Archive | August, 2020

SERA – When I Wake Up

27 Aug

SERA (a.k.a. Sera Zyborska) is a Welsh-English singer-songwriter with strong roots in North Wales. Her brand of cinematic, Americana-tinged folk music has been making some noise recently, with a mention in BBC’s coveted Horizons list for 2019-2020 and a performance at the world-famous Maida Vale recording studio. Her August 2020 album – entitled When I Wake Up – certainly does just that, with jangly guitar tunes and SERA’s powerful voice that will jolt even the most casual of listeners out of a reverie.

The album starts off with “Rabbit Hole”, a three-minute blitz that summarizes the touchstone elements of SERA’s sound. There’s the theatrical string flourishes, the fast-paced guitar, and SERA’s strong, emotive voice – almost similar to fellow countrywoman Nadine Shah.

Several songs on the album are set in nature, especially on the mystical side. Apart from the aforementioned “Rabbit Hole”, the more hard-hitting “Into the Woods” and the jangly “Ghosts and the Past” play on the same theme. And there’s a good reason too – SERA’s hometown of Caernarfon is a Technicolor Welsh setting with rolling green hills, breathtaking views of the Irish Sea and a majestic castle to boot.

Things to do while visiting Caernarfon | North Wales Holiday ...
SERA’s hometown. Photo Credit

She also does well on songs that spotlight her crystal clear vocals. For example, on “Atlantis”, her voice sparkles and shines against folksy strings and tambourine-tinged handclaps. “Old Soul” slows things down; here, SERA’s vulnerable, soft vocals are set against gentle instrumentation, in a way that’s quite reminiscent of Norah Jones.

We also loved the rollicky side of her on songs like “Boudicca” and “Switch”. The former is a real foot-tapper that sounds like it could soundtrack an old-timey campfire jig. Fittingly, the lyrics detail a quick folksy biography of Welsh queen Boudicca, who beat back the Roman Empire way back in the first century AD. “Switch” features dramatic violins and SERA’s singular voice that lull you into thinking it’s going to be just a folk song, before breaking into genre-busting drums-and-guitar chorus.

Despite a few weaker tracks that don’t quite pull together, When I Wake Up is definitely a high-powered folk album that’s worth a listen all the way through. SERA is one of those artists that sounds like she’s just about to make it big. She clearly has the vocal goods; she has the song-writing talent; and she also has a unique upbringing in dreamy North Wales that can prove to be fertile ground for endless albums to come. Take a spin on When I Wake Up and see for yourself!

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “Boudicca”, “Old Soul”, “Rabbit Hole”

Glass Animals – Dreamland

24 Aug

British psychedelic pop act Glass Animals recently released their third studio album, Dreamland, earlier this month. The band’s previous outputs – debut Zaba (2014) and How to Be a Human Being (2016) – were fairly well-received, resulting in break-out single “Gooey” in addition to a Mercury Prize nod. With Dreamland, the band digs deep into deeply personal stories for a record that’s nostalgic, expertly produced and as dreamy as the name suggests. However, it remains to be seen whether this is the best that Glass Animals are capable of.

According to lead singer Dave Bayley, Dreamland has a grisly and quite recent origin story. In 2018, the band’s drummer Joe Seaward (and Bayley’s childhood friend, as are all the band members) got into a horrendous traffic accident that left his future uncertain. Although Seaward eventually recovered, Bayley’s experiences at his bedside got him thinking about their past, and then even before that: although Bayley is English now, he is actually American by birth and moved to the UK only in his early teens. This mishmash of trans-Atlantic experiences went on to provide the content for much of Dreamland’s lyrics.

Bayley’s date of birth – in June 1989 – forms another key piece of the album’s lyrics. Dreamland is consciously and explicitly centered on the specific lived experiences of Bayley’s cohort of Americans millennials. Peppered throughout the album are touchstones from the childhood of someone born in the 1989-1992 period – watching “The Price is Right” after-school; seeing school shootings; playing Pokemon; and much more.

Unfortunately, the hyper-specific focus on the personal past sometimes works; but more often than not, makes the songs trite and a little childish. If you are listening as someone born in that exact country and time period, great – chances are, you’ll love it purely out of your own emotional connections. If not – well, it does come across a little vapid.

Lyrics aside, though, the album is quite well-produced and diverse in terms of vocals, drums and beats. Dreamland starts off with the eponymous track and third single, which touches upon the key stories and emotions that will be brought up in the rest of the album. The song also sets the album’s dreamy (duh) tone, from the gentle xylophone to Bayley’s whispery falsetto. The last lines on “Dreamland” literally segue us into the rest of the album: “Oh, it’s 2020 so it’s time to change that / So you go make an album and call it Dreamland”.

