Christine and the Queens – La vita nuova

5 Apr

The new Christine and the Queens EP is good upbeat pop. It’s fun, uptempo music and eminently danceable. It’s infectious and very consistent. I don’t think there’s a single moment here that could be considered a misstep. The quality is startlingly high throughout.

For all of that though, there isn’t anything here that truly elevates the album either. I’m very much enjoying listening to it right now, but I don’t think that I’m going to return to it again. If you’re looking for something entertaining and lively, this is perfect for right now, even if it maybe won’t be as perfect tomorrow.

Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

1 Apr

A Written Testimony is a surprisingly pleasant listen. You don’t expect a rap album right now to be something so bracing, but this is like drinking the first good cup of tea in a day.

The first part of that is the Nation of Islam theme that runs through the album. It’s honestly pretty understated, but it’s still an important touch and one that sets the tone for the album. More than that though, the album is at its best when it’s laid-back, unhurried and clean. Jay Electronica’s rap in “Ezekiel’s Wheel” does this perfectly and the beat takes its time underneath it and then Jay-Z comes in to close the album with quite as much tranquility as the rest.

Hova shows up for no less than nine of the ten tracks here and he’s in form. The serene raps and quiet beats work really well for him. He’s very fluid throughout. His singing in closer “A.P.I.D.T.A.” is halting and soft and really gets the emotion through. Electron then comes in and takes his time with the verse to get it to land well. Between their deliberateness and the interestingly twangy beat underneath, the song feels like folk-rock despite clearly falling under fairly traditional rap. It’s very well done.

Similarly, they trade good, leisurely bars on “Universal Soldier.” Jay Electronica’s punchy, heavy flow features well throughout. His lines are haymakers, they’re ponderous, but land with weight. Jay-Z is of course Jay-Z. We all know who Hova is.

The sound is no monolith though, “Ghost of Soulja Slim” has strong Dan Tha Automator vibes. It reminds me of a Deltron cut and Jay-Z goes hard in it. Jay Electronica has done strong work on the production throughout. He has clever, stripped down beats like in “Shiny Suit Theory” that elevate the sound.

There’s still a little filler here though. The Swizz Beatz-produced “The Blinding” feels too much like an outtake from Watch The Throne. It’s pretty solid once it hits its flow and there are some interesting pieces in there, but it doesn’t fit and it doesn’t do much by itself either.

This is a strong rap album though. It’s good to see Jay Electronica finally release his debut album. I don’t know if he still counts as a newcomer, but it’s close enough and it’s good to see him come out so strong. It’s just as good to see Jay-Z keep showing us that he still has it and his elder statesman era is an excellent, exciting evolution.

Overall, A Written Testimony doesn’t quite do anything breathtaking. It’s not a classic. It is very good though and worth checking out for something that is straightforward about what it does and skilled at doing it.

Monthly Playlist: Mar. 2020

31 Mar

March 2020 will forever be known in the history books as the month that COVID-19 really stuck its hypothetical flag into Earth. Over a billion people are now in quarantine, leading to stranger-than-fiction outcomes like kindergarten classes over Zoom. There is, however, one silver lining to this whole scenario: humanity’s ability to find artistic outlets seems to have gotten sharper. Either that, or this was just independently a really good month for music. Read on for our top five tracks this month – and stay safe!

“just a boy” by Alaina Castillo

Houston, Texas-based Alaina Castillo has been making her moves for a while now. Castillo shot to fame the new-school way, by racking up a massive YouTube following, before transitioning into her first traditional EP (2019’s antisocial butterfly). Three months into the year, the English-Spanish bilingual singer has already released five singles but it’s “just a boy” that may just give her the mainstream break-out she deserves. The song features Alaina’s silky smooth, pitch-perfect vocals that can give Ariana Grande a run for her money, layered over stripped-down guitar work. It’s the best of pop: sugary-sweet vocals, relatable lyrics, and heartfelt emotion.

