Rapid Fire Reviews (LSD, Cage The Elephant, Lizzo)

Image result for lsd cover artLSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD

While it seems like the oddest of pairings on paper, Diplo, Labrinth and Sia have teamed up for a brief project under the name LSD. Diplo is one of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business, and adding the nearly boundless voices of these British and Australian balladeers seems like a recipe for success … except that save for the standout tracks that they pushed as singles, most of this seems like Diplo reverting back to the most basic of pop formulas that he knows so well in order to stretch this musical partnership to a full-length project. While the vocal acrobatics are always engaging and there are a couple high-octane surprises in the tracklisting, most of this project is painfully safe.

The a cappella opening of the project previews just how good it could have been, Sia and Labrinth’s voices working surprisingly well together despite how distinctive and instantly recognizable they are. I would have loved to hear a lot more tracks that fit more into this slower tempo to really hear them thrive, but Sia’s attacked uptempo EDM tracks before and still brings the energy to a couple of these tracks. One of the best on the whole project might be the first full-length song, “Angel In Your Eyes.” It’s a seriously quirky electronic track that sees Diplo introduce us to a disorienting and woozy world that the cover art and the supergroup’s moniker suggests, though it’s really the only time this theme seems to fit here. The childlike backing vocals, hyperspeed tempo and chopped up melodies that bound madly around the soulful main hook and Diplo’s bleeps and bloops really demonstrate his strength as a pop producer. The last beat switch is a great shift in energy as well.

One of the greatest aspects that keeps up throughout this project is actually the way that Sia and Labrinth frequently trade off who sings every aspect of the verses and chorus, so you always get to hear both voices on every melody the song has to offer. It’s a nice twist that you weirdly don’t hear too often on pop duets. The triumphant “Genius” is another pretty great track before the project drops off in quality. Diplo makes his synths sound absolutely orchestral as the two make grandiose claims sounding like some mad scientists. The way Sia says “he’s a genius” is something that won’t leave my head in a while, and those belted harmonies at the end only reinforce the vocal talent on display here.

The other big single “Thunderclouds” doesn’t fare quite as well. There’s not much to say about quite a few of these tracks, they’re essentially made to not stand out. The melody doesn’t jump out at me like some of the others here, Diplo distilling the dying remainders of big, happy and upbeat pop music into one last swan song by amalgamating every trend there is.

So many of these other tracks fall so quickly into these pop tropes, with repetitive lyrics and dated dance breakdowns. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it feels like this project was released so late, most of these tracks quite a few months old without many new ones coming on this release … anything new that we’re getting now really doesn’t measure up and seems like a lot less effort was put into these just to call it a full album. The track “Audio” seriously sounds like it comes from 2013, though it’s one that would have shut down the clubs back then. There must not be more than 50 words in the track, the rest taken up by one of those chill dance breakdowns that used to be in every pop song on the radio.

“Mountains” and “No New Friends” have some great elements mixed with a couple of melodic decisions which really don’t make sense, which is surprising considering the man behind the boards. The heavenly opening of “Mountains” sounds seriously promising, sounding like some kind of choral hymn as Labrinth reaches up into that famous falsetto, but then the track drops out into this tropical-house groove with some generic lyrics about moving mountains and a chaotic, badly mixed dance drop. When it tries to bring back the same choral sound for the second verse, it’s laughably out of place at that point. The carefree “la-la” chorus of “No New Friends” makes me want to get up and dance, but everything else about the track is pretty phoned in.

The project ends a little stronger with the tracks “Heaven Can Wait” and “It’s Time,” which are built to show off the strengths of the vocalists a little more. The former has a hook so perfectly tailored for Sia’s range, her playing off of Labrinth’s emotional vocals in the verses with some soaring notes that sell the chorus over some steel drums, while “It’s Time” takes a break from the frenetic pop jams for a minimal piano duet where the vocalists can really show off – it’s the kind of thing they should really be doing just about all the time.