Say what you will about Glass Animals, but they sure know how to pick their singles. The fantastic Denzel Curry collab “Tokyo Drifting” was released all the way back in November 2019 (remember 2019?); as regular Top Five Records readers know, it was one of the best tracks in 2019 period. Second single “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” from this February was and continues to be a Timberlake/Timberland-esque banger. Perhaps the most interesting track on this album is final single “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”, where the band trade in their hip-hop beats for an intense, Radiohead-like slow-burner. In line with the title, the song gets progressively louder as Bayley’s vocals paint a picture of the split-second after you’ve said something you oughtn’t have.

Among the non-singles, “Tangerine” stands out with catchy beats and a calypso beat that’s instantly reminiscent of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” deals with the quintessentially American topic of school shootings, and is apparently based off of a real-life friend who became a school shooter. Musically, the song features a wide array of blips, beat drops and droning synths that make for a snappy, crisp listen (despite its content).

But beyond these stand-out tracks, the album starts to falter. It’s not that the rest of the songs aren’t good tunes – on the contrary, the beats and production remain top-notch fairly throughout. However, they don’t quite break out of the casual-listen orbit. “Melon and the Coconut” is as forgettable as the name suggests; “Waterfalls Coming Out of Your Mouth” is just “Tangerine” without the Drake rip-off beat. “Heat Waves” is a great summer track, but you won’t probably remember it beyond the summer. In fact, the most memorable part about it is the music video (see below), which was shot entirely in quarantine. “Domestic Bliss” tackles an important subject matter – domestic violence between parents from a child’s perspective – but you could not hum a bar of it afterward if you tried.

Dreamland is a musical version of the 90s-kid meme, filled with the collective memories of 30-ish-year-olds from childhood to the present day – quinoa and online shopping included – through the filter of Dave Bayley’s personal memories. However, the autobiography theme is a little too specific, erring on the side of therapy or diary entries than the side of a meaningful creative output. Also, the chillwave-meets-Beach Boys vibe gets a little taxing and banal after a while, as does Bayley’s constant falsetto. Overall, Dreamland is a fun, crisply-produced listen – but you wouldn’t be amiss to hear the hits and skip the rest.

Best songs: “Tokyo Drifting”, “Your Love (Deja Vu)”, “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”

Rating: 7/10

Top Five Deep Cuts: Taylor Swift Edition

22 Aug

Ed. Note: This is a guest post from our good friend @Beatcritiques. Be sure to follow their Instagram page and check out their blog for more great content like this! Related: Check out our review of Taylor’s latest album folklore.

Everyone knows Taylor Swift. She’s written number one hits like “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and that’s just a few. Swift was also the recipient of the Artist of the Decade award at the 2019 AMAs. Safe to say, Taylor Swift has had an impressive career and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. If you’re looking to jump on the Swiftie bandwagon but don’t want to sound like you only know her greatest hits look no further. Listed below are five of my personal favorite deep cuts that she’s released.

Forever and Always (Piano Version)” from Fearless (Platinum Edition)

The piano version of the track “Forever and Always” from the deluxe version of Swift’s second studio album, Fearless, is heartbreaking. Stripping the track down to the essentials turns an upbeat track into a highly personal breakup song wondering where things went wrong. Swift sounds like she’s singing right to you asking “Baby, what happened please tell me?” and can draw tears out during the bridge telling the subject to “back up, hold on, back up.” A gorgeous track overall. 

Come Back…Be Here” from Red (Deluxe Edition)

Another deluxe edition track, “Come Back…Be Here” comes off of Red, Swift’s transition into pop. This track is deceptively sad and relies heavily on a guitar instrumental. What really makes this song stand out to me is the bridge and more specifically, the lines “This is falling in love in the cruelest way/This is falling for you when you are worlds away.” Swift’s vocals are stunning in this track as she describes the separation between her and the object of her affection. 

Sweeter Than Fiction” from One Chance

“Sweeter Than Fiction” was written by Swift herself and Jack Antonoff (a duo that has produced some of Swift’s best songs in my opinion) for the movie “One Chance.” This track describes supporting a partner on their journey through all of their ups and downs, eventually ending up in a success (“Now in this perfect weather, it’s like we don’t remember/ The rain we thought would last forever and ever”). More of a feel-good song than anything else, it never fails to get me up on my feet dancing and singing along as I remember that sometimes, life itself really can be sweeter than fiction. 