“Ooh LA LA” by Run The Jewels (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)

Rap duo Run The Jewels, consisting of Killer Mike and El-P, are back with a new jam called “Ooh LA LA”. The track has a laid-back, 90s rap vibe that perfectly complements the comfortable-brag lyrics. In particular, Killer Mike’s “First of all, fuck the fucking law, we is fucking raw / Steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, sushi bar” is a standout, but really, the whole song is filled with such lines. What’s more, the song is well-served by a catchy-AF chorus. Run The Jewels are scheduled to release a new album this year, and had an amazing double-bill tour with Rage Against the Machine (titled, appropriately, “Public Service Announcement”) planned for 2020 – time will tell how much of that tour they are actually able to embark upon.

“P2” by Lil Uzi Vert

In 2017, Lil Uzi Vert shook up the world with, of all things, an emo rap song, entitled “XO Tour Llif3”. “Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead,” says Uzi on the chorus , throwing in side-note one-liners like “I might blow my brain out / Xanny numb the pain, yeah”. Late 90s emo rock bands probably ate their hearts out – here was a genuine and successful emo song, parceled in talented rap no less. In 2020, Lil Uzi Vert released his much-awaited (and much-lauded) album called Eternal Atake (read our review here). “P2”, coming in just before the end of the behemoth one-hour 18-track album, is in essence the follow-up to “XO Tour Llif3”, both lyrically and musically. Uzi retains the hypnotic, slightly-off kilter minor beats, and his lyrics take on an after-the-fact vibe: “I don’t really care ‘cause I’m done”. Great song, and great album.

“Faith” by The Weeknd

“Faith” is an atmospheric, textured track from The Weeknd’s new album, After Hours (read our review here). While most of the spotlight right now is on the lead singles – “Blinding Lights”, “Heartless” – it’s really “Faith” that finds The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) at his most genuine, fractured self. Set on heavy choir-like synths, “Faith” really explores the various pieces of Abel’s self-destructive tendencies. He goes sober for his new love, but threatens to go back to his old ways if she leaves him. When given a choice between Heaven or Las Vegas (a reference to a previous song, btw), he chooses Sin City. And if he ODs? “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me,” he requests. “Faith” is almost a psychological study of a chronic drug abuser and what makes one stuck that way. Good music too – check it out.

“Break My Heart” by Dua Lipa

Technically, British-Albanian rising star Dua Lipa’s new album has been in the public sphere for a few months already. Unless you live under a rock, you must have heard her massive global hit, “Don’t Start Now”. The next single, “Physical”, did the rounds well too. This month, the new album Future Nostalgia was finally released, and it proved to be on par with both of those bangers. In particular, “Break My Heart” really encapsulates the vibe of the whole album: nostalgia for the early 2000s (when Dua was a teeny-bopper) masked in the touchpoints of today’s pop hits. Synth-pop beats and her signature husky voice bring back memories of Titanic-era Cher, perhaps, with some busy Gwen Stefani-esque attitude – but it’s all done in a way that feels modern, not retro. The perfectly-titled Future Nostalgia as a whole is a great ride, and “Break My Heart” is a good place to start.

The Weeknd – After Hours

25 Mar

It’s still a little hard to come to terms with the end of the Trilogy-era Weeknd, but he’s left that mixtape period long behind him. What we have now is less consistent and less directed, but more accessible and definitely much more appropriate for the star that he has become. The man is even doing movies now.

The music is still good though, perhaps the best that he’s made since ascension. As always, his voice is his greatest strength. It’s high pitched, but strong nonetheless and very richly textured. And, as always, the loucheness of his character works very well with it. When he yelps “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me” in “Faith,” his voice is what really sells the point.

“Faith,” in fact, works as a good showpiece for the more modern Weeknd sound. It uses a heavy, pulsating Metro Boomin’ beat to drive it forward while Abel’s voice dances above it. His dissipated storytelling matches both the griminess of the beat and the etherealness of his voice. He even has the genius to cut the beat for things like the line above and also for the outro, giving his voice that much more time in the spotlight.

This is the same general formula that he’s used for a while now, and it works well for a fair bit here. The 80s-style upbeat journey through a too-early-to-be-early city of “Flashing Lights” is excellent. “After Hours” is a banger and a testament to his strength as a singer. He hits all his points flawlessly and effortlessly. ‘Too Late” is similarly strong. “Escape From LA” could have been something of a cliche, but he works well in well-trodden scenes and he can pull off lines like “LA girls all look the same / I can’t recognize / Same work done on they face / I don’t criticize.”

