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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.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

12 Mar

Nearly five years after mainstream-breaking Currents (2015), Australian psychedelic rock act Tame Impala is back with a new album. With a fuller ethos and nods to a wider palette, The Slow Rush finds Kevin Parker, the one-man driving force behind the act, at his most accessible – and the jury is out on whether that’s necessarily a good thing.

Comparisons to Currents are of course expected. That album was packed to the brim with endlessly-playable mega-hits, interspersed with wisps of ethereal fillers (see: “Gossip”, “Nangs“). It had instant classics like “The Less I Know the Better” and “Let It Happen” that redefined what a mainstream psychedelic rock song could sound like, taking back the mantle from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. You knew Currents was a magical ride from the first song – no matter how many times you heard it all the way through.

On The Slow Rush, there are definitely a few such stand-out moments. One of our first tastes of the album was “Borderline”, released almost a year ago to high praise. The song see-saws constantly between cautious synth-rock verses and a feverish chorus, as do the lyrics – “We’re on the borderline / Caught between the tides of pain and rapture,” he says. Accentuated by Parker’s signature Doppler-effect fades, the result is almost a Moebius strip of sound – happy, sad, pained, rapturous all at once – coiled inside one “loner in L.A.”. And even better than “Borderline” is “Breathe Deeper”, a dreamy gem hidden halfway into the album. We’ve already lauded this song, but it honestly deserves all that and more – an intoxicating mix of R&B, house and cool indie pop filtered through the distorted mess of Kevin Parker’s mind.

Beyond these two tracks, though, the roster varies quite a bit. There are tunes like “Instant Destiny”, where Parker comes across, well, boring. “This traffic doesn’t seem quite as annoying / quite alright, quite alright, sittin’ here,” he intones, on what’s essentially a fuzzed-out pop song about L.A.’s I-405. “Tomorrow’s Dust” sounds like he dialed it in with a generic falsetto over a borrowed Vampire Weekend guitar layer. “It Might Be Time” has some neat drums on the eponymous sections, but largely sounds like it could be filler music on an 80s-themed sci-fi show (we’re thinking Stranger Things?).

So what changed? Domestic bliss, we surmise. In the inter-album five-year-stretch, Parker has gotten married; with that change, he seems to have welcomed some much-needed contentment with life. Unfortunately, his music is best when the tension between his anxiety and genius is at near-snap tautness – and some of that has perhaps slackened with the arrival of Mrs. Kevin Parker.

The Slow Rush finds Parker at a personal best but a professional middle. He’s figured out some of the bigger pieces in his core psychological struggles, and the end-product is, with some exceptions, somewhat staid (for Tame Impala). And it doesn’t help that this comes after Currents, one of the best albums this side of 2000. All in all, give The Slow Rush a whirl – but this one’s probably for the fans.

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.

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

31 Dec

There are few double-whammies quite like the one that Foals dealt us this year. They released a career-defining album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1, in March of this year. The conspicuous “Pt 1” in the title left many wondering when the next part would be released. Little did we know that it would be a mere seven months later, with October’s Everything Not Saved Will be Lost Pt 2.

If Pt 1 produced fantastic hits like “Exits” and “Café d’Athens”, Pt 2 takes it one step further. Here, practically every song is a bonafide hit. The album opens with an atmospheric, one-minute intro called “Red Desert” – a palette of echoing synths that conjures up a mystical Marrakesh adventure, perhaps. But the atmospherics immediately segue into Foals’ best song of the year, “The Runner”. Heady, heavy and more than a little apocalyptic, “The Runner” is probably the best arena rock this year – with a killer chorus to boot (“When I, when I fall down, fall down / then I know to keep on running”).

Rather than just being the star of the first half, “The Runner” is actually the first of four absolute beastly tracks. “Wash Off”, is a powerhouse of drums and guitars that goes from frenetic to downright crazy – before all the layers convalesce into a blissful 30-second ending. “Black Bull” is a maddening, murky blitz that lends total credence to the song title (also: see music video). And finally, “Like Lightning” is almost reminiscent of the Black Keys, with Dan Auerbach-esque vocals and a sluggish, bluesy feel – but a banger nonetheless.

It’s not until the slower-paced “Dreaming Of” that the listener is allowed to catch her breath. After the brief piano interlude (“Ikaria”), we are led into the final stretch of the album, and that’s when things really pick up to an unexpected level.

10,000 Feet” is a dramatic, rock-opera version of the myth of Icarus. “Into the Surf” is a dreamy track that highlights Yannis Philippakis’ vocals and a spindly piano. But Foals have saved the best for last, with the complete masterpiece of an album closer, “Neptune”.

At ten minutes and eighteen seconds, “Neptune” is no radio-friendly hit (unlike most of the rest of the album). From start to finish, it’s Technicolor, multi-faceted and visceral; the swansong at the end of the apocalypse just as humanity finally perishes in an arduous battle. There are simply too many elements of the song to describe in words – you have to hear it with your own two ears – but we’d like to highlight in particular the driving bassline and Philippakis’ vivid vocals.

You may notice that, in the course of this review, we didn’t focus too much on the lyrics. That’s not to say that they are not important or well-written; they are both of these things. It’s just that the force of the instrumentals on this album outweighs everything else.

As Foals themselves have stated, Everything Not Saved Will Not Be Lost is two-piece locket. The two albums, when considered together, paint a picture of a Mad Max-style apocalypse: broken, wild but exciting in its own way. Both albums are great, but it’s with Pt 2 that Foals really stick their landing. And for that reason, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2 is probably their best album so far – and maybe even one of the best albums of the year.

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