Clean” from 1989

Okay, “Clean” is one of my personal favorite Taylor Swift tracks of all time and seeing it performed in the pouring rain during the Reputation tour is one of my favorite memories. Written with Imogen Heap for the pure pop album 1989, this song is the perfect anthem of cleansing yourself and realizing that you’re better off without some people in your life. The beauty of this song is the fact that it can be applied to any relationship, not just romantic ones. This track is a must-listen Swift ballad and a classic among fans.

Cruel Summer” from Lover

Swift flexes her lyrical ability on the upbeat summer bop, “Cruel Summer.” In my top 3 of seventh-studio album, Lover, Swift describes the “glow of the vending machine,” as she talks about a secret relationship (“sneaking in the garden gate”). As many fans of Taylor Swift must know, she loves a good bridge and the bridge on this song deserves to be listened to at full volume every time. How else are you supposed to scream “he looks up grinning like a devil?” “Cruel Summer” is also a favorite among fans, and was a contender for the next single off of Lover before Swift surprised fans with her album, folklore.

Honorable Mentions (because who can choose just five?!)

  • “Picture to Burn” from Taylor Swift
  • “Beautiful Eyes” from Beautiful Eyes EP
  • “Jump Then Fall” from Fearless (Platinum Edition)
  • “Better Than Revenge” from Speak Now
  • “Getaway Car” from reputation
  • “august” from folklore 
  • “the 1” from folklore

So there you have it! Did you agree with BeatCritiques’ picks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! And don’t forget to follow us on WordPress to hear about our new posts as soon as we hit that Publish button.

Taylor Swift – folklore

19 Aug

It was not something I expected, but Taylor Swift has just made “the indie record much cooler than hers“, and she’s done it quite well at that. I’m not the biggest fan of TayTay personally. Normally, when I mention a TSwift, it’s something that I’ll say to Tom quickly, but her teaming up with the National’s Aaron Dessner has resulted in an album that I actually really like.

She handles understatement very well.  There’s nothing particularly loud or aggressive here, It’s just her voice and minimal instruments, which suits her well. She’s always had musical ability and this album showcases it well by stripping away the rest. She’s similarly deft lyrically. “hoax” has the clever line “You knew the password so I let you in the door / You knew you won so what’s the point of keeping score?” alongside similarly clever music and “my tears ricochet”  has the pointed “If I’m dead to you / why are you at the wake.”

She has a very cinematic bent to her music, which tends to pair well with the genre. There are a lot of scenes that feel set up for a movie and “exile” uses this quite well. “cardigan” is similarly reminiscent of Lana Del Rey and quite good for being so. It’s a little teenage for me with lines like “you drew stars around my scars/but now I’m bleedin'” but it’s still good music. This could be said of the whole trilogy that she embedded in the album. It’s all quite solid music though and I’m glad that her more diehard fans have something that feels built for them.

It’s not a top tier lo-fi record. She hasn’t really found her voice in this space and she’s just not got as many sharp things to say as someone like Phoebe Bridgers (who had an excellent album come out earlier this year) and the music is not quite as memorable as I would like. “this is me trying ” has a chorus that really uses her voice well, but the rest of the song doesn’t quite convert. She never fleshes out the premise and save for the chorus, the song is entirely forgettable. Also, in “peace,” she lacks delicacy. She emphasizes points that would have been better left to the listener to notice and that lack of subtlety weakens the song. Nevertheless, this is a very solid album. This may not be the Taylor I’m used to, but it is a Taylor that I will always be glad to hear again.

Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure

14 Aug

Pop singer-songwriter Jessie Ware is familiar to most English audiences. Her debut album Devotion (2012) straight away bagged a nomination for the Mercury Prize, won that year by fellow Brit pop act alt-J. That album introduced listeners to Ware’s powerful voice, typically set against hefty drums and assertive synths. Subsequent albums Tough Love (2014) and Glasshouse (2017) followed the same theme, resulting in fantastic singles such as “Tough Love” and “Midnight”.

This June, Ware released What’s Your Pleasure, her fourth album – and undoubtedly her best. Over 53 minutes, Jessie Ware takes us on a journey back in time to the peak-disco world of late 70s, as epitomized by dance clubs like Studio 54. What’s Your Pleasure finds Ware at her freest – less bound by the rules of commercial pop music – and the result is a bold, highly enjoyable dance-pop extravaganza for the ages.

When we say dance-pop, we aren’t kidding. What’s Your Pleasure is filled to the brim with 70s-inspired dancefloor gems. Disco is, of course, the theme du jour among pop stars, but Jessie’s interpretation is slinkier than Dua Lipa, more refined than Lady Gaga and more inspired than Doja Cat.

