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Lil Uzi Vert – RED & WHITE

28 Oct

As always, Uzi just brings fun energy to every project of his. The joy that he takes in his work is infectious and often feels needed in a genre that quickly slips too far into seriousness. In particular, “GLOCK IN MY PURSE” is mad fun and gloriously silly. He’s not the first to rap about designer goods and masculinity but he is definitely the rapper having the most fun with the conflict.

He finds occasional lightness through the rest of the album, but unfortunately the album is still more filler than not. There’s some music here that can still hook you, like in “ISSA HIT” and the closer of “F.F.” is very well done, but there’s just not that much that sticks. He’s fun when he’s fun though and “GLOCK IN MY PURSE” has more fun in every minute than most albums can find in an hour.

Makaya McCraven -In These Times

15 Oct

I want to start this by talking about the magnificent “So Ubuji.” The track takes from so many inspirations to meld together something that remains delicate while layered and intricate. There’s beautiful, rain-like percussion flowing through the whole thing and a very nice, tripping cadence to the whole piece.

This mix of tastes surfaces again and again through the album. “High Fives” gets a very nice funk line running through some world music themes and a nice space-jazz screech every now and again. “In These Times” puts in a solid sax solo, but the later “The Knew Untitled” is essentially a rock guitar solo that is as unexpected as it is competent.

Possibly due to the mix, the album has very strong fragments, but ends up a little too smooth for my taste. There’s too much that doesn’t really demand attention and only has so much to offer when given it. However, when an album is unobjectionable at its worst and unmissable at its best, that’s more than enough to recommend it.

Built To Spill – When The Wind Forgets Your Name

3 Oct

Starting with the best track of the album, “Understood” is good, compelling rock. When this album clicks, as it does here and in “Elements” and “Never Alright”, it lays down some excellent psychedelic rock. While the lyrics are awkward and unfortunately dehumanizing, they add a menace that bounces quite well of the song and provides a depth that you can sink into.

They also find space to switch things up a little with the very good “Fool’s Gold.” It’s too lush to be straight blues-rock, but that lushness does a lot to benefit the song and it’s a very successful branch of the trunk of the album.

However, the rest of the album doesn’t have the same quality to it. “Rocksteady” is at least a good, pleasant psych rock piece, but entirely too pleased with itself. The other tracks never rise above forgettable. There’s enough good music here to forgive some filler, but not quite enough to make this a must-listen and no one track that really pulls you to the album either. It’s still a fun album though.

JID – The Forever Story

17 Sep

Sometimes rap can just be fun. JID is fluid and agile. He just pops off in “Raydar” and whispering the second half of “I got the shit you could play for your mama / I got the shit you could play for your hoes” is hilarious. Similarly, “Dance Now” is good fun and the beat suits the raps well. Also, “RIP, I miss my dogs like Mike Vick” in “Crack Sandwich” always makes me laugh, even if the sportscaster references don’t do much for me. This free-flowing playfulness makes Weezy a good match for him in “Just In Time” even if the beat is mediocre.

He even does well with Mos Def in the Danger Mouse-y “Stars” but “Sistanem” doesn’t have enough in the storytelling or the lyrics to make the sober cut it wants to be. A couple of other filler tracks like “Money” bring the album down, but overall it’s an album of clean fun and ends up being quite a good time.

Danger Mouse & Black Thought – Cheat Codes

4 Sep

This is not a particularly daring or noteworthy album but it is very pleasant to relax into the very old-school sound that Danger Mouse and Black Thought bring. Danger Mouse sets the tone strong from the start. He sets up nice funky grooves for people to rap over and Black Thought complements them well. This traditional sound works well for OGs like Black Thought and like Raekwon when he shows up in “The Darkest Part” but can’t cover for Run The Jewels’ anemic rapping in “Strangers,” the weakest cut in the album.

Still, save for that one blemish, this is an album very consistent in its quality. Sometimes, it’s a little stronger, like in the compelling “Aquamarine” but it’s more really just comfortable. This is a safe album. It takes no risks and never really finds brilliance but it’s always a good listen and its just nice to get a throwback like this every now and again.

Harish Raghavan – In Tense

28 Aug

It’s always nice when an album starts with its best foot forward. “AMA” is In Tense at its strongest. There’s a great bass solo right at the beginning and the backing adds an arboreal element. It’s a verdant and lush sound as the bass puts in energetic work and a very clean vibraphone follows suit.

That vibraphone later finds an excellent groove in “In Tense” and has another excellent solo in “Eight-Thirteen.” This is a very pleasantly concise album and it takes the effort to say what it wants to say well. “Prayer” adds in a great tenor solo and “s2020” trips over itself delightfully.

However, there’s just not enough to provoke thought in this album. The songs are all very well done but tend to very predictable resolutions. Even “Circus Music,” the most complex of the tracks, could really have done with some of the whimsy of the title. It keeps a lot of balls in the air and watching the patterns they make as they cross each other is fascinating, but a little more of the unexpected would have brought in a much-needed lift.

