Archive by Author

Aminé – Limbo

19 Sep

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how likable Aminé can be and how much that adds to his music. I’m always happy to see what he’s up to. He’s not the only rapper to be this upbeat or this insouciant, but he’s easily the one that I like the most.

Sometimes, this is exactly right. He has a talent for catchiness and so songs like “Compensating” really take off. He has fun, his personality gets to shine and Thugger is a good complement for him. When he gets into his flow, like in “Woodlawn,” he’s a lot of fun. “Riri” is him in his comfort zone, but better than he’s ever been before. That hook in particular is a top-tier earworm.

There’s a fair bit of air in the album though, as is unfortunately common for Aminé. “Pressure In My Palms” tries his standard formula but isn’t catchy or interesting enough. It doesn’t show him off at all and sort of feels like a Vince Staples outtake. Similarly, “Roots” reminds me of Saba and Kendrick, but I’d rather listen to them than this.

“Mama” has him trying sincerity, but it’s not a strong move. He doesn’t have the toughness for the move to feel like a softening and he’s too ironic for a straight-edge song. “Fetus” is slow and thoughtful and quite well done. It’s not innovative, but it is good and the grapefruit line hits.

You have to take Aminé for who he is. This isn’t the kind of album that’s going to stick to you long after it’s done. Instead, it’s an effervescent album with fun lines and catchy hooks and one that you’ll feel good for having heard.

Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

7 Sep

It’s on the title track that you can really feel the talent that Nubya Garcia brings to the table. It’s the longest track on the album at 12 minutes, but it packs those twelve minutes full of action. There’s an excellent solo from Nubya Garcia there and it’s followed by an equally spectacular keyboard solo. It’s a fiery track and absolutely top level jazz.

She has the same quality in “Pace,” where the music has a good, frenetic energy. “Before Us” keeps that fast pace and takes the sound close to noise and benefits greatly from that. The jagged horns are an absolute treat, even if the opening veered a little easy listening for my taste.

However, there a couple of places where it takes things too slow for its own good. “Stand With Each Other” takes too long to get where it’s going. While “Inner Game” and “Together Is A Beautiful Place to Be” both have a nice tone to them, they lack brilliance. They’re satisfactory, but they don’t do anything interesting.

“La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” has genius to spare though. The Latin sound that pops in and out through the album comes to the forefront here and its melding with the jazz is fantastic. Nubya Garcia has the talent to pull off any kind of jazz she chooses, but it’s in this style that she is most exciting.

SOURCE has a little more air than I would prefer, but there’s plenty here to reward jazz aficionados of any level. This is a very impressive debut and completely justifies the anticipation it commanded. I’m excited to see what Nubya Garcia does next.

Burna Boy – Twice As Tall

1 Sep

I’ve gone through a lot of anti-colonial stuff in my time, but I don’t think anyone ever comes anywhere close to making it as much fun as Burna Boy does. The Nigerian afro-fusion artist is just absurdly talented as a musician. His music is as infectious as you could ask for, but clever to go with it. There’s an easy and deeply unfair critique of world music often made, that it’s a shallow gimmick to go to cultural roots for sounds, but Burna Boy’s music fully puts lie to that.

He has some top tier work in this album. The opener “Level Up” is strong music and his talk about the Grammys is disarmingly honest in an album that goes so hard. “Way Too Big” is impeccable stunting and aggressively anti-colonial. “Wettin Dey Sup” is maybe the catchiest song of the year. Also, I really appreciate getting the embodiment of White music, Chris Martin, in for the hook of the angrily anti-colonial “Monsters You Made.”

However, there’s a lot of air in Twice As Tall. “Naughty By Nature” is fun and upbeat, but also forgettable and not particularly interesting. The afro-fusion and pidgin do something, but not quite enough. “Real Life” doesn’t deliver on the promise of the Stormzy collaboration. I’m sure though that I would get more from the album if I knew Yoruba. His lyrics just add so much to the sound.

Overall, it’s not quite the statement of arrival that African Giant was, but Twice As Tall is still a strong entry in the burgeoning afro-fusion scene. It’s fun, it’s intelligent and it knows its history to boot.

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.

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:

HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III

18 Jul

HAIM’s debut album in 2013, Days Are Gone, instantly made them the most likeable thing in music. It just felt good to see three sisters making really good pop-rock together, like a Jackson 5 without all of the ugliness. Now, with their third album, the novelty is gone, but instead they have a sophistication to their music that wasn’t there before.

The core is still the L.A. pop-rock that they’ve always unabashedly been, but now more experimental than most of their earlier sound. There are excellent screams in “All That Ever Mattered”, for instance, that feel like something they wouldn’t have tried before and which elevate the song now.

The album highlight “3 AM” has a deep funkiness that they have flirted with before, but never fully committed to. It’s a sound that they pull off expertly though. The stuttered cadence is compelling and the groove is undeniable.