From start to end, the album centers along the same few years – perhaps 1972 to 1978 – but manages to capture all the subtle nuances of that era. The album kicks off with “Spotlight”, which opens with a dreamy, vocal-heavy section in line with Jessie Ware of old – but then jumps right into the unmistakable disco synths that color the rest of the album. “Ooh La La” opens with a fat bassline that could soundtrack the entrance of a glamorous socialite into a plush dancefloor. A couple of songs later, “Save A Kiss” goes into the house music arena with a head-spinning beat, tempered by electronic blips and dramatic violins. “Read My Lips”, with its electric-guitar licks and distant synths, is pure flirty fun all the way through.

Lyrically, much of the album deals with obsession in all its facets – longing, lust, sex and sometimes just romance. Ware introduces the theme right at the start with “Spotlight”: “If only I could let you go, If only I could be alone / I just wanna stay, In the moonlight, this is our time in the spotlight”. “Adore You”, the first single off the album, is sweeter. “Stay ’cause I want you / We can tell everybody, tell everybody,” she suggests, perhaps the starting notes of what will soon become an unhealthy obsession. “Mirage (Don’t Stop)” is her paean for the morning-after: “Last night we danced, and I thought you were saving my life,” she confesses.

Both musically and lyrically, the album really hits its peak on the eponymous “What’s Your Pleasure”: a fast-paced, riveting, instant-classic disco hit that’s honestly one of the best songs of the year.

Recently, fashion godfather and Vogue legend Andre Leon Talley released an auto-biography entitled Chiffon Trenches. In the book, Talley describes his life through the fashion world in the past half-century, especially underlining the carefree, lascivious few years in the 70s between the sexual revolution and the AIDS wildfire. Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure is the perfect soundtrack to this era: confident yet vulnerable, joyous yet filled with longing, but above all – free.

What’s Your Pleasure is an audacious, glittery antidote to this godforsaken year, and we couldn’t be happier that Jessie has bequeathed us with this gift.

Best songs: “What’s Your Pleasure”, “Read My Mind”, “Spotlight”

Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Neeharika’s List

10 Aug

No matter what arena of entertainment you subscribe to, chances are that you are familiar with Donald Glover. Beyond being a well-known musical artist, Glover is something of a modern-day renaissance man. He’s the award-winning creator / actor of the FX show Atlanta; a big-name movie star for properties such as The Lion King and the Star Wars universe; a prodigious young writer for 30 Rock; a bonafide TV star on cult show Community; and much more.

However, our viewpoint here at Top Five Records is of course on his musical avatar. Last week, our writer Nikhil Murthy took a critical look at the life and times of the artist known as Childish Gambino. Nikhil had choice words against the earliest part of Gambino’s career, especially around the Camp era.

It wasn’t all negative though: Nikhil next listed out his top five tracks from the Childish Gambino discography. Here’s his list if you missed it.

After Nikhil put up his list, we had a bit of a heated internal discussion within the Top Five Records team. Did we agree that “This Is America” is his best song? Did we think that “Les” is the best song from Camp? Which is more impressive: time-withstanding lyrics, or tongue-in-cheek pop-cultural one-liners? And so on (as you may imagine from a group of music nerds).

Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to this: Did his best tracks come at the earlier part of his career, or the latter part? So, with that, here’s another look at Childish Gambino’s best songs; this time from our writer Neeharika Palaka.

Honorable mentions

Heartbeat” from Camp: This is a great song from Childish Gambino’s debut album Camp (2011). Although it starts off like it could be a slow-jam R&B track, Gambino quickly dispels the notion with an angry volley of hurt sentiments at a girl who chose someone else over him. It’s immediately apparent that he’s a comedy writer. For example, these lines in which he puts down his rival for being (of all things) a bad blogger, and backhand-compliments his would-be lady’s figure: “He ain’t cool, he ball and all that, but he just a fake nigga who blog in all caps / You coulda’ wait to date, I’m going straight for your thighs like the cake you ate”. “Heartbeat” is not just about the lyrics; Gambino also impresses with his oscillating emotional delivery, the sludgy synths, and a catchy chorus to boot.

Bonfire” from Camp: This is another track from Camp, and really the first Gambino song I ever heard. One could write a long-form essay on the vast array of jokes, double-entendres, clever brags and other sleights-of-hand that Donald Glover, the professional writer, manages to fit into just over three minutes on this track. “Bonfire” works almost like Glover’s intro-slash-autobiography, of growing up as an artistic Black man in rural Georgia, of not quite fitting in with his heritage while attending the best high school in Georgia, of ultimately making peace with his eclectic scenario. Naturally, being Childish, all of these hefty topics are conveyed through a series of improbable one-liners. “Black and white music? Nigga, that’s a mixtape”; “My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es”; “Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life / Told me I should just quit ‘First of all, you talk white! Second off, you talk like you haven’t given up yet’”; and many more. It’s honestly a fascinating song.