However, In Tense gets too much right to worry about the little it gets wrong. This is an album put together with skill and care. It is clear about what it has to say and always well worth listening to.

Beyoncé – RENAISSANCE

22 Aug

Whenever Beyoncé releases new music, it’s an Event™ – especially as she has a penchant for dropping music out of the blue. RENAISSANCE, her seventh album, was actually released on July 29th with a heads’ up by way of an announcement on July 16th. Expectations were high, and the first single “BREAK MY SOUL” raised them even further.

So how good is RENAISSANCE? Does it best Lemonade, her acclaimed sixth album from 2016? Probably not. But there are more than enough highlights on this album – not to mention an exciting new turn for Queen Bey – that makes this one well worth the listen.

By and large, RENAISSANCE celebrates the disco and house sounds of the 1970s, especially from Black America. We’ve already written about “BREAK MY SOUL”, a raucous Afropop-tinged disco track seemingly soundtracking the Great Resignation. “ALIEN SUPERSTAR” is another early stand-out with club-ready beats against Beyoncé’s sweetly-sung vocals. “CUFF IT” offers a funky disco sound with the unmistakable Chic touch – and no wonder, because Nile Rogers himself was involved on the track. “VIRGO’S GROOVE” is another disco-funk classic: a seamless, six-minute ode to the desire that Beyoncé still feels for her husband. 

When we looked back at these standout tracks, what jumped out was that all except “BREAK MY SOUL” come courtesy of a production & songwriting duo Nova Wav, consisting of Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu” Andrews. Chi and Blu first worked with Beyoncé on her Grammy-winning “BLACK PARADE” track in 2020. On RENAISSANCE, they have contributed to eight of the best tracks from this album. “MOVE” featuring Grace Jones and Tems is sparse and dramatic with an opening section reminiscent of “Tokyo Drift”, while “PURE / HONEY” is an irresistible track that brings to mind early-90s dance-pop hit “I’m Too Sexy”. “SUMMER RENAISSANCE” is a classic disco / house song that samples none other than Donna Summer’s iconic disco hit “I Feel Love”. It’s not a stretch to say that Nova Wav is the actual powerhouse behind the marketing & vocal genius of the Beyoncé brand on this album.

The other thing that really strikes you about RENAISSANCE is the sheer perfection of the song transitions. They are beautifully done in a way that makes the entire album feel like one cohesive whole, with different sections corresponding to different moods and tracks. In particular, the entire stretch from “CUFF IT” to “ENERGY” (featuring Jamaican rapper Beam) to “BREAK MY SOUL” is a kaleidoscopic ten-minute ride with no discernible stitch whatsoever.

Apart from the core tenets of disco and house, Beyoncé does a good job of highlighting other sub-genres – for example, the dancehall vibes on the aforementioned “ENERGY” and on “HEATED”. Gospel and trap intersect on the Megan thee Stallion-like “CHURCH GIRL” with its insistent drumline and a lot of quotable lyrics, while “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” is the closest thing to sweet pop on this album that’s otherwise aggressively sensual.

While there are definite weak points on RENAISSANCE (for example, the tryhard “THIQUE” and the forgettable “ALL UP IN YOUR MIND”), it’s clear that Beyoncé has spent considerable time, energy, and skills in creating the distinctive throwback sounds on this album. The production values are sharp and her vocals are as on point as ever. RENAISSANCE doesn’t have the emotional range of Lemonade (and to be honest, people like Jessie Ware have already made better disco albums in recent years), but Beyoncé’s seventh album is certainly worth a listen. 

Rating: 7/10

Best tracks: “BREAK MY SOUL”, “VIRGO’S GROOVE”, “CUFF IT”

Soccer Mommy – Sometimes, Forever

14 Aug

Sometimes, Forever makes a habit of sliding right through you. At its best, it does so smooth as razor, leaving you with lacerations as it passes through. At its worst, it does so like aether, completely beneath your perception. It is strong more often than it is weak, but the end result is nevertheless a little mixed.

It’s never anything less than solid though and there’s a decent amount here that stands out. “Still” cuts into you with a very simple guitar base. “Following Eyes” is very good lo-fi indie rock. It’s just a few simple elements but deep enough to drown in. “Feel It All The Time” is very good shoegaze-y music. It’s not the most innovative lo-fi but it is very good.

However, these are balanced by cuts like “With U,” a perfectly acceptable indie rock song. It’s competent, but forgettable for that. I’ve heard countless songs just like it and without any particular piece to elevate it, the song just slips past your notice every time.

