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Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

24 Sep

 

On the face of it, Big Fish Theory sounds great. On his second full-length album, Long Beach-native Vince Staples layers his poised and confident flow over reworked techno-house beats, and interludes these gems with often bizarre but invariably interesting spoken-word segments and collaborations. There are enough references to oceans and marine life to make the album title seem reasonable, and you’re left with a tidy hip-hop album, with a bow on top.

But dig a little deeper, and Big Fish Theory shines blackly with grimness and desolation. After the break-out success of his debut Summertime ’06 (2015) and his follow-up EP Prima Donna (2016), Staples has gotten really famous really quickly. With a rough past in the mean streets of North Long Beach, this is exactly what Staples should want – enough money, fame and women to catapult him into a different life. But the new life didn’t quite cut it. Staples is left with aching loneliness, and is often met with money-grubbing groupies and fair-weather friends when he tries to reach out for help. So he works on his music, harder and more focused, to exorcise his demons, all the while knowing that the “goal” he’s set himself won’t bring him happiness in the end.

It is this ominous pendulum of emotions that drives the entire album.

“Alyssa’s Interlude” sets the tone for the darker side of things, with a snippet of Amy Winehouse talking about her self-destructive nature being a major source of material for her music. On “Party People”, Vince shows his own streak of self-destruction – his fame pushes him into the spotlight, where he can’t hide his suicidal thoughts (“Please don’t look at me in my face, everybody might see my pain”). The fruit of his success threatens to undo him and, as Vince is finding out the hard way, money doesn’t fix everything anyway (“Couple problems my cash can’t help, human issues too strong for tissues”).

But it’s not just self-sabotage pushing him to the edge. On “745”, Vince is sitting in a swanky car with a beautiful woman – what he’s wanted all his life – but the dream cracks from the inside. His lady friend heads straight to the oyster bar, without regard to poor Vince who’s still out parking the car. “This thing called love’s hard for me,” he confesses, “This thing called love is a God to me.” Pity that he seems so far from it.

But the grim moods don’t last forever. Vince seems to pull himself out of depression by vowing to stay away from demons, within and without. Album opener “Crabs in a Bucket” uses house beats over an Azalea Banks-like off-kilter flow, to draw a mental image of Vince struggling to make it out of the “bucket” of his old neighborhood. (The song also marks the first appearance of Kilo Kish, who often adds a velvety, ethereal gloss over Vince’s hard-to-swallow bullets of truth throughout the album.)

“Crabs” is followed by the club-ready beats of the first single, “Big Fish” – the part where the intro melds into Vince’s almost taunt-like drawl still gives us chills after half a hundred listens. It’s fair to say that Vince doesn’t fit the mold of the typical hip-hop star – he’s a teetotaler and has never done drugs. We also find out from “Big Fish” that he’s really into saving his cash, wielding his bank balance as a protective float from his past misfortunes. “I was up late night ballin’, counting up hundreds by the thousands,” he boasts repeatedly, and it’s not tough to believe him when he says he’s taken the smart route out of his Ramona Park childhood. “Homage” gives us the same message, relayed over neat Gorillaz-style megaphone vocals – no doubt a nod to his recent collaborator Damon Albarn.

Beyond the pendulum between his self-destructive introspection and his drive to succeed, Big Fish Theory displays another overarching theme: Vince’s cynicism with the hip-hop game. He has repeatedly stated on interviews that he considers rapping to be his job, not a side hobby (“Last time I checked, my job was to make songs. All the other stuff is extra,” he stated bluntly in a recent Vulture interview). Over sludgy beats and tinny drums on “Yeah Right”, Vince sardonically questions the order of importance for many of today’s hip-hop stars. “Is your house big?”, “Is your girl fine?”, and almost as an after-thought, “If your song played, would they know that?” And of course, we would be remiss to not mention that the song also features a stand-out verse dropped by rap’s current king, Kendrick Lamar.

All in all, Big Fish Theory works on two levels. It is a great album to hear from start to finish even if you aren’t paying attention to the words; if you are paying attention, that’s a whole different level.

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “745”

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XXXTentaction – 17

21 Sep

That 17 is an exceptional and fascinating album is undeniable. This year feels like an unprecedented explosion for the more alternate strains of rap and XXXTentacion has build a name for himself on the edge of this movement.

You cannot talk about him without bringing up the testimony of his reported victim. This account is horrific. There’s nothing that can a person can do to make me ignore abuse of this sort and I don’t ask you to ignore it either.

17 though, is an excellent and groundbreaking album. This is probably the first rap album to take more from Nirvana and from Papa Roach than from Pac and Big. It barely spends any time in the traditional lines of rap as it freely strays into R&B and rock. The shifts in genre flow smoothly due to the consistency in tone throughout. The album never shifts from its dark and emotional lane.

It’s the album of a young man in its honesty. XXXTentacion is startlingly open in his accounts of his problems. The unfortunate side of this is how juvenile some of his sentiments appear. His manifesto smacks strongly of high school and his lyrics never really scintillate. Additionally, the rapping is fine, but tends to quickly fall into repetition as in “Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares.” However, his sincerity makes such criticisms feel beside the point. The three syllable statement of depression to open “Depression and Obsession” is beautiful and profound enough to carry the song on its own. Similarly, “Save Me” is captivating every single time.

This is an album that’s going to be very meaningful to a large number of people. You may not be that person right now and that’s okay. You may also feel that you cannot enjoy the work of a musician whose alleged domestic abuse is such an atrocity and that’s a reasonable position too. If it is an album that you can play however, it cannot help but be worth the listen.