5. “Redbone” from “Awaken, My Love!”

Clocking at number 5 is “Redbone” from the peculiarly-named “Awaken, My Love!” album. I know Nikhil rated it much higher, and I understand where he’s coming from: this is perhaps one of the funkiest, slow-burn songs in Childish Gambino’s line-up. Moreover, the song has deep meaning. The entire album was said to have been inspired by the birth of his child with his non-Black partner; a light-skinned African American child is occasionally known as a redbone, so that’s likely the inspiration for this track. Although this is an undeniably groovy jam – especially the plethora of Gambino’s “Stay woke” wails – it’s perhaps not endlessly listenable.

4. “Sweatpants” from Because the Internet

“Sweatpants” is the first of my picks from Because the Internet (2013). This was the album that moved my image of Donald Glover from his Troy Barnes avatar to his Childish Gambino avatar, although I did take a shine to his debut Camp (2011) when it came out.

The entire track is filled with the kind of slick, clever writing that earlier resulted in 23-year-old Glover being personally picked by Tina Fey to write for the legendary 30 Rock (fun fact: Glover is actually from Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is famously the hometown of immortal 30 Rock pageboy Kenneth).

I’m just a sucker for braggart puns ( “I got more tail than Petco / You faker than some Sweet ‘n Low”), and this song has them by the truckloads. Another favorite line is “And I’m too fly, Jeff Goldblum” which works two ways because Goldblum is indeed super-fly, and also appears in 1986 film The Fly. And so on. The music video is a cracker too, featuring Gambino playing every role at a greasy spoon, from diners to frilly-frocked waitress.

3. “3005” from Because the Internet

Another great track from Because the Internet is that album’s lead single “3005”, which is at its heart a sweet love song about wanting to stay with someone until the year 3005. There are only two verses on this track, but Gambino makes those verses count. His flow modulates impressively between tones, volume, and emotions, while still delivering clever one-liners like “Girl why is you lying, girl why you Mufasa / Yeah, mi casa su casa, got it stripping like Gaza”. Interspersed between these two verses is an extremely catchy (and sweet) chorus: “No matter what you say or what you do / When I’m alone, I’d rather be with you”.

2. “This Is America” (single)

No Childish Gambino list can be complete without a mention of this zeitgeist of modern-day America. Released in 2018 as a stand-alone single, two years into Trump’s presidency, the song summed up so many elements of culture and conversation at that point in time – from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to a lessening divide between church and state, to America’s gun violence problem. By far, the most chilling part of the song is the ice-cold delivery that Childish Gambino employs at the most deviant lines (“Police be trippin’ now, Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area, I got the strap / I gotta carry ’em”).

The best part of the song, of course, is its iconic, truly memorable music video, in which a crazed-looking Gambino slow-writhes his way through gospel choir, point-blank murder, African dance and too much more to recount. If anything, this song and its visuals have gotten better and more important with time.

1. “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet

My personal favorite Childish Gambino song is, for many years now, “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet. The song is subtitled “‘Oakland’ by Lloyd”, and there’s a reason for that. Gambino sets up the song as if it were a song called “Oakland” by singer Lloyd, playing on LA’s Power 106 radio as Gambino drives from LA to Oakland. In that way, the song serves two functions: one, of course, as a Childish Gambino song. The other is as a paean to the city of Oakland – and the lover it holds – that Gambino, the character in this song, pens as he drives “up the 5” toward the iconic East Bay city (and its most famous street, Telegraph Ave). Again, I’m a sucker for exactly the kind of multi-layered, multi-media texture that early Gambino excelled in, so perhaps that’s why this song just clicks for me. All in all, this is a lovely song about Gambino meditating on his relationship – settling down, making the distance work, growing up, parenthood – on a long, lonely drive. What’s more relatable than that?

Final thoughts

So there you have it. When it comes to early Gambino vs. later Gambino, I definitely count myself in the former “camp” (get it?). With the latter albums, Gambino has great hits; but I feel that anyone with a gold-plated budget and access to top-notch producers could theoretically produce similar songs. On the earlier albums, Gambino leveraged a distinct point-of-difference, in marketing speak: his undeniable writing talent. And it’s that talent which made for highly enjoyable, layered tracks that I still cherish to this day.

Related:

Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Nikhil’s List

8 Aug

I just put up a post about the early CG and why I prefer his newer stuff earlier this week and so naturally I have to follow that with an official Top Five list, so here are the Top Five Childish Gambino Songs.

Honorable Mentions

Heartbeat: This was the first CG hit for me. Look at how young the man is here! There’s a lot to like in this too. His beat is aggressive here and he matches it faultlessly. He’s sneering and rough and clearly in pain. There are issues, he just can’t stay on topic and there’s so much here that doesn’t do anything, but it’s still a song that can hit hard.

Zombies: This is a bit of an overlooked song from CG, but he brings so much funk into this one. He is absolutely free in this, there are just the most delightful bits of musical noodling here and it’s really good music. Having fun suits him.

Freaks and Geeks: CG really goes all out with his rap on this one. There are minutes here without a pause for breath. It’s just bar after bar and reference after reference. He moves recklessly across lines and topics. This song is an onslaught.

5. Feels Like Summer

There’s such an incredible lightness to this song. It feels outside of time in the way a summer vacation day outdoors can be. I don’t think he’s ever done as good a job at setting a tone. It’s a song that’s got nowhere to be, it’s happy just to be. It’s also an incredible video.

4. Les

The over-the-shoulder cam as CG deals with dating in the Lower East Side is compelling and he’s at his sharpest when his knives have something to stab. He’s got all of his best lines here and a lot of that is this is too heavy on his mind for him to stray far from. You can see he wants to tell you his side of this and he does it well enough to keep you from straying too.

3. Telegraph Ave.

That sung chorus is everything. It promises so much and gives you so much space to build on. It sticks to you and he sticks to the singing for a good two minutes there. The rap may not be the highlight here, but it does build on the rest. I can’t think of a better song for the city.

2. Redbone

This song alone makes a compelling case for CG as the successor to Prince. Just listen to that scream halfway in and tell me it doesn’t flash purple. CG’s dalliance with funk made for some really good music and this is the best of it.

I’ve never made much sense of the lyrics here, but like the P-Funk it draws from, the pieces that float up don’t really need contextualization. Who can resist the peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid sobriquet? You don’t need that explained. You just need to stay woke.

1. This Is America

This is a song that’s very difficult to separate from the stunning video and I don’t even want to try. That video is amazing and unforgettable. Not only does it have a lot to say, but it says it loud. It’s crafted impeccably and you cannot take your eyes away from it.

Even with just the audio, that music video comes through, but video aside, the sense is unmissable. The song spoke to the moment then and has only gotten more topical since.

That song also just hits. That choir sets you up every time for the industrial rap right after. “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now” is a fully distilled chorus. It’s the perfect chant.

This is CG showing us what he can do. It’s brave, it’s experimental, it’s smart, it’s topical and it’s excellent music. This may be the peak of his musical career so far, but it feels certain that it’s only a matter of time before he eclipses even this.

Related:

Hold You Down – Against The Early Childish Gambino

5 Aug

We put up a review of the new Childish Gambino album a few months ago and it got me thinking. Karthik liked the album, but misses the old CG. I don’t. I strongly feel that leaving rap was the best thing Donald Glover could have done and I thought I would put down why.

It’s a hard thing to say, but I don’t think that Childish Gambino was ever that great at rapping. Donald Glover has always been an easy person to like and that covers up for a lot, but the fact that it is Donald Glover rapping has always been the bit that most commands attention. He is the actor who raps some. His flow is fine, but honestly forgettable. He’s a little nasal and his emphases are too self-indulgent.

In fact, as a rapper, he reminds me a lot of Aminé. I like Aminé a lot, and you owe it to yourself to at least check out “Spice Girl” if you don’t know him, but liking Aminé comes with the fact that there’s a hard ceiling on what he’s ever going to become. He’s a fun goofball who makes quite a bit of solid music, but there’s only so far that you can go like that, and it’s hard not to say exactly the same thing about the old CG.

Going back to Camp doesn’t do much to shift me on this either. I really empathize with his feeling out-of-place everywhere, it’s a life I still live, but he really says all that he needs to say about it in a couple of songs and beyond that it doesn’t do anything. To unfortunately compare him again to a lower-tier rapper, it reminds me of Logic’s albums where his unwillingness to moderate how far he takes a central conceit causes his albums to drag. Logic is, in fact, my go-to parallel for a CG who stuck to rap. “1-800” is a very good song and the song that really made Logic. It’s a major hit and deservedly so and it’s a song that means a lot to a lot of people and had CG stuck to straight rap, I’m sure that it was only a matter of time until he struck it big like that, but it’s also what feels to be Logic’s peak and the new CG has already passed that.