Diplo is probably one of the greatest pop producers working right now, so it’s weird to hear what happens when his hitmaking instincts are still clearly there with a little less effort put into them. There’s a lot of great aspects to this project and I’d even love to hear the three work together in the future, but LSD is a seriously inconsistent exercise for now.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven Can Wait, Angel In Your Eyes, It’s Time, Genius

Least Favourite Track: Audio

Score: 5/10

Image result for cage the elephant new albumCage The Elephant – Social Cues

The alt-rock veterans are still going and making a huge impact in the music scene. With their fifth studio album, Social Cues, the band that’s always had the slightest bit of a hip-hop influence adapts their sound to a more modern context pretty perfectly, linking up with producer-of-the-moment John Hill, who has recently given hits to both established pop stars and indie bands looking to crossover – his biggest success being “Feel It Still.” This is a strong project from the group, combining their immediately memorable hooks and fuzzy guitar charm with some more modern percussion and compelling lyrics about mid-career contemplations in a struggling genre.

The opening 5 tracks of the project are a very impressive run, easily making a case for radio play with some seriously catchy hooks even when a lot of these tracks are driven by some almost garage-rock sensibilities instrumentally. They know it too – “People always say, ‘at least you’re on the radio’,” they sing on the title track “Social Cues” with a tinge of sadness as they sing of creative struggles and dealing with fame. The opening track might be the purest rock song of them all with some punchy guitar hooks, but tracks like “Social Cues” and “Black Madonna” remove the fuzzy filter on the vocals and make plays for arena-sized anthems. You’d think someone would have done it before, but it’s so interesting to hear a modern beat with prominent hi-hats played on a real drumset, or at least, one that can alter the sound and mute them like they do on the title track – although they go full computerized with the track “Night Running” later on to similarly great effect. “Black Madonna” is an absolute knockout of a song, continuing the themes of the previous track by sarcastically comparing the allure of fame to some kind of entrancing goddess as awe creeps into frontman Matt Shultz’s voice. It’s a pretty simple but effective instrumental, the bassline driving the track and building up to the intoxicating falsetto chorus.

“Night Running” features Beck and takes more of a dive into his darker, woozy sound with some reggae influence – quite a bit of this project actually reminds me of what made Twenty One Pilots’ recent project Trench so effective – their general sound is quite far removed from everything else on this level of popularity, but they’re not afraid to apply their trademark style to just about anything else and try out some new things. Some catchy synth piano leads us into the slow-burning “Skin and Bones,” which slowly builds up to a dramatic orchestral conclusion, but “House Of Glass” demonstrates exactly what I mean – it’s the shortest track here, but you wouldn’t realize that listening it since it goes to so many unexpected and experimental places and makes a lasting impression. Shultz’s vocals are rapped with a deadpan delivery before the chorus brings in some of the most distorted and chaotic guitars on the whole projects and some gang vocals shouting about an illusion. A virtuosic guitar solo caps the whole thing off.

Another great thing about this album is its structuring – even if there’s not a fully realized story from beginning to end, the band knows how to put tracks with similar themes together. After their discussions on fame in the first half, the way tracks like “Love’s The Only Way” and “The War Is Over” transition into each other and expand on some of the points brought up in the previous track keeps the listener engaged at all times, in this case Shultz finding a love that ends all of the negativity – or the “war” – that he sung about in the early goings of the album. The former especially is a pretty beautiful stripped-back and calming track with a great story behind it – the ode to love is intentionally written in a key higher than Shultz can sing comfortably, so that his brother who plays guitar in the band has to help him out on some of the higher notes – love’s literally the only way it can be performed. Ending the album on the absolutely heartbreaking “Goodbye” is quite the choice as well – Shultz could apparently only bring himself to sing a single take and you can seriously tell how much pain is behind his words as he sings of the end of his seven-year marriage, repeating “I won’t cry” and “it’s alright” unconvincingly.

