Kendrick Lamar – Black Panther: The Album

16 Mar

Black Panther was both an excellent movie and a cultural milestone. The album doesn’t quite hold up to that standard on either axis or the standard that Kendrick has gotten us accustomed to, but there is still space below all those bars for it to be quite good.

First of all, the singles all do well. “All The Stars” is just a great Kendrick joint and SZA absolutely kills both the chorus and her own verse. The Weeknd is in his comfort zone with “Pray For Me” and while Kendrick’s verse doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the song, it’s still just very good. “King’s Dead” has a solid Jay Rock verse, some stellar work from Future and the memorable “Miss me with that bullshit” from Kendrick.

Additionally, a couple of the other songs punch well above their weight. SOB x RBE burn down their song and Yugen Blakrok simply overwhelms the rest of “Opps” until it there’s nothing else left. The rest of the album is unfortunately forgettable however. There are moments, but not enough to save it from a slight blandness. There are no actual misses here. There’s nothing so poor as to hurt. The album as a whole does feel a little deadened due to all the cotton wool packed in it though.

The entire album runs the afro-futurism of the movie quite well however. There are a lot of explicit call-outs to Wakanda, Killmonger and the Black Panther himself, but more importantly, the beats themselves strongly reinforce the theme. Hearing sounds like this from a confirmed A-lister like Kendrick in the context of an album of the magnitude of this one is both novel and important. Also, it’s just good music.



Migos – Culture 2

1 Mar

Where their previous album was a statement of intent, Culture 2 is a victory lap. Trap is the biggest thing going around and Migos are bona-fide superstars as a result. Like an actual victory lap, this album is rather more relaxed than the run that it took to get here. There’s maybe a little too much playing to the crowd, a little too much space for friends to jump in and just a little too much self-indulgence. Still, a victory lap is not meant to break world records, it’s just a moment to celebrate with the winners and why would I begrudge them that?

Also, this album is of strikingly consistent quality despite the length. The singles definitely stand out with the Kanye-produced “BBO (Bad Bitches Only)” and Pharell-produced “Stir Fry” as particularly memorable. Similarly, the chant in “Auto Pilot” is insistent. However, the album as a whole is just good, muscular rap. A couple of songs are forgettable, and the guest spots mostly feel unrealized, but there’s not a single song in the album that breaks the flow and most of them will drag you deeper in.

It’s worth going over again just how good most of the music in this is. I just happen to have “Movin’ Too Fast” on and the drowned beat in it is just excellent. Offset flows so smoothly for the first half and is then broken cleanly by the gravel in Takeoff’s verse which goes back to Offset before Quavo’s yelps put an almost-jarringly new spin on the song.

It jumps quickly from radio-ready to experimental and back again. The result is definitely a little inchoate, but the quality is steady across both types. It’s a slightly messy album and the ideas come fast and hard, but I don’t want a Migos album built under a waterfall in the first place. While Culture 2 lacks the focus of their previous album, and with that some of the quality, it’s still a lot of fun to listen to, all 105 minutes of it.


tUnE-yArDs – i can feel you creep into my private life

2 Feb

I can feel you creep into my private life.jpg

This is definitely a pop album with enough going on to make for an interesting couple of listens. It draws from a staggering variety of sounds and keeps them reasonably coherent. Unfortunately however, once the early novelty wears out, there’s just too much that doesn’t work and the album as a whole is dragged down.

“Hammer”, for instance, starts slow but becomes quite good disco-pop in a style very reminiscent of Broken Bells and something like “Coast to Coast” is similarly just good pop. The eccentricities of “Private Life” and “Home” just don’t work that well however. The experimentation of “Colonizer” likewise fails despite the high initial promise and ends up just sounding banal.

While the weaker songs do detract substantially from the album, there is enough here of interest to reward a few listens and if you’re looking for a new pop album that puts some work into being new, this is a good place to start.


Charli XCX – Pop 2

18 Jan

Pop 2 is a pleasantly experimental mixtape from the now huge Charli XCX. This willingness to experiment is what got me interested in her debut album True Romance and what was missing in both SUCKER and Number 1 Angel.

It could use a real banger however. None of the songs are up to the standard of her best such as her also recent and absolutely fantastic “Boys”. “Femmebot” is close, but doesn’t quite have the energy it needs. It, like a couple of other songs in the album, is unfortunately let down by the feature. Tommy Cash does very well in “Delicious” though, and Charli herself is more than able to carry the album anyway. Songs like “Out Of My Head” are just really good pop and I love the bubblegum in “Unlock It”. The album’s production is relentlessly innovative and Charli effortlessly pushes it further still to the extent of there being literal screeching in the background of “Tears”, a move as unexpected as it is excellent, an epithet as apt for the album as for the song.


Eminem – Revival

11 Jan

Like most people of my age, much of the first music that I really listened to was Eminem’s. Unlike much of the other stuff I heard, Em’s early stuff still holds up amazingly today. It is astounding how good he was at his peak. Revival however is unfortunately nowhere near that peak.

