BensBeat Top 50 Songs of 2018

Music in 2018 can be mostly defined by the continued rise in prominence of hip-hop, taking over from rock as the most listened to genre for the first time. As both a rather limitless, rule-free form creatively and a way to express protest, almost every genre drew elements from hip-hop this year. We also got a huge number of high-profile releases as the album form slowly evaporates and artists become more prolific. A Spotify playlist of this list is linked at the bottom of the article!

Here are my favourite songs from the huge tide of great music we got this year.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 21 Savage – a lot (Ft. J. Cole)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Party For One
  • The Carters – SUMMER
  • The Decemberists – Sucker’s Prayer
  • Denzel Curry – SWITCH IT UP | ZWITCH 1T UP
  • Johnny Balik – Honey
  • Lil Wayne – Dedicate
  • Migos – Narcos
  • ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Saudi & Kendrick Lamar – X
  • Vince Staples – FUN!

50. Mac Miller – 2009

Image result for mac miller swimmingThe last song Mac Miller ever performed live, his look back on his career and personal growth over some uplifting piano chords took on an added level of meaning after his passing.

49. Hozier – Nina Cried Power (Ft. Mavis Staples)

Hozier recruits one of the greatest to pay tribute to artists who recorded impactful protest songs throughout history, backed up by some soulful choral vocals.

48. Twenty One Pilots – Morph

Image result for twenty one pilots trenchThe band finally perfects their manic genre-mixing, creating a rollercoaster of a track that flawlessly shifts through eerie rap verses, an 80s pop chorus and even some tropical house elements.

47. The Internet – Hold On

Image result for the internet hive mindA 6-minute slow burn, Steve Lacy’s instantly recognizable guitar work is entrancing throughout as Syd’s soothing vocals complete the picture.

46. Maggie Rogers – Light On

HIIAPL Maggie Rogers.jpgSuperproducer Greg Kurstin strikes again with an exciting rising star, as Rogers blends her near-gospel sensibilities with a more traditionally structured pop track.

45. Hayley Kiyoko – Curious

Image result for hayley kiyoko expectationsFeaturing a pretty perfectly structured pop chorus, Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals stuck with me throughout the whole year.

44. Amy Shark – The Slow Song

Image result for amy shark love monsterAmy Shark’s incredibly specific yet overwhelmingly relatable lyrics, in combination with her blend of hip-hop influenced beats with her softer singer/songwriter tone, reach their peak on this emotional ode to looking out at that one person across the dance floor.

43. Anderson .Paak – Cheers (Ft. Q-Tip)

Image result for anderson paak oxnardOn the closing track of  .Paak’s Oxnard, he teams up with the capable Q-Tip to reminisce on good times with their recently departed friends – Mac Miller and Phife Dawg – over some hard-hitting synth-funk chords.

42. Pusha T – The Games We Play

Image result for daytona pusha tI could never get tired of the griminess in Pusha T’s vocal delivery. His energy is in top form here, dropping non-stop bars of  vivid imagery and clever wordplay.

41. Joji – SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK

Image result for joji ballads 1A complete evolution from the former absurdist comedian, Joji’s take on the current trend of moody alt-R&B features some absolutely beautiful and explosive digitized synth tones that support his emotionally charged delivery.

40. BROCKHAMPTON – NEW ORLEANS

Image result for iridescenceThe rap collective opens their first major label studio album with a bang. The off-the-wall group trade some equally bombastic verses over a supercharged instrumental.

39. Nao – Another Lifetime

Image result for nao saturnRecorded after a breakup, hearing this much genuine emotion in Nao’s usually calm and collected vocal tone is incredibly moving as she sings about the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime connection.

38. Bas – Purge

Image result for bas milky wayOne of my biggest growers this year, the Dreamville rapper’s speedy flow and switch-ups are top-notch as he easily navigates through an entertaining and soulful sample flip.

37. Ariana Grande – God is a woman

Image result for sweetener coverWhen I saw the video for the first time I became convinced that this would slowly grow into one of Grande’s most memorable career songs years down the road. The choral ending of this track is truly transcendent.

36. Kero Kero Bonito – Make Believe

Image result for kero kero bonito time n placeOne of the most similar tracks to their earlier work on the experimental pop collective’s latest, heavier project, Sarah Bonito’s adorable voice is at its best over some colourful and animated synth tones.

35. James Bay – Pink Lemonade

Image result for james bay album coverAn energetic retro-pop track featuring Bay’s new, more upbeat style over some crunchy guitars and a conclusion with some seriously catchy harmonized chants.

34. BTS – Paradise

Image result for bts love yourself tearWestern pop music watch out – the K-pop invasion is coming over quickly. The wildly popular boy band applies some aspects of 90s West Coast hip-hop to this track.

33. Jack White – Corporation

Image result for jack white boarding house reachA lengthy, mostly instrumental monster of a track – I was so happy to observe White doing something so  innovative and different with the rock and roll format. This is White at his most theatrical, embodying some sort of deranged preacher.

32. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – Reborn

Image result for kids see ghosts“Keep moving forward”. The centrepiece of the spectacular Kids See Ghosts album, Kanye West and Kid Cudi lean on each other for support as they discuss their respective mental health issues.

31. Janelle Monae – Make Me Feel

Image result for dirty computerFeaturing a guitar riff produced by Prince himself, Janelle Monae proves she’s the closest living artist with this slick and sensual synth-funk track.

30. J. Cole – Kevin’s Heart

Image result for kod j coleOn an album where J. Cole talks about the dangers of giving yourself over to various addictions, love proves the strongest drug of all as Cole embodies a character struggling with fidelity – with a fun videogame-esque beat and some serious technical skill to back it up.

29. Lauren Jauregui – Expectations

Image result for lauren jauregui expectationsThe ex-Fifth Harmony member sounds like a young Alicia Keys over a minimal beat that places the spotlight on her impressive and emotional vocal showcase. How great would her boyfriend Ty Dolla $ign sound on this soulful track??

28. Blood Orange – Saint

Image result for negro swanThe producer extraordinaire goes in more of an R&B/funk direction than ever before, offering a complex and jazzy musical world amplified by some great gospel-tinged harmonies – “doing the most”, as the album’s powerful theme puts it.

27. Charlie Puth – Empty Cups

Image result for charlie puth voicenotesThe song that never left my head all year, this is just a smartly structured, bouncy 90s R&B chorus from the classically trained pop singer who really surprised me this year.

26. Mitski – Nobody

Image result for mitski be the cowboyIndie-pop singer-songwriter Mitski’s voice already sounds like it belongs to another era, and the near-disco, overly energetic flavour of the instrumental here, in stark contrast with Mitski’s lyrics nearly losing her mind due to loneliness, completes the retro-pop image.

25. Cardi B – I Like It (Ft. Bad Bunny & J Balvin)

Image result for cardi b invasion of privacyLatin trap exploded into the mainstream this year, and none harnessed it better than Cardi B, recruiting two of the genre’s biggest stars. Cardi’s aggressive flow never fails to enliven me, and that sample flip is a great added touch.

24. Kim Petras – Heart To Break

Image result for kim petras heart to breakAn all-out bubblegum pop extravaganza. Petras hits some seriously impressive notes on the chorus, but the whole song moves along with this irresistible driving energy that’s hard to ignore.

23. RL Grime – Take It Away (Ft. Ty Dolla $ign & TK Kravitz)

Image result for rl grime novaI was sent to another dimension the first time I heard the drop on this track. Those deafening, steadily growing synths and well-placed silences makes it feel like someone is repeatedly firing up some kind of generator. Ty Dolla $ign is always more than capable on the mic as well.

22. Kacey Musgraves – High Horse

Image result for golden hour kacey musgravesThe country artist’s poppiest song yet, we all know someone like this song’s subject. Musgraves blends the slightest of country aspects in the instrumental with an 80s dance beat and some sharp harmonies.

21. Robyn – Because It’s In The Music

Image result for robyn honeyThe Swedish pop savant has always found the perfect way to encapsulate the feeling of crying on the dance floor, partying the pain away, and this track is no exception. The track feels like an escape, easy to get lost in the inviting musical world.

20. Ella Mai – Trip

Image result for ella mai album coverThe piano-heavy R&B track brings a classic sound back in a big way, Mai’s effortless and silky-smooth vocals commanding your attention. Something about that staccato phrasing in the hook makes the track irresistably catchy.

19. Anderson .Paak – Tints (Ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Image result for oxnard album coverTwo of the most charismatic artists in the industry link up for this paranoid and humorous funk track where .Paak just wants some privacy. I absolutely love songwriter Tayla Parx’s contribution to the harmonized outro – her discography this year alone is incredible.

18. Janelle Monae – Screwed (Ft. Zoe Kravitz)

Image result for dirty computerA call for a final party before the bomb drops, this might be the most overtly political track on an already defiant and revolutionary album. The track’s title serves as a poignant double entendre, Monae sounding like she’s having the time of her life in the studio over some shiny guitar riffs.

17. Nas – Cops Shot The Kid (Ft. Kanye West)

Image result for nasirThe cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot the cops shot the kid the cops shot the kid the cops shot-

16. DRAM – Best Hugs

Image result for dram that's a girls nameThe most lovable guy in the music industry is back to steal your girl – the one with the incredible hugs – and criticize you for letting her get away. My most listened-to song of the year, it’s the combination of ridiculousness and legitimately great musicality that only DRAM can pull off.

15. Camila Cabello – Consequences

Image result for camila album coverOof. This song hit me right in the feels from the first time I heard it, a sparse piano ballad where Cabello offers some deeply personal lyrics about the end of a relationship where her trust was broken beyond repair. The orchestral version released as a single just brought the tears back in full force.

14. Denzel Curry – SUMO | ZUMO

Image result for denzel ta13ooThe sheer force with which Denzel screams that second introductory “OKAY?!” signals just what kind of a punishing track lies ahead. Heavy bass rattles as the horrorcore rapper goes to work with his dexterous flow. Charlie Heat is one of the best rap producers in the game.

13. SOPHIE – Faceshopping

Image result for oil of every pearl's un-insidesI’m just now realizing that I shouldn’t have put these two tracks beside each other. Another track out to unleash a full frontal assault on the listener, the experimental producer’s work is constantly disorienting, yet connected by a recognizable, pop-influenced thread, represented here by a rhythmically spoken – and likely sarcastic – ode to materialism.

12. Troye Sivan – Dance To This (Ft. Ariana Grande)

Image result for troye sivan bloomAnother track with an unreasonable amount of plays on my personal Spotify this year, Ariana Grande tones down her usually powerhouse vocals to match the subtle yet powerful approach of Australian pop artist Troye Sivan. A perfect slow dance song straight out of the 80s, that synth hook that introduces the song makes it a grower.

11. Childish Gambino – This Is America

Image result for this is america artworkEven without the brilliant and viral music video associated with the track, Childish Gambino’s views on the state of the world presented through the intentionally inane and distracting lens of trap music is still one of the most important statements of the year – even if I wish the standalone song still had those gunshots in it.

10. Kali Uchis – Flight 22

Image result for kali uchis isolationKali Uchis has often stated that she draws heavy inspiration from Amy Winehouse, and it’s never more evident than on this track. A downtempo track that verges on dreampop, the twinkling keys and string section highlight her smooth and sensual vocal inflections.

9. Pusha T – If You Know You Know

Image result for pusha t daytonaI knew I was in for something mindblowing with the Daytona album when this was the opening track. Featuring some of the most quotable lines of the year and a crisp, chopped-up guitar sample from Kanye West, Pusha T is absolutely out for blood on this one and he doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

8. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

Image result for thank u nextAriana Grande has been having a horrible year – and this was the most brilliant way possible to address it in song form. Recorded only a few months after her Sweetener album, Grande speaks out about how she’s learned from the pain and come out better for it, thanking each one of her ex-lovers for the person she’s become. But of course, we still need that dismissive and cathartic “next”.

7. Travis Scott – SICKO MODE (Ft. Drake)

Image result for astroworldThe fact that this disjointed, endlessly creative track became a #1 hit single is nothing short of amazing. Most of Travis Scott’s latest work is as chaotic and disorienting as the amusement park it’s inspired by, and this endlessly fun rap track shifts through 3 completely different segments as Scott keeps things lively with an energetic flow. For all the average work he’s put out this year, Drake absolutely steals the show with his verse.

6. Kanye West – Ghost Town (Ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kid Cudi & 070 Shake)

Image result for ye album coverIt’s impossible not to feel something when new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake arrives on the outro of the track with her repeated and earnest mantra about freedom, breaking free from the pack. I can only imagine the experience singing it live with a crowd. The classic soul sample flip provides an excellent backbone to the track as well, West delivering some of the best singing he’s done in his career on his verse.

5. Kacey Musgraves – Rainbow

Image result for kacey musgraves golden hourI’ve always loved the complete purity in Kacey Musgraves’ vocals – she definitely has one of my favourite voices in the industry right now. The closer to her excellent Golden Hour is a lower-key track that highlights just how much emotion she can put into it as well, and it never fails to make me tear up just a little. A bittersweet track, Musgraves sings to someone who is incapable of seeing all the love they have around them.

4. Rina Sawayama – Cherry

Image result for rina sawayama cherryThe best pure pop song of the year, the always eccentric Rina Sawayama once again recruits experimental producer Clarence Clarity for an upbeat and endlessly layered track where Sawayama can’t contain her desire. Her dedication to taking the sound of early 2000s pop and modernizing it in a huge way is so engaging, those chords so familiar but twisted in such a new way as well. Every instrumental aspect of this track is a maddeningly catchy hook in and of itself.

3. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – 4th Dimension

Image result for kids see ghostsWhere does Kanye find these samples? One of the most creative sample flips I’ve ever heard, this was easily the standout on one of the year’s best albums as West completely refigures a Christmas song from the 1930s for his own purposes, isolating the part of the track that has the most untapped energy and applying a driving, tribal rhythm overtop. Kid Cudi doesn’t often spit a purely rap verse, but he more than keeps up with West here.

2. Amy Shark – Don’t Turn Around

Image result for amy shark love monsterIt’s shocking how singer-songwriter Amy Shark can describe such a detailed, specific scenario in her songs that still comes across as so relatable, to the tune of some smartly written pop melodies. Shark keeps getting into situations where she’s forced to see her ex, simultaneously imagining a future whirlwind reconnection and frantically telling herself to just let it go. Some of my favourite lyrical content of the year, Shark’s unassuming vocal delivery fits the picture while her strummed acoustic chords are warm and easy to return to.

1. Janelle Monae – I Like That

Image result for dirty computerMy favourite track off of Dirty Computer, it represents the culmination of all the powerful statements of self-assertion Monae delivers across the project. “I’m the random minor notes you hear in major songs” might be my favourite song lyric of all time. Monae might not be for everybody, but she couldn’t care less – deviation from the norm is exactly where she belongs, and if she’s the only one on board with what she’s putting forward, then that’s perfectly fine. Monae sounds effortlessly cool on the track, delivering some impressive vocal runs and even a rap verse addressing a school bully, and the repeated backup vocal line is just the perfect set of soulful chords that keeps me returning. Keep doing what you do best, Janelle.

That’s the music that got me through this year, stay tuned for my Top 25 albums of the year on Friday, when we’ll say “thank u, next” to the music of 2018.

Check out this list on Spotify below!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/22c72yrohsaragcu6c43zj6fa/playlist/6abpgfxueTZr6FspGVIHyE

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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.

Image result for kodak black 2018

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.

Image result for kodak black 2018

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

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

Quavo – Quavo Huncho

QuavoHuncho.pngIronically named rap label Quality Control continues to drop overlong project after project, and Migos star Quavo’s debut kicks off what is apparently the first of 3 solo albums from the members of the group to be released in rapid succession. It’s been easy recently to get burnt out on the Migos sound and formula, and Quavo more or less adheres to it here. Surprisingly, there are still a couple fun moments to wring out of it here: Migos have developed into rap superstars for a reason, and it’s because they really know what they’re doing. If they hadn’t oversaturated the market, I might enjoy this project a lot more than I do. While many pegged Quavo as the breakout star from the group due to his more versatile, melodic flow, it’s become a lot clearer to me over the years that he’s easily the least talented of the group both rhythmically and lyrically. A solo project without the other two members to spice things up had me worried, and while most of this 19-track project is uninspired filler as expected, there are still a couple of enjoyable moments scattered here and there where Quavo holds his own more than you’d think.

The opening track “Biggest Alley Oop” might actually be the album’s best, built on an eerie, slightly distorted choral vocal sample of ‘la-la-la’s and some kind of woodwind instrument with an element of Middle Eastern flair – it’s definitely a sound we haven’t heard them use before, and producer 30 Roc takes a few opportunities to break up the straightforward trap rhythms as well with some well-placed moments where the music cuts out. Quavo’s flow over the track honestly sounds more like one of his fellow Migos here with some speedy triplets, and his off-the-wall ad-libs are always fun. From there, we kind of fall off a cliff until the album’s second half. Less than a minute into the next track “Pass Out”, Quavo has literally resorted to bars full of nothing but “skrt” and moaning “grandmaaaaa….” in his background Auto-Crooned vocals. The production is honestly still pretty great on the track and on most of them here, but Quavo sounds unenthused most of the time here, like he’s putting this out as a contractual obligation.

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Quavo’s flow has always been more sparse than his groupmates, and on the more empty instrumentals here there just isn’t enough to carry the track here without the other huge personalities to play off of – “Give It To Em” is a huge example of this, as Quavo leaves way too much empty space over a somber piano instrumental. Most of these tracks are a shorter track without a fully fleshed out concept, Quavo bringing the bare minimum to the table lyrically and doing the same flows we’ve heard elsewhere. Most of the project’s most enjoyable moments are provided by guests, but even some of these tracks feel kind of unfinished, like they put together a random Quavo verse and a leftover verse a featured artist sent over. Drake looked to continue his feature hot streak on “Flip The Switch”, but one of his lower-key deliveries is juxtaposed with one of the most crowded trap instrumentals here, and Quavo’s final verse brings the quality way down.

Tracks like “F**k 12”, “Keep That S**t” (despite how unintentionally hilarious his matter-of-fact delivery on the track is) and single “Workin Me” are painfully repetitive without enough of a new twist on the trap instrumental that we can sometimes expect from a Migos track to keep my interest. There are simply far too many tracks here that serve no distinctive purpose from each other – it’s hard to even pick out the worst ones, they’re just simply … there. “Swing” and “Big Bro” are two examples where trying to do something different didn’t really work, the former another tired dancehall cut that features ex-Fifth Harmony member Normani and Nigerian artist Davido that goes on for far too long and the latter a truly strange and contradictory track where Quavo tries to position himself as a knowledgeable J. Cole-esque figure that doles out advice on the irresponsible lifestyles he romanticizes on every other track on the album here.

Most of the appeal of Migos is these three enormous personalities playing off of each other, and some of that still manages to shine through here, especially when he’s helped out by some of the better moments from behind the boards here. Tay Keith provides a pretty fun beat on the track “Shine” as Quavo’s sung hook complements the shimmering synth chords well. Some of the weirder experiments here really pay off as well, like the track “Champagne Rosé” that legitimately features Madonna (and a disjointed, brief verse from Cardi B for some reason). The Queen of Pop’s vocals are high-pitched and heavily Auto-Tuned, and she sounds like some kind of robotic doll on the track – but the fact that something like this exists is so crazy that it actually works. Her hook is maddeningly catchy all the same. Pharrell and Migos have proved a great combination in the past, and they link up again. for the erratic party track “Go All The Way”, which sounds like some early 90s dance crew material with Quavo’s filtered, repeated “NO CAP” ad-lib and Pharrell’s video-game inspired bleeps and bloops – it’s a complete anomaly which stands out in the tracklisting.

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Some other highlights are Travis Scott’s melodic hook on the psychedelic track “Rerun”, which really elevates the whole song, and “Lamb Talk”, one of Quavo’s most hilariously over-the-top moments on here where he delivers some energized ad-libs on a track dedicated to his car.

