Archive | November, 2019

Kanye West – Jesus Is King

10 Nov

It’s a given now that a new Kanye album is going to be something of a production. Albums are promised and due dates come and go and you’re never sure what you will get until it comes. With Jesus Is King, what you get is a lot of truly excellent music and one of the more interesting albums that Kanye has ever made.

Coming in, I thought it would be a full gospel album. I expected “Ultralight Beam” extended into a complete album. Instead, although there is a very substantial gospel theme, the album as a whole is surprisingly diverse. There’s a heavy religious bent and the album is very cohesive, but my concerns about monotony proved entirely unfounded.

The album opens with a straight gospel track though, performed by the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye has toured with of late. It’s a good choir and a good way to open the album. It functions as a statement of purpose and a way for the listener to enter the mindset that the album asks for. It’s ablutionary.

It’s followed with “Selah,” which opens with Kanye rapping, but the centerpiece of the song is that same choir. Kanye has a couple of good lines (I like his biblical double-entendres), but the song is completely overpowered by the choir. It’s weapons-grade material to put into any song and it animates the song to such an extent that Kanye’s rapping after it feels completely subsumed by the echoes of that choral work. It makes for a powerful effect and one of the strongest songs of the album, but I feel that there’s space there for a better melding.

From there though, we go into “Follow God,” which really showcases Kanye’s ability as a rapper. In this and in “Hands On,” you can see technical rapping in a way that it feels that the earlier Kanye was just not capable of. He teases the chorus a couple of times in the middle of the song just to bull through it without taking a full breath and it’s dazzling. Even more interesting though is the center of the song, Kanye fighting with his father just to be told that it’s not Christ-like. The reality of spirituality is that it will be tested, and this struggle is one writ especially large with Kanye’s turn to God here. Kanye is famous for his emotionality, for his quickness to react, for his inability to think before he acts, and to see him address the struggle is valuable as it’s rare to see someone be honest and personal about how difficult it can be.

“Closed On Sunday” has a bit of the same. The Sabbath is a sacrifice as much as a respite and you can see the intent behind referencing Chick-fil-A’s decision to stay closed on Sunday out of respect for their faith. The production is sober and quiet and Kanye’s rapping is muted through most of it, which gives the music a heft that plays well with the theme and the wariness of the first verse, which then translates well into the second, often-shouted verse.

The Chick-fil-A association still leaves gristle in the teeth though. The company is far more famous for homophobia than for Sundays and to not only repeatedly reference them, but to end the song with a screamed invocation is overtly provocative. You have to expect that with Kanye, it is what he does, it gets the people going, but nevertheless I would have really liked it if he had backed it up a little. He explains “I Thought About Killing You” over the course of the song and that is why that piece is so strong, but here he simply provokes and runs, and it feels less than it should as a result.

The middle is a bit forgettable. It’s reminiscent of some of the more forgettable parts of TLoP to me, but I actually really like “God Is.” It’s just earnest and that’s nice to see. Earnestness is another of those things that’s critical to any understanding of religion, but it’s also one that people are often reluctant to center a song on just because of how uncomplicated it is. Uncomplicated is not the same as inferior though, and I like to see something straightforward every now and again.

For all of that though, “Hands On” calls out the Christians. It’s a necessary part of an album like this, it’s a good reminder that the struggle for spirituality is personal and not just subsuming yourself into a crowd. As above though, it’s also got strong rap from Kanye. His change of pace here is very clean. Again, it’s just nice to see how much Kanye has developed as a rapper. It was never his strongest suit, but his ability now unlocks a lot of musical space.

“Use This Gospel” helps close out the album well. Clipse are acceptable on it, but Kanye is great and bringing in Kenny G for a moment is very unexpected, but remarkably well done. It’s exactly the perfect sax interlude. The actual closer, “Jesus Is Lord” finishes right as it gets started, but that works well. It’s uplifting and beautiful and ends on exactly the right note.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece like MBDTF or Graduation and not as groundbreaking as 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus, but this is possibly the most unique album that Kanye has ever made. I’ve never experienced anything that has quite the same thing to say about religion or Christianity. It’s sincere and honest in the way that only Kanye can be and the result is as personal as a fingerprint. It’s very good music and there’s plenty here to provoke thought, no matter what Kanye himself may have intended to say. It’s not without flaws, but it’s also just excellent music and it’s the album this year that I’m most glad to have heard.

Monthly Playlist: Oct. 2019

3 Nov

We are back with another edition of our Monthly Playlist. Read on for a list of five songs that caught our fancy this month, from old favorites to newer entries.

