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Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

25 Oct

Little Simz is just going from strength to strength. Grey Area was not music that you could miss and Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is very comfortably the best music she has ever made. She clearly still hasn’t fully realized her potential, but this is still a very strong album.

Firstly, there’s an astonishing variety in this album. She, of course, fills the album with her normal blistering raps. Both “Speed” and “Standing Ovation” are very strong this way and just great music. This is what she’s know for and where she’s always able to deliver. She mixes it up though with cuts like “Protect My Energy” that brings in a very nice dance music energy.

The real highlight of the album also comes from this experimentation. “Point and Kill” is really good afrobeats and hopefully the blueprint for a full album in the future. Obongjoyar works really well off her and it’s just an exceptional track.

She also gets in some nice storytelling in this album. “Little Q Pt. 2” is very well done and it’s just novel to hear about a sisterhood breaking down on a rap track. Unfortunately though, she can’t keep up this quality in other parts of the album. “I Love You, I Hate You” comes close, but it just falls too far into trope too often.

Substantially worse though are the interludes. They just lack any real meaning and don’t seem to understand how empty they are. The price of being someone like Little Simz is that there are higher expectations on you. She’s just too intelligent for me to overlook these lapses.

On the flip side though is the closer “Miss Understood” which is a very compelling story and a very apropos sound. It’s a really good way to close a really good album and both leave me excited for what she’s going to do next.

Drake – Certified Lover Boy

18 Oct

With Certified Lover Boy, I feel like looking back a bit. Drake has always loved his nostalgia anyway. I remember with Take Care, there was a lot to get excited about. “Headlines” was the single and was necessary as that, but it’s not what I look back at. Even “HYFR’s” excited Weezy isn’t quite it. I don’t think anyone really expected how deep he would delve into the sounds of “Marvin’s Room” and “Take Care.” I don’t think we every really saw how normal they would sound.

The thing is that Drake is now a superstar. In fact, he’s now the superstar. His singing in his raps perfectly meets a world where pop has moved toward hip-hop. His corniness is now virality. Everyone’s a Toronto sadboy in this online world.

Also, there’s no one left on the throne. Kanye’s self-destruction is probably far from complete, but it has done its work. Taylor is off in the wilderness. I haven’t heard from Kendrick or Beyoncé in forever. The new kids are all still too new, too formless and too unaccomplished. Pop royalty is relentless and Drake’s the only person to have kept pace.

It’s very much in character that he does so with an album that’s almost unambiguous trash. When the most exciting thing in your album is a Kawhi cameo, there’s just not much that one can say. It’s just a lot of music that I’m happier not hearing and very little that I’m happy having heard. Something like “In The Bible” is irritating. There’s so much music here that’s just bad.

There’s stuff that could be decent if you squint. He’s got his sound down in “Girls Want Girls” even if the chorus is mind-numbingly stupid. “Fountains” is decent Afrobeats, if nothing special. You have to credit Drake with always keeping up with new trends in rap and he’s always passable at them, but they are never his highlights. He’s got solid beats in “7am On Bridle Path” and “The Remorse” but can’t put a good rap in front of either of them.

“7am On Bridle Path” is the album’s failures in a microcosm. He’s clearly the biggest person in music right now, but it’s such a poor look to stunt about it when he got it by default. It’s a diss track in a supremely uninteresting beef. This is the same guy who ended a feud by going on LeBron’s YouTube channel. There was once a time when he bodied Meek Mill but now he just can’t play it straight. Stick to the topic and go hard. Also, “wheel me to defeat like we rollerbladin'” is unacceptable. In a fair world, that would be sufficient for defeat in itself.

At least “7am On Bridle Path” has some decent music to make up for that though. The lyrical failures elsewhere don’t even have that going for them. “They’re doing something that’s not Pepsi” in “Papi’s Home”? The only thing they should be doing is writing Drake better lyrics because he needs all the help he can get. He gets off one solid line in the whole album with “Look, don’t invite me over if you throw another pity party” and the imitation line has a good sneer, but then he throws away all that goodwill and more by trying to rhyme “disability” with “this ability”. That’s just unacceptable.

It’s very often just impossible to understand. He opens a song with being jealous of a handbag. “You Only Live Twice” makes you regret living the once. I don’t know who told him and Future that “Way 2 Sexy” was a good idea but that person was wrong. Forget all of Drake’s tired Bernie Madoff comparisons, if that person was paid for that advice, that’s the greatest scam the music industry will ever see.