Some of it is just too close to straight pop though. “Scared To Love” is just painfully predictable. “Save Your Tears” is boring and goes on for far too long. “In Your Eyes” has a sax interlude that should be fun, but instead goes too far into the uninteresting side of old school pop.

“Snowchild” should have the same problems. It goes on for too long and needs more twists. His voice is able to save it though. He is just that good a singer. Besides, he has the line “She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship / futuristic sex, give her Phillip K. dick.” in it.

It all really comes together in “Heartless” though. It’s the same formula as above, but done so very well. It’s frenetic, it’s self-loathing and it’s self-destructive. It’s ominous and sexy for it. It’s even danceable. It’s absolutely as good as the best of what he’s done before.

After Hours is still more commercial than I would have wanted from The Weeknd. It’s also just not the classic that I’ve been waiting for from the new-era Weeknd. It is however still very good modern R&B and, while there is some undeniable filler, there’s also a lot of absolutely top-tier music in here.

Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

20 Mar

Uzi just keeps moving the music forward. There’s just so much in Eternal Atake, so much cleverness, so much fire and so much that’s unexpected. Uzi’s new album is urgent, energetic and unmissable.

Firstly, he just goes so hard in this. He puts so much pace on “Homecoming” that the song steams with sweat. It’s relentless and tireless. “POP” is frenetic and “You Better Move” is almost punishing and yet the two only serve as a launchpad for “Homecoming.” Even then though, they have highlights of their own. His chant of Balenci’ is breathtaking in “POP.” It holds a white-hot intensity for so long that it puts you in a lather just to listen to it.

“You Better Move” has a yelped shout-out to Yu-Gi-Oh! that just sticks. This is the other thing about the album. Uzi is just really likeable. I love the random call-outs. I love the space themes. Uzi has that charisma.

Above all though, he just has the ear for music. He puts together sounds fearlessly and pulls in the most unexpected sounds with impeccable smoothness. This is showcased by his going back to his break-out “XO Tour Llif3” with “P2.” This could have gone very poorly, but he manages it cleanly and his take on “That Way” actually works well. His crooning is maybe a little grating, but the sound is just so clever that it’s more than forgivable.

He’s got such versatility here. His crooning works, I love his hard raps and he’s fantastic in the more traditional songs like “Futsal Shuffle 2020.” He traps excellently in “Secure The Bag” where his hook of “This is a game” is sublime. He yelps perfectly against the sublime Asian-inflected trap beat of “Pieces.” He changes flow fluidly in “Bigger Than Life.”

This album feels like the bebop of the trap world. It’s challenging and demands your focus, but it has so many rewards for your attention. It’s deeply textured and there’s so much to provoke thought in the details here. His yelps, his ad-libs, the pauses in his raps all can catch you by surprise. It’s all just so clever.

This is an excellent album and if it only had a truly stand-out single, this would be a masterpiece. As is, it’s merely fantastic and something that you should definitely listen to.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

12 Mar

Nearly five years after mainstream-breaking Currents (2015), Australian psychedelic rock act Tame Impala is back with a new album. With a fuller ethos and nods to a wider palette, The Slow Rush finds Kevin Parker, the one-man driving force behind the act, at his most accessible – and the jury is out on whether that’s necessarily a good thing.

Comparisons to Currents are of course expected. That album was packed to the brim with endlessly-playable mega-hits, interspersed with wisps of ethereal fillers (see: “Gossip”, “Nangs“). It had instant classics like “The Less I Know the Better” and “Let It Happen” that redefined what a mainstream psychedelic rock song could sound like, taking back the mantle from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. You knew Currents was a magical ride from the first song – no matter how many times you heard it all the way through.