Essentially, Quavo Huncho is exactly what you’d expect it to be. We still get moments where we’re reminded just why he was pegged to be the breakout star from the beginning, and an overwhelming amount of content that just isn’t as exciting as it used to be. I hope the more technical Takeoff and Offset can deliver some more interesting solo projects.

Favourite Tracks: Biggest Alley Oop, Rerun, Go All The Way, Champagne Rosé

Least Favourite Track: Give It To Em

Score: 5/10

Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V

Image result for tha carter v album coverSeven years after the previous installment in the series, after endless delays and contract disputes Tha Carter V is finally here. Its undeniable that Lil Wayne is one of the most influential rappers on the modern era of hip-hop, his specific cadence, punchlines and ventures into rock music seen in the wave of both Soundcloud rappers and mainstream superstars today. Although the project is overlong and doesn’t exactly come across as a cohesive album listening experience, some tracks clearly being from a few years ago, Lil Wayne comes through on this project with his best work in a very long time. While we all thought he was falling off, he was just saving his best for his genre-defining Carter series. Despite a few awkward moments, this is the version of Wayne we look back on with nostalgia.

After a spacey, emotional opening track that features one of Wayne’s most obvious offspring in the late XXXTENTACION, the project explodes immediately with the back to back tracks “Dedicate” and “Uproar”. These two tracks are some of the greatest indications that Wayne is the product of another time, having to adjust my 2018 ear for a second, but that isn’t a bad thing at all – it’s nice to hear where this all came from. “Uproar” sees him navigating deftly through one of those boisterous Swizz Beatz tracks that don’t exist anymore (complete with Swizz’ ad-libs!), but “Dedicate” is the most present and upbeat we’ve heard Wayne this decade, taking some old-school Memphis keys and the same kind of quirky, excitable flow that made Carter III classics so much fun. Samples from 2 Chainz and Barack Obama himself proclaim Wayne’s influence, and hearing him destroy an instrumental like this in the year 2018 really brought a smile to my face.

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Wayne’s wordplay is back in full force here, often taking a simple word or rhyme scheme and drawing every possible usage out of it to fill up half a verse – the ridiculous internal rhymes and use of “mind” and “line” on “Let It Fly” come to mind – or dropping some of those clever punchlines that it takes you a few listens to get. One of my favourites? “She said ‘I will’, like ill with an apostrophe”, from the excellent Ashanti-featuring early 2000s dancefloor throwback “Start This S**t Off Right”. There really are so many aspects of Wayne that were and still are so far ahead of his peers, and his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar here, “Mona Lisa”, shows that. A classic storytelling track, Wayne paints some strikingly vivid imagery in a dark narrative of a double-crossing girl working with Wayne to rob Kendrick, who storms in in-character with a spastic and distressed verse straight from his Butterfly era. The fact that this track, the antithesis of radio friendly, is projected to debut at #1 is a true mark of the thirst for Wayne’s specific skillset. “Used 2” is another great track where he gets aggressive, buried late in the tracklisting. He gets up to a full shout that had my eyes wide open in surprise as he issues threats to his enemies over a Metro Boomin beat.

Wayne’s penchant for melodies and fun, anthemic choruses was always a particularly underrated part of his work, even if he certainly doesn’t have the greatest singing voice to deliver them. Even as the album stretches past an hour in length, some of the later tracks here still managed to surprise with just how catchy they were. This album would have hits on hits in 2011. Tracks like “Took His Time” and “Demon” are perfect examples – the former is almost a combination of styles of the past and present with an upbeat trap-esque instrumental and a gleeful sung chorus from Wayne, but “Demon” is just his lovable weird side coming out in full force, singing “a de-mon with de-mands” in a variety of repeated, intoxicating cadences over a soul sample. You submit to Wayne’s rollercoaster ride as soon as he drops into the verse with a grinning “ooh kill em” on “Dope Ni**az”, another wonderfully dated track with Snoop Dogg. “Dark Side Of The Moon” is a slow jam R&B duet with Nicki Minaj, and not only does she sound incredible, but Wayne sounds legitimately soulful and emotional on his lower harmonies.

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We also get a lot of emotional insight to Wayne that we’d never heard before – on “Can’t Be Broken” he speaks out on his legacy, emphasizing all of the impact that he’s had that can’t be taken away by the amount of time he wasn’t allowed to release his best work, but closing track “Let It All Work Out” really delves deep into his story. He references suicidal thoughts and searching for a purpose on the extended 4-minute verse of “Open Letter” as well, but here he tells the story of the specifics of his suicide attempt at age 12, angry at his mother for doubting his rap career when he was approached by a label at a young age. A sample from Sampha sings the title in the background, and the album closes: “And it all worked out”, his mother saying “Love you, Dwayne”.

There’s so much great stuff here that I never thought I’d hear again from Wayne, so I don’t want to nitpick the filler tracks and misfires too much, but the middle sees him revert back to his worse tendencies of crooning and awkward beat selection a few times as well, on tracks like “What About Me” and “Problems” that could have easily been cut.

As another installment in Tha Carter series, this project isn’t anything like the cohesive, carefully thought out classics of the past. Taking Wayne’s situation into consideration though, this is just about the best thing we could have ever expected. It’s incredible that we get this much new great Wayne music in 2018. One of the biggest forefathers of modern rap has returned to reign supreme.

Favourite Tracks: Dedicate, Start This S**t Off Right, Used 2, Mona Lisa, Demon

Least Favourite Track: Problems

Score: 7/10

Trippie Redd – Life’s A Trip

Image result for life's a tripSteadily becoming one of the leaders rising to the top of the new class of alternative rock and pop punk-influenced emo rap artists, Trippie Redd’s debut studio album is a melancholy, raw project framed by Redd’s unique, strained and distressed vocal delivery. He references Lil Wayne’s music on the project, and he comes across here as the most obvious offspring of Wayne’s ill-conceived but undoubtedly influential 2010 rock album, Rebirth. Ultimately, Redd’s vocal delivery verges on painful to listen to, and his ridiculous lyricism and meandering, directionless moody emo-trap song structures greatly let down the novelty of the act that he is.

Trippie Redd is often lauded for his lack of Auto-Tune usage, unlike his contemporaries in the genre, simply presenting his raw, unfiltered vocals that supposedly better express the darker thoughts that pop up in the new landscape of hip-hop. This would be a perfectly appropriate comment if Redd’s vocals weren’t so hard to listen to – Redd seems to take this too far, straining his vocals and every so often extending a note too far with a garbled scream. Young Thug’s worst tendencies are right at home on this album, appearing on the track “Forever Ever”. The two each throw their voice around with reckless abandon, forgetting that a concrete musical rhythm and structure exists for a reason. The songs on the project that extend past the usual 2 or so minutes that most Soundcloud rapper adhere to feel completely self-indulgent, Redd repeating the same refrains without a hint of a memorable, catchy melody as he runs up and down the scales completely off-key.