He finds himself on “F***ing Fans,” but that’s the kind of track that should be solid filler on a decent album, not one of the best tracks on the whole project. Certified Lover Boy is so bad that any moment of decent music is an oasis in the desert though. He preceded this album with “POPSTAR” and “Toosie Slide,” both of which were some of the best music that he’s ever made. He will follow this soon enough with more great singles, which has anyway always been his greatest strength, but for now, there is nothing in his past, present or future enough to make this album worth listening to.

Kanye West – Donda

27 Sep

There’s a lot that can be said about Kanye and his music and there’s a lot that has been said about both. Donda marks a new epithet though and one that seemed inconceivable before; unnecessary. This is just a fundamentally inessential album. For an artist who has long thrived in controversy and in polarization, it’s just jarring to have something that’s honestly uninteresting.

It’s especially strange as this was the situation was ripe for another career-defining album. The last time that Kanye really got away from himself, the result was MBDTF, possibly the greatest album of the millenium. Instead, we get possibly the strangest part of Donda, that it has nothing animating it.

There’s a voice interlude in “Donda” that features Kanye’s mother talking and it’s one of the strongest moments of the album. It’s a very rare bit of meaning in an album that sorely needs some. 808s had the heartbreak, MBDTF had the controversy, Yeezus had the industrial and even JiK had the gospel. Donda has no new ground to break and no larger meaning either.

Is it for his mother? For Kim? For his excess? For the controversy? Donda has space for all of them and addresses none of them.

When “Lord I Need You” plays, you feel like you’re in the middle of an album for Kim and it feels like that would be a great album, but it ultimately doesn’t work because the rest of the album does nothing to support the song. It’s just too incoherent. “Come To Life” continues the thought, but it’s impossible to keep a thread in this album.

Similarly, the story of Larry Hoover in “Jesus Lord” is a strong part of a strong song. There’s impact in hearing him call out the capitalist society. It also goes well with Jay Electon’s verse in the song, which works really well. It brings in the right religious tone and the right fearlessness in calling out DC and Downing Street. However, there’s just once again no support. This is not the conscious album it could have been.

For all of this though, he’s at least partially redeemed by the quality of music. There are missteps and there is bloat, most egregiously in the second cuts of some songs, but elsewhere too. It’s not a finished album. However, he can still make music. Donda is more willing to meld and play with his different styles than anything before. His later career seems to have him using other artists for more and more of his sound and he’s a master at putting people together, like in “Hurricane” and with Baby Keem in “Praise God.”

Even here though, he can’t help but let us down a bit. There’s no true single in this album and even one highlight would have made a tremendous difference. There’s not much that’s very weak, but I don’t think there’s a single song here that’s going to go into a Kanye rotation. “Blood on the Leaves” is what made Yeezus work and “Selah” and “Yikes” did so much for their albums and there’s nothing here quite on the level of even the latter two. “Junya” is a banger, but it’s doesn’t deliver much beyond that. There’s lots and lots of solid music here, but nothing that really goes beyond that.

That’s really all that can be said about the album. There’s lots of decent music. Kanye is still Kanye after all. It’s just that there’s nothing really interesting in the album and very little of substance and it’s time to start wondering if the same is true for the man.

Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow

29 Aug

There are some really interesting pieces in Yellow. The chorus of “Third Eye” is a very interesting progression. The haunting in “Spectre” is also very well done. Unfortunately though, the whole doesn’t add up to anything quite so interesting itself. The genre-spanning music here has a lot going for it. There’s plenty of technical skill and some really clever moments, but there’s just not enough to grab attention or really reward it.

“Yellow,” for instance, would fit well on an Erykah Badu album, but not as one of the stronger cuts. The voice is a little weaker than it should be and the music doesn’t do enough. Overall, it’s just not interesting enough. It fades too easily into the background. It’s also not helped by the bog-standard spirituality either. The Hinduism in particular feels like a shallow reading.

Yellow still ends up a pretty decent album though. As it turns out, good jazz is good jazz and this is definitely good jazz.

Vince Staples – Vince Staples

9 Aug

Vince Staples has always felt like the most straightforward person in rap. No matter how honest someone may come across in a song, we only fool ourselves when we think we know the person behind the music. Nevertheless, it just feels like Vince Staples makes fewer concessions to marketing, to a persona than anyone else out there. It comes through in things like putting out a 22-minute album with no weak spots instead of the bloated albums built to top streaming charts that are now de rigeur. It comes through in how much this album just lets him rap.