On The Slow Rush, there are definitely a few such stand-out moments. One of our first tastes of the album was “Borderline”, released almost a year ago to high praise. The song see-saws constantly between cautious synth-rock verses and a feverish chorus, as do the lyrics – “We’re on the borderline / Caught between the tides of pain and rapture,” he says. Accentuated by Parker’s signature Doppler-effect fades, the result is almost a Moebius strip of sound – happy, sad, pained, rapturous all at once – coiled inside one “loner in L.A.”. And even better than “Borderline” is “Breathe Deeper”, a dreamy gem hidden halfway into the album. We’ve already lauded this song, but it honestly deserves all that and more – an intoxicating mix of R&B, house and cool indie pop filtered through the distorted mess of Kevin Parker’s mind.

Beyond these two tracks, though, the roster varies quite a bit. There are tunes like “Instant Destiny”, where Parker comes across, well, boring. “This traffic doesn’t seem quite as annoying / quite alright, quite alright, sittin’ here,” he intones, on what’s essentially a fuzzed-out pop song about L.A.’s I-405. “Tomorrow’s Dust” sounds like he dialed it in with a generic falsetto over a borrowed Vampire Weekend guitar layer. “It Might Be Time” has some neat drums on the eponymous sections, but largely sounds like it could be filler music on an 80s-themed sci-fi show (we’re thinking Stranger Things?).

So what changed? Domestic bliss, we surmise. In the inter-album five-year-stretch, Parker has gotten married; with that change, he seems to have welcomed some much-needed contentment with life. Unfortunately, his music is best when the tension between his anxiety and genius is at near-snap tautness – and some of that has perhaps slackened with the arrival of Mrs. Kevin Parker.

The Slow Rush finds Parker at a personal best but a professional middle. He’s figured out some of the bigger pieces in his core psychological struggles, and the end-product is, with some exceptions, somewhat staid (for Tame Impala). And it doesn’t help that this comes after Currents, one of the best albums this side of 2000. All in all, give The Slow Rush a whirl – but this one’s probably for the fans.

D Smoke – Black Habits

9 Mar

I had a blast with Netflix’s Rhythm + Flow. First of all, rap always gets short shrift in reality music shows and so it’s really nice to see one of these shows focus on the genre. Chance and Cardi were great hosts and two out of three isn’t bad. Some of the guests were great. The show was a lot of fun. Above all though, some of the rap was excellent.

The show had one major structural flaw though. The show just didn’t run long enough. In something like Masterchef Australia, the show just goes on for so long that contestants really get a chance to develop over the course of the show. Rhythm + Flow, despite a little mentorship, never really gave its contestants the same space. The ones who looked best at the beginning looked best at the end and from the first moment that you saw him, D Smoke looked better than the rest.

Releasing an album like this puts him up against professionals though. He’s no longer competing against amateurs on TV. So, does Black Habits hold up in the real world? Mostly yes, but maybe also a little no.

Firstly, when Smoke goes hard, he goes hard. “Gaspar Yanga” is really very strong and it plays to all of his strengths. His bilingualism is good, his calling out Inglewood is good, Snoop is naturally good. It just lets Smoke stretch as a rapper though. His flow is such a strength and this song really shows off his skills.

Similarly, “No Commas” is a standout. Going hard just works for him. I do however feel the political interjections are a little tame, as I did through the album. I want him to really take his politics to the next level.

D Smoke’s natural comparison point is Kendrick. His flow, his style, just everything about him feels like early Kendrick, but Kendrick’s raps are conscious in a way that no one else is. Especially after To Pimp A Butterfly, it was clear that Kendrick just thinks differently and, in the same way, D Smoke needs to find a unique space for himself. Black Habits just isn’t memorable in the way that top rap albums achieve in spades, and this is much of the difference.

Additionally, some of the music here, while interesting explorations, are just not him at his best. It’s impressive that he has the ability to drop slow cuts like “Seasons Pass” or “Real Body” but it’s just not what he should be doing. “Fly” works well by having Smoke rap hard against a slow beat and hook, but when he slows down himself, it’s fine, it’s definitely not terrible, but he’s just better than it.

This is a good album overall though. We could see Smoke’s talent from the moment he came on TV and this album shows it. I want something with more individuality from him though. Smoke’s personality came through strong in the show and when he figures out how to fully integrate that with his music, there’s no doubt that it’s going to be special. For now though, Black Habits should by on your rotation and D Smoke someone you should watch out for.

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