Rapid Fire Reviews (Nav, Yelawolf, Billie Eilish)

Nav - Bad Habits.pngNav – Bad Habits

A signee to The Weeknd’s XO label and one of the first Punjabi artists to make it this big with North American audiences, Nav’s Auto-crooned trap melodies have been getting more and more attention leading up to the release of his sophomore solo project, Bad Habits. Of course, there have also been no shortage of memes, whether it’s from his poorly mixed contributions to other people’s music or the fact that, at times, it appears that Nav is simply along for the XO ride and has no idea what he’s doing, seemingly zoning out during his public appearances and performances. The unfortunate part is that I’d believe it – once again, Nav is perfectly happy to simply adapt every trend he sees around him and apply his grating, nasal vocal delivery to them as he creates carbon copies of a trap sound that’s already starting to get tiresome. At 16 tracks, this project is hard to get through when he offers nothing that I haven’t already heard done better.

You forget just how much of why Nav’s music can be so unenjoyable is directly attributed to his voice and delivery – the project’s opening track, “To My Grave,” actually has a pretty great beat featuring a triumphant horn section that makes you anticipate what you’re going to get on this project immediately. Until Nav comes in with that shaky, Auto-Tuned falsetto, nasal sound and generic trap lyrics that aren’t saying much of anything and pulls all the focus away. One of the biggest criticisms of his collaborative project with Metro Boomin was that Metro wasted some of his best beats on someone like Nav, and that continues here even though most of the producers on this project are actually a lot less well-known. You really get the sense that Nav must just be a close friend of some member of the XO team, and either has delusions of grandeur or really good connections to have gotten to the spot he has. Half the time on this project it doesn’t even sound like he’s invested in being a musician, like he’s only recording these tracks for the clout and can’t wait to get out of the studio and onto Instagram where he can really make an impact.

Nav sounds bored out of his mind on tracks like “Taking Chances,” one of the many tracks here with more of a creeping, alt-R&B beat that exposes Nav’s awkward songwriting and making him sound all the more sluggish. It’s hilarious when Meek Mill hops on the next track “Tap,” because I couldn’t think of two people with more completely different energies. Meek opens the track with his spastic and excited cadence, then Nav comes on and sucks all the air out of the room, barely staying on the beat. Most of the features here aren’t even that great, but they sound incredible in comparison because it’s such a breath of fresh air to not be hearing Nav’s voice anymore – except of course for the usually reliable The Weeknd, who drops one of his worst hooks of all time onto the track “Price On My Head,” finally finding the notes that are too high for him after pushing the boundaries all these years.

The track “Tussin” with Young Thug is a decent track thanks to Thug and that fun trap-piano instrumental … though it doesn’t mean that Nav doesn’t still completely kill the energy during his verses, even if his singing is probably at its best here. The trap beat on the next track “Snap” is nothing innovative or new, but it’s upbeat and fun and present in the mix, which is enough for it to be one of the better tracks here as well. And while it’s far from an engaging song musically, hearing Nav actually earnestly expressing something that isn’t a trap cliché on “Why You Crying Mama” draws attention and is effective simply because it’s so surprising to hear that he has real emotions. “Stuck With Me” is the only hook on the project that I remembered playing through the album a second time, so again it meets the very low bar for a standout track.

Other than that, though, I really don’t have the energy to try to talk about distinguishable things about most of the other tracks in the back half of this project, everything really starts to blend together in a faceless, soulless wave of modern hip-hop trends.

I’m sure you’ve already read a lot of people criticizing this very line, but Nav saying “what’s the game without me” in a contemplative tone on the track “I’m Ready” is absolutely laughable – truly, what is Nav without the game? He’s never offered something that someone in his immediate circle hasn’t already done in his entire career.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck With Me, Snap

Least Favourite Track: Tension

Score: 1/10

Yelawolf Trunk Muzik III.pngYelawolf – Trunk Muzik III

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town r- wait, sorry, wrong country-tinged rapper. The Alabama rapper and Eminem protégé since signing to Shady Records in 2011 has always embraced elements of the country lifestyle in his work, even if his music stays pretty solidly in the hip-hop lane (with a couple diversions into heavier rock music). Now 39 years old, Yelawolf has been a huge force in the underground game for a while and has released numerous projects in the last couple years. Trunk Muzik III is the first in the series to get the full studio album treatment, and serves as his 5th While Yelawolf’s faster flow is seriously impressive and can usually elevate a track on its own, he’s frequently brought down by some awkward musical combinations of genre and the usual curse that quicker rappers fall victim to – sacrificing lyricism in the name of flow. This project is southern hip-hop through and through, and while it’s usually rather inconsistent, there are a couple highlights to remind us what caught someone like Eminem’s attention in the first place.

While I talk about country-rap making a resurgence years after Yelawolf ventured into the territory, another thing that’s huge right now that you can partially credit to Yelawolf is the resurgence of hardcore aspects in the mainstream from people like 6ix9ine – the way Yelawolf yells at the top of his voice as the album opens seriously reminds me of him. “TM3” is a pretty great opening track that really demonstrates just how great Yelawolf’s flow is over a rumbling bassline that never lets up and a crunchy electric guitar riff. It’s a nice way to get immersed in Yelawolf’s world and probably one of the most impressive technical showcases on the project. It’s been interesting to see how rappers who pride themselves more on their flows and “old-school” rap sensibilities have adapted to the omnipresence of trap music – the best ones usually find a way to incorporate the aspects of it that are undeniably fun while still offering enough variation to maintain their individual artistry, and that’s exactly what Yelawolf does on the track “Catfish Billy 2,” diving into the Migos flow a couple times but breaking away from it for a standout chorus that’s immediately memorable and very fun to rap along to due to that crazy internal rhyme scheme – I even love the way it abruptly cuts off after the final chorus, leaving it ringing in your mind.

It seems like Yelawolf puts in efforts to make his serial tracks always high quality – the piano instrumental and Pimp C sample on “Box Chevy 6” is great too. The soul sample and his calmer demeanor on “Drugs” is another great turn for Yelawolf that allows for more focus on what he’s saying alongside of that catchy fast flow, Yelawolf speaking on his complicated relationship with addiction after his family more or less introduced it to him. The heartfelt track “Addiction” takes this further as Yelawolf contemplates all that he’s lost due to it and his own struggles with beating it. Even on some of the weaker tracks here, Yelawolf’s flow is always a highlight and it’s always engaging to listen to him splice those syllables.

A huge part of Yelawolf’s music has always been more of an embrace of the “Slumerican” lifestyle and the hardcore partying tracks that go along with it, Yelawolf edging closer to his aggressive, screaming flow with less of a focus on his rapping abilities and more of a focus on getting the people who are listening absolutely ready to tear the place apart – these kinds of tracks are where the enjoyability of the project falls off a cliff for someone who’s just sitting and listening to this on the couch. He and featured artist MGK do rap quickly on a track like “Rowdy,” but it’s clear that the true focus is on that aggressive hook and there was less effort put into the structure, just using it more as a party trick than something meaningful. Other songs like generic trap cut “No Such Thing As Free” and “We Slum” are similar.

There are a couple of tracks here that are a strangely inconsistent combination of some of the best and worst aspects of what Yelawolf does that just leave me a little confused. On the chorus of “Special Kind of Bad,” Yelawolf drops into this genuinely stunning, smoky singing voice that he’s never really displayed like this before, with some engaging lyrics, but everything else about the track is pretty unlistenable … I don’t understand why this was placed on a track like this where the rest consists of Yelawolf’s awkwardly sexualized lyrics and hardcore, slower flow, and whatever that modulated effect on his voice was at the end. He actually sings for most of the next track, “Like I Love You,” as well, but the lyrics are similarly far too blunt to be effective. The structures of tracks like these are pretty incredible, they’re just let down by one strongly negative aspect that brings them way down. The hook of “Trailer Park Hollywood,” the no-name features on “All the Way Up.”

The last 5 tracks on the album are all very strong and display the natural skills that Yelawolf has. While a lot of these tracks are brought down by inconsistencies, this is a respectable effort from a veteran in this lane.

Favourite Tracks: Catfish Billy 2, Drugs, TM3, Box Chevy 6

Least Favourite Track: Special Kind of Bad

Score: 5/10

Eilish sits on the edge of a white bed, in front of a dark background. She wears white clothing, while smiling at the camera.Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Another post, another huge, culturally shifting project that I’m reviewing a couple months after the fact. Looking back on something like this after it’s remained in contention for the #1 spot on the album charts every week since it’s been released is quite the experience. Also, let it be known that I called it, giving one of my rare 10/10 scores to the then-15-year-old Eilish who had released her first EP only two weeks before. Watching her dominate pop culture has been surreal for someone who’s been there from the beginning, and Eilish has now fully arrived with her debut album that takes her eerie concepts and unsettlingly adorable vocal delivery to the next level with a series of immaculately produced tracks, thanks singlehandedly to her brother Finneas (the layering on her voice, though!). The public have spoken – they’re looking for something completely new in a world of peak trap, and this is it.

After a brief intro, the project opens with the stunning track “bad guy.” This song absolutely blew me away the first time I heard it, and now it’s a global smash hit, which is pretty incredible for a song that sounds like this. The minor-key harmonies and layering on her voice sounds like it’s directly out of some kind of Halloween movie, that persistent, menacing bassline interacting with the higher-pitched synth hook and not much else. If there was a way to introduce us to Eilish’s character across the full project, there’s not a much more perfect one. “Duh“. Eilish and Finneas’ absolute command of the best spots of her voice and how to layer them in the most haunting and effective way is a standout tactic across the whole project, and it only serves to make both the bangers and ballads much better. “when the party’s over” might actually be my favourite song on the entire project, and it’s the one that uses the layering the absolute best. Eilish’s range as she ascends during the verses is something to behold, and the ocean of her many vocal tracks supporting the whole thing is an absolute treat for the ears with every tiny nuance and new harmony. The bridge is so powerful and moving, Eilish pouring her heart out about loneliness. “i love you” is another dramatic ballad that pulls a little too strongly from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but her vocals are strikingly beautiful in a similar way.