The thing about letting Vince rap is that he is very good at just rapping. You can see it in “THE SHINING” or “SUNDOWN TOWN” or “TAKING TRIPS” and you can really see it in cuts like “MHM” and “LIL FADE.” His flow and his control are nothing short of superb and are enough to carry an album in themselves.

It’s true that Vince Staples maybe takes that a little too far. I would have liked some more variety or a couple of particularly inspired cuts. There’s nothing here that is less than excellent, but there is also nothing here that truly transcends.

Sometimes though, you can do without the egg in your beer. It’s just such a pleasure to hear Vince rap. Any album that gives you more of that is more than good enough.

Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

23 Jul

I don’t know if you follow the sport, but NBA season just finished. I follow the NBA fairly closely and one of the things that keeps coming up is the “if X would do Y” pattern. If Ben Simmons would shoot the three, he’d be unstoppable. If Joel Embiid could stay healthy, he’d dominate the league. For years, it was “if only Tyler would mature a little, he would make some of the best music out there.” This is Tyler’s third album in his more mature vein and all three have been excellent.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is strong music with the kind of freewheeling variety that you expect from anything out of Tyler’s mind. Songs like “CORSO” and “LUMBERJACK” just go hard. Pairing with DJ Drama works really well for Tyler. He brings a little extra fun, a little extra chaos and a little extra energy to the album. It’s not that Tyler is ever short of these, but having someone else to bounce off adds fizz. Similarly, bringing in Weezy for “HOT WIND BLOWS” makes for a standout track. Wayne just adds so much pace to the song.

He also does well for getting so personal in this album. Learning about his mother in “MASSA” is a strong moment and recontextualizing an old feud in “MANIFESTO” is a very interesting change in perspective. He doesn’t really have anything to say in his political jaunt in that song, but I appreciate the honesty he brings. The song has a sick beat too.

It’s in “WILSHIRE” though that he really has the scope to tell his story. A lot of what makes for Tyler’s best work is just letting him be himself. He’s very smart and very sensitive and when he’s just talking to you those come through. His story about his friend’s girlfriend is the strongest thing in this album. When he drops lines like “And they say, “Bros over hoes,” I’m like, “Mm, nah, hey/I would rather hold your hand than have a cool handshake,” it’s really hard not to agree.

This trilogy from Tyler has been brilliant throughout. He’s always had the talent, but now that he’s got the direction as well, he’s just making really good music. There really is nothing that this man cannot do.

Jihye Lee Orchestra – Daring Mind

11 Jul

This album does a lot to recommend itself. It’s got substantial pieces of good, strong, aggressive jazz. “Dissatisfied Mind” is fun and energetic and delivers on the chaos promised by the title. “Relentless Mind” has some great moments that grab attention and complex, rewarding subthemes behind it. There are some interesting thoughts made more interesting for their interweaving, but they suffer a little from slightly predictable conclusions. It’s a very fun piece though and that does a lot for it.

Even where the album is not as strong, such as in “Suji” which is overlong and a little shallow, it’s just such lovely music that my complaints are minor. Similarly, although “Unshakeable Mind” is too placid and doesn’t do anything of interest, it doesn’t really need to for it to still be a pleasant listen. I may have preferred an album that did more to stand out, but this is an album that left me with a smile after every play. I’m glad I picked this one up.

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey – Uneasy

22 Jun

Uneasy certainly delivers on the title. This is jazz that is very good at putting you off your ease. It’s always got something to surprise you with. It’s very skilled jazz and very listenable for all the sharpness. It doesn’t thrust itself on you, but it always has something interesting to say and when you pay attention to it, it’s very good at sweeping you away. You’re just compelled to follow it from point to point and see what comes next.

There’s a wonderful loudness in “Touba.” It makes you sit up straight and enervates you. “Drummer’s Song” holds a single pattern for an unsettlingly long time while threading lots of different things around it. It’s a startling and captivating effect. There’s great chemistry too. There’s a wonderful bass solo by Linda Oh in “Night and Day” that transitions smoothly a piano solo that moves smoothly into a drum solo that stretches into an excellent play with the piano and some very understated bass work. It lets everything settle for a moment and then picks things back up with excellent energy and finally ends beautifully.

Uneasy takes this intelligence and sharpness and it’s ability to disorient the listener and uses it for meaning. The political statements running through this album are powerful and reinforced by the shock of the music. It elevates the album and takes it from merely an excellent jazz album to essential listening for anyone at all interested in jazz.