“Shotgun” though is nothing short of spectacular. It’s got a delightful fuzz running through it and painfully smart lyrics. It’s a fantastic song and Sometimes, Forever at its best and with peaks like this, it becomes very easy to forgive an occasional song that falls short of distinction

Harry Styles – Harry’s House

1 Aug

Of all the solo careers coming out of One Direction, there’s no doubt that Harry Styles is just a notch above. He didn’t necessarily start out that way: his eponymous debut album showed promise with its 60s-tinged classic pop sounds, but ultimately proved to be fairly mediocre. Things got better with his second album Fine Line (2019) which featured earworm-of-the-decade “Watermelon Sugar” and bagged Styles his first Grammy (for the same track). 

In the years since that album and third album Harry’s House (2022), a lot has happened in Styles’ personal life. Most notably: actress and now award-winning director Olivia Wilde famously left her partner and father of her two children for Harry Styles. Olivia’s presence features subtly throughout the album’s lyrics – appropriately so, since Harry’s House is apparently meant to be about a day in his brain. 

“Late Night Talking”, the album’s second single, is a bright R&B track with a ridiculously catchy chorus that features the title words. With the references to breaking cameras and following his lady to Hollywood, we guess that the late night talks in question were with Ms. Wilde. If “Late Night Talking” bases itself on oblique references, “Cinema” gives it to us straight as the most direct ode to Olivia. The track lays bare the equation between them – she, the worldly cool older woman and he, the eager-to-please and madly in love. “I just think you’re cool, I dig your cinema / Do you think I’m cool, too? Or am I too into you?” he simpers. Also notable: his voice may be sweet may be sweet but the lyrics on this track definitely veer into some spicy territory with his thoughts about her.  

There are other tracks on this album that are great outside of referencing his new lady love, though. Opening track “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” immediately grabs your attention with the heavy bass lines and Styles’ charming falsetto. The bright and brassy chorus makes for an altogether irresistible track – one can even call it a “song of the summer”. Of course, it would have to share that title with Styles’ other big hit from the album – first single “As It Was”. It’s not “Watermelon Sugar” in terms of sheer virality but it’s as great of an addition to his discography. The instrumentals are bright but muted, and his vocals have a melancholy edge to them – if the whole album is about a day in the life in his brain, this is about a not-so-good day where he’s sitting at home, alone, on the floor, and possibly with drugs, to numb his loneliness. 

Daydreaming” is another sunny and bright track with horns, a thick bass and almost a disco feel in its exuberance, while “Satellite” is a decent track with some interesting drums and a space analogy to the distance between two individuals – kind of in the same spiritual tone as Ariana Grande’s “NASA”. Finally, “Matilda” is a sweet track ostensibly written for the title character of Roald Dahl’s classic novel (or at least someone like her). The quality of his vocals shines in its warmth and understanding on the chorus: “You can let it go, you can throw a party full of everyone you know / And not invite your family ’cause they never showed you love, you don’t have to be sorry for leavin’ and growin’ up”.

Beyond these tracks, though, the album has its fair share of weaker tracks – not duds, especially, but low on the notability scale. A lot of these tracks seem to be about a failed romance that, in retrospect, judging by the relative quality of these tracks, hasn’t provided the best inspiration for him. “Daylight” is a largely forgettable track about a withholding girlfriend while “Grapejuice”, “Little Freak” and “Keep Driving” are mild, vague tracks about the missed love interest, albeit with some interesting visual cues (red wine; ginger ale; tracksuits hiding a yoga-toned body). Album closer “Love of My Life” caps off this series of tracks with a final ode to this lost love; distance seemed to have been the death knell (“It’s unfortunate / Just coordinates”) so at least we have the full story there.

All in all, Harry’s House opens invitingly enough with some bright, brassy hits, but things get milder and less interesting the deeper you go in. To stick with his chosen house-as-mind analogy, perhaps there’s some finetuning and self-work that’s still pending on Styles’ end – and hopefully the next album will be even better.

Rating: 7/10

Best tracks: “Music for a Sushi Restaurant”, “As It Was”, “Late Night Talking”

Yaya Bey – Remember Your North Star

1 Aug

The first things that sticks with you from Remember Your North Star are a couple of razor blades embedded in the candyfloss. The album has a lot of the cloud-like consistency of candyfloss; the music is soft, gentle and jazzy. It’s ever so mildly effervescent. It provides the softest of velvet to envelop the iron of “mama loves her son” and of “i’m certain she’s there.” These snippets of her personal suffering and the universal pain that they mirror are storytelling of the absolute highest caliber.

She’s also a lot of fun when she stunts though. The swagger in “big daddy ya” is as infectious as the music. It’s empowering to sing along to. Similarly, her bragging in “keisha” is impeccable. You’re as puzzled as she is at someone unable to appreciate how good she is.

The only issue here is that sometimes in between all of these strengths, she can take the relaxation of the music and slip too far into languor. The jazz of “reprise” is mostly strong, but in places like the chorus become a little too smooth for even her vocals to save. It’s a great album, albeit one that would have been elevated by a little more energy. Still, I’m certainly not churlish enough not to like nice things.

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