There are so many little details of Eilish’s music that serve to make the world she’s singing about so much more vivid, especially to a headphone user, since they’re so buried in the mix you’d miss them unless you were really paying attention – as you should be. Whether it’s the sounds of the party as Eilish’s friends slowly kill themselves via substance abuse on “xanny,” that unsettling scraping on the absolute punch-to-the-face of a track “you should see me in a crown” or the ambulances arriving after she climactically jumps off the roof on the heart-wrenchingly tragic track “listen before I go,” (did I mention how powerful – and worrying – it is for a 17-year-old to be singing about all of this?) Eilish makes the biggest effort to make sure her tracks are a cinematic experience. The sound seems to be tailored to the headphone-based experience as well, Finneas’ basslines always at the forefront of the mix and a unique effect where Eilish’s voice rapidly cuts in and out turn her into what I can only describe as an ASMR popstar. The music is designed to give you a physically positive response.

A common criticism of Eilish’s music is how similarly she approaches each one of her tracks from a vocal standpoint, her quiet, near-whisper of a voice a constant across the project, but the way she makes it fit in on all of these different instrumentals is the truly impressive part. “all the good girls go to hell” features a beat that sounds almost as if it’s directly out of the 90s G-Funk movement, but that intense vocal centers it and turns what should be a party track into something much more sinister with her religious themes, like what Jordan Peele did with “I Got 5 On It” in the Us trailer. “wish you were gay,” on the other hand, is another favourite track with a completely different approach, opening like a doo-wop ballad from the 60s as Eilish’s smart songwriting comes into play with the wordplay centered on numbers, before the chorus brings some modern electronic aspects in. When the music cuts out in the climactic bridge and that paper-thin vocal sings “I’m so selfish,” you feel her emotions at their peak when her vocal is at its quietest.

My absolute favourite albums are always deliberately structured to tell a story, and Eilish clearly appreciates the art of creating an album in the same way, as evidenced by the closing track “goodbye.” It’s not much of a track on it’s own, but the way it takes the listener on a reverse journey of the narrative of the album as Eilish sings a line from each of them in reverse order, ending with the original and overarching proclamation, “I’m the bad guy,” is a great way to wrap it up. There are a lot of great little lyrical references to preceding tracks as well.

There are a couple decisions that prevent the project as a whole from being as perfect as her debut EP, like the baby voice on “8” and lack of variation in the slower tracks that bring the project to its end, but this is the kind of self-assured debut you could expect from an artist who’s going to be here for decades to come.

Favourite Tracks: when the party’s over, wish you were gay, bad guy, all the good girls go to hell, listen before i go

Least Favourite Track: 8

Score: 9/10

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Rapid Fire Reviews (2 Chainz, Maren Morris, Juice WRLD)

Image result for 2 chainz rap or go to the league2 Chainz – Rap Or Go To The League

Usually one of the most cartoonish and comedic faces in rap, 2 Chainz’s fifth studio album Rap Or Go To The League – apparently executive produced by basketball star LeBron James – sees him dial the punchline bars back and address some more serious issues, all while maintaining the vibrant personality we know him for. A lot of Chainz’s recent work has been seriously inconsistent, but this project is a huge improvement, showing sides of him that we’ve never seen before and varying his instrumentals a lot more. With the addition of a litany of great guests, there’s always something surprising around the corner on this project. It’s definitely his most well-rounded work yet, even if there are a couple moments where we’re reminded that 2 Chainz is far from the most technically gifted rapper out there.

The project opens with the lengthy and contemplative slow burner “Forgiven” which emphasizes the themes behind the album’s title, signifying to the listener that this isn’t exactly the same 2 Chainz we’ve gotten in the past. It opens with a recording of Chainz being announced in a basketball starting lineup before speaking from the perspective of his younger self reflecting on gun violence in his neighbourhood, even calling out multiple friends he’s lost by name, and thinking that the only way to make it out is to become a rapper or a basketball star. A spoken word piece emphasizes the way others view the value of black people before the track ends with a police siren and a gunshot. It’s an incredibly heavy start to a 2 Chainz album, and it’s certainly some very compelling material especially coming from the less rhythmic, more confessional delivery Chainz is known for. Chainz’s heavier material is concealed by some fun instrumentals as the project goes on, transitioning to the beautiful soul sample of “Threat 2 Society” that continues retelling his upbringing.

The opening run of 4 tracks is very strong, especially the celebratory “Money In The Way” that combines trap hi-hats with an OutKast-esque horn section. It’s essentially a giant flex that exists outside the more mature themes of the project, but the unbridled joy that can creep into 2 Chainz’s delivery at times is one of the greatest things about him – it’s great to hear him on these more soulful instrumentals after going full minimalist trap recently. Young Thug and Travis Scott actually show up on the next two tracks, but they’re easily some of the weakest here because 2 Chainz’s personality should never be restrained by a basic trap framework – “High Top Versace” and “Whip” fit in most with what’s going on at the moment, and I had been enjoying Chainz switching it up more until that point.

2 Chainz seriously went all-out with his guests on this project, and most of them seriously elevate these tracks. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Kendrick Lamar’s lower-key appearance on the experimental and quirky trap banger “Momma I Hit a Lick”, but this has become my most played track on this project by far. I absolutely love how much these two switch up their flows and voices as the track goes on, it fits with just how weird that instrumental is. The track is such an exhilarating, trippy experience … when that unsettling extra synth comes in halfway through Lamar’s verse? Perfect. “Rule The World” with Ariana Grande is another excellent track, dropping right into Grande’s wheelhouse with a throwback 90s piano jam. Grande knocks the chorus out of the park and paves the way for Chainz to come in and complete the picture with some smooth bars as he dedicates the track to his wife, who he married last year. It’s great that these two have connected so well after the whole “7 Rings” controversy too – Chainz even introduces the track “I Said Me” with a sample of the original Sound of Music tune. We get a couple more great verses at the end from Lil Wayne and E-40 on the retro track “2 Dollar Bill” and even the odd combination of Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black on the track “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is” – even if that hook from Chainz drones on a bit.

Even with all the features, my favourite track of all on this project might be the solo track “NCAA”, which is essentially the perfect storm of goofy 2 Chainz lines, the themes of the album, and a huge adrenaline shot of an instrumental. “Who me?” 2 Chainz grins at the beginning. “I take this open beat”. Then it drops, and each line is more ridiculous – in a good way – than the last. The gang vocals of the chorus roar in, serving as both a criticism of the mentality Chainz introduces on the first track and the most genuinely thrilling moment on the whole project.

Rap Or Go To The League essentially brings together all the best things about 2 Chainz, and then adds a surprising degree of poignant political commentary on top of it all. There are certainly quite a few moments where his weaknesses as an actual rapper are exposed, but this is one of the most simultaneously fun and important rap projects in a while.

Favourite Tracks: NCAA, Momma I Hit A Lick, Money In The Way, Rule The World, Threat 2 Society

Least Favourite Track: High Top Versace

Score: 8/10

An image of Morris lying down on a bed of leaves while holding a pink flower, wearing a pink bikini top and yellow fur coat.Maren Morris – GIRL

The latest female country star to embrace her pop crossover potential, Maren Morris’ sophomore album GIRL is here after breaking through to the mainstream with a Zedd collaboration. If Morris was going to pop, there were a lot of worse ways she could have done it. Superproducer Greg Kurstin shows up sporadically across this project, and someone like him knows exactly how to maximize the potential of Morris’ powerhouse vocals. She doesn’t abandon her country roots entirely either, with a couple of tracks still fully in that lane, but honestly Morris is most exciting here going in a pop/soul direction. Despite a few awkward lyrical shortcomings, GIRL for the most part evades the sophomore curse.

The opening title track is one of Kurstin’s, and it’s certainly a strong way to kick it off. Most of Morris’ instrumentation is still slightly twangy and guitar-driven, but the vocals on top of it are undeniably pop. We get a couple of pretty standard chord progressions here, but what we’re really being introduced here is the soulfulness in Morris’ vocals as she attacks some high notes and harmonies before dropping into an anthemic and uplifting chorus. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s not a lot that voice couldn’t carry. The real crossover fun starts on the next track, “The Feels”, featuring an old-school bouncy country guitar riff and an electric finger-snap pattern that’s used perfectly when the instrumental drops out for a full two counts, Morris storming back to hit a huge note that kicks off the chorus with a rapid-fire swung delivery. It’s about as perfect of a marriage between her two styles while keeping her infectious and playful spirit that I could have imagined. “Gold Love” is another one that does it pretty well, mostly a catchy, somewhat soulful pop track, but it features a brief country breakdown where Morris drops her vocals down for a quick break that keeps it interesting.

Most of the greatest tracks here are actually Morris going full soulful R&B diva, however. She’s got the vocals to flit through some seriously impressive vocal runs and a full range that not a lot of her country contemporaries do, and when they’re applied to something as direct as a track like the doo-wop inspired “Make Out With Me”, it’s pretty moving. Morris is out here to take exactly what she wants, and you can hear it through the power and conviction in her vocals – she attacks her biggest notes with some country gravel! The best track of all is “RSVP”, hiding in the back half of the album. The track also plays into the more sensual side of Morris’ vocal tone, simultaneously assertive and inviting, but the energy provided by the trap hi-hats and that layered, harmonized chorus that shows off the best parts of her high range make it an easy standout.

Some of the most overtly country tracks on here do fit in well with Morris’ energy, but I can’t help agreeing with the pop producers who initiated this change in feeling that the tone of her voice was meant more for another style. Of course, as the “yeehaw agenda” creeps further and further into pop culture, it’s a lot of fun to hear Morris collaborate with the Brothers Osborne, who have just about the most traditional country vocals going right now, but their juxtaposition feels a little too far removed, and when Morris is given huge vocal moments that require the heavier country instrumentation to stop it feels like they’re trying to hard to mix genres – it works better just hearing her natural accent on a melody more suited to her vocal style.

There are quite a few tracks where Morris and her collaborators are embracing a more country-based singer-songwriter storytelling style of lyrics as well that feels somewhat inauthentic. Morris clearly has a lot of fun portraying the disruptive, flirtatious party girl, and hearing her sing something like the starry-eyed, acoustic “A Song for Everything” makes my eyes roll just a bit. Although “Common”, her duet with Brandi Carlile, is pretty fantastic! Their harmonies together give me goosebumps, Carlile’s natural ruggedness and emotion anchoring Morris’ cleaner high notes. On the other hand as well, a track like “Great Ones” is a nice track with more poetic lyrical content as well – for whatever reason, I always love when country artists take a lyrical concept that’s typical to their genre, usually religion for Morris, and use it in an entirely different context. The last couple tracks on the project are a nice calm-down, especially “To Hell & Back”, a well-written country pop melody that once again frames some great areas of Morris’ voice.