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It really does feel like all of these songs are freestyles at times, like he goes into the booth without an idea of what’s going to happen. The track “Bird Sh*t” sees him suddenly latching onto a single musical phrase in the middle of a verse and repeating it, seemingly just because it fit his liking in the moment regardless of how it worked with the rest of the song. Longer tracks “BANG!” and “How You Feel” are even more excruciating, Redd singing the entire chorus with his strained, yelling vocal on a song that extends to nearly 5 minutes on the former and sounding completely out of place on the guitar instrumental on the latter. It’s a few guitar chords that simply loop for 4 and a half minutes, accompanied by a higher-pitched wail in the background and Trippie repeating the title in his often pitchier higher register seemingly emulating a rock n roll frontman, occasionally breaking the cycle to offer a ridiculous lyrical simile or absurd melodramatic proclamation. Travis Scott-featuring single “Dark Knight Dummo” goes the other way, the beat a complete sensory overload that tries to do too much, and the only thing that could draw attention from the instrumental is of course the same strained vocal on top of all of the background mess.

Redd does attract some great collaborators to this project, and at times you can see some good songs hiding underneath all of the mess coming from Redd himself – the legendary Scott Storch lends a catchy, poppier instrumental to the track “Taking A Walk”, which is over too quickly and is let down by Redd’s vocals, for example. Sometimes, the good song is literally hiding underneath – Redd adds the Diplo collaboration “Wish” to the tracklist with a new “Trippie Mix”, after he expressed his disdain with the changes Diplo made to the song on his own project. Turns out, Diplo simply removed all of Redd’s terrible ideas and turned it into an enjoyable song. Redd reinserts a delayed echo affect that throws off the melody and some awful harmonized vocals completely out of sync with the rest of the song that left me shaking my head in disbelief at how passionately he felt about such incompetence.

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Redd’s rap tracks do fare slightly better, especially “Oomps Revenge”, where he clears up his voice and raps over a great chopped up soul sample – he kind of sounds like Chance the Rapper. “Missing My Idols” had potential, but his apparent thought process that an obnoxious vocal delivery means clearer expression of self reappears even here and he loses the rhythm a bit in the second half of the song extending his words too far and raising his voice.

After pioneer XXXTENTACION’s death, I can only see this style continuing to grow and prosper – there’s evidently something about it that does succeed at drawing people in. Whatever it is, I personally have no idea how to relate to or understand it.

Favourite Tracks: Oomps Revenge, Taking A Walk

Least Favourite Track: Gore

Score: 2/10

Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

Image result for astroworldTravis Scott’s third album, ASTROWORLD, firmly cements himself in the pantheon of today’s rap superstars with a project where he does everything expected of him and then adds a little more creative flair on top. Of course, nobody is looking to Scott for a work of art, and he delivers fully on a fun and enjoyable summer rap album. While it may not be his best album yet, it’s certainly his most risky, and comes with a truly impressive selection of guests that elevate Scott’s performance to another level entirely. It’s definitely a huge step up from the mundane and disinterested Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight (2016), and it’s great to see what Scott can produce when he slows down his speedy release schedule for the first time.

As soon as that fuzzy bassline hits for the first time on opening track “STARGAZING”, we’ve stepped into Scott’s sonic conceptualization of his childhood favourite Houston theme park, since demolished. It’s a frequently surprising and always psychedelic, a magical dreamscape of a place. We hear the sound of a rollercoaster about to drop as the beat completely switches up to this frantic rising synthline as Scott explains the inspiration behind the dedication to the theme park with an expressive, capable flow. The beat switch is a great tactic for Scott, as it shows up again on standout “SICKO MODE”, where Scott and Drake essentially just play around on various incredible instrumentals from Hit-Boy and Tay Keith – Drake brings the same kind of flow he does on Scorpion track “Nonstop”, but the fuller instrumental here, the bass hitting that much harder, is so much more accommodating to him. He actually sounds like he’s having fun! Scott’s deep, slightly melodic voice manages to find the catchiest flow it possibly can on the middle section as well, but this is Drake’s song, and it’s surprisingly all the better for it.

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The experimentation continues on “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”, a complete artistic deviation and triumph for Scott that sees him pull from disparate musical worlds to create something completely unique. The pleasant, breathy hook where the title is repeated is backed up by ethereal hums from Kid Cudi, Scott’s Auto-Tuned singing voice in complete command of the slower instrumental – as the track goes on, we get (seriously) some dynamic harmonica solos from STEVIE WONDER, and a final harmonized section from James Blake that’s the most beautiful moment on this whole project. Of course, Scott has no shortage of blistering club tracks either. His quicker flow on moody trap cut “NO BYSTANDERS”, featuring an incendiary hook from newcomer Sheck Wes, is the greatest technical showcase here, and I love how well it complements that quickly oscillating synth noise that comes in in the second half of his verses. “5% TINT” might be my favourite instrumental here, an off-kilter piano loop that sounds like something out of a spooky children’s show, while “CAN’T SAY” is a classic anthemic Scott hook in the vein of a “Goosebumps” or “Antidote”. The Weeknd appears for a feature on “WAKE UP”, framed by a lazy acoustic guitar sample and trap hi-hats as the two get lost in lustful thoughts as only they do, the two trading verses cleanly.

Scott’s genre-hopping is pretty impressive, even if not everything sticks completely. Across the tracklisting, he additionally pays homage to the legendary DJ Screw on “RIP SCREW” with the chopped and screwed, calmer style of R&B-influenced hip-hop he helped pioneer, brings jazz bassist Thundercat and John Mayer together for the wildly spacey and psychedelic “ASTROTHUNDER” and recruits indie band Tame Impala to produce the shimmering interlude “SKELETONS”, which also features vocals from The Weeknd and Pharrell. While none of these tracks are the most structurally cohesive, as I personally am usually looking for something more present from Scott, I seriously have to admire that he managed to pull tracks like these off to some degree of success. Even the closing track, “COFFEE BEAN”, sees Scott’s voice at his all-time clearest, taking the more subdued route of a storyteller rapper for the first time as he speaks out about concerns he had with dating Kylie Jenner as a black man thrust so fully into the private eye, even mentioning that her family had advised against it.

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As a whole, however, ASTROWORLD suffers from the same curse most mainstream rap albums do these days, decreasing noticeably in quality as the album continues and extends to 17 tracks in length. Most of the songs in the back half don’t possess the same degree of experimentation that each one of the preceding tracks do, sounding like relics of Scott’s past work just as most of Birds did. The lack of polish is evident on a track like “YOSEMITE”, which features some inexcusable mixing problems that undermine a pretty catchy guitar instrumental, while the Migos-featuring “WHO? WHAT!” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” don’t have the immediately catchy hooks that I usually expect from a Scott track, sounding like Scott running out of ideas and opting for streaming numbers instead of the best album he could make. The existence of “BUTTERFLY EFFECT”, a mediocre Auto-Tuned trap cut which was released in May 2017, demonstrates how much less thought went into the back half of the tracklist.

