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Charli XCX – Pop 2

18 Jan

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

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

@murthynikhil

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Eminem – Revival

11 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@murthynikhil

Ivan Ave – Helping Hands

3 Jan

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

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

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Songs of 2017: Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

It’s been a good year for music and culling contenders for this list needed a fair bit of soul-searching. There were both big name releases and stunning debuts that, while fantastic, just could not find a place on this list. It took some tricky filtering, but these are our top five songs of 2017.

5. Chanel

I’m truly grateful for this new phase in Frank Ocean’s career. First of all, getting singles from him so soon after he released a pair of albums feels almost like excess after his long quiet period. Secondly, this more subdued sound works really well. He’s never been the most overstated of singers, but “Chanel” is stripped down like nothing before.

This focus pays off. It’s a very evocative song. It is both dense and wandering and so listening becomes an almost pointillist experience as you pick phrases and words from the stream. It is trademark Frank Ocean that it works so well. No one can make creating the future look as cool as he does.

4. Spice Girl

It wasn’t that long ago that you would need to go pretty far left-field to find someone like Aminé, and even further to find a song like “Spice Girl”. A love letter to the Spice Girls is just not what rappers were doing back then. Aminé actually not only got all five of the actual Spice Girls to sign off on this, but literally went to a Spice Girls show at age 5 and got a Sporty Spice Barbie right after.

The result of all of this dedication is an almost bubblegum pop-rap ode to his perfect girl. It’s just incredibly catchy. Interpolating the earworm of a hook from “Wannabe” to list out what he’s looking for is both clever and effective. Like its inspirations, this song is neither deep nor profound. It feels thrown together quickly, and justly so. However, it is also a lot of fun and something unique in a year which pushed all the boundaries of rap.

3. Mask Off

Rap has been the new rock for years, but this may have been the year where it begins to vie with pop for dominance. If so, “Mask Off” is one of the reasons for the shift. This is one of the defining sounds of 2017. Trap has come to stay.

That grimy, submerged beat is some of Metro Boomin’s best work. That flute lick is insistent and endlessly listenable. Future’s viscous flow is the star of the song though. That central boast of “Mask on / Fuck it mask off” could have very easily come off as empty, but Future keeps far too dark and heavy for that. This is the rare song that’s better without the Kendrick remix.

2. Rican Beach

Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album, The Navigator, is a lot of things at once. A folk-rock concept album is already out of place in 2017, but a Nuyorican one is unique anywhere. These layers and more come in to play in “Rican Beach”, which somehow keeps them all moving together at once. It benefits from a really strong folky spine and wraps it with idea after idea.

It’s a complex piece with huge swathes of fascinating sounds and human for all of that. It’s a singular achievement and a compelling statement. It’s quite easily one of the best songs of the year.

1. XO TOUR Llif3

I remember the first time that I heard this song. I was in a fairly crowded office and just trying to keep my head down and get some work done. I don’t think I actually did anything that day but listen to this song. I played it on repeat for the next couple of days. Just this song and nothing else. There was no question for me that this was going to be the song of the year.

This is the year of trap and that’s proved divisive. Mumble rap has been used as a pejorative more than a descriptor. In a way, this is understandable. Lyricism has long been a hallmark of rap and the seeming repudiation of that by some of the newer rappers was naturally going to meet a backlash. However, rap is more than lyricism and to judge a genre by a single lens can only ever be limiting. “XO TOUR Llif3” shows why.

Taking the hook of “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” and making an anthem of it just to slur it past comprehensibility is the cleverest thing that I have seen all year. The space this song has to be raw and emotional feels unprecedented in the genre and it fills it completely with Uzi’s story of his ex and substance abuse.

This is the song that I’m going to keep coming back to. There are a few songs that I return to over and over again, because while situations change, and while I change, these songs remain true. Coltrane, Kanye, Joy Division and now Uzi. These are the songs that make me.

@murthynikhil

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference

20 Dec

Harmony of Difference is that strangest of creatures, a jazz album of intermediate difficulty. As a genre, it tends to high difficulty naturally. There are also plenty of approachable works, from the more friendly Louis Armstrong stuff to even the smooth jazz of Kenny G. Finding an album in the middle is very unusual and this album is quite the valuable find if you’re looking for something of its nature.

The centerpiece of the album is actually the closing piece. At thirteen and a half minutes, “Truth” is close to half of the length of the album and is good enough to justify the length. It’s challenging and shifting and takes full advantage of the space that it’s given to explore. It is also surprisingly gentle. The vibraphone playing around a couple of minutes in is the aural equivalent of a warm bath. It is somewhat undercut by the honestly overwrought vocals though, but not enough to severely mar a great jazz piece.

The other half of the album is similarly variable, but mostly good. “Desire” starts things off in a gentle manner and sets the stage perfectly for the opening descent and fiery solos of “Humility”, and then both are mirrored by “Knowledge” and “Perspective”. These are all acceptable songs and they each have their moments, but they also lean a little too hard on sounds established both by the work of other people and by the songs themselves. While they are well done, they would have greatly benefited from a few more ideas each. Even “Integrity” suffers from the same flaw, despite the initial promise of a South American tinge.

This is not an album for raw beginners however. Some knowledge of jazz is requisite to experience Harmony of Difference. However, I can’t fully recommend it for the experienced listener either due to a very slight paucity of ideas. If you’re somewhere in the middle though, this is the perfect album for you, and even if you tend to either extreme, the sheer ability of the musicians may be enough to justify the listen anyway.

@murthynikhil

SiR – Her Too

8 Dec

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R&B has been making quite the quiet comeback over the past few years. It’s not as flashy as the stuff that’s going on in the rap world, but it’s definitely there. This EP from SiR, the new TDE signee, is a brief burst of traditional R&B and a quite good one at that.

The standout here is the wonderful “Ooh Nah Nah”. Full of a soft heat and absurdly languorous, the song is just captivating. Additionally, Anderson.Paak shows up well in the opener “New LA” and is fun as always. I keep coming back to the closer “W$ Boi” though. It’s almost entirely the chorus, which is nothing more than a chant of the words “I’m a Westside Boi”, but imbued with serious energy.

At nothing more than 18 minutes, this EP is compact in all the best ways. SiR’s debut album has yet to drop, but he’s already clearly an artist to watch.

@murthynikhil

Future & Young Thug – SUPER SLIMEY

2 Dec

A collaboration between Young Thug and Future is something that always seemed in the cards. These two Atlantans are probably the biggest young rappers out there this side of Kendrick Lamar. Stylistically, there is quite a difference between Thugger’s yelps and Future’s growls, but the meeting felt inevitable. Now that it’s here, the result is sadly a little less than the sum of the parts, but that total is still plenty.

When they play off each other, such as in the excellent transition between verses in “Three” or build one another up, like in “No Cap”, where Future builds into Thugger who then sets up Future perfectly, this is truly fantastic music. However, “Cruise Ship” is one of the strongest songs in the album despite having no Future in it at all. It’s just classic Thugger. Meanwhile, “Drip On Me” feels entirely like a Future joint. Young Thug is actually quite good here, but it’s really the murkiness of Future that animates this song. Similarly, “Group Home” lies squarely in Future’s drug-hazed lane, and Young Thug is just a little out of place.

The talent is undeniable here. When it clicks, it’s great and when it doesn’t, it’s still fine. This isn’t the strongest work from either artist, but it is a testament to their current powers how good it is anyway.

@murthynikhil

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