I’d love to see Morris work with an even wider range of more pop-oriented producers in the future, because this crossover is a pretty solid effort that could easily be expanded upon – I hope something from this project eventually catches on at pop radio! Morris’ soulful vocals are the shining centerpiece, with a couple outstanding tracks I’ll be returning to a lot.

Favourite Tracks: RSVP, The Feels, Make Out With Me, Common, To Hell & Back

Least Favourite Track: A Song For Everything

Score: 7/10

Image result for death race for loveJuice WRLD – Death Race For Love

Juice WRLD, and the movement that he takes up de facto leadership of in the wake of some unfortunate losses, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical phenomena going on right now. His brand of melodic emo-trap, taking the energy and spirit of mid-2000s pop punk and funneling it into a modern hip-hop context, is a combination that I never could have anticipated having such a profound impact on so many listeners. After exploding into the mainstream with “Lucid Dreams”, Juice’s sophomore project is here – and apparently, he made it in only 4 days. With a length running well over an hour, I was dreading going into this project – more often than not, the melodramatics of the genre aren’t really for me – but Juice WRLD honestly pulls things off pretty well here. The album is still way too long and loaded with filler tracks and questionable lyrics, but Juice’s ear for melody and refreshing musical presence fills out Death Race for Love with more hits than misses.

The project opens with one of its strongest, “Empty” – Juice is honestly at his best when he leans furthest into the pop-punk direction his delivery is so clearly lovingly inspired by, rather than coming at it trying to make a hip-hop or a trap song first and foremost. We get this somber piano loop and a rather subdued section of hi-hats as Juice drops this catchy but overwhelmingly dark chorus on top, nailing that emo inflection in the process and just making me marvel at how well this collision of genres works. “I was put here to lead the lost souls”, he sings, and judging by the way people have received his work, he’s not too far off. These young artists who drop lyrics like Juice does have found a unique way to connect with people and open up about depression in an eye-opening and vivid way. The only track that does this pop-punk-with-a-trap-beat thing better might be the single “Robbery”, where Juice drops his catchiest and most heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery chorus yet over a legitimately beautiful twinkling piano instrumental. This genuinely could have been something like a Simple Plan song from the early 2000s, and it’s so fascinating to hear.

“Fast” is another one that people immediately gravitated to when this dropped, and it absolutely sounds like a smash hit. There’s a kind of glossy sheen on it that makes it sound like an inescapable Post Malone track, but Juice’s softer singing voice is honestly really nice to hear. I also really appreciate how Juice opts to switch things up a bit, it would have been easy to fall into one sound across a long and boring hour and 12 minutes, but there are a couple surprises like the tracks “Syphilis” and “Ring Ring” along the way. The former sounds like an XXXTENTACION tribute, Juice pulling off the hyper-aggressive scream-rap style a lot better than I would have expected, while the latter teams up with electronic artist Rvssian for a bass-heavy and filtered track with crunchy guitars and another great hook.

There’s a lot about Juice that might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I think I’ve listened to “Lucid Dreams” enough at this point to get it. Quite a few of these songs open and seem a little disjointed and messy, but then something about the melody Juice sings, or his cadence, or just how earnest about it he is, clicks together and sticks in your brain. A song like “HeMotions” (awful title aside) seems like an obvious skip at the start with his spacey and awkward “muddy emotions” hook that features an emoji reference in the first of a line of pretty bad lyrics across the whole project, but it seriously sneaks up on you as the beat adapts to fit it by the end of the track.

With a largely improvisational and overlong hip-hop album, there was bound to be quite a lot that falls completely flat. “Big” is the first huge miss on the project, and really makes it clear that a lot of this project was improvised on the spot while not completely sober. There are a lot of videos where Juice makes it clear just how impressive of a freestyler he is, but on these looser tracks his melodies go out the window, killing his biggest strength of all. He essentially becomes a below-average Auto-Tuned mumble rapper with a couple awkward moments trying to shoehorn too many words into a bar. Juice sometimes has a tendency to put some of his most off-putting lyrics directly in his choruses, and elongating that “gorgeous” in “Flaws & Sins” so much he sounds almost country is probably the worst offender here. Most of the 2nd half of the album is considerably weaker, with more than a few tracks where the charm that’s barely holding things together finally gives out and Juice’s lack of musical ability is really revealed – tracks like “Desire”, “10 Feet” and “Rider” are pretty headache-inducing and could easily have been cut.

Juice is a young and inconsistent artist still trying to find his footing, but its undeniable how many people he’s able to genuinely reach out to and comfort. It’s really looking like his is the next major wave in music going forward, and I’m sure he’ll only improve with time.

Favourite Tracks: Robbery, Empty, Fast, Ring Ring

Least Favourite Track: 10 Feet

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Offset, Lil Pump, Hozier)

Offset Father of 4.jpgOffset – FATHER OF 4

The third and final member of the ultra-popular rap trio Migos to release their own solo project as we wait for Culture III, Offset actually takes the opportunity to do something you don’t often see the group doing: opening up and getting emotional. The album delayed due to relationship drama with Cardi B, Offset has quite a few tracks here acknowledging his mistakes and reflecting on himself, as well as zooming the lens out a little further and giving some insight and storytelling tracks into his upbringing and his relationships with the rest of his family. FATHER OF 4 does suffer from filler and long album syndrome as well as the lack of the other Migos to play off of, but has its fair share of surprises as well. Offset exists in a kind of commercially viable middle ground between his groupmates, possessing parts of both Quavo’s charisma and Takeoff’s technical ability.

Of all the things you might have expected a Migos-affiliated album to open with, it might not have been a somber orchestral arrangement, contemplative piano and Offset’s heartfelt ruminations on the births of his 4 children, addressing each of them by name and apologizing for the times he wasn’t there. The track gives a pretty good indication of how the rest of the album is going to go – while Offset might have the least natural musical instinct of the three Migos, his Auto-Tuned flow here never quite finding that catchy pocket or fitting with the song, what he’s saying is genuinely captivating, and that’s the part that makes FATHER OF 4 really work. The next track, “How Did I Get Here”, features J. Cole and finds the two reminiscing on making it out of the cycle of crime to find success. It certainly doesn’t reach the same level of depth as the last one, falling back into some more Migos-esque bars, but at least it’s about something – again, something that’s pretty rare for the trio. Cole really elevates the track with a much more aggressive delivery.

Honestly, for all the oversaturation Migos have had recently, you still can’t deny the energy of their greatest bangers, and Offset certainly delivers a few of them here, even if I do miss some of the complementary voices as the tracks go on. “Lick” rides a nice flute sample and fuzzy bassline and sees Offset switch up the Migos flow for a catchy chorus. Offset’s speedier flow is infectious, and there’s something about that “woo! woo! Offset!” adlib that sets me off every time, and the busy trap beat of “Made Men” and driving, slightly eerie synth line of “Wild Wild West” certainly allow him to show off his greatest skills. But undeniably the best classic Migos trap banger on the project is a collaboration with none other than Offset’s wife on the track “Clout”, featuring a dramatic piano loop and an absolutely hilarious and personality-driven verse from Cardi as Offset reflects on the clout-chasing culture they are caught up in.

One of the most surprising tracks on the whole album is “North Star” with Cee-Lo Green, which begins like a pretty standard trap cut before some acoustic noodling creeps in and the track gets spacier and moves into some creeping, ethereal synths that reminds me of something like the awe-inspiring nature of an ODESZA track – the perfect arena for Green to enter with some absolutely incredible and theatrical vocals, building on Offset’s paranoid bars with some powerful lines about perseverance. Backed by a gospel choir, it gives me chills every time and the fact that it came from a Migo is amazing. “Don’t Lose Me” is another compelling look into Offset’s emotions, opening with a clip from his public apology to Cardi and proclaiming that he wants to be with her for life.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Migos album without its fair share of tracks that serve only as uninspired filler and sound like they were made in a couple minutes – because they probably were, as the Migos will readily admit. Tracks like “Tats On My Face” and “Underrated” are some of the hardest on the project, but fall very flat since we’ve heard so much similar material from them already. There are a couple more tracks at the end that are loaded with features from all over the industry, but even they can’t quite liven it up after track after track of the same Migos flow – Travis Scott sounds especially lethargic on “Legacy”.

Ultimately, I’m glad that we did get these three projects from each of the Migos members, as it did allow them to display their greatest strengths. As always though, they’re better together. If we’re measuring them against each other, I’d say Takeoff’s project takes the crown, but this one’s right behind.

Favourite Tracks: North Star, Clout, Made Men, Wild Wild West

Least Favourite Track: Legacy

Score: 6/10

Lil Pump - Harverd Dropout.pngLil Pump – Harverd Dropout

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about 18-year old viral sensation Lil Pump? Perhaps known even more so for his antics on social media than his music, even after racking up nearly a billion views on his single “Gucci Gang”, Pump fully embraced his status as a living meme as soon as he strut down that hallway next to Kanye West in a Roblox costume. Harverd Dropout is his second studio album, and it’s been pretty universally panned, but to be completely honest – I have a lot of fun with Lil Pump’s music. It might be some of the most mind-numbing material out there, but the sheer enthusiasm with which he embraces the persona he puts out – just the way he delivers the line “I’m a millionaire, but I don’t know how to read”, adding a cheery “nope!” as an ad-lib on the track “Be Like Me” as an example – makes it hard to hate the guy. Fine, fine – it’s objectively terrible music. But there’s a lot of terrible music that isn’t anywhere close to being this fun.