Ultimately, Scott succeeds at painting a vivid picture of the park he loved so much, each of these tracks representing a different ride – “CAROUSEL”, “SICKO MODE” the rollercoaster, “5% TINT” the haunted house … ASTROWORLD represents a similar kind of exhilarating, fleeting joy, a little cheap, but that’s what we all signed up for and expected anyway. I certainly had a great summer day in Astroworld.

Favourite Tracks: SICKO MODE, STOP TRYING TO BE GOD, WAKE UP, 5% TINT, NO BYSTANDERS

Least Favourite Track: BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Score: 7/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rae Sremmurd, Charlie Puth, Playboi Carti)

Image result for sr3mmRae Sremmurd – SR3MM/Swaecation/Jxmtro

Brotherly hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd embrace their inner OutKast on the third in their Sremmlife album series, branching out and turning into a sprawling triple disc edition that allows a full album for each member to shine individually. Rae Sremmurd’s youthful, jubilant cloud-rap sound is often a joy to listen to, with great beat selection and the two rappers balancing each other out – but individually I begin to miss some of that interplay that makes them so unique. The lesser known of the two, Slim Jxmmi, definitely gains the upper hand with his grittier Jxmtro, but for most of the project I just want the heights that they reach together on SR3MM.

The main appeal of Rae Sremmurd is contrast of the boyish, carefree yelp of Swae Lee brought down to earth with a more technical verse delivered in Jxmmi’s growl, and they demonstrate this over some pretty impressive production handled mostly by proven hitmaker and frequent collaborator Mike Will Made It here. He delivers his trademark high-tempo and erratic material that fits perfectly with someone as eccentric as Lee. Single “Powerglide” is one of the best tracks across the whole project – it’s 5 and a half minutes of absolute madness, a speedy violin instrumental, Swae Lee’s melodic rap delivery giving way to Slim Jxmmi’s goofy, old-school flow. It’s a constant rush of energy. The Weeknd lays down a great, melodic feature over the clicks and clacks of the contemplative 90s piano instrumental of “Bedtime Stories”, but for the most part SR3MM works so well because you can hear how much fun the duo are having bouncing ideas off of each other, and the instrumentals are creative enough, yet still maintaining the basic tenets of modern hip-hop, to just be an engaging and fun time.

Some of the worst times on this initial section are segments where the energy is lost through an extended Swae Lee singing section, and that’s basically what we receive for a full project on Swaecation. Lee definitely has a good grasp of what makes a good melody, delivering some pretty catchy choruses on tracks like “Touchscreen Navigation”, but most of these songs are one-note and go on for too long, needing an appearance from Jxmmi to return the track’s sense of direction and forward momentum. After the constant knocking hi-hats of SR3MM, Lee’s meandering, indulgent falsetto singing tracks feel a lot more boring. Not even Young Thug, a master of this element, can save “Offshore”, a track that goes on forever returning to a melody that ends abruptly before it gets good. Lee’s flow is too sparse to keep the spacey cloud-rap style interesting most of the time, repeating the same melody line with too much empty space on tracks like “Heartbreak in Encino Hills”. I do like those panflutes on “Heat of the Moment” though.

Jxmtro, by contrast, is a more straightforward album where Jxmmi draws on the more aggressive side of his flow to deliver some hard-hitting, short tracks. Often utilized less than Lee in their collaborative work, it’s great to hear Jxmmi hold his own by himself. “Brxnks Truck” and “Players Club” are an insane one-two punch to open up the album, Jxmmi delivering a rapid-fire triplet flow over a beat that keeps on cutting out at just the right moments on the former while the menacing piano instrumental of “Players Club” makes it sound like OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” if it were actually … a real song. Even this starts to lose steam as we get into the later segments though. It almost sounds like he’s trying to emulate Lee’s style on some of the later tracks, especially “Growed Up”, and while he’s great on these short tracks he’s ultimately not charismatic enough to carry a full album.

Swae Lee’s appearance on Jmxtro, on the ecstatic “Chanel” that also features a show-stealing verse from Pharrell Williams, proves that even when the two brothers are in the midst of discovering what works for them on their own, they work best together. SR3MM is overall an interesting experiment, an inconsistent mixed bag with some incredible highs.

Favourite tracks: Buckets, Powerglide, Brxnks Truck, Chanel, Bedtime Stories

Least Favourite Track: Offshore

Scores:

SR3MM: 8/10 – Swaecation 3/10 – Jxmtro 7/10

Overall: 6/10

Image result for voicenotesCharlie Puth – Voicenotes

Nostalgic pop singer Charlie Puth makes one of the most incredible improvements I’ve ever seen on his sophomore album Voicenotes, losing the Motown-emulating cheesiness of his obnoxious debut project and venturing into a soundscape of 90s R&B and pop which is much more comfortable for him. It’s clear that he drew heavily from Boyz II Men, who actually appear on the project on the song “If You Leave Me Now”. Overall, Voicenotes is full of the same kind of retro-pop bliss that artists like Bruno Mars and Carly Rae Jepsen have perfected, and it makes for an enjoyable journey through those classic 90s chord progressions.

Opening track “The Way I Am” introduces listeners to the kind of syncopated hooks and dramatic synth swells we can expect over the course of the album, one of the most unapologetically 90s songs here that could easily fit on an album like Justin Timberlake’s Justified. Puth’s speedy delivery mirroring the main guitar riff that ultimately creeps back in underneath the explosive chorus is a great use of layering. I knew we might be getting something enjoyable when I heard the surprising singles “Attention” and “How Long”, carried by a fun bassline groove and some jazzier chords than I expected from Puth. It’s all the more impressive that Puth produced the album nearly singlehandedly – coordinating all the vocal layering and interlocking musical elements here takes some serious skill and musicianship that I had no idea he possessed. Apparently a classically trained musician with perfect pitch, Puth knows how to structure chords to their greatest potential. Puth dives directly into the world of 90s R&B balladry with tracks like “Patient”, an earnest, somber track pleading for foregiveness directly from the Boyz II Men bag of tricks. This stuff was so popular back then because it really works – we don’t hear much of those classic pinging percussive noises or harmonies quite like this anymore.

He keeps it up through most of the back half, breaking out the vocoder for “Slow It Down” and closing with the beautiful piano ballad “Through It All”, reaching down into his lower register over a jazzy backing choir comprised of himself. The crown jewel might be penultimate track “Empty Cups”, a bouncy ode to house parties that’s endlessly replayable. The way the music cuts out before Puth drops into the chorus with that trademark wispy falsetto is perfect. Puth stated that he tried to write his chorus like a verse here, and the quicker delivery works well over the sparse bursts of inviting synth-bass chords.