The album is somewhat frontloaded, placing most of the best tracks in the first half as it loses a little steam towards the end, but most of these tracks have at least something to like about them. Tracks like “Dance Dance” and “Tokyo Smoke” have the same kind of enjoyable upbeat garage-rock strut that persists throughout the project, but they don’t distinguish themselves much from other tracks on the project, especially when most of them have some kind of instrumental surprise or genre-defying flourish that individualizes them.

This band has come a long way since “Ain’t No Rest for The Wicked.” Social Cues is a project that’s both surprisingly modern and true to their roots at the same time, with frequent surprises and no shortage of hooks that you’ll be absentmindedly singing along to in no time.

Favourite Tracks: Black Madonna, House Of Glass, Social Cues, Skin and Bones, Love’s The Only Way

Least Favourite Track: Dance Dance

Score: 8/10

Image result for cuz i love you album coverLizzo – Cuz I Love You

2019’s most explosive breakout star is finally ready to explode into the public eye with her third studio album, Cuz I Love You. Lizzo has already been somewhat of an icon in the LGBT community for years with her special brand of overwhelmingly self-affirming and confidence-boosting lyricism, but more and more people are realizing that the messages of inclusivity she preaches are so fun that just about anyone can get involved regardless of who they might be. Lizzo is a lot more than just a rapper, running through sparkly pop hooks, fully-belted R&B ballads and neo-soul, and even bringing her famous flute on board in a complete obliteration of genre conventions. Her off-the-cuff effortless charm is hilarious and she certainly has the talent to back it up.

Cuz I Love You is a project infused with Lizzo’s infectious personality, dropping quotable and fun rap lyrics while also translating her loud, unapologetic nature into passionate and impressively soulful R&B material. Thirty seconds into the opening title track, Lizzo has already sung a full-voiced a cappella soul belt, referenced a meme and giggled as she raps “what the f**k are f**kin’ feelings, yo.” “Cuz I Love You” is a doo-wop throwback with bouncy piano rap breaks and immediately introduces the listener to just how fun and dynamic Lizzo can be. Structured more like a series of fun dancefloor fillers than a cohesive album, the project still works because Lizzo’s all-out celebration of all aspects of her identity is genuinely inspiring – for example, she celebrates body positivity on “Tempo,” interracial love on “Better in Color” and enjoys the single life on “Soulmate.”

She puts some of her most pop-oriented tracks right up at the front and shows why she’s ready to break through to mainstream audiences. The second track “Like A Girl” sees her referencing some successful women in pop culture in her rap verses and a 90s-influened massive pop hook as she backs herself up with some shouted chants, cheering herself on in the way that only Lizzo can before a rhythmic switchup in the bridge where she takes full control, but “Juice” is the real shining centerpiece here. Lizzo’s music is essentially the perfect “getting ready to go out music”, strutting down the runway and proclaiming herself “goals” with a funky throwback instrumental and confident half-sung delivery. “Soulmate” continues the self-love theme with one of the most uplifting hooks on the whole project, a syncopated synthpop beat accentuating her flow as she sings “bad b*tch in the mirror like yeah I’m in love” with an audible smile on her face.

The most Lizzo song of all here might actually be “Jerome,” which blends together everything great about her into a song that’s simultaneously legitimately emotional and absolutely goofy, dropping into a waltz tempo as Lizzo introduces the track with a “Look, listen, shut up,” going for the Oscar and putting on her best melodramatic and theatrical voice as she instructs her man “take your ass home.” It’s so hard not to make this entire review quotes of Lizzo’s lyrics – everything she says is absolute gold, and her mixed vitriol and lingering affection for the song’s target generates some of her funniest and most relatable lines, all while demonstrating her ever-surprising talent with some seriously soulful falsetto notes at the track’s conclusion.

Lizzo’s got huge ambitions, and for someone who was dropping meme-raps like “Phone” back in the day, it’s always a shock to hear her legitimately pull them off. The next two tracks see her link up and hold her own with an idol of hers in Missy Elliot and go full Prince with the Minneapolis-funk inspired track “Crybaby,” where she completely abandons her rap persona and transitions fully into a soul diva.