Lil Pump’s “ooh!” (and the usually accompanying “huh??”) is one of the most visceral, inexplicably energizing ad-libs I’ve ever heard. There’s something so gleefully ignorant and flippant about it, and it’s the perfect way to punctuate Pump’s ridiculous lines – my favourite of which might be Pump, with an audible giant grin, saying “I gave lean to a newborn baby” on the track “ION”. The first two brief tracks “Drop Out” and “Nu Uh” both see Pump flexing about dropping out of school (now he’s richer than your mom) over some garish 8-bit synths and a breakneck tempo that brings out the most hyperactive sides of his youthful vocals. And of course, this drops right into “I Love It”. The fact that this track hit top 10 is absolutely hilarious to me. Pump and Kanye both knew exactly what they were doing with this track, and everything they do on it falls right in the perfect uncanny valley between serious and jokey. It’s the same reason “Old Town Road” is so huge right now, and “I Love It” is so genuinely maddeningly catchy that it can’t be seen as just a joke in the same way.

Honestly, some of the most taxing moments on the project actually come when feature artists are invited into Lil Pump’s world, since nobody exists on the same level of absolute memery as him. The closest thing we get is goofball 2 Chainz on the track “Stripper Name”. Pump actually tries to be more serious to match their average contributions instead of the other way around, and his complete lack of ability as an actual musician gets exposed in the process. The two features from members of the Migos on the tracks “Fasho Fasho” and “Too Much Ice” are so phoned in, and the repetitive beats that Pump frequently raps over aren’t as fun when Pump doesn’t have any of those trademark outlandish quotables overtop. The latter just … really hurts my brain. It’s all a little too loud. Lil Wayne’s verse on “Be Like Me” really isn’t that bad, but it’s easily the longest track here and it’s clear they were trying to get a real single out of Pump. He just doesn’t work in a traditional song structure; Pump is fully a product of the short attention span generation.

It’s really a very strange balance with Lil Pump – much like making something catch virality on the internet – there’s a very fine line here between headache-inducingly terrible and absolutely hilarious. It really makes it hard to give the project a score, or even write up serious criticism on it. Take the track “Vroom Vroom Vroom”. It really is little more than Lil Pump making a series of car noises. And maybe it says something about me, but I can’t help but smile when I listen to it. Can I, a music reviewer, even call it music? Debatable. The man drops Fortnite bars on “Off White”. He knows what he’s doing, and it’s not making music.

Lil Pump isn’t real. He’s a character, and a pretty funny one at that. I equate his music, quality and enjoyment level wise, to something like what The Lonely Island was making back in the day. And while no one was arguing that was high art, and it certainly had its fair share of huge misses, it was still pretty enjoyable. I’m looking forward to what in the world this guy is going to do next. ESSKEETIT!!!!!!!!!!

Favourite Tracks: I Love It, Drop Out, Racks On Racks, Butterfly Doors

Least Favourite Track: Too Much Ice

Score: 🤑/10. Man, I don’t know. Let’s just say 6/10, I guess.

Hozier - Wasteland, Baby!.pngHozier – Wasteland, Baby!

It’s been about 5 years since a deep-voiced Irishman invaded pop radio with an unlikely hit single about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and Hozier has finally returned with his second studio album, Wasteland, Baby! After an introductory EP that gave us the impactful and moving protest song “Nina Cried Power”, which landed on my top tracks of the year list, and the mellower track “Shrike”, the full album is a reminder of everything that we loved about the disruptive force in the mainstream music scene in the first place. Standing at 57 minutes in length, it’s hard not to see through Hozier’s formulas at times. A couple of these tracks sound a bit like a copy-and-pasted “Take Me To Church”, but there is still essentially no one else successfully occupying his lane. Most of the singer-songwriter types from 5 years ago failed to adapt, but Hozier still sounds fresh as ever.

After the fiery opener, the project drops into the track “Almost (Sweet Music)”, which, if we’re connecting these tracks to his older material, is this album’s “Jackie and Wilson”. I still think that’s Hozier’s greatest song, so I don’t much mind the adherence to formula here. Hozier’s voice is pretty unparalleled in its expressiveness. Set over some sunny acoustic chords, when those soulful backing vocals come in to support him in the second verse it’s hard not to get lost in this ode to music itself – Hozier is essentially running through a list of his favourite songs in the lyrics. Hozier has mastered this inexplicable thing in quite a few of his songs, this kind of eerie feeling as he sings some powerful, larger-than-life lyrics in a minor key. “Movement” displays this perfectly as he sings about the effect his partner’s love has on him, but even as he’s celebrating it he sounds almost a little scared of it, an all-encompassing thing about to take over his body and make him do involuntary things – that’s the vibe that almost all of Hozier’s big-concept songs give off. It’s a pretty good formula to follow. The longer track “No Plan” is another soulful jam session that keeps a strong start going. I love that fuzzy lead guitar, reminds of a Black Keys song.

As the project progresses and we hit the middle section, we get an opportunity to focus a lot more on that beautiful tone with a series of calmer songs beginning with the dramatic and minimal “As It Was”. This track sounds almost like something out of Lord of the Rings as Hozier seems to be singing about a love that persisted through some unknown dark and evil fog: “the otherness came”, he ominously sings. It’s an absolutely chilling song. “Talk” is another pretty strong track by the delivery of those background “hey-yeaaaaa”s alone.

There are certainly a couple tracks here that don’t quite hit the same level of gravitas that I come to expect from a Hozier song, or serve as a tonal counterpart to an earlier track that doesn’t hit quite as hard. The chorus of the track “To Noise Making (Sing)” is seriously awkward, replacing Hozier’s usual strong lyricism with the repetition of a single word, and the way the backing vocals in a nasal higher octave are mixed louder than Hozier’s own voice is a strange choice. By the time we get to tracks like “Be” and “Sunlight” at the end of the album’s runtime and we start to hear the same crunchy effects on the guitar and the same tactics of extending those higher, choral notes in the background that we’ve heard elsewhere in the album, I start to wonder if it needed to be this long. Nonetheless, Hozier’s voice is always a treat to listen to regardless. “Would That I” is a great, emotionally delivered track that breaks up the monotony at the end as well.

The opening run of 4 tracks on this thing alone is enough to make me wonder why I’ve seen some of the more mixed reviews on this project floating around on the internet. Hozier is a refreshing presence in the world of mainstream music and I sincerely hope he’s not gone for as long until the next one.

Favourite Tracks: Nina Cried Power, Movement, As It Was, Almost (Sweet Music), No Plan

Least Favourite Track: To Noise Making (Sing)

Score: 8/10

Bad Bunny – X 100PRE

X100pre.jpgOne of the biggest musical trends over the previous year was pop music beginning to draw from many different aspects of various Latin-American genres, perhaps none more so than Latin trap. Already a global superstar, it was Bad Bunny’s feature verse on Cardi B’s “I Like It” that turned him into a household name in North America, and he shows off a diverse range of sounds from his native Puerto Rico across his first official full-length project, bridging the gap between them with his distinctively lower register and charismatic Auto-Crooned sound. The title a Spanish shorthand meaning “Por siempre”, or “Forever”, X 100PRE isn’t at all structured like your typical pop album, more like a shifting, changing playlist – many of these tracks have abrupt beat switches, and the flow of sounds from one track to the next is somewhat disjointed. While that does bring me out of the experience a bit, this is certainly a solid and wide-reaching debut.

Opener “NI BIEN NI MAL” is a pretty perfect example of the important presence Bad Bunny serves in the music industry right now, built primarily on some traditional acoustic Latin-sounding chords with the odd interspersed heavy trap beat that always complements these sounds so well, Bad Bunny sing-rapping a catchy, repetitive tune on top. The track eventually morphs into a more minimal, industrial hip-hop track and then a calming string section in its instrumental without the vocal track changing much, showing just how malleable Bad Bunny’s voice is – it’s strangely soothing even when in a more aggressive, hip-hop influenced register, and can fit over almost anything. He shows off his laid-back register at its peak on the track “Otra Noche en Miami”, the chorus a more electronic synth-based explosion as he repeats the title, sounding like he’s relaxing by the beach and taking the city in – the track reminds me of something from The Weeknd’s STARBOY.  Drake is honestly a pretty perfect guest to join him on the single “MIA” which closes the project – even as both sing in Spanish, their voices and the charismatic energy they are clearly bringing to the track match each other in a surprisingly great way.

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In the next few tracks after the opener, we get “200 MPH”, which comes with a Diplo feature, “Caro”, with surprise vocals from none other than Ricky Martin, and one of the experiments that doesn’t really work, “Tenemos Que Hablar”, which ventures into what almost sounds like a 2000s-era alternative rock territory with a watered-down guitar riff and out-of-place trap beat.

While the project does run throughout various areas of reggaeton, bachata and dembow music – that same reggaeton beat you hear on every pop track isn’t quite dead yet when Bad Bunny augments it with some of his most emotional vocals on “Si Estuviésemos Juntos” – he is at his best dropping the high-energy trap bangers we know him for. The track “¿Quien Tu Eres?” is a shorter one that packs a serious punch, the beat dropping just as he raises his voice up into this higher-pitched yelp as he celebrates his success.

There are quite a few moments on the project where it loses direction a bit with a beat switch or the track listing’s order putting some sounds that aren’t incredibly complementary beside each other in the track listing, making it tougher to rank favourite tracks since so many of the greatest musical moments here come as part of a longer track that also features a strange diversion from what the track was trying to accomplish. Ricky Martin’s appearance on “Caro” is one of these moments, the track abruptly dropping in tempo to deliver the slower ballad pace Martin is more known for before Bad Bunny closes the track with a very brief return to the original high-energy section. “Solo de Mi” is split into two very good sections with completely opposite tones, vaulting into a chaotic hip-hop beat for less than a minute after a more emotional ballad – I’m all for a good beat switch, but there has to at least be a tiny bit of a through-line.

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“La Romana” is another track that begins excellently with one of the most fun Latin trap beats over this maddeningly catchy picked mariachi guitar pattern complete with airhorns as the beat drops, but glitches out Bad Bunny’s verse early and diverts into this more straightforward, percussive ragga/riddim section delivered by El Alfa that goes on for too long. The track listing probably could have been shortened as well – as much fun as Bad Bunny always sounds like he’s having, when he’s attacking a few of these Latin trap instrumentals with more of a melodic angle to complement a beat that isn’t quite so active, on tracks like “Ser Bichote”, the language barrier loses me a bit when I don’t have lyrics to spice up a less immediately exciting instrumental.