This is still the guy who put out a single like “Marvin Gaye” we’re talking about, and he definitely doesn’t lose all the cheese, he just learns how to deliver it in a way that’s less annoying. Still, tracks like “Change”, featuring the legendary James Taylor, and “BOY” come across as awkward in their lyrical content – the first a fake-woke anthem as Puth attempts to capitalize on the troubled political climate without actually saying anything of consequence and the second dealing with rejection by an older woman and containing some pretty ridiculous lines: “You won’t wake up beside me cuz I was born in the 90s”.

This is guilty pleasure material through and through, and Puth’s defiance of pop trends to explore a dearly departed area of music to this particular reviewer is much appreciated. His capable vocals and musicality make Voicenotes a surprisingly great listen.

Favourite Tracks: Empty Cups, Slow It Down, The Way I Am, Attention, Patient

Least Favourite Track: Change

Score: 8/10

Image result for playboi carti die litPlayboi Carti – Die Lit

Well, here we are. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. Then the rave reviews started coming in so I started wondering if I’d missed something about Playboi Carti, the trap rapper who is essentially nothing but one giant ad-lib, distilling the most obnoxious trends about trap music into one pointless exercise in minimalism. I was right the first time. Die Lit is the first major label studio album for Carti, teaming up with enigmatic trap savant Pi’erre Bourne across an hour of repetitive phrases, uninspired delivery and Carti making a bunch of really, really strange noises.

Die Lit is a long 19 tracks, most of which consist of repeating the same couple lines for the entire duration. While others claim that Carti’s unorthodox approach “recalibrates the brain’s pleasure centers”, as Pitchfork claimed, Carti isn’t present or likable enough on these tracks for me to submit to his jubilant disregard for song structure. His vocals often feel muffled behind the production, a strained, nasal bark that’s frequently buried behind the 5 adlibs he sticks onto the end of every line. His guests often make things a small bit better, but even someone who is pretty much the antithesis to Carti in Skepta – an aggressive, technically skilled grime rapper – gets lost in the watered-down sludge of “Lean 4 Real”. Nicki Minaj’s feature on single “Poke It Out” is the most enjoyable moment on the whole album, and it’s a pretty average verse by her standards – it’s pretty fun to hear her try to emulate Carti’s style for a bit though.

The whole thing is just exhausting to listen to in a world where trap is the most popular style, since Carti is just a reflection of these trends without anything that makes him unique, like trap that was created in a lab by robots without any semblance of anything human infused into the music. It’d be great if Carti could ever string a phrase or a complete idea together – there are so many other artists who are uniquely funny, more skilled, vary their flows, and still have fun with the trap format that gets them attention. It’s a testament to just how much Carti can bring down a track with his lack of musicality when all of these beats are hitmaker Bourne’s – there are genuinely some decent instrumentals on here that just have the energy completely sucked out of them by Carti’s disinterested drawl – “Shoota” is quickly becoming a hit with its shimmering, orchestral synth lines.

Die Lit is certainly unlike anything we’ve heard before, but at the same time, it’s only this way because I previously thought it impossible to replicate trends to such a degree that the artist loses a distinct sense of self. I criticize people for using the Migos flow or riding dancehall or tropical waves, but at least you can still usually identify something unique and worthwhile that each person brought to the table. Carti is trap minimalism for the sake of minimalism, and simply ad-libs and mumbled triplets do not a decent trap song make.

Favourite Tracks: Poke It Out, R.I.P. Fredo

Least Favourite Track: Home (KOD)

Score: 2/10

Travis Scott/Quavo – Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho

Image result for huncho jack jack hunchoIn yet another rap collab that dropped as 2017 came to a close, not to be upstaged by fellow Migos member Offset, Quavo recruits a kindred spirit in Travis Scott for a solid but unsurprising effort. The two stick to exactly what they know and exactly what they’ve been doing for the rest of the year, and since they are more similar in terms of artistry than many collaborative projects over the course of the year, it seems like the album doesn’t have much to offer that we haven’t already heard before.

While I personally wanted to hear more bars and less mumbled, autotuned crooning that the two have become known for, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho shows two artists who are as understanding of their audience as they possibly could be, delivering a select few great moments in a sea of mediocrity.

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The project opens with its most immediately catchy song in “Modern Slavery”, which features a more energetic trap beat than most of the generic offerings on the rest of the project and features Quavo “shaking his demons off” and then “dipping his dreams in sauce”. The shorter length of the track, as well as the multiple delays on the project, makes me think that the logistics of the project did not come together as well as most, since this album basically exists solely due to internet hype on Twitter. I wish it had gone on for longer.

The only features on the project come from fellow Migos members Takeoff and Offset, and it really speaks volumes to how well Migos work as a trio, since the distinct voices they bring to their respective tracks really breaks up the monotony here. Scott and Quavo are almost indistinguishable here, not playing off of each other at all or complementing each others’ strengths because they essentially do very similar things on each track.

The tracks “Dubai Sh*t” and “Best Man” stand out as well, the former demonstrating the quotable, goofier side of their respective rap personas (if you can ignore the similarities to Drake’s More Life highlight “Gyalchester”) while the album closer “Best Man” offers something a little different from the trap sensibilities and rhythmic adherence to rather straightforward beats. The collaborators express their brotherhood and tell some stories of their early friendship over Young Thug producer Wheezy’s more spacey, ambient beat that accommodates their melodies better.

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Scott and Quavo’s more freeform, flowing style doesn’t contrast as well with more dynamic beats, since almost all of the energy of the track is lost when a beat calms down due to the rappers not explicitly sticking to a solid rhythmic pattern. While there is certainly appeal in the style, as evidenced by the two rappers’ enormous popularity, after a slew of collaborative projects that only served to amplify artistic aspects that weren’t as prominent on solo work, the safe approach to this project didn’t sit as well with me. Too much of the project sounds like an amalgamation of just about every track Travis and Quavo appeared on over the course of 2017, using the same flows, same beats, same adlibs and same lyrical content and even some of the same punchlines.

Quavo’s voice is the hip-hop universal solvent at this point, and Travis Scott at his most energetic can be truly invigorating, but it is clear that there wasn’t a high degree of effort put into this project, not wanting to delay its release to 2018. There are certainly moments to enjoy here – these two have exploded into the public eye recently as they continue to shape exactly what modern hip-hop sounds like, and this can be partially credited to the strength of their prolific collaborations – but usually, their presence is a welcome juxtaposition and different perspective to a track by someone with a completely different approach. These artists aren’t as one-dimensional as this project makes them seem.