The end of the project is just as strong, even if the lack of cohesion and Lizzo coasting through some of the less-organized off-the-cuff moments on sheer charm alone starts to become a little more evident as it hurtles towards its ending. “Tempo” is a great club track, but there’s not much about it that really comes together , while tracks like “Exactly How I Feel” and “Heaven Help Me” feel underwritten, just leaving a lot of space for Lizzo to show off her booming vocals without much attention paid to song structure – smooth Gucci Mane feature aside. Except for the fact that that sheer charm I mentioned is probably more powerful than just about anyone working in the game right now – you can’t possibly listen to Lizzo and not have a great time. It ends with the track “Lingerie,” a much quieter sensual track that moves through three different chord changes and leaves things off with the impression that Lizzo could seriously be a leading R&B artist if she wasn’t busy doing just about everything else as well.

Songs written for the primary purpose of being a feel-good anthem can often elicit eye-rolls, but Lizzo is both authentically herself and inclusive enough that it’ll make anyone want to join her party. She represents the perfect antithesis to the wave of sadness taking over popular music right now.

Favourite Tracks: Jerome, Juice, Soulmate, Better In Colour, Like A Girl

Least Favourite Track: Exactly How I Feel

Score: 8/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (Anderson .Paak, Sara Bareilles, Khalid)

Image result for ventura anderson paakAnderson .Paak – Ventura

Only 5 months after his rap-heavy third studio album Oxnard, which kept a high level of quality but ultimately disappointed some fans searching for the feel-good charisma that coloured his breakout project Malibu, Anderson .Paak returns with the soul-based companion piece Thank goodness he did. The singer, rapper and BEST teeth in the game worked on both of these projects simultaneously with executive producer Dr. Dre, originally planning to drop them as a double disc but ultimately deciding to space them out. While I still did enjoy Oxnard quite a bit, like many I thought it wasn’t making the most out of Paak’s strengths. With this project, that perfect balance of his half-sung, half-rapped bouncy cadence and tongue-in-cheek lyrics returns in a huge way, alongside some seriously impressive straight-up soul cuts featuring some absolute legends. Not just anyone can sign to Aftermath, and it’s looking more and more like Paak might follow in the footsteps of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar before him.

The opening track “Come Home” immediately takes us back to the sunny shores of Malibu Beach, Paak unleashing his raspy singing voice over a lazily strummed guitar pattern and a recurring choral break in the music that immediately sets up the entire album as something grandiose. Not only that, you know it’s going to be good when you get Andre 3000 himself to guest on your opening track. He completely shuts it down with his feature verse, running through dizzying flows and internal rhyme schemes. Paak begs his love interest to return on the track, which segues nicely into the Smokey Robinson(!!!)-featuring “Make It Better,” a smooth slow jam that sounds like it could be directly out of the 70s. This is the kind of timeless-sounding song that anyone from age 8 to 80 could enjoy no matter when it came out. A seriously underrated part of Paak’s songwriting is the winking charisma he brings to his romantic bars, sounding like the most successful pick-up artist of all time and delivering it all with the giant, goofy grin we all know he has plastered on his face. Robinson provides some supporting harmonies, sounding incredible at 79 years of age and validating Paak’s foray into classic soul.

Robinson and Three Stacks aren’t the only legends on this project – we also see Lalah Hathaway, Brandy and even the late Nate Dogg. Most appear in small supporting roles, but it works all the same to show just how well a new artist like Paak fits amongst them. It’s very reminiscent of what labelmate Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, especially as the project ends in a similar way as Paak has a conversation with a recording of Nate Dogg. Hearing the two happily trade lines on “What Can We Do?” is a very touching tribute – honestly, I had never realized before just how huge of an inspiration Nate must have been to Paak.

Paak does rap a couple times on this project, honestly sounding better over these more complex soul instrumentals than the out-of-character harder hip-hop beats on Oxnard, but his experiments venturing further than he ever has before into soul music are the true standouts here. “Reachin’ 2 Much” is a near-six-minute neo-soul monster of a track with two distinct sections and mindblowing freeform work from the bass and synths in the back. The groove never lets up, and Lalah Hathaway only enhances it with her otherworldly scatting and polyphonic abilities. The scat influence continues on the next track “Winners Circle,” a catchy main riff leading into Paak’s laid-back refrain and rap verse where he brings back that “YES LAWD!” and a hilarious shot at the President. The political undertones continue on “King James,” where Paak delivers a verse from the perspective of Colin Kaepernick and praises LeBron James’ work on using his money on change-inducing projects.

The strength of the project continues all the way through, with later tracks “Chosen One” and “Jet Black” keeping up the unbridled energy that the first track kicked off with some more fusions of Paak’s rap verses and the classic soul elements that give the entire project a nice amount of cohesion.

The somewhat unstructured and freeform nature of the jazz and funk sound that Paak pursues here can make for a couple moments where he underwrites a bit and makes for a couple sections that feel a little empty, especially on the track “Yada Yada,” but regardless it’s always engaging when you hear how much fun he’s having. The Pharrell-produced track “Twilight,” as well, is one I enjoy a lot but it seems like it might have fit better on Oxnard, which some of Williams’ classic hip-hop tendencies.

Looking at Oxnard and Ventura together, it just becomes all the more clear how much of a multitalented force in the game Anderson .Paak is. I’m sure there’s people out there with wildly differing opinions on what exactly it is that he does the best, but what he’s proven time and time again is that he’s good enough to do just about anything at all.

Favourite Tracks: Make It Better, Reachin’ 2 Much, Winners Circle, What Can We Do?, Come Home

Least Favourite Track: Yada Yada

Score: 9/10

Image result for Sara Bareilles - Amidst The ChaosSara Bareilles – Amidst The Chaos

After being nominated for Album of the Year 6 years ago and then diving straight into Broadway with her original musical, Waitress, Sara Bareilles has been rather busy over the years, but enough chaos in the world has seemingly caused her to start writing once again. She’s said that Amidst The Chaos, her fifth project, was a direct response to the political climate of the USA, with more than a couple songs on the project containing some direct references to recent events – of course, mixed together with some of her classic romantic songwriting style. Bareilles’ vocals are as impressive as ever – she was on Broadway after all – and really succeed at carrying this project past most of its shortcomings, including some awkwardly shoehorned political commentary (though some of it is very powerful!) and Bareilles not making much of an effort to fit the project into any modern musical context and spark replayability, but this project is full of some pretty breathtaking tracks.

After a couple of slower romantic tracks to kick things off, things really pick up once we get to the single “Armor,” which Bareilles put out much earlier than anticipated as a response to the Brett Kavanaugh trial. Out of all of the political commentary on this project, this song is easily the most effective at getting its point across, a fiery low piano riff leading into a defiant chorus as she finds strength in the women around her and prepares for battle. The next track “If I Can’t Have You” is even better. Co-written with R&B veteran Emily King, Bareilles demonstrates that she truly has the kind of stunning vocal capabilities to deliver some old-school soul material – why doesn’t she do this more often? The harmonized backing vocals and piano chords actually give the track an almost gospel flavor as Bareilles delivers some of her most emotionally-charged delivery on the whole project, tossing out some surprising notes effortlessly and sounding like a Motown star. “Miss Simone” is another quieter showcase for Bareilles’ voice, this time showing off her lower range in the chorus … it really is shocking how dynamic and she can be at times. The track was written with country songwriter extraordinaire Lori McKenna, who adds some vivid detail only a country artist could to the ode to Nina Simone and how her music has always been there for her.

Out of all the times to be wowed by Bareilles’ vocals, though, the best one of all comes on the track “Wicked Love.” It opens as a bouncy pop cut, but this honestly might draw the most inspiration from her Broadway days, the feel-good major key nature leading up to an aching chorus with a beautiful high harmony and a repeated vocal run that just gets more impressive as it goes along, adding a couple more notes to the end each time she sings it. The closing track, “A Safe Place To Land,’ is another powerful political message. In a duet with the incomparable John Legend, the two offer some striking words from the perspective of families affected by the border crisis trying to find a shred of hope – and sound fantastic doing it.

The run of four tracks near the project’s end, from “Orpheus” to “Saint Honesty,” is where I start to lose a little interest in the album despite the fact that all four of them are pretty fantastic ballads. Bareilles’ style is great for a single, powerful experience, but there’s not much desire for me to return to tracks like this that are all somewhat similar. She’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but that one trick is absolutely spectacular.

The track “No Such Thing”, on its surface, sounds like a great romantic ballad on the subject of struggling to get over a breakup, which really showcases Bareilles’ range as she ascends a full scale to a stunning high note in the chorus … but she’s given interviews where she’s explicitly stated that the song is about missing Barack Obama, which adds a profoundly strange contextual twist to enjoying it. I get that the world is in a bit of a crisis, but her musings on her complete devastation here are a little over the top.

There are a couple tracks that have some instrumental choices that just seem completely off to me, but maybe that’s just a product of the fact that there aren’t many people using the same kind of singer-songwriter style of live instrumentation who are still selling as well as Bareilles. One of these is actually on the opening track “Fire,” which kicks into this upbeat, almost country-sounding acoustic strumming on its prechorus that is so raw it throws off the rhythm of the song a bit as we hear the fingers squeaking over the strings. It also contrasts with Bareilles’ softer vocals, intentionally smoother to make way for the impressive moment of harmony at the chorus’ end. “Eyes On You” is another track with a very powerful concept that’s undermined by some strange instrumental decisions. Bareilles wistfully recounts the struggles of real-life people she met at a meditation class, naming each one, before the track suddenly kicks into a higher gear with a very present rock drumbeat that takes me out of its reminiscent, thoughtful nature.

Sara Bareilles is probably both one of the most impressive songwriters and the most capable voices in the game right now, so its easy to see why she has continued to stay so relevant to music consumers even after being gone for so long. This is an important project, so even if it doesn’t have much staying power, it’s still a great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Wicked Love, If I Can’t Have You, Armor, A Safe Place To Land, Miss Simone

Least Favourite Track: Eyes On You

Score: 7/10

Image result for free spirit khalidKhalid – Free Spirit

It’s clear with the current trends – the way the vast majority of people consume music is changing as a result of Spotify – and here we have the newly crowned king of streaming, Khalid, with his sophomore full-length project. Spotify’s curated algorithmic playlists to fit a certain “vibe” encourage less exciting music, music that’s designed to be played in the background and not paid attention to with nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary to draw focus and potentially incite a request to skip it. Songs that don’t force themselves to the forefront of your mind generate more streams, and the perfect embodiment of this phenomenon is Khalid. While this project is a bit of an improvement on his sluggish debut, its hour-long length still devotes quite a lot of time to slow-burn, filler tracks with cliched lyrics, fitting nicely into what sounds like a computer-generated alt-R&B algorithm. I can’t get over the fact that one of the featured artists is named, oh-so-perfectly in all caps, “SAFE.”

Any project that starts with a track called “Intro” that’s the same length as all the rest of the tracks you know is bound to get a little self-indulgent. Khalid’s voice is essentially the universal solvent of music right now, existing in a nice happy middle ground between The Weeknd, Post Malone and Auto-Tuned falsetto rappers like Swae Lee, and most of these tracks are designed to be a bit of an empty space for him to show it off. It’s definitely serviceable, it’s just that the melodies and lyrics that go along with it are all vaguely reminiscent of other big hits. I bring up another wildly popular artist in Post Malone, the two are truly equals in tapping into exactly what draws attention right now and amalgamating it into one sound – which I suppose is admirable in a way.