Alongside J Balvin, Bad Bunny has emerged as one of the Latin stars poised for continued dominance in a post-Despacito world, and the range of his talents on this project is a clear indicator of why. You could throw him on any vaguely Latin track and he’d turn it into a hit. Despite some structural qualms, this is the sound of an artist just getting started.

Favourite Tracks: NI BIEN NI MAL, ¿Quien Tu Eres?, Otra Noche en Miami, La Romana, MIA

Least Favourite Track: Tenemos Que Hablar

Score: 7/10

21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

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It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10

Kodak Black – Dying To Live

Kodak Black – Dying to Live.pngKodak Black delivers yet another late-year high-profile rap release with his sophomore full-length studio album Dying to Live. Last year’s Painting Pictures was easily one of my least favourite albums of the entire year, which is why it’s surprising that there are as many enjoyable tracks on this new project as there are. Kodak is still decidedly unmusical, distracting from the process with his grating and nasal voice and tending to fall off the beat at times, but he’s saved quite a few times here by some spectacular instrumentals and an embrace of his quirky and quotable side on some more fun, upbeat tracks. There’s still a plethora of misguided decisions and drawn-out introspective cuts that fall flat, as well as a few occasions where it becomes nearly impossible to separate the art from the deeply troubled artist, but at least it’s far from the complete unlistenability of his last project.

The opening run of 5 tracks are easily some of the album’s best and a seriously surprising rise in competence from his past works. Opening track “Testimony” takes a religious turn as Kodak exorcises his demons. He takes up a catchy Auto-crooned melody over an engaging and contemplative beat that introduces this unique funk-inspired synth tone halfway through – it reminds me of one of Zaytoven’s soulful piano melodies. “Identity Theft” keeps up the throwback vibes going with some seriously old-school percussion noises, a syncopated electric piano rhythm, and an Asian-inspired flute melody – it’s one of the best beats I’ve heard all year, and Kodak rises to the occasion with some funny lines here and there.

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It transitions pretty seamlessly into “Gnarly” with Lil Pump, which should be added to every New Year’s Eve party playlist with its immediately sticky hook, fun-loving delivery from both artists and hazy, ethereal synth textures. And of course, we all love the steel-drum instrumental so good it became a meme before the track’s release on “ZEZE” – Offset delivers a pretty great verse, but it’s the beat that keeps me engaged throughout. The track “This Forever”, despite an engaging spacey trap instrumental from London on da Track, emphasizes just how much Kodak is getting helped out by the beats here when it cuts out for a second and he just loses the flow completely.

Things get a lot more inconsistent after the opening run. Single “Take One” is another one where Kodak can’t quite measure up to the beat – on multiple tracks here, Kodak just sounds awkward in the moments where the heavier percussion cuts out for a second, like something’s just barely off rhythmically when it isn’t drowned out by the tempo of the hi-hats. “Transgression” is another innovative instrumental, anchored by what sounds like a pitched sample of someone shouting excitedly embellished with some soulful piano chords, but the same thing happens. When Kodak tries to divert from the formula, things get even more misguided. The track “MoshPit” essentially sees him adapt to the melodic style a featured artist Juice WRLD over a more cheerful, pop-rap oriented beat, and I just can’t listen to Kodak’s singing voice – or Juice’s ridiculous lyrics on his verse, for that matter – for the whole duration of a track when there’s not much to support him.

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The final two tracks “Needing Something” and the grammatically incorrect “Could Of Been Different” are even more inexplicable. “Needing Something” has this R&B slow jam beat, but Kodak honestly sounds like he came in a full beat early and never realized, the hi-hats hitting at the wrong time in his flow. He attempts a double-time flow on the closer and has nowhere near the level of musicality he needs to pull it off, the track just sounding like a jumbled and arrhythmic mess. However, it might be the tracks where you’re reminded of just who Kodak is that are the most off-putting. The tracks “In The Flesh” and “From The Cradle” are laden with sexual boasts, but it’s his lines on the latter about impregnating his exes so they stay with him – especially when he says they “deserve it” – that too easily bring up Kodak’s criminal charges. The track “Malcolm X.X.X”, where he actually compares deceased rapper and fellow abuser XXXTENTACION to Malcolm X, complete with interspersed Malcolm speeches, is another pretty shocking one.

I’ve still got to give credit where it’s due, however, and despite a few blatant exceptions this project is a huge step up from his last studio album. I wish I could listen to an instrumental version of it – this could be a legitimately great project with a better rapper at the helm.

Favourite Tracks: Gnarly, Identity Theft, ZEZE, Testimony

Least Favourite Track: Could Of Been Different

Score: 6/10

Gucci Mane – Evil Genius

Image result for gucci mane evil geniusAtlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s output since being relased from jail in 2016 has been so prolific that the timespan of just under a full year since his last project is an unusually long gap for him. It’s certainly given him some of his best sales in a while. He’s stated that he was trying to link up with the best personnel he could and make one of his “best projects ever”, but I’m not sure he accomplished that despite the time off. Evil Genius is one of the safest and by-the-numbers rap albums I’ve heard all year, Gucci toning down the more comical and cartoonish sides of his lyrics and delivery to fit into more of a generic trap mold. Across 17 tracks, it’s pretty difficult to tell most of them apart. One of the things that is most appealing to me about Gucci, especially on his features, is his effortless charisma and mic presence – most of that is lost here.

One of the reasons Gucci works so well as a feature is how different from most rappers his delivery actually is, adding to the variation in approaches on any given track – across this project, as usual he’s more laid back and yet possesses this kind of 21 Savage-esque coldness. One of my favourite Gucci tracks is actually his “Finesse The Plug Interlude”, where he delivers threats with a kind of cheerful shrug and high intonation. But carrying a full project by himself, his somewhat sleepy tone gets a little boring – especially when there’s no interesting instrumentals to keep him afloat.

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The two opening tracks “Off The Boat” and “By Myself” are pretty good examples of what’s wrong with this project – both of them have pretty every-day, bass-heavy and relatively empty trap instrumentals that you could hear anywhere else, and their lack of variation and relatively low energy make Gucci’s quieter flows blend in to the background and his sudden bursts of energy feel out of place. The latter ends with some comically over-enunciated words and a shouted playground chant of a flow over an incredibly minimal beat. My favourite track on here is actually “Father’s Day”, an interlude-length track with a spastic and upbeat instrumental from Metro Boomin where Gucci reaches his energetic peak on the chorus as he emphatically proclaims his status as the one who started a wave – just as I was getting into it on my first listen, it ended.

As expected, some of the features here add spice to what Gucci brings to the table and contribute to some of the better tracks. “BiPolar” is enlivened by some quicker hi-hats than usual from OG Parker, but especially Quavo’s melodic interjections on the chorus to enhance Gucci’s more static flow and keep the rhythm afloat. Kevin Gates’ in-your-face presence and quicker flow on the track “I’m Not Goin’” is a welcome addition, especially in comparison to Gucci’s awful singing voice on the chorus, and Youngboy NBA fulfills a similar role on the track “Cold Shoulder”, where Gucci actually gives a pretty great performance to match – the addition of a quick triplet at the end of a couple lines in the chorus is something that I could only expect from someone like him. This is one of the best beats on the project as well, some creeping low synth tones raising the stakes. Single “Wake Up In The Sky” with Bruno Mars and Kodak Black is Gucci’s peak aesthetic, and a fun enough track even if I wanted Mars to show off a little more. An effortlessly cool, laid-back track, all three artists dial their voice back to a too-cool-to-care, relaxed cadence and completely sell it.

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Most of these tracks feel like filler when they’re so short, Gucci rattling off one or two repetitive choruses with some low-effort verses in between before we immediately move on to another half-baked idea. The run from “On God” to “Lost Y’all Mind” gives me whiplash from how quickly these ideas are created and abandoned before anything is developed properly. Most of these tracks honestly aren’t too bad – “Lost Y’all Mind” might be my favourite track in the middle with that glitchy, melodic beat – but the fact that they sound so similar and end quickly like a couple focus groups went through a checklist and each presented their own version of a Gucci song makes me wish there was a little more variety and innovation across the board here. By the time we get to the end of the tracklisting I’m seriously tired of the excessive number of tracks with the same skillset being presented – tracks like “This the Night”, “Mad Russian”, and “Lord” are seriously uninspired and could easily have been cut.

There’s been a few average rap albums as the year comes to a close and it looks like there’s still going to be a few more – the genre’s seriously taken the year over, with high-profile releases coming almost every week. Evil Genius doesn’t do enough to make the personality of one of the most personality-driven rappers stand out from the rest, and it’s pretty disappointing as a result.

Favourite Tracks: Father’s Day, Lost Y’all Mind, Wake Up In The Sky

Least Favourite Track: By Myself

Score: 3/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The 1975, Meek Mill, Rita Ora)

Image result for the 1975 a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

British pop-rock band The 1975’s third studio album is easily their most experimental and ambitious, diverting from the typical straightforward guitar-driven anthems to a diverse and discordant array of genres with central themes of attacking the political landscape and our dedication to social media and technology. I’ve often found that the band has tried way too hard to make a huge statement that isn’t really there in the past, but frontman Matty Healy gets his message across a lot better here for the most part. Despite a couple experiments that don’t quite work out the way the band wants them to and a fair share of fake-enlightened ridiculousness, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a respectable step forward. I certainly didn’t see anything like this coming from them.

After a brief intro, we’re dropped into the high-pitched guitar riff of “Give Yourself A Try”, perhaps the track which recalls their earlier material the most of any here. A driving rock song, Healy’s voice cuts through the distorted mix as he immediately dives into some pretty dark topics, addressing struggling with finding meaning as he transitions into his 30s, even comparing his life with a young fan who took her own. It’s hard to understand the lyrics at times here when the mixes are so loud. Healy’s voice gets a little buried at times, but most of what he says is very pressing and poetic. The track “Love It If We Made It” has found its way onto numerous year-end lists, Healy singing “modernity has failed us” among a series of blunt and disjointed statements including Trump quotes, depictions of extravagant riches and Internet lingo. Healy pushes his vocals to the brink here – he sounds overwhelmed, breaking down, the song’s title repeated in the chorus as a desperate plea of sorts. The accompanying music is pretty great too – I love the half-time switch-up introduced in the second chorus, adding a funk bassline and some pounding walls of shimmering synth chords.