This album continues a now decades long trend of mediocre Eminem albums and two facts are to blame. The first is that Eminem seems to be the only true practitioner of stadium rap. Interpolating “I Love Rock n Roll” for “Remind Me” would be fun to chant in a full stadium, but doesn’t work when listening to it by yourself. Similarly, aren’t we all tired of the “Zombies” sample he uses in “In Your Head” by now?

This problem has roots deep in his history. He always liked stadium rock more than the average rapper and it used to work. The “Dream On” hook does so much for “Sing For The Moment”, but here the sound just feels banal. It makes sense given the circumstances. Eminem is one of the few rappers able to pack a stadium and his audience is probably a little less conversant with rap than that of, say, Kendrick Lamar. This music feels built for a specific circumstance. It’s just not very good anywhere else.

This is quite a shame given that Eminem is probably the greatest student of the game there ever was. There is some irony in how the success he built through his skill has now kept him from fully exercising that same skill. Even so, the skill does show. His ability to pick up other people’s flows here is impressive, even if the resulting song is mediocre and his ability to chop words into whatever he wants remains unparalleled. However, all of this technique just feels empty, which leads us to the second problem.

Em just really has nothing left to say. I had really hoped that his new political stance would result in some depth from him. After all, his early stuff was always ready to take shots at Bush. Yet in Revival, for all that I wish “Untouchable” was solid commentary, it is actually just unlistenable. He gets moments in “Bad Husband” as he mines his familiar emotional seams of fatherhood and his ex-wife and the more mature angle is a little fresh, but the old magic is gone and it’s probably time to accept that it’s not coming back. He’s just too successful.

Additionally, people are just harder to shock now than they were in his prime. Talking about throwing Ivanka Trump into the back of a trunk just doesn’t have the punch it would have had 20 years ago. The world has turned.

Eminem’s legacy will undoubtedly be that of one of the greatest rappers of all time and his success is commensurate. It’s becoming impossible though to deny that same success is going to keep him from ever adding anything new to his legacy. This album certainly isn’t worth remembering.


Ivan Ave – Helping Hands

3 Jan

Jazz rap, or even music close to it, is rare enough that any solid release is worth taking note of and Helping Hands is a reasonable addition to an under-served genre. The rap unfortunately lacks the punch to break through the jazzier beats in the way that something like Bop Alloy manages and so the album, while good, is rarely outstanding. It does make for a very relaxing sound however. The album comes together in a way that is almost ambient to the extent that the titular song lacks any rap at all, but doesn’t feel in the least out of place.

This is an album worth looking into for any fans of the sadly far too small subgenre and “Circles” is actually a standout track. It is honestly skippable for most music fans, but while the highs aren’t too high, the lows are never that low and it’s an album that I’m happy to have spent the time listening to.


The Top Five Albums of 2017

1 Jan

2017 has been a good year for returning legends and young upstarts alike. On the former front, Jay-Z released his side of the story behind the infamous elevator fight in 2014, following albums by his wife and sister-in-law in 2016. Spoon released yet another great album, and indie darlings LCD Soundsystem came back from self-imposed retirement with a surprise album.

As for the upstarts: we got some amazing debut albums from buzzy artists like Moses Sumney and Sampha, but we were also graced with surprisingly strong follow-up records from Lorde and Vince Staples. And of course, there was Kendrick Lamar, who simultaneously fits both categories (and, really, all categories) with his third major-label full-length album.

Read on for our take on the top five albums of the year past.

5. The OOZ – King Krule

the ooz_king krule

According to King Krule (the stage name of 23-year-old Archy Marshall), the “ooz” mentioned in the album’s title is an homage to the various solids and liquids that ooze out of the human body – the primordial “creations” that we make and refine to fit into society. The vowel is lopped off at the end as a tip of the hat to the backwards-form of Marshall’s previous avatar, Zoo Kid.

If all of this seems strange and circuitous, then we’ve given you an apt welcome to the world of King Krule. The OOZ lies somewhere along the spectrum between jazz, punk and grunge, and Marshall’s brilliance lies in elevating this sonic kaleidoscope into a seamless new genre.

“Dum Surfer” opens like a menacing surf-rock song, crisp guitar bouying Marshall’s half-remembered boozy stories. About a third of the way through, the song segues into a skillful jazz guitar solo, complete with backing brass, but the beat never changes – it’s the same song. “Czech One” is a heart-breaking jazz-R&B song, complete with melancholic saxophone. Two songs later, “Vidual” is the hypothetical output of the Libertines penning a ska song.

Aside from his obvious musical aptitude, King Krule also happens to be a pretty good writer. Specifically, his allure lies in his ability to shuttle between precise anecdotes and profound reflection without losing the overall plot. For example, on album opener “Biscuit Town”, Marshall transitions from plaintive young-adult angst (“I seem to sink lower, gazing in the rays of the solar / In fact, we made a pact, but now I think it’s over”) to name-dropping Coca-Cola and Chelsea player Zola in the same verse. Somehow, this mishmash of story structures deepens your investment in Marshall’s emotions – with the effect that you are left feeling sorrier for him than deserved for what is essentially a yearning post-break-up tune.