A big part of that feeling of limitation is that I think there’s only so far you can go with hashtag rap. It seemed interesting in 2011, but looking back, I’m really glad that rap went in a different direction. “Heartbeat” is one of my favorite songs from Camp, but the J and Keisha line is disruptive. I’m in the middle of his story and he drops in such an out-of-place line. It takes me out of the moment for an honestly meaningless line. This is worsened by throwaway lines like “Put it down like the family dog” in “Crawl,” which just feels pointlessly edgy. He doesn’t have the lyricism or the verbal dexterity of Eminem and he’s nowhere near as off-the-wall as Tyler, the Creator and he just can’t pull off the pose anywhere near as well as they do. Similarly, he just doesn’t have the imagination or the flow of Lil Wayne or Thugger, who both have made an art of non-sequiturs and ad-libs. They do almost Joycean things to the language and they rap with such joy. CG has never had anything like the same abandon.

This leads into what I think is CG’s biggest problem when rapping, he never really figured out who he is. I’m going to look at legitimately my favorite of his straight rap songs for this, “L.E.S..” His story of this New York girl is really good. Calling out hipster trends in this song adds detail.  “White boys used to trip and send me over a gin / But they busy showin’ off each other Indian friend” is clever and has a fantastic sneer to it and is followed by my favorite CG line of all ” She got ironic tattoos on her back / That ain’t ironic bitch, I love Rugrats.”

However, then we get things like the free association of the next stanza, which has internal rhymes that could have been interesting, but which he ruins by trying too hard with them and with a needless and sort of tame attempt to shock. Similarly, a line like “Our relationship has gotten Sylvester Stallone” is the kind of wordplay that can seem clever in a poor light, but it just doesn’t do anything for the song. It breaks you out of the flow of the song for a not very funny joke.

He just cannot commit in the way of the Arctic Monkeys or the Afghan Whigs to this lifestyle. He uses jokes to create distance and to cover up the fact that he’s not willing to open up in his music. He’s got an image that he builds up of being a loser on the outside, but making up for fucks you miss in high school is not a compelling aesthetic. It’s also a very tightly controlled image. He’s so reticent that there’s nothing to really humanize him. It comes across as a caricature and an unlikable one at that. Even that story at the end of “That Power” feels so iterated on, so polished, so story-told that it loses authenticity. Sometimes, you need something raw. Also, the Asian fetish gets pretty uncomfortable to listen to.

This might have been tempered had I ever watched Community and had that to balance him out, but I’ve never seen a Donald Glover TV show. Actually, I think the only place where I have seen him is in Solo, a movie that I quite liked and a movie that I quite liked Donald Glover in. However, it’s just not enough to build a picture of him separate from his music for me.

As a contrast to this, it’s time to finally get to the other actor-rapper of the mid-2000s, Drake. It’s easy to dislike Drake. There’s the pettiness, the fake tough-guy stuff, the clout chasing and the puffery, but we only see these because of how open he is and it’s really hard to be a superstar in the confessional that is rap if you’re not willing to be open. CG’s music feels like it wants you to like him and that insecurity doesn’t fit in the rap game. Also, Toronto Sadboy is a slightly comical pose, but it’s one that’s easier to get into than CG’s image of being clever, but immature. This is especially true for the Weeknd, but even when Drake does it, it’s more menacing, more dark and most importantly more sexy than CG’s stuff.

Also, Drake is just the better rapper and the better sing-rapper. You could argue that it was close in the Take Care vs. Camp era (although I wouldn’t), but it’s not at all close at this point. Drake has put in the work while Donald Glover has been busy becoming a movie superstar. Every year, Drake tries out new stuff with rap. There isn’t a trend over the past five years that he hasn’t dabbled with and the work shows. 

Even from the beginning though, Drake always felt like the more comfortable rapper and he committed to sing-rapping in the way that CG didn’t. The best song from CG’s first two albums is “Telegraph Ave”. (which I’ll remind Neeharika that I got to see at Telegraph Ave.), and you can see how well he does in the R&B-adjacent space with his songs with Jhené Aiko. He just feels more natural in that zone. Even with “Telegraph Ave.” I feel like it’s the singing that stands out rather than any of his rap and so it’s welcome that is what his focus is on now.

With R&B, he gets to focus more on feeling than on words and yet with “This Is America,” he has made the most meaningful song in his career. He even gets to be visual in “This Is America” and the wonderful “Feels Like Summer” and the upgrade from the Because The Internet screenplay to the very likable Guava Island is clear-cut. He gets to be unambiguously sexy in “Redbone” which the cleverness of rap doesn’t allow and it’s the best music he’s ever made.

He just feels more confident and here than he did before. “Zombies” from Awaken, My Love is a lot of fun and it just didn’t feel like he was comfortable enough to play like this before. This is an older and more mature CG and maybe the time has come for him to put down Childish things.