Sprinkled throughout the tracklisting are these completely unexpected switches in sound. “How To Draw/Petrichor” is a sparse and cinematic track that spans nearly 6 minutes that consists of twinkling orchestral instrumentals and beautifully layered vocals from Healy, ultimately adding an almost drum n bass dance beat – it complements the technological theme well, the digital intruding. One of my favourite experiments the band makes here is the addition of choral, soulful backing vocals on the tracks “Sincerity Is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love”. The former is framed by some warm synth-piano chords and that accommodate the harmonies well, Healy toning down his vocals to an intimate and sincere level as he asks “why can’t we be friends?”, while the latter uses them to their full emotional effect, suddenly roaring in after an emotional soul ballad that goes full 90s R&B on the instrumental (there’s even a key change!). The track “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is another great experiment, essentially sounding like a classic 80s pop anthem – the chorus melody actually really reminds me of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, and it captures the same euphoric high, with some celebratory harmonized gang vocals on the hook.

There are certainly a few experiments in genre that don’t really work out as well, however. The acoustic, folksy ballad “Be My Mistake” is relatively simple and repetitive melodically, and Healy’s penchant for the overtly blunt drops a few ridiculous lyrics into the mix that are all the more evident due to the minimal instrumental. I really didn’t think I’d get a trap beat on an album like this, but there it is on “I Like America & America Likes Me”. Healy’s vocals on the track are processed through some kind of Bon Iver-esque machine, and the tonal contrast, especially as he keeps hitting the same wailing vocal melody in the chorus with an unpleasant amount of distortion on his voice, turns the track into a bit of a chaotic mess. “Inside Your Mind” is another slower track where Healy sounds like he’s putting on a different voice, over-enunciating his words, which just gives me the chills due to the creepy subject material of the track. Healy described it as “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much that you want to smash their head open to look” – except he takes it to a disturbingly literal level.

As the band has always been, most of this album is pretty self-indulgent, and when they start exercising some of their worst tendencies the project can go off the rails a bit. However, it’s almost as if the world has gotten so much more confusing and ridiculous that some of their typical ways to address it almost fit too perfectly where they didn’t before. This album is certainly nothing if not ambitious, and its high points are pretty incredible.

Favourite Tracks: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, Love It If We Made It, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), Sincerity Is Scary, How To Draw/Petrichor

Least Favourite Track: Inside Your Mind

Score: 7/10

Meek Mill – Championships.pngMeek Mill – Championships

Meek Mill’s Championships is his fourth studio album, and the rapper returns with as much unbridled energy as before. Never afraid to get deeply personal, the project contains quite a few detailed narratives of his experiences in jail, extending it to a criticism of the justice system at large after an FBI investigation into the inappropriate conduct of his judge. While his lyrics and storytelling are always a strength, the album is a bit of a mixed bag standing at 19 tracks and over an hour in length. Meek’s boastful tracks are always fun to listen to when he backs it up with the over-the-top, insatiable delivery that he possesses, but there are more than a few misses where things go on for too long, or a guest vocalist doesn’t quite deliver. Still, there are a fair share of tracks here that are enjoyable for vastly different reasons.

Meek sends a shot at “mumble rappers” on his Phil Collins-sampling “Intro” track, and if anyone is the exact opposite, it’s him. Meek’s voice is always at a full-voiced and expressive shout that’s assertive without veering into the abrasive 6ix9ine territory and assists in delivering both his earnest and emotional life stories and his braggadocio bars. Things pick up for the first time on “Uptown Vibes”, a track that Meek’s energy sends through the roof built on a melodic, Hispanic-sounding trumpet loop and a beat that switches back and forth from aggressive trap to reggaeton – Latin trap artist Anuel AA even shows up to add some Spanish flair to the track. This transitions into “On Me” with Cardi B, and I couldn’t think of a better combination – these two are equivalents in the vitriol with which they attack the mic, and the sinister instrumental allows them each to do what they do best, as unapologetic and unbothered as ever. As much as I can never stand Kodak Black’s voice, “Tic Tac Toe” is another adrenaline shot that introduces another great back-to-back with the track “24/7” with Ella Mai. There’s something about her silky-smooth classic R&B vocals on the chorus complementing Meek’s exuberance. Mai taps into her inner Beyonce, singing a bit of her song “Me Myself & I”, which the track samples.

“What’s Free” is a 6-minute track that represents storytelling Meek at his finest as he recruits label boss Rick Ross and Jay-Z for some extended verses on the meaning of freedom. Meek attacks the judicial system with some slavery comparisons, while Jay-Z shuts the track down with some elder statesman knowledge about keeping his wealth secure and avoiding the injustices. The title track, as well, is a pretty poignant reflection from Meek on the system that holds him down over an extravagant and jazzy classic sample, speaking about his father’s death in a robbery, gun control, and simply trying to stay alive in the violent community. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” hits a similar mark with a soulful sample and political talk, but Meek’s technical ability as he rides over a pretty complex instrumental seriously impresses here.

This album definitely would have benefited from some editing down – at a certain point, these three and four-minute tracks with Meek running through lengthy verses of political material with his voice at a constant shout starts to feel repetitive and tiresome to get through – it’s why I enjoy some of the more fun tracks at the end of the tracklisting more than most of them here, I needed a bit of a break (“Stuck In My Ways” has a quotable chorus that you can’t help but love). Meek doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on his diverse instrumentals, all of what he’s trying to convey is done through his words first and foremost – which works, in shorter doses. Some more minimal tracks with heavy subject matter like “Respect the Game” and “100 Summers” come to mind. There was bound to be a few filler tracks here, and they mostly come when Meek loses sight of his strengths. “Almost Slipped” is the first of a couple tracks where Meek tries his hand at singing and only succeeds at coming across as an off-brand Ty Dolla $ign – why remove that immediate, percussive impact of your words? Even “Going Bad”, the much-publicized reunion with Drake after a series of diss tracks, is a pretty lackluster effort from both of them, Drake dipping back into his disinterested flow and a few off-key melodic embellishments while Meek sounds like he’s holding back just a little bit to fit with the lower-key instrumental.

Meek is a serious mic presence and a compelling storyteller, but he’s not the most consistent rapper of all time. There’s a great album hiding somewhere in this tracklisting, but Championships diverts away from what he does best too often.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck In My Ways, 24/7, Uptown Vibes, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies

Least Favourite Track: 100 Summers

Score: 6/10

Rita Ora Phoenix cover.pngRita Ora – Phoenix

It’s surprising that Phoenix is only Rita Ora’s second studio album – after label disputes with Roc Nation and signing a new contract overseas, where she’s always been a lot more popular, her sophomore release comes 6 years after her first. Although its clear that this is more of a collection of songs than a fully defined album, pulling from collaborations, movie soundtracks, and songs that are over a year old at times, for the most part Ora recruits an impressive legion of some of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business and succeeds at creating some pretty smart and engaging, if not relatively safe, pop music.

All these tracks were new to me, despite some of them being released long ago – and some being huge international hits away from this continent. Opening track “Anywhere” is one of these, but it’s a great way to kick off this album regardless. Produced by Swedish DJ Alesso, the track evades some of the clichés of the pop song bridge building into the instrumental EDM drop with a nice acoustic transition and Ora’s sincere vocal delivery. The way Alesso chops up her vocals in his electronic chorus is ridiculously catchy. This transitions into latest single “Let You Love Me”, which despite that recent lip-syncing mess at the Thanksgiving Day parade is another well-structured pop track drawing from a more EDM style. The way the music cuts out when she hits the climactic highest note in the chorus before dropping into the heavy percussion of the dance break section is a pretty exhilarating moment, and I’m still not tired of the trend of using those vocoder/Prismizer computerized harmonies either – they sound great at the tail end of the track.

Even when the songwriting and production isn’t as strong, it’s hard not to at least nod your head throughout the duration of the album. These are all uptempo, high-octane pop tracks anchored around the strength of Ora’s voice – she has a surprising amount of power for someone who sticks to the dance-pop lane. The high-energy chorus for a track like “New Look” is puzzlingly short, but it’s great while it lasts. “Your Song”, a track written with Ed Sheeran and his production team, is pretty sanitized and inoffensive, but there’s nothing in it that’s overtly bad – as we progress through the album, the innovation goes down and most of these songs turn into background music, but there’s something in Ora’s delivery that keeps me engaged anyway even if there’s not going to be any awards for creativity here. By the time we get to mid-album tracks like “First Time High” though, the formulas are applied worse and worse and the transition to the electronic drop here is a bit of a mess.

There are a few songs throughout that take me out of the immersion of the album – as innovative as Avicii was, “Lonely Together” was one of his weakest recent tracks, and its placement in such a prominent area here despite already being released on his own album both decreases the quality of Ora’s project and unnerves me a bit for capitalizing on an unfortunate situation. “Summer Love”, a track with UK drum ‘n’ bass collective Rudimental, is another track that was released on another album first and doesn’t fit with the sound of the album at all, completely throwing the flow off. Rudimental themselves have a pretty solidified style that doesn’t switch up much from track to track, and hearing the same reiterated beat that I’ve heard before isn’t as exciting anymore. On the other hand, for a track from a movie soundtrack, the Fifty Shades Freed song “For You” with Liam Payne is actually pretty good. The syncopated and overpowering synth line in the chorus and Ora reaching up to some full-voiced high-notes, as well as the way Payne’s lower register complements and supports Ora so well, continues the franchise’s musical hot streak.

After getting through controversial and clunky mega-collaboration track “Girls”, the album ends pretty strong as well – Julia Michaels’ vocals are always appreciated on “Keep Talking”, a track that she wrote, but closer “Hell of a Life” is a true highlight – I love how the main vocal hook is teased earlier in the pre-chorus and cut off, and the off-kilter guitar pattern is a nice rhythmic switch-up.

Phoenix is a weird amalgamation of tracks from a star with a troubled career trajectory (in North America at least), but there’s enough pop starpower on board to make a few great songs – still, a lot of it is bogged down by filler material.

