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

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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

Mac Miller – Swimming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least Favourite Track: Conversation Pt. 1

Score: 6/10

Jorja Smith – Lost & Found

Image result for jorja smith lost and found21-year old rising UK R&B singer Jorja Smith, more widely known after collaborations with mega-rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar, releases her debut album Lost & Found, a subdued and minimal experience that shows off her unique tone. I’ve seen comparisons to everyone from Lauryn Hill to Erykah Badu to Amy Winehouse, but Smith honestly reminds me most of early career Rihanna in terms of the sound of her voice. Leaving the popular garage and grime trends of her home nation that coloured her earlier music behind, Smith sounds a lot more assured of her artistic direction, even if the music isn’t as immediately exciting as it could be.

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The title track which opens the album is framed by sparse piano, lazy, chilled-out background guitar embellishments and steadily knocking R&B percussion, Smith not even descending onto the track in full for a minute and a half while she unleashes some muted falsetto vocal runs. This kind of improvisational quality is applied over the course of most of the project, Smith placing her voice front and center and showing us all of the things that it can do. It’s a smart choice – her tone is entrancing at times, she has a huge, capable range that frequently surprises and the right amount of sweetness in her delivery to balance out the sharper edges she naturally possesses with a voice lower than most popular female singers. “Teenage Fantasy” is one of the best vocal showcases here, apparently written when Smith was only 16 – it’s a smartly written chorus that lets her hit a sweet spot at an essential time, her voice at its most passionate and abrasive before dropping back to her smooth, breathy quieter delivery in a great contrast. She shows off her falsetto in the catchy chorus of “February 3rd”, explaining the concept behind the album’s title over some jazzy piano chords.

Smith’s meandering approach to the project – you always know when one of the tracks of an album is dubbed “(Freestyle)” – turns it into an intimate and engaging experience to get lost in, but it also means that none of the tracks end up sticking to the listener – I have a hard time remembering which of these tracks are which since they aren’t especially distinctive, mostly containing Smith’s vocal acrobatics over a jazzy instrumental that doesn’t want to intrude on what she’s doing in the front. A few of the choruses aren’t as structured as they should be and could have benefited from more experienced producers – something like “On Your Own” falls off the melody line before it turns into a satisfying musical phrase. Despite her vocal experimentation, she often sticks to formula here and follows about the same structure on quite a few songs here with the way she executes her delivery. For an artist with a voice so dynamic, I wish she had included some more upbeat tracks, or at least some varied instrumentation here to break up the monotony a bit.

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“The One”, for example, is a track that really benefits by standing out from the pack instrumentally, with an orchestral intro that explodes into Smith’s layered harmonies over a more tropical vibe like the ones she was introduced to us over on Drake’s “More Life”. It’s one of the fullest instrumentals here, slowly adding more and more elements as it progresses to a beautiful outro as the percussion gets more complex over the same orchestral strings. “Blue Lights” is another very unique track, the percussion more up front than most of the other tracks over a watery synth-piano line that reminds me of old Nintendo video game music, like a boom-bap “Dire Dire Docks” – it samples a song from grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal, explaining its more hip-hop sound.

Smith is a classically trained vocalist and clearly very experienced, I just wish there was more variation across this project to make me give the whole album repeated listens. The high points on this project are some of the best lo-fi R&B tracks we’re likely to receive this year, and for an artist so young there’s only up to go from here.

Favourite Tracks: Blue Lights, The One, Teenage Fantasy, February 3rd, Lifeboats (Freestyle)

Least Favourite Track: On Your Own

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Post Malone, Janelle Monae, Leon Bridges)

Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

Breakout artist of the year Post Malone plays it safe on his first album since exploding into the mainstream, offering over an hour of the same admittedly very addictive and fun formula that made “Rockstar” one of the year’s biggest hits. Malone is a master at making the kind of bland, inoffensive music that can be played in the background at almost any kind of function due to it’s ability to transcend genres. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to hate. However, listening to a full project, the formulae begin to make themselves far too clear, and while Malone does offer some surprises in terms of the strength of his singing voice and hooks that are too much fun to ignore, Beerbongs and Bentleys is a bit of a chore to get all the way through.