Related:

Monthly Playlist: Jul. 2020

2 Aug

This month in music, we saw everything from surprise albums, to much-awaited sophomore albums, to some unexpectedly good remixes. Read on below for a quick breakdown of our top five songs this month – plus, a bonus track!

5. “SWAG” by YG

With its bouncy, summer-ready beats and the titular use of the 2010s-peak slang word, “SWAG” is almost a blissful blast-from-the-past, before the hellscape that is 2020. Compton-based rapper YG’s lyrics on this track are definitely nothing to write home about – the chorus is largely a repetition of the word “swag” – but damn, is it catchy. The best part about this song, however, is the music video. Aside from the 90s style visuals (think “Drop It Like It’s Hot”), the clip features an homage to Colin Kaepernick and cameos from two very special fellow Compton natives (check out around the 1:17 mark below).

4. “Night Garden” by BENEE feat. Kenny Beats & Bakar)

20-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter BENEE has been blowing up for a few months now. In 2019, she released not one but two EPs, Fire on Marzz and Stella & Steve, the latter of which featured the TikTok viral mega-hit “Supalonely”. Her laidback vocals and relaxed vibe – like a Kiwi Corinne Bailey Rae – prove especially alluring in today’s times. New track “Night Garden” features producer Kenny Beats’ slick arrangements, as well as a choice verse from young London singer Bakar, whose cool vocals fit quite well with the entire ethos. BENEE is surely one to watch, because “Night Garden” really does evoke a nocturnal, wistful stroll. Check out the animated music video below:

3. “Televised Mind” by Fontaines D.C.

We have yet to fully absorb Irish punk band Fontaines D.C.’s sophomore album A Hero’s Death – released just two days ago – but the single “Televised Mind” has been top-of-mind for us since its release at the start of July. Like many other of this band’s songs, the track features uneven guitar sounds, steady drums, and lead singer Grian Chatten’s magnetic, poetic Dublin-drawl vocals. “All your laughter pissed away / All your sadness pissed away / Now you don’t care what they say,” describes he of the ostensible televised mind, before ending with the kicker: “Nor do I”. We’re looking forward to taking in the rest of the album; let’s hope it lives up to their spectacular 2019 debut Dogrel.

2. “Psychonaut” by Mr. Gnome

The excellently named Mr. Gnome is a husband-wife duo with a floaty, psychedelic vibe to their tunes. Singer-songwriter Nicole Barille and drummer / pianist Sam Meister have released a quartet of albums over the past twelve years or so, followed by July’s single “Psychonaut”. The song’s pulsing, memorable intro section sounds a bit like the famous laser scene in Ocean’s Twelve, and the entire song does have a similar air of nonchalant coolness. Special props to Barille’s spindly, dreamy vocals here, for making the listener want to do nothing less than walk on the moon, as the lyrics suggest. “Psychonaut” will be featured on the band’s upcoming double-LP The Day You Flew Away, out in October.

1. “Pac-Man” by Gorillaz feat. ScHoolboy Q

Since the start of the year, Gorillaz have released a song every month or so as part of the Song Machine series – a deconstructed take on the traditional album format that, to be honest, better fits today’s social media-driven world. In July, the band released the series’ fifth song “Pac-Man” featuring LA rapper ScHoolboy Q.

The song starts off with a tinny, MIDI-esque riff, in line with the theme of being like Pac-Man stuck in his little maze. Damon Albarn’s mantra-like vocals (“I’m stressing out, I’m stressing out..”) mesmerize like a high with malignant undertones – until you’re shaken awake by ScHoolboy Q’s sharp flow. Incongruous as they may seem, the pieces fit; and the result is a track that you can’t help but replay. Also, if you are a fan of the classic “Feel Good Inc.”, you may be happy to know that “Pac-Man” is probably the closest that Gorillaz have sounded like that in a long time.

As with all Gorillaz songs, one is meant to enjoy the music in a complete multi-media sense through the music video – after all, it is at its core a collaboration between Damon Albarn and artist / illustrator Jamie Hewlett. So, without further ado, enjoy:

Bonus:

We typically don’t include remixes on our Monthly Playlist – there’s enough great music every month to not need repeats – but we must make special mention of the Tensnake remix of Dua Lipa’s “Hurricane” from this year’s astounding Future Nostalgia. The ramped up bassline and Giorgio Moroder-esque synth breaks give the song a decidedly Daft Punk edge to the already-flamboyant disco vibes.

Listen to these songs along with all of our other 2020 Monthly Playlists on Spotify:

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