Favourite Tracks: Anywhere, For You (Fifty Shades Freed), Hell Of A Life, Let You Love Me

Least Favourite Track: First Time High

Score: 6/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Takeoff, Imagine Dragons, Muse)

Image result for takeoff the last rocketTakeoff – The Last Rocket

The second of three solo albums from the members of ultra-popular rap trio Migos, Takeoff’s project is thankfully shorter than most of the rap odysseys his label drops all too often and is easily more enjoyable than the preceding album from Quavo. Takeoff is perhaps the Migo with the most technical ability, but the least personality. The latter certainly shows here with some repetitive and uncreative bars at times, but getting to hear just how well Takeoff can use that rapid-fire triplet flow that we usually get as a brief cap to a Migos track across a full album and some fun instrumentals is enough to establish himself as a threat on the level of his two more well-known counterparts.

The project kicks off with “Martian” after some recordings of a literal rocket ship takeoff, a more minimal track that introduces us well to Takeoff’s rhythmic ability well early on. A surprisingly hard-hitting beat despite not being much more than a creeping, menacing bassline and traditional trap hi-hats, Takeoff’s flow doesn’t stop, and it’s exciting each time the beat hits and kicks off another run of speedy triplets. Takeoff has a great rap voice, a huskier low tone that always serves as a great counterpart to the more hyperactive members of his group, and it both fits in well with some darker instrumentals than usual here and makes it endearing when we finally get to see him inject some personality and emotion of his own onto these tracks. A track like “Vacation” is a lot of fun for the first reason, featuring a slightly orchestral minor-key instrumental and chilling piano from Murda Beatz as Takeoff’s energy is at its peak for the emphatic hook, stretching out the song’s title for hilarious effect. “Casper”, on the other hand, sees him break from the Migos tough-guy persona for a second and actually sound like he’s having fun. Hearing him deliver a line like “Decided what I’m gonna do today!” with genuine mirth and inspiration and just as much technical skill as the other tracks makes me want to return to it more, just as a break from the endless barrage of Migos material we typically get.

The closing few tracks are some of the best, demonstrating Takeoff’s consistency delivering track after track of technical trap showcases. Buddah Bless is quickly becoming one of my favourite new producers with his trademark flute style, and his “Insomnia” stands out here. “Infatuation”, though, is something completely unexpected – an energetic, upbeat fully synthpop track mostly featuring unknown singer Dayytona Fox. These poppy, bouncy tracks always accommodate the Migos flow better than you’d expect, and everything about this track comes together into a dancefloor-ready standout.

The Quavo-assisted “She Gon Wink” is one of the weaker tracks here, further demonstrating just how well Takeoff actually manages to excel on his own. Takeoff adapts more to Quavo’s slower, melodic style on the track and it just makes me wonder why it wasn’t on Quavo’s album. It’s not something I want to be hearing after waiting for Takeoff to get his opportunity to shine for a while, after being a highlight in so many Migos tracks. “None to Me” is another track where he puts a little more of a sing-song angle into his flows which doesn’t land particularly well, actually sending him off the beat a little in a few areas of the track. The purest rapper of the group, he doesn’t seem to realize that adherence to the Migos formula isn’t necessary at all times to make a good track – this should be an opportunity to exhibit his own style first and foremost, especially with the smaller number of tracks here. A track like “I Remember”, as well, is where we see him get laziest with the lyricism here, the hook, consisting only of those two words, taking up most of the space of the song.

With so much similar, uninspired content coming this year from the Quality Control label, I enjoyed The Last Rocket a lot more than I expected to, reminding me that half the reason we were all so drawn to Migos in the first place was that they can actually rap pretty well. I’m glad Takeoff finally got his time in the spotlight.

Favourite Tracks: Casper, Infatuation, Vacation, Insomnia, Lead The Wave

Least Favourite Track: I Remember

Score: 7/10

Origins cover.pngImagine Dragons – Origins

For the last little while now, pop-rock band Imagine Dragons have been some of the only people who manage to score high-charting hits with any semblance of a guitar in their music. With their fourth studio album, Origins, they continue to sell well after diluting the sound into something so easily consumable that they’ve become just about the only option in the eyes of most people who aren’t completely immersed in the genre. The band exploded back onto the scene last year with “Believer” after the sales dropped off for their 2nd album, and haven’t looked back since, adhering to the same painful formulas over and over. You know how it goes: some sweeping, contemplative and slightly soul-oriented chords as Reynolds begins quietly, then throws in a complete tonal shift and suddenly starts yelling. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but Origins might be even more obnoxious than their last project, Evolve.

Opening track and lead single “Natural” is honestly not too bad – much like their lead last year being one of the better songs on the album. It’s almost as if they structure an entire album around their lead single, creating 10 more imitations of it that never measure up. It’s one of the only tracks here that has a build-up to the loud part that genuinely works, Reynolds’ vocals gradually getting more intense before the chorus drops. I really do like the way they incorporate that rhythmic minor-key guitar riff that backs the quieter intro into the chorus as the song goes on as well. It’s all downhill from there.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Reynolds’ vocals – sometimes, it seems like he could be a genuine rock frontman with the rasp and passion he naturally possesses, but other times it just sounds awful and strained when he reaches up into his upper register. It might be the fact that he takes it too far for the calmer instrumentals that pop up more often than usual across this album, like on the chorus for “Boomerang”. Don’t get me started on that half-time trap hi-hat beat that shows up out of nowhere for the final chorus. Then again, from there we transition into “Machine”, a more industrial number where Reynolds uses almost exclusively his louder, angry tone that sounds like he’s painfully forcing the sounds out of him, distorting his vowels and really throwing off my enjoyment of the track. You’d think with all of the experienced pop producers they bring on board now that they would be able to find a way to hit on more catchy choruses than they actually do. Most of these sound like they’re making them up on the spot, the weird deviations in melody reminding me of something like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”. “Bad Liar” is another track like this, the longest one on the album, so clearly, they thought they had something here. One of the calmest tracks the band’s ever made, it’s built on this delicate synth pattern and Reynolds’ falsetto before the energy shifts abruptly through two more phases in the chorus and pre-chorus, Reynolds drawing out his voice awkwardly on the “eye” sound of “Liar” on a strained higher note.

Imagine Dragons honestly stick a track from a movie soundtrack in the middle of their album here, not even tacked on at the end, which shows how much care went into the construction of the project as a deliberately sequenced album. Most movie soundtrack songs are clearly made with less effort into song structure with more of a general tone in mind, and this is no exception. “Zero”, from Wreck-It Ralph 2, might honestly be the worst song I’ve heard this year. An obnoxiously high-octane chorus is contrasted with a sluggish bridge where the track grinds to a halt on Reynolds’ contemplative falsetto, and immediately catapults back into the madness of the chorus. It’s pretty comical.

The rest of the back half of the album is full of ill-informed genre hopping and capitalization on long-dead trends. “West Coast” sounds like every 2011 indie-folk track, “Bullet In A Gun” a weirdly computerized EDM-esque track, “Only” oversaturated dance-pop, “Digital” is … my god … a drum ‘n’ bass pseudo-rap track … and all of them involve Reynolds yelling in my ear. There’s so much nonsense I could mention but this review is already getting way too long.

Origins is the sound of a band along for the ride, saying yes to whatever all the people who have come in to manage their immense popularity tell them to do and losing all semblance of artistic identity in the process. They’ve fully embraced their role as the new Nickelback.

Favourite Tracks: Natural, Cool Out

Least Favourite Track: Zero

Score: 2/10

A neon-coloured portrait of the members of the band in 80s-style dystopian-themed costumes, with themed electronic imagery surrounding them.Muse – Simulation Theory

Frequently evolving veteran rock band Muse undergoes yet another shift in sound from their previous harder-rock effort Drones to a more digitized electro-rock and synthpop direction. There’s always been a lot of influence from bands like Queen on frontman Matt Bellamy’s almost operatic vocal delivery, but the arena-sized ambitions of an album like Simulation Theory take it a little bit further. While Muse can often tend to go over the top into a territory of excessive cheese with their overwrought lyrical themes and melodramatics – this project being no exception – the majority of these tracks are smartly constructed pop melodies, and a more modernized sound that works a lot better for them than their last sonic experiment – all the sci-fi elements are a lot of fun too!

Opening track “Algorithm” is straight out of a Tron movie, opening with an extended instrumental featuring a driving beat that switches from a string orchestra to a fuzzy synth tone, cascading piano arpeggios and a straight-up synthesizer solo on top before Bellamy’s warm and capable vocals kick in, making everything sound immediately more intense and important in the way that only he can. This is all incredible guilty pleasure kind of stuff. “This means war – with your creator”, Bellamy emotes, because of course he does. The next track “The Dark Side” kicks the tempo up a notch, the guitar riff slightly reminiscent of their older material (think a digitized version of “Knights of Cydonia”). I really love the combinations of live drums and the more frivolous noises from a drum machine – it’s like Muse is finally learning to not take themselves so seriously. “Pressure” is a pretty incredible, dynamic track, Bellamy switching in an out of a panicked falsetto backed up by a syncopated guitar line modified to sound almost like a horn section before the track explodes into a rapid-fire melodic rock track with poppy backing vocals and a menacing, repeated whisper – “pressure building”. The band links up with Timbaland of all people for the weird and wonderful track “Propaganda”, a minimal track that sees Bellamy go full Prince with his vocal inflections over some sparse snaps, while a distorted vocal sample yelling the title fights to break into the mix. The harmonies here are fantastic.

There’s not much that measures up to the first 4 tracks in quality here, and it wouldn’t be a Muse album without a couple ambitious ideas that swing for the fence and completely fall flat. The band still insists on using the dubstep wubs they picked up when the genre exploded in popularity, and their combination with a guitar toned off-key for ominous effect on “Break It To Me” is pretty grating, especially as the track shifts through a few sections rapidly, Bellamy switching to his tender delivery for the chorus before the track turns into a Rage Against the Machine song at the end. The wubs show up to somewhat better effect on “Dig Down” later on. “Get Up and Fight” is Muse indulging their absolute worst tendencies, and while at times it’s easy to get caught up in their rousing calls to action and resistance set to a driving guitar melody, this one goes way too far into try-hard inspirational territory. This might be the most overly dramatic track they’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. “Something Human”, as well, is almost too poppy, with a campfire-side folksy quality to it that doesn’t fit Bellamy’s grandiose voice.

Single “Thought Contagion” pops up later in the tracklisting, and this is the closest thing we get to a classic, impossibly catchy Muse track. The main riff and stadium-sized singalong chorus are immediately memorable, juxtaposed with verses that have an almost hip-hop angle with some skittering hi-hats and a more rhythmic, syncopated flow from Bellamy. I can already tell it’ll be incredible live.