Despite being frequently grouped amongst the hip-hop community, I see Post Malone as more of a singer with pop and even country elements that uses the popularized structure – and vernacular – of trap music in order to attracted a widespread audience, situating himself perfectly in the middle of multiple diverse worlds. It’s a pretty respectable business plan, and the hooks across the board here show that Malone has more of a grasp on how to write a catchy, marketable chorus than anyone. Someone who has risen to popularity this quickly and completely has to be doing something right. With producers like Frank Dukes and even Scott Storch on board, Malone’s team help him as much as they can, allowing his melodic instincts to shine. Dukes’ “Rich & Sad” is built over a bed of plaintive, falsetto human vocal samples and synth-bass that make his repetitive hook work. Repetition works when the grasp of melodic ability is so strong – “Psycho” is somehow a great track despite it containing little more than two alternating musical phrases.

Quite a few of these songs go a bit too far into the territory of being catchy, inoffensive background music and never really pick themselves off the ground, the instrumentals too empty. A track like “Spoil My Night”, laughable lyrical content aside, has lost all of its energy in the middle of the Swae Lee feature, the trap hi-hats dropping out in favour of the moody, watery creeping synth instrumentals that dominate most of Malone’s sad trap cowboy routine. The lyrical content ultimately wears thin on an 18-track album, Malone delivering the same generic lines about partying with some ridiculous metaphors and references. It also reveals that Malone doesn’t have much artistic ambition of his own, existing as the most readily available amalgamation of all the current trends across the music industry. None of this music forces itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness. Listening to song after song of hooks built to be the soundtrack designed to keep a party going and nothing more gets exhausting. The album could easily have been cut at the surprisingly decent ballad “Stay”, the 12th track – there are 6 more afterwards consisting of the same ideas that we’ve heard expressed elsewhere with so much more musicianship, polish and charisma.

It’s tough to talk about individual tracks across this album, because there is almost nothing that distinguishes each instrumental from the next, Malone singing a different, intoxicating and repetitive hook over each one. And while this works incredibly, impressively well in the right situation, an album length just reveals Malone’s lack of ambition.

Favourite Tracks: Better Now, Psycho, Rich & Sad, Stay

Least Favourite Track: Over Now

Score: 5/10

Image result for dirty computerJanelle Monae – Dirty Computer

R&B artist Janelle Monae takes a detour away from her android character Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis Suite album series in order to drop a poppy and poignant look at the plight of minorities through the lens of technology that she is so fond of using. With a slew of great collaborators and Monae’s exuberant declarations of self-assertion in her lyrical content, juxtaposed with instrumentals that would make mentor Prince proud, Dirty Computer is sure to be one of the year’s – or the decade’s – greatest albums.

The album is introduced to us with the opening title track, featuring Monae’s calm and smooth alto tone introducing the concept of the album with backing harmonies and instrumentation from the master of harmonies himself, Brian Wilson. The accompanying “emotion picture” depicts a society in which minority groups’ identities are seen as a computer virus, their memories removed and “cleaned” up. The majority of the album consists of tracks depicting experiences that needed to be removed from Monae’s memory, a full-out celebration of all the things that make her unique in an embrace of her blackness, femininity and pansexuality through an exuberant funk-pop shimmer. Monae has said she was very influenced by Prince, who she knew well, across this project and it definitely shows – especially on lead single “Make Me Feel” that lifts the same funk guitar chords from his hit “Kiss”. Many of these tracks are carried by rattling hi-hats and a funk bassline, Monae applying her very capable vocal abilities in a completely unapologetic shout, usually dropping at least one rap verse onto each song.

Dirty Computer is an extremely sexual album in a world that suppresses it, especially for someone like Monae, and her matter-of-fact statements on its unavoidable presence and importance on tracks like “Pynk” are just as confidence-inducing as her braggadocious rap track “Django Jane” where she runs through her many achievements and declares herself the greatest of all time. “Screwed” is an absolute show-stopper of a song, fuelled by handclaps and shiny guitar riffs that sound like a double-time HAIM track. It’s the most immediately catchy melody and the most overtly political song here, using the title as a double entendre calling for a final party before the bomb drops – “everything is sex, except sex, which is power”. The album itself feels like this party at times, not letting the listener take a breath once as it continues to deliver high-octane pop tracks with an overarching message of universal love.