J. Cole – The Offseason

14 Jun

At some point, if you want to be a conscious rapper, you have to actually say something smart. With J. Cole, that moment has passed. It’s time to accept that he is never going to mean anything as a rapper. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen quite as shameful a waste of talent.

I’m going to start with the talent though. We all know about the triple double, no assists of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and while I wasn’t the biggest fan, there was at least promise in there and sometimes that promise is undeniable. I loved “MIDDLE CHILD” when it came out because it was great music and because I thought it signaled J. Cole figuring things out. When he can put things together, he makes absolutely top-tier music.

With “a m a r i”, he has something. The “made it out, gotta mean something” of the hook hits hard and he shows here why his flow is probably his best strength. He does need to give up on DSJ though. That man doesn’t even play for the Knicks anymore. It’s still clearly the highlight of the album though and a single well worth checking out.

It’s followed by “m y . l i f e” which is solid, but cannot help but be unfavorably compared to “a lot”, the earlier and excellent 21 Savage / J. Cole joint. “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” also has moments. The hook is good and he flows into the rap well. It’s not smart, but it’s not dumb either. Choosing that song to stunt about wealth though is almost parody.

This is the issue with him. He keeps bucking for the absolute top tier of rappers and yet he’s just nowhere near as intelligent as Kendrick and, for all of Drake’s Drakeisms, at least Drake knows exactly who he is. J. Cole wants to be dumb and still be treated like he’s smart.

The fact is that there’s a ceiling you hit as a rapper if you have nothing to say. Someone like ScHoolboy Q is never going to be a rap superstar. J. Cole has too much ambition to relax into a role like that though, so he pretends. It’s just hard to take him seriously as a thinker when he doesn’t seem capable of thinking of anything other than himself.

It feels like he raps more about being rich than Drake and Drake wallows in his shallowness. At least “God’s Plan” showed Drake giving out money. J. Cole just keeps stunting instead. The worst part of it all is that he doesn’t even seem to enjoy being rich. It’s all material that’s not quite strong enough to make the jump from his diary to his album, but it’s all here anyway.

This just runs into the second issue though. He’s just not good enough to carry an album without a concept. Snoop Dogg could do it because he’s such a pleasure to listen to. Uzi can keep you engaged with just his flows. J. Cole is not either kind of guy.

The most compelling thing about his music to date is in his naked attempts to be part of rap’s pantheon. The clarity of his struggle to be an all-time rapper at least gave him a point of interest. It was often also the weakest part of his album. KOD attempting to show him as a deep thinker made for its worst parts and they dragged the whole album down. However, letting go even a little of the legacy for The Offseason just leaves the album empty. There’s really not much more to J. Cole than the ambition.

He claims verses that I will “forever playback” in “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e”, but doesn’t actually drop any. There’s a lot of talking in the song that he never backs up and his clowning a millionaire line is just out of touch. The outro is just embarrassing. Some of the verses also just don’t work. That awkward twisting to fit in birthday is far too forced.

He wants to play at being a fighter in “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” as well, but we all saw him get bodied by Noname and it wasn’t close. It was also just because he chose to be an idiot. No one asked him to make a fool of himself like that. I will say that this song has a great beat though and his talking about the beat was excellent pensive rap. That’s a vein that he really should explore more and so most likely will not.

This is not an album worth spending time on and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the same is true for J. Cole himself. Maybe after The Offseason finishes, I’ll check him shooting hoops in Rwanda instead.

Rubén Blades with Roberto Delgado and Orquesta – Salswing

21 May

I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like SALSWING! The album takes Latin Jazz and Big Band standards, places them side-by-side and calls it a day. You’ve got standards like “Pennies From Heaven” and then it’s immediately followed by the Tito Puente classic “Mambo Gil” and both are done very well. There’s naturally tremendous similarity between the two styles and between that and the band’s clear competence, it only makes sense how comfortable they are in both styles.

It’s a fun album both ways too. “Contrabundo” in particular is a highlight. It is bright and sharp and has great Latin percussion and an excellent piano solo. Meanwhile, “The Way You Look Tonight” is a classic rendering of a standard.

If you’re looking for either some Latin Jazz or some Jazz standards, this is good and if you’re open to both, this is great. There’s nothing particularly surprising in it and there’s no interesting intersection of the two styles, but as a collection of top quality music from both, there are no complaints to be had.

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