The thing about Khalid is most of the time listening to his music, I find myself mindlessly nodding my head along without really paying attention to it at all or trying to formulate an opinion on It’s so easy to get caught up in the trap of not paying serious attention to it, his soothing vocals essentially dropping my senses down into this lowered state. The beats are fun and engaging while they last, but there’s nothing at all memorable about most of these tracks. A song like “Bad Luck” that kicks off the project is structured like a smash hit single and is sure to soundtrack numerous high school parties to come, but most people would probably be hard-pressed to hum it or recite the words if asked. The next track, “My Bad,” is of course soundtracked by an irritatingly similar minimalist guitar riff and sparse hi-hats. Most of this project sounds like filler, Khalid slowly slinking around in his falsetto with a basic chord progression, a strong focus on a simple pop drumbeat and usually some kind of guitar-based pattern that makes it impossible to tell these tracks apart. Every so often you get a track like “Hundred,” that stands out for the wrong reasons, coasting on this creeping synth-bass and almost nothing else as it extends about two minutes too long with a repetitive hook and Khalid’s most obnoxious “suffering from success” bars.

The final three tracks on the album were clearly meant to be Khalid emotionally touching on some big picture issues of anxiety and depression, but his lyrical approach approaches Logic “1-800” levels of cliched and shallow – it’s hard to believe that Khalid is actually suffering through what he sings about. The lyrics don’t improve much elsewhere on the project, tracks like “Free Spirit” and “Twenty One” essentially coming across as teen and young adult-bait, with the same kind of Chainsmokers-esque tired messaging he had on his last project about living in the moment, man.

With 16 tracks and the definitive sound of the moment, however, a couple of these tracks were bound to stick somehow, and most of that is thanks to the collaborators Khalid invites on board. The two biggest singles here, “Better” and “Talk,” are actually some of Khalid’s best songs of his career, especially the latter produced by acclaimed deep-house duo Disclosure. Reliable hitmakers Stargate are responsible for “Better,” which drops into one of the truly memorable hooks on the project and an accompanying low-key trap groove, but “Talk” is what I’ve been hoping for all along, Khalid proving that he can thrive doing something even slightly different. Riding this fizzy 80s electronic synthpop instrumental, he finally gets to show off what he can do on a bit of a quicker tempo, delivering some great harmonies, but the tiny sparkles and quirks of the instrumental are what really gets my attention. I really enjoy that it transitions into “Right Back,” a track in a similar mindset that continues to satisfy my desires for Khalid on some more rhythmic material, speeding up his flows on a tried-and-true chord progression that brings to mind what made recent soulful hits like “Sorry Not Sorry” and “No Problem” so good. If he’s going to be derivative, at least do it like this.

“Outta My Head” welcomes John Mayer, and his guitar has a similar effect making the track rhythmically interesting, while the track “Bluffin’” veers closer to blue-eyed soul than he ever has in another successful experiment. Wouldn’t it be great if he tried things like this more often? He really does have the voice to make quite a lot of different things work.

I usually record scores of how much I enjoy each track as I listen, but Free Spirit is honestly so boring that I zoned out and forgot to do it, making giving out a score to this project more difficult. While there are a couple individual tracks that I do enjoy, as a whole Khalid represents too much of a worrying turn in the way music is consumed.

Favourite Tracks: Talk, Bluffin’, Outta My Head

Least Favourite Track: Free Spirit

Score: 4/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: make up

Score: 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Peach

Score: 7/10

Image result for luis fonsi vidaLuis Fonsi – VIDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Sola

Score: 6/10

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

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

Image result for anderson paak oxnardAnderson .Paak – Oxnard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Headlow

Score: 8/10

Image result for 6ix9ine dummy boy6ix9ine – Dummy Boy

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: KIKA, STOOPID, BEBE

Least Favourite Track: WONDO

Score: 4/10

Image result for mariah carey cautionMariah Carey – Caution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: GTFO

Score: 7/10

Ella Mai – Ella Mai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Good Bad

Score: 8/10

Tori Kelly – Hiding Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Tracks: Masterpiece, Sunday, Help Us To Love

Least Favourite Track: Psalm 42

Score: 7/10

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Chewing Gum

Score: 8/10

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: borderline

Score: 8/10