Favourite Tracks: Modern Slavery, Moon Rock, Best Man

Least Favourite Track: How U Feel

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Chris Stapleton, Miguel, Big Sean)

Image result for from a room volume 2Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 2

Country/soul superstar Chris Stapleton releases the second half of his From A Room series, following the excellent Volume 1 early this year. Despite mostly restraining himself from the explosive moments and outlaw country lyrics on this second half, opting instead for safer, pleasant balladry, Stapleton’s vocal talent is unmatched not only in his genre, but across most of the music industry, and his ability to convey emotion in his delivery continues to ring throughout this follow-up.

Stapleton continues to bring his wife, Morgane, on board to back him up with some pretty incredible harmonies – it’s tough to match up to the vocal presence Stapleton delivers, but she’s more than up for the job. He continues to show his versatility as well, diving directly into the heavier guitars of southern rock on a track like “Hard Livin’” while stripping things back to show the soulful side of his vocals on “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”. Back to back tracks “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” are the highlights here, the former showcasing Stapleton in country storytelling mode as an impressive display of speedy guitar riffs back him up, playing a character once again as he taps into the mindset of a farmer and his undying love for the land that had been passed down for generations. The latter, however, taps into an almost doo-wop style instrumental as Stapleton does what he does best, communicating complete dejection and heartbreak though his vocal delivery. The song honestly doesn’t contain much lyrically, but when Stapleton sings the few words he does here he absolutely makes them count – “What’s love but just some confusion we don’t need?”, he sings, his voice perfectly stretched to its emotional breaking point.

While the cover song on Volume 1, “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, was perhaps its best track, the covers that begin and end Volume 2 are perhaps its weakest points, as Stapleton taps into some overly sentimental material with cheesy lyrical content that contrasts the rugged outlaw character he attempts to portray. Both tracks detail the value he places in his friendships and relationships, but lack the lyrical depth and complexity I’ve come to know him for, remaining on some baseline metaphors. Volume 2 is still a very solid collection of tracks, but most of these songs through its middle aren’t as immediately impactful as their predecessors. Still, Stapleton is at the top of his genre.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody’s Lonely Tonight, Scarecrow In The Garden, A Simple Song, Midnight Train To Memphis

Least Favourite Track: Friendship

Score: 7/10

Image result for miguel war and leisureMiguel – War & Leisure

Miguel’s fourth studio album continues his streak of connecting on his lofty ambitions of R&B psychedelia and strong songwriting, taking a slightly more political angle than usual but maintaining that devilish grin you can feel through his delivery when falling back on the Prince-emulating sensual slow jams he is known for. Miguel’s vocals are assured and confident, the lavish instrumentals behind him contributed by established veteran R&B producers like Happy Perez and Raphael Saadiq layering on top to create a sonic world to get lost in.

After introducing us to the album with “Criminal”, a slower track featuring some laidback musings from Rick Ross, the party begins with “Pineapple Skies”, which pays homage to a long legacy of soul music that Miguel adopts flawlessly. The track borrows some instrumental elements from Marvin Gaye’s classic track “Sexual Healing” while acknowledging the legacy Prince left behind in its lyrical content detailing the purple sky above them. Miguel settles into the upbeat groove of the project, and you can almost envision him doing the suave choreography present in his live performances as he breezes through the chorus with a “backslide … everything gonna be alright”. Miguel is a master of the extended metaphor, declaring “there’s a war on love” at the start of “Banana Clip” before an impressive number of comparisons of his devotion to a soldier at war, while delivering one of the most unique song concepts of the year on “City of Angels”, imagining a post-apocalyptic future where Los Angeles was eviscerated by bombs while Miguel was out of town, as he laments not being there to die together with his girlfriend, lost to the attack. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but his tender vocals absolutely sell it.

While he’s sung in Spanish before, another interesting direction the project takes is “Caramelo Duro”, sung almost entirely in his native language – I didn’t think it was possible for Miguel to sound more at home in the sonic landscape he commands, but he is completely in his element here. “Come Through and Chill” is another excellent track, based around a calming acoustic guitar loop while Miguel shares the mic with J. Cole, returning to form with two great feature verses as the two invite the listener over with a wink. War and Leisure is easily one of the best R&B projects this year, refreshingly relying more on authentic-sounding instruments while Miguel steps comfortably and convincingly into his role as psychedelic lothario.

Favourite Tracks: Pineapple Skies, City Of Angels, Told You So, Caramelo Duro, Banana Clip

Least Favourite Track: Wolf

Score: 9/10

Image result for double or nothing big seanBig Sean & Metro Boomin – Double Or Nothing

All-star trap producer Metro Boomin releases yet another collaborative project, this time with a much more unlikely guest in Big Sean, who he slightly alters his beats for to adapt to his speedier flow. Double Or Nothing is some of Metro Boomin’s best work this year, interpolating some beautiful choral and orchestral elements, but most of the time Big Sean’s inconsistency lets the project down.

Metro Boomin opens strong on the track “Go Legend”. Regardless of the repetitive hook from Travis Scott, the track is carried by a modified trap hi-hat pattern on top of a legitimate orchestral piece complete with swelling violins and twinkling piano that accentuates Sean’s slightly deadpan delivery. The first half of the project is much stronger, Sean staying focused and showing the technical ability we know him for. Hearing Metro’s aggressive beats with a more technical, lyrically-focused rapper is an interesting exercise, even if Sean’s approaches eventually become half-baked. “Big Bidness” and “Pull Up N Wreck” are both grandiose, cinematic rap tracks, 2 Chainz and 21 Savage delivering great, lower-key verses contrasting Sean’s confident boasts, while “Who’s Stopping Me” just continues to show Metro Boomin’s versatility, sampling the guitar pattern from a Brazilian song and bringing the Spanish lyrics back in the chorus. Sean himself declares it “the best beat thus far” on the track, adapting his flow to the swung, Latin flavour and offering the kind of quotable lyrics that only Sean could come up with.

As the album goes on, Sean’s lyrical content here crosses the line past the kind of goofy punchline rap that we accept because of his confident delivery to some pretty inexcusable lines that not even his big personality could save, taking you out of the song quickly. “So Good”, regardless of being Metro Boomin’s most derivative beat, fails miserably at being the kind of sensual anthem Sean’s whispery delivery would suggest due to line after line of middle school-quality punchlines that are too egregious to be effective. You need at least some degree of metaphor there, Sean. Even his flow seems a little off on some of these filler tracks, somehow becoming more conversational when speeding up and attempting to cram as many syllables as possible into a line with a tenuous connection to the song’s rhythm.

He continues to insist on singing on “Savage Time”, a tactic which hasn’t been anywhere close to being good since his first album 6 years ago, while simply sounding checked out on tracks like “Even The Odds” and “In Tune”, extending a single lyrical concept to the entire length of a song, filling in the blanks with different bars each time to tedious effect. While Metro’s production can frequently revive the energy of these tracks, he might be better off sticking to trap artists.

Favourite Tracks: Who’s Stopping Me, Pull Up N Wreck, No Hearts No Love, Go Legend

Least Favourite Track: So Good

Score: 6/10