chopper” style that raises him high above most rappers in terms of technical skill, his lyrics and attempts to mix his work with other genres have often left something to be desired. Tech N9ne always has the capacity to surprise the listener with his ability even after so many years, but his albums are often a mixed bag of quality and Planet is no different.

Planet opens strong with “Habanero”, featuring a catchy chorus from one of the Strange Music label’s most promising young artists in Mackenzie N Tech doesn’t go all out on his verses here, but his boasts are a good intro the album displaying a small portion of his technical ability and deferring most of the song’s staying power to Nicole. The album wakes up in full on the track “Don’t Nobody Want None”, where Tech pays homage to his roots as a breakdancer with an old-school 80s breakbeat that fits his slightly goofy persona perfectly. Hearing Tech’s chopper flow over a beat that was never supposed to accommodate it is absolutely impressive. “Bad JuJu” might be Tech’s strongest vocal performance on the album, and King Iso’s feature is just as mindblowingly speedy. Closing track “We Won’t Go Quietly” might be Tech at his career best, an incredibly powerful track where Tech addresses racism and the extreme political divide preventing artists from stating their true feelings over uplifting piano chords. What might have gotten my attention the most, however, is how strong the transitions are between tracks on this album, flowing into each other seamlessly in a surprising way due to the many genres the album attempts to span. It’s impossible to notice the tracks skipping over here.

One thing Tech has done more in recent years is show an affinity for metal music, even collaborating with members of Slipknot and System of a Down. While these have been an interesting contrast to his music, Tech’s attempts on his own to scream like a metal frontman over some harder, guitar-driven beats have often proven awkward at best. Tech doesn’t have the lyrical skill to go as cinematic and grandiose as he does on tracks like “Brightfall” either, complemented by full-blown operatic choirs as he speaks about his complicated relationship with religion. Tech’s lyricism is often affected by his desire to spit so quickly, due to having to find so many words to rhyme as the lyrics fly by and simply finding a word that fits the rhyme scheme much better than the narrative. Tech also inexplicably adopts something of a country accent on the obnoxious hook of “Kick It With Myself”, previewing the later “Not a Damn Thing”, where it returns in a messy genre clash between the harder verses and harmonized chorus. 20 albums in, it’s tough not to repeat as well, and “Comfortable” is basically a retread of one of Tech’s biggest hits in “Fragile”, criticizing broadcast media rather than print this time.

It’s undeniable that Tech N9ne is and has been one of the most technically gifted rappers in the industry, but so many other aspects surrounding his music could use better execution. When it comes together perfectly, it creates something very powerful, but that’s becoming more of a rare occurrence later in his career.

Favourite Tracks: We Won’t Go Quietly, Don’t Nobody Want None, Bad JuJu, Never Stray

Least Favourite Track: Kick It With Myself

Score: 5/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Pink, Niall Horan)

Apologies for being gone for so long – I’ve been writing my graduating thesis for university but now I’ll be able to get this page back up and running like normal. There’s some albums here that are long overdue for a review so to catch back up I’m going to make a few posts with rapid-fire thoughts on some of these albums from October!

Image result for pink beautiful traumaPink – Beautiful Trauma

Pink recruits some all-star collaborators for her 7th studio album, and while they frequently make their presence felt in some great and emotional musical moments, the majority of Beautiful Trauma is incredibly safe. The project alternates between a familiar mix of soaring pop ballads that exhibit Pink’s gargantuan vocals and upbeat forays into electropop that come across as well worn-out. The outlier might be “Revenge”, a quirkier track where Pink dreams of taking revenge on her ex with some painfully awkward rap lines and delivery before Eminem swoops in with a hilarious and cringe-embracing verse in the way only he can, reframing the entire track as a goofy joke to be enjoyed.

In addition to the rap superstar, Pink brings in some of the biggest names in pop music in Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Jack Antonoff and Julia Michaels. The latter two do the best work here, Michaels applying some of her trademark heartbreaking lyrics to emotional tracks “Barbies” and “For Now” and Antonoff producing the best track here in “Better Life” where we get some great harmonies over an energetic beat and subdued, jazzy piano chords and finger snaps – despite his inexplicable decisions on the title track, which contains 2 abrupt shifts in energy that fall flat.

Pink is undoubtedly a vocal powerhouse capable of conveying the emotion behind these huge pop ballads and she frequently impresses across the course of the album, but when she insists on reaching into the highest part of her register it can get annoyingly shouty – especially on closing track “You Get My Love”. Overall, Beautiful Trauma has some really great highs but is frequently too derivative to be memorable.

Favourite Tracks: Better Life, But We Lost It, For Now, Revenge

Least Favourite Track: You Get My Love

Score: 5/10

Niall Horan Flicker.pngNiall Horan – Flicker

Former OneDirection member Niall Horan continues the surprising trend of his bandmates releasing much better music than they ever did while part of the collective. As each member seemingly diverts to a different genre of music, Horan adopts the acoustic singer/songwriter angle and delivers an album of powerful pop ballads. While it may be very easy to compare him to Ed Sheeran, as he sticks to the formula the superstar adopted, Horan’s calming vocals and assistance he got from Greg Kurstin on this project ensured a solid debut.

We open with the maddeningly catchy “On the Loose”, built around a pounding beat and a pleasant sliding guitar pattern as Horan’s vocals cascade on top of each other into the chorus. These are some smartly written pop tracks – and Horan has primary credit on every one of them. Even some tracks, like single “This Town”, fall into a repetitive and unexciting territory in terms of the instrumental, Horan’s vocals are more than enough to carry these tracks. Subdued and emotional, he puts his heart into every word and truly delivers the emotion of these romance-oriented tracks. While we all know “Slow Hands” by now, the single truly took me by surprise. He sounds absolutely effortless on the track, and the underlying bassline groove distinguishes it from the rest of the album and sends the track over the top. Other highlights include a nicely harmonized duet with country singer Maren Morris on “Seeing Blind” and Kurstin’s “Since We’re Alone”.

As we get closer to the end of the album, the tracks definitely do begin to blend together a bit. The Sheeran influence is worn on Horan’s sleeve, and the slower acoustic ballads that close out the album are similar enough to get a little sleepy. Still, Flicker is easily the most consistent post-1D album yet.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Hands, On The Loose, Too Much To Ask, Since We’re Alone, Seeing Blind

Least Favourite Track: Flicker

Score: 7/10