Many of the instrumentals’ funk elements here remind me of Pharrell Williams’ early work, and Williams shows up on the rap track “I Got The Juice”, Monae’s delivery at an all-out energetic scream as the hi-hats crash into each other perfectly, her chopped vocals in the background. My favourite track of all might be “I Like That” however, one of the calmer ones here that lets us hear the prettier side of Monae’s singing voice, carried by an incredibly catchy musical phrase looped by backing vocals as she speaks on her intentional diversion from the norm. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs, and I like that” has to be one of my all-time favourite lyrics. The whole thing culminates in “Americans”, a gospel-influenced track that sees Monae slip into the character of various individuals blindly dedicated to outdated ideals of the what the American flag signifies before the bouncy, singalong chorus simply declares “Love me for who I am” with some beautiful harmonies. As the refrain echoes, a reverend’s voice starts a speech calling for the rights of various marginalized groups, some that Monae belongs to and some she does not.

Dirty Computer and its accompanying visual are incredibly powerful, brilliantly conceptual stuff, and it might be the most important sociopolitical message delivered through music next to “This Is America” this year. I’ll be surprised if anything comes out this year that knocks this from my top spot.

Favourite Tracks: I Like That, Screwed, Make Me Feel, Americans, I Got The Juice

Least Favourite Track: Take A Byte…? I guess?

Score: 10/10

Image result for leon bridges good thingLeon Bridges – Good Thing

Texas retro-soul and blues singer Leon Bridges takes a bit of a step back from his triumphant debut Coming Home, falling prey to the sophomore jinx and turning to pop producer Ricky Reed for the majority of the album. As a result, the poppier tracks here are actually the album’s best, Reed losing his way at producing the classic sounds that Bridges’ smooth vocals fit so cleanly over. Still, even if many of these tracks don’t stick as well as many of his past endeavours, it’s always a delight to hear a voice like Bridges’ – there aren’t many people making albums this popular that sound like him, and his simple love songs call back to an earlier era of songwriting.

The opening track “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” is the kind of music that bridges should be making all the time, the opening flurry of sound almost like a montage transporting us back in time like a cinematic flashback. The song places his vocals front and center, strings echoing in the background as he hits the best part of his upper register in the chorus, the slight rasp that makes his vocals distinctive complemented by some great high harmonies. The majority of the tracklist makes it all too clear that this was an album produced by a guy who has worked with people like DNCE and Maroon 5 recently. Quite a few of these tracks are loose, upbeat tracks where Reed attempts to replicate the vibe of a blues or jazz song, instrumental solos often taking up the empty space, but eliminates the complexity often found in the instrumentals for a straightforward rhythmic pattern that makes the music more accessible for the many people who made this the top-selling album of the week. It becomes less about Bridges in complete command of his element, and it makes his more subdued style of delivery less likely to stand out on tracks like “Bad Bad News” and “Beyond”. Bridges excels when the instrumental molds to his direction, rather than the other way around.

“Shy” is another great track that sees the return of the vocal harmonies and jazzier chords that aren’t as present elsewhere, Bridges slowing the track down and commanding attention with his dynamic vocal presence and charisma. Of course, Reed is still one of the better mainstream pop producers, and this shows on the danceable, all-out pop tracks “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “You Don’t Know”. Bridges’ voice is versatile enough to be believable as a John Legend-esque pop vocalist, sounding like the GOOD Music artist on the former especially, vocoder harmonies backing him up on the kind of early guitar-funk pop bounce that’s quickly becoming popularized. The problem lies when these poppier elements aren’t mixed as well with elements from Bridges’ musical territory, awkwardly shoehorning in modern sounds where they shouldn’t be, like the percussion on a track like “Forgive You” that clashes with the acoustic guitars.

Bridges is a great vocalist that’s always a breath of fresh air in the landscape of what’s popular right now, but the team up with Reed here doesn’t make much sense and holds it back from being a truly great project – I trust he’ll be back with a vengeance on his next.

Favourite Tracks: Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand, Shy, You Don’t Know, If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Mrs.

Least Favourite Track: Bad Bad News

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tinashe, J. Cole, Bishop Briggs)

Tinashe - Joyride (Official Album Cover).pngTinashe – Joyride

Joyride is a project that frequently underrated R&B artist Tinashe has been promoting since 2015, delayed multiple times as it was apparently held back by label deman 2016’s Nightride album was a catchy, ethereal teaser, but it may have ended up being better than the final product. The label intervention is evident across this project, Tinashe’s quieter style frequently offset by obvious attempts to land her another radio hit with awkward rap features (one fittingly being Offset himself) and production from pop hitmakers like Stargate. The album is a directionless mixed bag, but she still manages to shine in the few occasions where she’s allowed to do what she wants here.

