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Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

1 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weeknd – After Hours

25 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

20 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D Smoke – Black Habits

9 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J Hus – Big Conspiracy

26 Feb

I feel like I’ve been waiting for the breakout British rap album for a while. J Hus’ afroswing music is a compelling choice. His blend of genres is incredibly smooth and very, very listenable.

There’s absolutely nothing to object to with Big Conspiracy. Everything flows effortlessly. In this though, is my issue with the album. There’s nothing that memorable either. The whole thing moves too easily and, while extremely pleasant, it leaves nothing that sticks.

There are places where it flirts with greatness though. He’s good at his horniest in “Reckless”, great at his most introspective in “Deeper Than Rap” and simply excellent in the absolute standout “Must Be”. The sax is infinite fun, the storytelling is on point and the song is catchy as hell. It’s just that the album as a whole just does nothing transcendent. Even the politics, whic could have been the source of some choppiness, mostly stays submerged.

This is still the kind of album that it’s impossible to come away disappointed with. This is very good music and an extremely fun listen. J Hus’ ability to meld together so much into his music is incredible even hours in and there’s always something more to see in here. It might not be the masterpiece I’m waiting for, but it’s still an album well worth taking the time for.

Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By

5 Feb

I was really excited with the first couple of listens of this album. Like everyone else with a tape player and a bedroom in the early 00s, Eminem formed a big part of my youth, and like with everyone else, he’s mostly disappointed me since.

This album has the seeds of change in it. Em goes hard here. The clever lines and the top-tier flow are a given. He’s long established himself as unparalleled in technique. It has just come off as empty of late. There are plenty of technical rappers, but technique in itself isn’t enough to make music to be listened to.

Here, there are some interesting ideas. Going so technical over a Juice WRLD chorus in “Godzilla” is a lot of fun and his flow in “Unaccomodating” is intriguing. “Stepdad” showcases his strength in storytelling, even if the chorus, and honestly the material, almost drags it into farce. Anderson .Paak is always fun and plays well against Em.

The problem is just that the album feel meaningless again. Where the pure skill was once a vehicle, now it’s a crutch. He used to be relaxed with it. He would use it where it helped the song. Now, it just forced in.

There’s also just no real single or even anything really memorable. He’s got jokes, he’s got flow, but he just doesn’t have any meaning behind it. Where any of his first three albums would be an instant classic now, even with the dated references and the poorly-aged skits, I’m going to forget this one completely in a month.

The Top Five Albums of 2019 – Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

There was a lot of music in 2019 that caught my ear, but surprisingly for me, when it came to putting together a list, things came together quite easily. There are just some albums in particular that I want you to hear.

5. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

This album is my choice for the biggest surprise of the year. For someone as big, as established and as much of a star as Ariana Grande to take so large a step forward is startling but that is just what she did.

Key to this is the title track. “thank u, next” could have easily come off poorly, but she handles it with a grace and maturity that really mark the growth that we see here. Her voice was always strong, but here it’s sincere as well and that lets her keep a powerful song fully under control.

For all of the headlines of that centerpiece, the rest of the album is just chock-full of ideas and well-executed ones at that. She’s kittenish in “make up” and sneering in “bloodline”, fun in “NASA” and imperial in “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” The music goes from hard to soft and back again and does it with flair. Her voice is nothing short of stellar.

Ariana has done a lot over her career to reinvent pop, but this is the album that guns for the top. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it looks effortless doing so, just like Ariana Grande herself.

Read our full review here.

4. Jamilia Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

From a no-caps album, now we pick up a full caps one and the difference is clear. Where Ariana was free-flowing and so honest, this album is clearly the product of immense thought, but is no less sincere for that.

Jamilia Woods takes a panorama of black excellence and uses it as a lens through which to examine current events and herself and makes spectacular music in the process.

It’s just such a smart album. There are some arrestingly clever lines here. I love the starkness of “Are you mad? / Yes, I’m mad” and the cleverness with which it is twisted in the magnificent “BASQUIAT.” It’s even preceded by the equally noteworthy “MUDDY,” which has a beautifully dirty blues-rock riff reminiscent of its namesake.

LEGACY! LEGACY! does a lot and does it all with awe-inspiring levels of quality and an astonishing coherence as well. This is an unquestionably ambitious album and one that pulls off that ambition dazzlingly.

Read our full review here.

3. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR

Continuing the theme of all-caps records, we have Tyler, the Creator with IGOR. With 2017’s Flower Boy, it seemed like Tyler had found his voice and IGOR continues that clarity. He has matured and that maturity has brought focus to his always prodigious talent.

The uniqueness that defined him is as strong as ever, but he’s somehow more versatile now as well. He can go hard in “NEW MAGIC WAND” or soft in “GONE GONE / THANK YOU” with equal ease and he’s still able to drop thought-provoking beats and unexpected sounds in at every point.

This is the best version of Tyler, the Creator that we could have hoped for and the realization of all of his promise. This is scintillating, singular music and quite easily one of the best albums of the year.

Read our full review here.

4. Kanye West – JESUS IS KING

There are some Kanye albums, like Yeezus or MBDTF where you know that they will be the album of the year as soon as they come out. JESUS IS KING isn’t that kind of album. I would have been shocked to see it place this high when I reviewed it.

And yet, on coming back to it, it’s just better than the other albums on this list. Listening to “Closed On Sunday” after a while, it just hits you that this is really strong music. It’s no surprise that going back to gospel would work well for Kanye, but to his credit, he’s done a lot more than just the gospel beats of his early work or even the heavy gospel of “Ultralight Beam.”

He committed here to the idea of Christian music. This is not the most sophisticated take on religion, but it is honest and personal and true and so manages more real commentary than any amount of sophistry. Talking about fighting with his father or the quickness of Christian disdain for who he is are topics that many would avoid, but that’s not what a Kanye album does.

It’s in the music that the most interesting ideas emerge though. The choir playing against hard bars in “Use This Gospel” and then the following Kenny G solo that goes back into the beat is the kind of thing that you would just never see anywhere else. The military-grade choir in “Selah” is undeniable. Even in terms of rapping, Kanye has taken a step forward. Something like “Follow God” showcases things that he just could not do before.

JESUS IS KING is a new stage in Kanye’s career and while it may not be as immediately promising as his first set of albums or as groundbreaking as 808s or Yeezus, it’s still fascinating music and some of the best of the year.

Read our full review here.

1. FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

With MAGDALENE, one finds oneself immediately reaching for superlatives. Gorgeous, intricate, a masterpiece all come to mind and are all apt. There’s just so much of note here.

First of all, the production is stellar. There are just so many small details here. There are little sounds everywhere, little evocative fragments that build out a cathedral for her voice to fill. It’s ethereal as always, but so very strong. There’s an intensity here that almost scalds as it enervates.

FKA Twigs was always one of those talented artists, one of those who seems an effortless polyglot in musical languages and even in dance. She does so many things so well, it just feels unfair when it all comes together this well. This is the greatest work yet of an extraordinary artist and a comfortable pick for the album of this year.

Read our full review here.

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