Simulation Theory is easily one of the band’s most enjoyable albums, now that they’re just essentially making fun music and not going overboard with some political theme. The 80s nostalgia is a great sound for them, even with a few missteps here and there.

Favourite Tracks: Pressure, Propaganda, Thought Contagion, Algorithm, The Dark Side

Least Favourite Track: Break It To Me

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Joji, Metro Boomin, Robyn)

Album art for "BALLADS 1"Joji – BALLADS 1

One of ascendant label 88Rising’s biggest artists, Joji, drops his debut full-length studio album BALLADS 1 which exhibits his unique, lo-fi approach to modern R&B, pop and hip-hop music. A former YouTube star famous for his surreal, absurdist comedy, you can certainly still sense some of his over-the-top personality in his lyrics, but Joji has done all he can to distance himself from his past as Filthy Frank and the comedy rap alias Pink Guy. Teaming up with some diverse collaborators, this is a very wide-reaching range of sounds, some of them more adaptable to his unhinged and emotional approach than others. Joji’s vocals are very raw and often a little off-key, and there are more than a few mixing and mastering issues here, but half the time it strangely fits, the nihilistic and moody aesthetic all clicking together in the right way regardless.

The opening track “Attention” is a pretty good indication that most of the project is pretty hastily thrown together – Joji’s vocals are more off than on most of the tracks here, and you can tell due to the minimal pop-piano backing track, while the distorted bass that rumbles in halfway through is far too loud and throws off the mix completely. Still, underneath all of the mess, there’s a pretty catchy melody there. The next track “Slow Dancing In The Dark”, on the other hand, is so beautiful it seriously caught me off guard from this meme master of an artist. The explosion of those digital, 80s synths and the lighter, cascading textures as he hits the climactic note in the chorus is one of the craziest musical moments of the year – it’s a completely unique spin on the moody alt-R&B ballads that have coloured the charts recently. “Come Thru” is another great track in the same vein here, some plaintive synth piano-notes and sparse percussion knocking on the off-beat backing up an Auto-Tuned falsetto melody – everything about the song is just barely off-kilter, and it fits the emotional tone of the track for that reason.

Joji additionally attacks sounds of more traditional synthpop and trap here, and while showing he has a great command of melody and song structure, the vocals and mixing can let him down on the more minimal or derivative tracks. Joji duets with kindred spirit Trippie Redd on “R.I.P.” – the two are similar in that they sacrifice vocal performance for authentic and raw emotion, often to an extreme degree. I’m not going to argue that he sounds great on upbeat pop tracks like “Can’t Get Over You” and “No Fun”, but the carefree nature of his vocals, especially when he starts throwing some deceptively sadder lyrics into these standout, bouncier mixes, creates something that is recognizably Joji. The aching falsetto on a track like “Why Am I Still In LA”, especially over such an arrhythmic, lurching and distorted instrumental that verges on noise rock, is a truly haunting and affecting moment, the sudden musical explosions mirroring his clearly genuine anguish. Most of this album isn’t exactly what you’d call replayable, but it’s something I’ll remember for a while.

Favourite Tracks: Slow Dancing In The Dark, Can’t Get Over You, No Fun, Why Am I Still In LA, Come Thru

Least Favourite Track: I’ll See You In 40

Score: 7/10

Cover of Not All HeroesMetro Boomin – Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Trap producer extraordinaire Metro Boomin drops his first solo album after having his name attached to numerous collab projects over the past few years. Possibly the most recognizable music producer by name at the moment, you can likely credit most of the rise of trap as a popular genre to his influence, particularly his early work with Future. After threatening retirement … or at least, just a break of some sort … in the midst of his hit songs dominating the charts, Metro returns rather quickly with a collection of tracks that are a little more low-key for his style, but still play into his trademarks of murky and menacing basslines and the odd soul sample thrown into the mix. Metro is a bonafide hitmaker, but I can’t help but feel most of these tracks don’t have the same kind of immediately iconic and innovative techniques that help him spice up the genre that you can find on most of his hits. He still gets some great performances out of his collaborators – 21 Savage steals the show on every feature here – but this is the first time I’ve heard Metro beats and felt just a little bored.

People are drawn to Metro’s instrumentals because they put something unexpected into the formula – usually, something that sparks a trend that everyone else ends up following. More often than not here, it feels like he’s being safer than ever, and even following some trends himself. The first two tracks, “10AM/Save The World” and “Overdue” both have elements of soul sampling in them, but the first track is split into two distinct sections, Metro briefly showing his flipping talents after a by-the-numbers opening track featuring a sleepy Gucci Mane feature that doesn’t capture his usual charisma. “Overdue” splices a sample through the whole track, exciting me with those opening moments of that delicate and breathy vocal performance, but it continues to cut in and out after the beat drops despite being the aspect that complements it the most and saves it from a pretty average performance from Travis Scott.

As for chasing trends, Metro deviating from his sound proves to be a pretty bad idea in his attempts to make a Latin pop track with Wizkid and J Balvin on “Only You” – it’s blander than he’s ever been, and far from his area of expertise. Most of these tracks could easily blow up – those hi-hats hit as hard as Metro’s ever have, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like something only he could have made anymore. “Dreamcatcher” harnesses a great hook from Swae Lee and a fun Travis Scott verse, but it doesn’t have that same level of excitement. The back half of the album could essentially be found on any hit trap project this year.

There are still quite a few sparks of creativity across the board here. “Don’t Come Out The House” is a constantly switching-up track that sees him team up with 21 Savage and re-embrace his eerie horror-movie influenced sound, Savage hilariously leaning into his over-the-top nefarious persona with a whispered flow. 21 Savage’s other solo track “10 Freaky Girls” is the best sample flip here, taking inspiration from the 90s synth-piano textures of a lesser-known Whitney Houston track as Savage continues to deliver some hysterical punchlines and an upbeat, present flow. Those brief, weird scream sounds are such an interesting touch, and the horn section is one of those unexpected embellishments that only Metro could throw in halfway through and have work so well. “Space Cadet” is ridiculously fun, featured artist Gunna going full Young Thug with some off-the-wall vocal inflections and an audible smile on his face as he makes boasts over some shimmering synth chords and appropriately galactic bleeps and bloops.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a perfectly serviceable trap project from a man who understands the genre better than most, and in most scenarios, it’ll still enliven a room – I just have high expectations for Metro after his unstoppable run of tracks that were both wildly popular and creative.

Favourite Tracks: 10 Freaky Girls, Space Cadet, Don’t Come Out The House, Dreamcatcher

Least Favourite Track: Only You

Score: 5/10

Cover of Honey by RobynRobyn – Honey

Iconic and influential Swedish pop singer Robyn makes her comeback – it’s been 8 years since her last solo full-length project, Body Talk, though she has dropped an EP and a brief collaboration with equally experimental electropop duo Royksopp in that time. Listening to this new project, Honey, it’s easy to see just how much of the current landscape of experimental electropop owes its existence to some of Robyn’s earlier work, discarding the pop formula at the time and injecting a new degree of emotional catharsis to some upbeat, synth-infused tracks – it’s the earliest form of what singers like Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Tove Lo do now. The project consists of only 9 tracks, but each of them are a fully established, shimmering dance-pop world that shifts and changes with a very warm and full sound. It’s easy to think that this project is dated, and a few of these longer tracks do get slightly tiresome after a while, but Robyn is still doing some pretty incredible things in the pop music world.

Most of the emotion Robyn is able to convey is truly due to her voice, which is more than holding up. A breathy yet powerful soprano, it’s the perfect instrument to triumphantly soar over the pulsating disco-influenced synths that are frequently backing her up. The opening track “Missing U” is a pop song from another time, Robyn hitting a catchy and straightforward pop rhythm over a booming synth bassline and a quickly oscillating higher-pitched synth texture that never goes away even when it falls out of key with the rest of the track, but it works perfectly as both a driving force anchored to the thumping percussion and something that’s just out of place to line up with the lyrical themes. “Because It’s in the Music” is even more transcendent, containing what’s easily one of the greatest pop choruses of the year. Robyn slowly ascends up the scales with a huge degree of emotional conviction as she sings about defines most of her career – a song that simultaneously makes you want to move … and cry. One of the most evidently disco-influenced tracks here, Robyn’s vocals are light as air as some orchestral stabs and a persistent funk bassline build her up to her bigger moments.

Most of the project comes across in this ethereal, very full-sounding dreamscape and a lot of that is due to some pretty impressive harmonies. Even a minimal track like “Human Being” comes alive when she drops some old-school pop triads onto the chorus. The title track “Honey” is a high-octane track that sees Robyn doing a high-speed syncopated rhythm on a single note before the hi-hats kick the track into a higher gear of energy – all of these tracks are a pretty masterful exercise in the slow build that ultimately turns into an all-out pop celebration, but all the same it’s a celebration for people to exorcise their personal demons getting swept up in the driving rhythms. I love that robotic vocal sample and bongo drums on the absolutely bizarre Disclosure-esque track “Between the Lines”, and the project closes on a strong note as well with “Ever Again”, one of the most unapologetically pure pop tracks here that cycles through a few fun added instruments keeping up the driving main riffs of the backing track.

A lot of this project is straight out of a different time, and not the kind where we’re paying homage to the past by doing the slightest things to bring it into the modern world either – there are a couple times here when adjusting your 2018 ears to what’s being delivered here is a huge leap. “Beach2k20” is essentially an old-school house music track, Robyn not doing much more than spoken word over a repetitive samba instrumental that extends further than anything else here. “Baby Forgive Me”, as well, falls into more of a traditionally European-sounding area associated with an earlier time, feeling a little empty – although Robyn’s haunting vocal delivery on the track is great.

A couple diversions aside, the greatest aspects of this project are exactly what pop music was designed to be in the first place – a kind of awe-inspiring, all-encompassing thing that takes over and lets you escape from whatever you’re thinking about and join something bigger than yourself. There’s not much of that anymore in the instant-gratification streaming era.

Favourite Tracks: Because It’s In The Music, Between The Lines, Missing U, Honey, Human Being

Least Favourite Track: Beach2k20

Score: 9/10