The OOZ is a unique, woozy picture of Archy Marshall’s wide-eyed sadness. If there is a flaw, it’s that 19 tracks is a bit too long, but that’s just our opinion. File this one next to Mac DeMarco, early Nirvana, jazz classics, or pretty much anywhere else on your shelf – it’ll work.

Best tracks: “Dum Surfer”, “Biscuit Town”, “The Locomotive”

4. Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples


In direct contrast to current radio-reigning rap stars, Vince Staples is not boujee at all. He does have a lot of new money, but he certainly isn’t wasting it on stupid shit. In fact (just like a great man once warned), more money brought Vince more problems, in the way of an inability to be happy despite achieving everything he’s ever wanted. Vince battles the ennui by making more music, which in turn brings more money and – you guessed it – more problems. It’s a vicious cycle, but happily for us, it results in great music from Vince Staples.

Don’t get us wrong – Big Fish Theory is no sob-fest. Vince Staples’ lyrics may speak of an inner tedium (“Human issues too strong for tissues”) but damn, can he lay a strong boast over a sick beat when he needs to. On “Big Fish”, Vince describes his bad-ass self-control over a club-ready trap beat – not only is he good at getting rich, but he is damn good at staying rich. On “Yeah Right”, Vince sneers at the priorities of today’s rap stars – money, women and then musical fame – all over a sludgy, sexy beat that could replace any one of these stars on the charts.

Full review here.

(If you’re wondering where you’ve heard his music before, it’s probably “BagBak” on the soundtrack for the Black Panther trailers.)

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “BagBak”

3. Hot Thoughts – Spoon

Hot thoughts

There’s a certain consistency to Spoon. The beats are always crisp; the guitars alternate expertly between nervy energy and rock-star confidence; the lyrics are slightly peculiar, matched by Britt Daniels’ idiosyncrasies. That may sound like formulaic, but Spoon is anything but. The essence of the band remains constant – the Austin-y quirkiness especially – but Spoon is actually very adept at updating the rest of their sound with each subsequent album.

Hot Thoughts, the band’s ninth (!) album since their formation in the mid-90s, is no exception. Keeping with the times, the album gets an almost hip-hop treatment, most audible on the sly overconfidence of “Can I Sit Next to You”. Hot Thoughts also benefits from the guiding hand of Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann, resulting in the sonic dreamscapes on “Pink Up” and the free-jazz masterpiece of album closer “Us”.

The best tracks, though, are still the Spooniest ones. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” is all big drums and Daniels confidence, and “Shotgun” could soundtrack a bar fight in your early 20s. It’s the kind of music that makes the Strokes seem frumpy.

Full review here.

Best tracks: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

2. Melodrama – Lorde


Lorde started working on her debut album, Pure Heroine, when she was a 13-year-old in small-town New Zealand. The album, which released a few months before her 17th birthday, was set in suburbia, with a close set of friends and nothing really to do, and it was so good because the songs reflected those circumstances so well.

Melodrama is very different, because Lorde herself is very different. In between the two albums, Lorde became extremely famous, originally through her break-out track “Royals” but later supported by a slew of well-received singles. She moved from New Zealand; she made new friends. Fortunately, Lorde’s skill at transcribing the moods and phases of her life into song have grown with her. Melodrama is the result of spending an already melodramatic period of life – late teens – under the auspice of immense fame.

Every song on the album is a standalone story; a slice of Lorde’s life, shuttling between New York and New Zealand and everywhere else in the middle. On the whole, Melodrama is a break-up album – in a very real sense, from her New Zealand boyfriend James Lowe, and in a deeper sense, from the starry-eyed naivety of her late-teens.

Melodrama is a near-perfect, infinitely enjoyable pop album, and you’re losing out on a real musical treat if you haven’t given it a full listen.

Full review here.

Best songs: “Homemade Dynamite”, “Sober”, “Perfect Places”

1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar


As we speculated in May, it has basically become an assumption that a new Kendrick Lamar album will be the best album of the year. For the remaining seven months, we looked far and wide – from post-rock to punk-jazz, from hip-hop to pure pop – but nothing comes close.

Like its predecessors, DAMN. is a masterpiece because Kendrick Lamar is bigger than life. He is a born-again Christian, and genuinely believes that he has been put on this Earth with a greater purpose. His literally godlike self-confidence lets him do things that others simply cannot do. On “DNA.”, he explores black heritage from a blinding barrage of angles (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA”). Like many rap songs, “HUMBLE.” is boastful (“I blow cool from AC / Obama just paged me”); but by masterfully balancing the brags with too-real pictures of the very recent past, Kendrick keeps himself humble. “FEEL.” is a free-fall through Kendrick’s complex feelings on his newfound fame, delivered in a flow so fluid that the words almost become beats.

The hundreds of words in Kendrick’s verses are so full of wordplay, imagery and thematic elements that each song basically needs its own Cliffnotes. Kendrick Lamar is a masterful poet and storyteller who just happens to have the lucrative gift of making chart-topping hits. DAMN. is not even the best album of his career, but it’s still the best album of 2017.

Best songs: “HUMBLE.”, “ELEMENT.”, “DNA.”


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