Tinashe has always been at her best on more throwback production styles, rather than the more marketable and upbeat party tracks that take up most of the space on this album. Sometimes the two styles are mixed together and the juxtaposition is too much, like on title track “Joyride”, which places a loud “la-la-la” melody and huge beat overtop of the orchestral and spacey synths and strings that she is more known for, which fail to accommodate the constant high energy of the rest of the track. The pure pop tracks fare a little bit better – I’m not going to lie and say “No Drama” doesn’t get stuck in my head for days at a time – but it’s far from the artist I know she can be, she’s a better singer than this basic melody over a trap beat. “Me So Bad” is the most blatant attempt at a trend-riding track that never would have made it onto a Tinashe project with creative freedom, the lyrics doing little more than pointing to her looks with a pretty inexcusable French Montana feature and a beat that manages to take the worst elements of both the tropical and dancehall trends at the same time. The last few tracks on the album never quite come together, the scores of writers in the credits becoming evident as the commercial aspect overrides artistry, the hint of a trap hi-hat echoing on even the slowest tracks. What in the world is that disjointed Future verse??

It would be a much different story if the whole album was filled with tracks like “He Don’t Want It”, the closest thing we get to the highlights of Nightride like “C’est La Vie” and “Ghetto Boy”. Tinashe uses both ends of her vocal register, the breathy falsetto verse introducing the more powerful chorus. I love when most of the elements of the track are made of Tinashe’s dynamic vocal abilities, and the ethereal backing harmonies complete the picture here. It’s great to hear elements of a trap beat without the same rhythms we’re all familiar with from all-star hip-hop producer T-Minus as well. Follow-up “Ooh La La” is an homage to the early-2000s R&B that Tinashe would have thrived in, with a pretty fun flip of a sample from Nelly’s “Dilemma” and calmly picked guitar melody reminiscent of “Suga Suga”, while an unexpected collaboration with Little Dragon on “Stuck With Me” is a fantastic surprise, Tinashe and Yukimi Nagano’s voices occupying that perfect space of having a similar tone that’s just distinct enough to distinguish the individuals.

The way Tinashe’s career has been handled is one of the most consistently depressing things about the music in Here’s hoping she goes independent and drops some old-school R&B gems on us.

Favourite Tracks: He Don’t Want It, Stuck With Me, Ooh La La, No Drama

Least Favourite Track: Joyride

Score: 5/10

JColeKOD.jpgJ. Cole – KOD

North Carolina rapper J. Cole bounces back in a huge way after 2016’s disappointing 4 Your Eyez Only with his 5th studio album KOD, a concept album of sorts that sees him discouraging forms of substance abuse that have affected him and those he observed in the past by through some Kendrick Lamar-esque play with the embodiment of opposing characters and points of view. While Cole doesn’t really do anything groundbreaking here musically, he escapes criticism by tying it perfectly into the theme of the album, stating that the addictive, repetitive hooks and trap beats resemble the drugs he speaks of. Plus, what I was really missing from Cole was the fire in his delivery, and that’s fully returned with this more modern, upbeat style.

“There are many ways to deal with pain … Choose wisely”, echoes a voice throughout the album. The tracklist is divided about half and half, sometimes on the same song, as Cole portrays either himself making the wise choices in the present or a character addicted to or dependent on one of the many “drugs” he describes, both literal and more abstract, like money, power or love. Opening track “KOD” lets listeners know early that Cole has snapped out of the trance that dominated his previous album, offering a rapid-fire triplet flow and booming bassline. The popularized Migos flow shows up quite a bit across this project, but it’s still great to hear Cole’s take on it since his voice and delivery can be one of the most engaging in the industry when he wants it to, always with a sarcastic wink and a jovial bounce. Cole produced nearly all of the beats on this project without any assistance, raising the impressiveness again. My favourite beat of all though is attributed to T-Minus, on standout track “Kevin’s Heart”. Cole makes his dexterous flow sound easy mainly due to the chilled out, 8-bit video game-style instrumental that makes everything sound more impressive on an intoxicating half-time tempo.