@murthynikhil

SZA – Ctrl

29 Aug


Ctrl, the debut SZA album, is beautifully heartfelt R&B. Despite a staggering variety of poses, both lyrical and musical, Solana Rowe’s personality shines through on every track, making for a very coherent whole. She puts forward supremely confident R&B, not just for a new singer, but for an established star, yet retains the honesty of a fresh artist. The album starts with a statement about sleeping with her ex’s friend and continues the confessional from there. Watching her face during the cameo in the video for “Drew Barrymore” is an education in itself. Additionally, “Go Gina” and “Prom” are well worth a listen and “Normal Girl” strikes real honesty. This is an album that you should listen to.

@murthynikhil

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

20 Aug

Los Campesinos! exists in a very specific space and it’s not a space for everyone. The cleverest line there, “31, and depression is a young man’s game” really tells you how much you’re going to get out of this album. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re not the kind of person it hits, but there’s some good music here.

It’s glossy clever-clever pop that is pleasant to listen to, but is largely forgettable. There’s a plethora of catchy tunes, and something like “Got Stendhal’s” is completely ready for radio play. However, despite the braininess that Los Campesinos! feels the need to exhibit at every turn, there’s no standout line and a lot of what they pass off as profound feels naive. While I like “I Broke Up In Amarante”, I feel that their refrain of “It seems unfair to try your best, but feel the worst” to be banal instead of cathartic. Even the music, while solid, lacks the innovation to help it stand out. Songs like “The Fall of Home”, while solid slow alt-rock, never really lives up to its potential.

This is an album for a time and a place, and it does an admirable job at that. It’s unable to transcend that as the best albums do, but it never needed to.

@murthynikhil

Haim – Something To Tell You

8 Aug

Four years after their excellent debut album, Days Are Gone, Haim have returned with another fun, eminently listenable album. While it’s not quite as strong as their debut, they remain well worth the listen. Their 80s flavored pop-rock is a little less fresh than it was in 2013 and there’s a little less earnestness than there was in the debut as well, but they’re still easily the most likable band in the world. Songs like “Ready For You” are guaranteed to put a smile on your face and I love the actual song “Something To Tell You.”

Something To Tell You is a safe album and one that hews quite close to the old classics that shaped Haim’s sound. It’s not an album that’s going to convince you to like them if you didn’t before, but what kind of monster doesn’t like Haim in the first place?

@murthynikhil

Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

31 Jul

Inimitable, enigmatic and ever exciting, Thugger is the kind of rapper that you should be paying attention to. Beautiful Thugger Girls follows JEFFERY and Barter 6 in coherence and thus approachability. Great guest spots, including Future’s personal cuts in “Relationship”, Quavo in the excellent “You Said” and vintage Snoop bars in the appropriate “Get High” further the album’s broad appeal without compromising anything. Additionally, the album opener “Family Don’t Matter” leans far more on singing than normal for Young Thug, and thus softens the album as a whole. The majority though, is still Thugger yelping and squawking his way though songs as only he can, and the album closer “Take Care” does that as well as he ever has, as does “Tomorrow Til Infinity.”

It is however inescapable that Young Thug is not for everyone, and if you don’t like him, you won’t like this. Personally, I’m always interested when he puts out something new and Beautiful Thugger Girls does not disappoint. You should definitely try it out.

@murthynikhil

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear

21 Jul

Here, My Dear is a singular achievement in music. Marvin Gaye took the entirety of his divorce and put it on a record to pay the alimony for that same divorce. Tender, bitter and very, very human, Here, My Dear is a classic that everyone should listen to.

Musically, it is nothing short of gorgeous. Marvin Gaye was blessed with a beautiful voice capable of layering a song expertly, and he uses it fully. While this is an album that is built to flow, delving into the grooves is deeply rewarding. It’s a surprisingly smooth album given the subject matter. The funk of “Time To Get It Together” is extremely strong as is that of “Is That Enough” and the latter is exquisitely bitter as well. Similarly, the jazz in the background of the instrumental version of “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” has a large amount of space to play in and is excellent therein and Marvin Gaye himself sings beautifully.

Speaking of “When Did You…”, the phrase acts as a motif for the entire album. There are no less than three songs with that title in the album, and the simplicity and directness of the question really brings home the painfulness of the situation. It’s an album that swings from emotion to emotion and from thought to thought, sometimes contradicting itself over the course of a single song. The overriding emotion though is bitterness. A song like “Is That Enough” holds nothing back in its barbs against his ex-wife and “You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You” is unabashedly one-sided in its presentation of Anna’s criticisms of Marvin’s infidelity.

And yet, “I Met A Little Girl” is heartbreakingly tender as it tells the story of Marvin meeting Anna, and their coming together and falling apart. Again, it doesn’t pretend to be fair, but it doesn’t forget the good times either. Similarly, while “Anna’s Song” is satirical, Marvin Gaye’s voice imbues it with a fascinating longing.

The album takes an interlude after that song to revisit “When Did You…” but then goes into something completely different with “A Funky Space Reincarnation”, an eight and a half minute side trip about sex on Pluto. It seems disjoint, but conveys the restlessness accompanying a major break-up in a way that a more direct statement could never have gotten across. We then take another moment of bitterness, but close with “Falling In Love Again”, which while clearly meant to wound, also reaffirms Marvin’s belief in love, only to undercut it again with the final cut of “When Did You…”. How else could Marvin Gaye have ended the album but with those two statements?

@murthynikhil

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