None of this pushes them to let up in their more comfortable songs though. “Man from the Magazine” is fairly straightforward guitar rock, but impressively stark, which works very well with the chorus of “I don’t want to hear / it is what it is, it was what it was.” I really like their single “I Know Alone” despite a mild dislike for the music video. It’s both gentle and heartfelt and the electronic twinges are very nice. “Summer Girl” is a standout with a memorable brass lick and clean, understated singing and is matched perfectly by the other bookend “Los Angeles” with its still-funny gratuitous put-down of New York winters.

Women in Music, Pt. III is exactly the album I wanted to see after HAIM’s mild sophomore slump. It’s bold, it’s confident, it’s intelligent and it’s very listenable music.

@murthynikhil

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

12 Jul

It’s a little bit against the spirit of the man, but listening to Bob Dylan in 2020 is reassuring. His voice has just been a part of my life for my whole life, as with practically everyone else with access to American music and born anytime in the past 50 years. Despite the irony, Dylan is an institution.

Rough and Rowdy Ways may not be quite at the standard of his absolute best, but it’s not that far either. It’s alive and accomplished and empathetic and funny all at once.

The opener “I Contain Multitudes” contains the wonderfully bald line “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes / I contain multitudes.” that still makes me laugh. He drops in excellent body-horror in “My Own Version of You” that takes the high concept of the title and makes it an earthy thriller of a carnival.

For all of that though, he can still rock hard as in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and even throws a couple of harmonica licks in there. He follows it up with an equally good treacly ballad in “Mother of Muses” and goes from there to a strong laid-back blues rock track with “Crossing the Rubicon.”

The album ends with the 17 minute “Murder Most Foul” which naturally is quite a ramble, but Dylan has always been at his best when rambling. He has a gift for phrases with exceptional resonance and it’s always enjoyable to just float with him and let thoughts bubble up from the music.

It has been close to 60 years of Dylan now and with Rough and Rowdy Ways, we don’t have Dylan at his most urgent or meaningful, but we do have a wonderful, quiet and very human album to listen to and as I listen to it, there’s nothing more that I could want.

@murthynikhil

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

29 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous in Pick Me Up Off The Floor. It’s stripped down in the way of lo-fi rock, but has sort of come to it from the other side. There’s just a sublime confidence in this music. It never overwhelms. It just takes things out one at a time, gives you time to examine it and then puts it away so that you can see what’s next. It knows that everything it has for you is worth your consideration and so there’s no need to hurry you along.

It has the cleverness to justify that confidence too. Right from the opener of “How I Weep” which draws out the first two words into a hurried “weep” at the jump and then draws out that same “weep” on the next go-around. Norah Jones’ singing is impressive as ever. Her voice has the strength to pull off all her gambits and fluid enough to work as well in the barnstorming blues of “Flame Twin” as in the country / gospel ballad of “To Live.” It’s clever and jagged in “Say No More” and yet filled with personality and irresistibly seductive. She dances across genres with very light feet and never stumbles once. There’s not a single point here where she feels less than completely in control.

Furthermore, it’s a sharp enough tool to need little else. The stark structure of “Were You Watching” would have been repetitive with a lesser musician, but between her voice and the clean piano, there’s just no need for anything else. This is a delicate, understated album and an achievement as one. In a turbulent time, it is a respite to have this album playing. It might have benefitted from delving deeper into the current moment than it does. There are references to the world right now studded throughout the album, but there’s also a lot that floats context free. Still, it floats so beautifully that it’s hard to complain.

It is very satisfying that Pick Me Up Off The Floor is the perfect sound to get up to after a fall. It’s always the dream that you build something from an experience that helps others with the same one. I’m listening to the soft, noodling instrumental piece at the end of the final song “Heaven Above” as I write this and it has been a hard and disappointing day and this is the gentleness that I’ve forgotten I need. This is a deep breath and a quick stroke on the back before I get up and now, I get up.

John Coltrane Quartet – Africa / Brass

17 Jun

It’s easy to latch on to the monkeys and elephants that show up partway through the first piece and hear the clear jungle noises there and think that this album is less than it is, but this is first and foremost excellent, inventive jazz. Like Olé Coltrane, which was released in the same year, the theme comes through strong and the jazz is richer for the flavor, but the soul of the album is in the superb hard bop that it’s built on.

Most interesting though is the big band that backs the quartet throughout. Adding the larger band of older styles of jazz adds a lot of swing, both in “Africa” and in “Blues Minor” and also shows what big band jazz could have been had the genre not shifted to more intimate groups. Between that and the jungle themes, “Africa” comes off as very reminiscent of possibly the best known verdant jazz of all, Louis Prima as King Louie in Disney’s version of The Jungle Book, something I’m always glad to be reminded of.

“Greensleeves” is another classic Coltrane pop track, taking as it does a British folk classic and effortlessly reimagining it as post-bop and “Blues Minor” is fearlessly improvisational. However, it is “Africa” that is the clear highlight. Elvin Jones has a stellar drum solo in there and as always, Trane’s sax work is unparalleled.

This is something a bit out of left field for Trane and he never did revisit the ideas he played with in this album, but that should in no way be taken to imply a misstep. This is, if anything, more special for its uniqueness. It’s a legitimate masterpiece and an essential album for any fan of this style of jazz.

@murthynikhil
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