Perhaps the fact that I’m so drawn to Cole’s repetitive tracks like “Motiv8” and “ATM”, where he portrays a character dependent on an unstable source of income, proves his point. These cheap thrills really are easy to turn to, rather than paying attention to what he’s saying on the more lyrical tracks. While they do veer a bit into the same sluggish tempos he employed earlier, tracks like “Brackets” and “Once an Addict” revive Cole’s elite storytelling ability to tell some tales of how his community and his own life are affected by what he describes. Cole’s advice across the board is never preachy because he is quick to acknowledge that he himself had fallen prey to it as well – he tells a heartbreaking tale of both he and his mother turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with the abusive stepfather that has turned up in many tracks across his career, offering genuine advice to personal friends and younger rappers on “Friends” and “1985” about falling prey to all the various drugs of life, admitting his message isn’t “the coolest” in an endearing way.

One of the main themes that frequently seem to hold a Cole album back is his singing, which he almost always relies on more than he should. It makes a few hooks here more awkward than they should be, such as on “Photograph” where he never quite clicks into the beat perfectly. His Kill Edward character’s pitch shifted delivery also muddles his words and throws the pitch off on tracks like “The Cut Off”, but it still adds to the message of the song, the addicted Edward sounding lost and troubled, out of step with the rest of reality.

KOD delivers an important message in a very smart way, Cole bringing back his relatable character and storytelling ability to spread awaren Luckily, by exploring characters Cole can do this and deliver some upbeat, fun tracks at the same time. He boasts about his versatility contributing to his longevity over trend-hoppers on closer “1985”, and KOD backs up his point.

Favourite Tracks: Kevin’s Heart, ATM, FRIENDS, KOD, BRACKETS

Least Favourite Track: The Cut Off

Score: 8/10

Image result for church of scars bishopBishop Briggs – Church of Scars

British alt-pop musician Bishop Briggs’ debut studio album Church of Scars comes in the wake of the success of her 2016 single “River” on alternative and rock radio due to her trademark growl and heavier approach to poppier melodies. Her songs have been used in commercials, also contributing to her steady rise, and this album makes it easy to see why. Her formula across these brief 10 tracks becomes incredibly evident and safe, reminding me of Imagine Dragons’ latest project Evolve in terms of the build-up to an explosive chorus over some soul chords that she employs in every song. While her vocal power is undeniable, Church of Scars loses its element of surprise immediately.

Briggs blends elements of the past and present across the whole album to varying degrees of success, mixing rock and blues instrumentation with modern trends of pop music such as electronic synthlines and hip-hop influenced percussion, a computerized water-droplet beat quickly snapping the old-soul sound of Briggs’ vocal delivery into the more modern era in opening track “Tempt My Trouble”. While this track serves as one of the most immediately catchy offerings, even it falls into the repetitive techniques that plague most of the tracklisting. Briggs’ voice really does have a lot of potential, and I could see her imbuing it with the genuine emotion that the power behind it deserves to make some powerful content, but she settles for Chainsmokers-style thematic lyricism around a seemingly randomly generated noun and melodies that stay in a safe position in order to build up to the reveal of the only trick she has – the overriding of a vaguely electronic blues-rock template with her growling, explosive vocal wails.

Her blends of styles often come across as trying too hard. I feel like I write the word “trap” in every review I write nowadays, but the plaintive acoustic background of a song like “Lyin’” sounds ridiculous with those persistent hi-hats at a time when we hear them everywhere, and whoever did the backing vocals doesn’t help the track much either, sounding too anthemic and angry for the instrumental since an explosive rendition of the chorus is apparently a necessity for each and every track regardless. “White Flag” shows that the vitriol she spits into every syllable doesn’t work as well with rapidly delivered vocals, the rhythm of the chorus lagging behind. As the album goes on, we lose any hope of being moved by Briggs’ power, since we expect her to be yelling at us by the end of every song, knowing not to trust the quieter acoustic introduction.

There really are quite a few promising elements here, such as the industrial and menacing horn section on “Wild Horses”, but an attempt at an EDM-style chorus breakdown changes the tempo in such a miniscule way that it becomes irritating, throwing off my rhythm. It all comes together best on “Hallowed Ground”, which incorporates a gospel organ and horn section breakdown that switches things up instrumentally for a break in the monotony.

Briggs has a lot of raw talent, but she relies much too heavily on a formula attempting to place her in the modern musical context that she doesn’t really need. With a better team around her, I hope she can convert the energy she possesses into more creative, well-structured song material.

Favourite Tracks: Hallowed Ground, River, Tempt My Trouble

Least Favourite Track: The Fire

Score: 4/10