5. “Hit Me Where It Hurts” by Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek is one half of Chairlift, an erstwhile two-piece synth pop from the early 00s. They toured with the decade’s darlings – the likes of Phoenix and The Killers – but ultimately called it quits. And just as well, because Polachek’s own music stands out more than most of the stuff she made with her band.

From her new album Pang, “Hit Me Where It Hurts” is somewhat of a modern pop classic. It boasts all the key elements of any pop song worth its salt – a hurtful yet magnetic relationship, occasionally sultry vocals and so on – but Caroline’s synth pop history gives the tune an unusual edge. The best part of the song is the hypnotic opening couplet – “I’m feeling like a butterfly trapped inside a plane / Maybe there’s something going on, I’m not insane” – and she takes a good call in peppering it throughout the song. “Hit Me Where It Hurts” may underscore the vulnerability of loneliness, but it looks like Polachek is doing just fine on her own.

4. “Professor X” by Dave

UK rapper Dave is having a really good year. In March, he released his debut album Psychodrama, a sharp, autobiographical look at growing up black and poor in the United Kingdom. A mere six months later, Psychodrama won the Mercury Prize, the biggest music award a British artist could receive. Like his compatriot slowthai, whose debut album was also nominated for the prize, Dave captures the zeitgeist of the UK today: rifted and divided in every sphere of life.

Professor X”, his first song since the Mercury Prize win, is part of the soundtrack for Top Boy, a grungy UK Netflix show where Dave incidentally made his acting debut this year (we told you he was having a good year). It’s as sharp as anything on Psychodrama, and his flow meshes perfectly with the layered beats. If you need an intro to Dave, this song is probably it.

3. “Dexter & Sinister” by Elbow

To say Elbow is underrated would be an understatement. The English rockers have been around for quite a while. Over their two-decade-plus career, they’ve won prestigious awards like the Mercury Prize (for 2008’s The Seldom Seen King) and Best British Group (2009’s Brit Awards). They’ve even soundtracked their home country’s Olympics in 2012. Yet they are hardly a household name, at least outside of the UK.

Therefore, we consider it our obligation to showcase “Dexter & Sinister”, the opening track from their eighth (!) studio album, Giants of All Sizes. A heavy bass-and-drums riff leads into heady, vaguely apocalyptic vocals. About halfway through, the song suddenly takes a dreamy, melancholic turn – complete with elven female vocals – before segueing into a meditative guitar outro. These twists may seem abrupt on paper, but the high production value makes them seamless.

The fine print to the song’s ethos, apparently, is Brexit, per lead singer Guy Garvey. He described the song as “a great, big, bewildered question dealing with my feelings on Brexit, the loss of family and friends and the general sense of disaffection you see all around at the moment,” and we do see what he means.

2. “Orphans” by Coldplay

British mainstays Coldplay were in the news a fair bit this month with the announcement of their new album, Everyday Life, out next month. The beloved band released two singles in anticipation: “Orphans” and “Arabesque”. While both are as emotive as one may expect from Coldplay, it’s “Orphans” that has wormed its way into our heads.

Centered around jangly guitar riffs and Chris Martin’s trademark head-cold vocals, “Orphans” seems to be a sad paean to the continuing unrest in Syria. As with many Coldplay songs, the lyrics are moving and meaningful. In this case, the story revolves around Rosalene, a young girl raised by her father in a Damascus orchard. The “missile monsoons” of the Syrian bombings are implied to have killed her father and later, her, too.

It’s a lovely song that speaks tenderly about an ongoing horror in our world – with a good melody to boot. The music video, released last week, is definitely worth a spin, too, for a peek into how Coldplay built out this song. Watch below:

1. “Wash Off” by Foals

As our readers are well aware, Foals have blessed us this year with not one, but two, fantastic full-length albums. Fans hardly had time to absorb Everything Not Saved Will be Lost, Pt. 1 in the first half of the year before the Oxford fourpiece announced a quick follow-up. Two great singles – “Black Bull” and “The Runner” – primed listeners for Pt. 2, which officially released on October 18th. “Wash Off”, the third track off the new release, is a deserving addition to the list of great Foals songs from 2019 (of which, happily, there are many).

Foals’ longevity over the past decade rests on their ability to evolve their sound while keeping their essence intact. In our opinion, nowhere on the new album is that more apparent than on “Wash Off”. The song starts off with an agile guitar riff that is quickly met by timely drums. Whereas the old Foals would have kept dialing up the frenzy, the Foals of today wisely move the song along into a catchy chorus. The good part, though, is that they do dial it up when they need to – for example, just before the final chorus where all the pieces of the song finally come together in an exhilarating 30-second solo.

Another Monthly Playlist, another Foals song at #1. But can you really blame us?

%d bloggers like this: