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Bad Bunny – Un Verano Sin Ti

1 Jul

Un Verano Sin Ti was the most puzzling release of the year thus far. Bad Bunny’s mix of Caribbean musics was completely unexpected and constantly surprising. It was also just too good to deny.

“Party” could be pretty standard reggaeton but Bad Bunny’s crooning elevates it well beyond the regular just for it to go straight back to the dancefloor with the chorus. Similarly, the first half of “El Apagon” is conversational and feels intimate, as though you’re talking to someone in a bar, just for the bar to turn into a dancefloor and a Puerto Rico-pride one at that. You can see the flags unfurling from the rafters. You can hear the entire building jumping up and down and you can see the solo voice take command over the whole thing.

There are two pillars that make this album special. The first is the depth and texture of the sound. “Moscow Mule” opens as though this is a producer’s album with an extended instrumental-only section and wildlife sounds and as the song progresses, this remains true. There are quiet drum beats, little vocal hiccups, quiet moments and tiny, little fascinating subbeats.

Secondly, Bad Bunny just brings a ton of emotion to every track. There’s a quaver in his voice in “Dos Mil 16” that immediately just takes the whole song over. On top of that, these tracks are just bangers. Listen to something like “La Corriente” and no matter what you feel of Latin club music, you can’t help but enjoy it, and that’s really this album in a nutshell.

Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

13 Jun

I didn’t expect the maturity of Mr. Morale. It kind of feels not only that Kendrick is too big and too important for growth, but also too developed. When your second album is To Pimp a Butterfly, you no longer feel human enough for growth. We don’t expect the prophet on the mount to go to therapy.

This growth is most obvious in the music. Mr. Morale takes from Kendrick’s discography and builds on it. There are pieces of all of his major work here synthesized into a single album. You can see some of the storytelling of Good Kid in cuts like “Auntie Diaries,” the message of TPaB in ones like “Savior,” the bangers of DAMN in the earworm “Rich Spirit” and even the cinematography of Black Panther in songs like “Mr. Morale.” This is not a medley though, each of the songs show a variety of Kendrick’s strengths and all of these themes run strongly throughout the entire album

More memorably though, the entire album is themed on a message of growth. This idea comes in again and again and from a variety of angles. The opener “United In Grief” starts out with the emptiness of materialism as Kendrick details buying cars and watches he doesn’t care for, a theme later reinforced by the absolute banger “Rich Spirit”, in which he doesn’t even bother spending the money to replace a broken phone.

“Savior” is the strongest statement of this thesis and the one that most brings in the personal side. TPaB was an album with a message and an album that came at a very specific moment in time. “Alright” was an anthem for BLM and that combined with the clear intelligence of Kendrick Lamar makes it hard not to look to him for guidance. He takes this song and a few others to absolve himself of this responsibility and absolve ‘Bron and Cole and Future at the same time so as to highlight that the weight falls on you and no one else.

He does this with some excellent guest spots. It’s a fascinating song that brings in a lot of interesting pieces and uses them to underscore the message of the song. That chorus asking if you’re happy for him sells the core of the song and the album strongly. He’s got a lot of soft piano work and swirling backing in this album and it really lets his raps shine.

This thesis runs especially strong at both ends of the album. The opener “United In Grief” really drives home the emptiness he feels and uses intriguing, fluttering percussion at the back and a halting piano to texture Kendrick’s words. It’s neither him at his best rapping nor his most insightful thinking, but he does bring some really interesting musical shifts through the song.

On the other end, “Mirror” is a top-tier closer. It takes the cinematography and exultation of Black Panther and gets a clever, pulsating, beat going that fully underscores the repeated “I choose me, I’m sorry” of the chorus. It’s hard not to feel happy for Kendrick when you hear the glory in that statement. It’s not new to see how heavy is the head that wears the crown, Kendrick himself said this as far back as TPaB, but he takes that abdication and shows you the wonder in it and so dulls the sting of his ask underneath the message – that you take responsibility for yourself.

Some of the other tracks can’t quite make as strong a statement however. “Crown” speaks of not being able to please everybody, but is never much more than shallow. There are some very interesting swirls in the music and the whole feels almost Radiohead at points, but the song just doesn’t justify it’s runtime. It might have been something if trimmed but ends up just filler. “Die Hard” is another Black Panther-style song and never does more than act as filler here. It was exciting to hear this kind of song in the Black Panther album when it was a new sound and the album was focused on it but it doesn’t do anything much here.

There’s unfortunately quite a bit more filler than I would like. “Silent Hill” never gets to be anything more and Kodak Black brings in a supremely boring verse that in no way justifies his inclusion in the album. Seeing a trap cut was novel but just not interesting enough. “Worldwide Steppers” brings in some solid storytelling but has nothing interesting besides that. It doesn’t even have Kendrick rapping at his best. Baby Keem is just boring in “Savior – Interlude.” “Father Time” has some interesting story in there but nothing that memorable really and it’s even more forgettable as music. It’s not his best rap at all.

Even his filler is pretty good though. There’s some interesting work in K.’s trap and talking about racism through touring Denmark is a lot of fun. “Purple Hearts” might not do much for me but Ghostface brings in a nice old-school verse and the whole things is reminiscent of Graduation-era Kanye. These tracks are not really cause for complaint as much as a mild wish for more.

That’s why it helps a lot that he has a couple of real bangers in this album. “Rich Spirit” is just very good and that hook is nothing short of amazing. “N95” does indeed go hard. “Count Me Out” is similarly excellent. Kendrick does interesting things with the flows and sounds of the song. He builds up expectations just to throw you off, but it takes a while to get interesting.

“Mother I Sober” may not be the kind of track to bump with the top down but it is one of the best songs that Kendrick has ever made. It’s immediately attention grabbing and the mixture of Kendrick’s rapping and the Beth Gibbons chorus is heady. The haunting vocalizations that run through the track serve as great support for the storytelling too. It’s a very exciting song and a very honest one as well and one that links perfectly into “Mirror.”

The most interesting track though is “We Cry Together,” in which Kendrick and Taylour Page scream obscenities at each other for 5 minutes and 41 seconds. It’s an aggressive song. You notice when it starts to play. The directness of the swearing and the twin voices have shades of “Kim.” It may never get as violent but it is every bit as intense.

For all of that though, it doesn’t fully work out. It’s jsut not the best lyrics. The rhymes, especially the cross-rhymes, are weak. It’s a relief whenever the conversation switches to monologues as while having the two rappers overlap should be clever, the rhymes are so weak as to break it entirely, especially as their flows don’t mesh at all. Also, ending with them choosing sex is a weak choice, albeit one almost entirely redeemed by the tap dancing at the end.

The other track to note, “Auntie Diaries” is very strong storytelling with a hell of a stinger at the end. Kendrick is very sympathetic when talking about his trans family members and that sympathy is necessary for a sogn like this. He brings in some of his best lyricism here, especially when the chorus shifts with the subject and the rapping is compelling throughout. It’s a very strong song, but shallower than I would have liked. In his best work, tracks like “Sing About Me” or “The Art of Peer Pressure,” he brings in small, very lived-in details and brings more personality to his characters. Both Mary-Ann and Kendrick’s uncle feel two-dimensional and Kendrick standing up in church is a hackneyed image. The song lacks individuality and so sometimes falls into preachiness, albeit for a very worthy cause. It is a shame though that the most memorable part of the song comes from Kendrick touring. It would have been a better song had he centered it less on himself, even if it is still a great track.

That’s kind of where I end up with Mr. Morale, very good music with evident flaws. It’s not quite the storytelling of Good Kid, not quite the message of TPaB, not quite the rapping of DAMN but enough between the pieces to be only a bit behind the first two and about the level of the last. It doesn’t really bring in much that’s new and that’s a first for K.Dot, but it acts as something of a consolidation of what is already an all-time career in rap, and that’s more than enough to make for truly excellent music.

Immanuel Wilkins – The 7th Hand

8 May

There’s a lot to like about The 7th Hand. The music is immaculate. There is obscene skill behind the whole thing. There are moments of transcendence. For all of its strengths though, it is just short enough of challenge to mire the whole album.

It oscillates quite sharply between pleasant and aggressive throughout and in the opener “Emanation” you have some very energetic sax work followed by a relaxing piano solo. They both end up flat however. The sax starts strong and is played very well, but it lacks challenge and ends up going nowhere you wanted to visit. The piano solo is a little off-kilter but needed to be fully askew. It’s the same story in “Lift.” There’s a lot of sound and fury, but it’s ends up signifying nothing.

Sometimes, the album takes a turn more towards the pleasant, such as in “Fugitive Ritual, Selah” and it does it well. It may have done better with stronger focus on that side, but that does nothing to help the lack of challenge.

The 7th Hand has moments though. The opening of “Witness” evokes a deep, verdant, arboreal scene and thread some ominousness through it to great effect. These moments just are not enough to lift an album that can never quite escape falling flat.

Charli XCX – Crash

6 Apr

Words by Raksha Thakur

Charli XCX knows that pop music isn’t about reinventing the wheel. In the age of social media ubiquity and its accompanying cult of authenticity, she doesn’t just play with the deja vu quality of pop music, but leans into it fully— a master of the art of making chart-friendly bops. In Charli’s hands, veering into radio-friendly territory is anything but conventional.

Charli is no stranger to pop music. She is a vocal fan of Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, and her smash hits “Boom Clap”, “I Love It” with Icona Pop, and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” dominated the 2010s. As a bankable songwriter, she has also penned some of the most indelible earworms sung by other singers like Selena Gomez, Camilla Cabello, and Blondie among others. Pushing against the constraints of being a Hyperpop singer – a genre she pioneered – Crash sees her return to form in a slick pop music vein.

Playing with the decidedly mass market image of the pop diva, Charli revitalizes mainstream pop through Crash. Anointed the queen of “the future of pop,” Charli slyly challenges this legacy with references to older pop music and audaciously sampling some of the most recognizable hits of the past twenty years. The album is informed by the illusion of the singularity of the major label pop star, all by herself at the very top. Charli hurtles into self-aware pop, with a sonic palette ranging from the ’80s, 2000s and 2010s. The result is an instant classic pop album.

Crash is bangers from the outset, clocking in at a little over half an hour, and opens with the slow, rhythmic adrenaline injection of the title track. The warm, synthy, and ‘80s inspired “New Shapes” featuring Christine and the Queens, and Caroline Polachek (formerly of Chairlift fame) may as well be a tongue-in-cheek kiss off to Hyperpop, if only for the time being. “Constant Repeat” is an arena-sized dance floor scorcher. Its title alludes to the behavior of someone obsessed with a person the way one would be with a song. “You could have had a bad girl by your side,” sings the iconoclast who has proven that she can play the pop game with finesse. “Good Ones” has an intro resembling Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and embodies a catchy ’80s revival sound of the 2000s that Charli grew up on.

Thematically, Crash spans a broad swathe, ranging from aesthetic odes to the witchy, from the occult to David Cronenberg’s risqué, critically-acclaimed movie of the same name. There is also a full circle aspect to Crash having an association with cars: many of her past songs have been about cars, such as “Vroom Vroom”, “White Mercedes” and the unreleased fan favorite “Taxi”.

Charli’s songwriting presents the pop staple of love and romance in all their different dimensions. Through the tracklist, she regularly interplays between provocative songs and softer, more ballad-like tunes. “Move Me” is a ballad with the tempo of a Justin Timberlake & Timba joint with some delicious R&B “oohs”. It is followed by the effortlessly sultry “Baby”, designed to make one do something between dancing and stripping. An unexpected guitar makes a startling appearance and contrasts beautifully with the melodious staccato of Charli’s occasionally manipulated voice at the end of the Kate Bush-by-way-of-New Order anthem “Lightning”.

Charli’s gift of using decade-defining sounds from synths to the scant use of autotuned vocal creates a sound all her own and totally new in the XCX world. For example, the posturing of a pop star in all its manufactured mass appeal goes one step further when Charli sings the chorus of “Beg For You” in a manner that’s a perfect mondegreen of the song she’s sampling from (“Cry For Me” by September). This track in particular (featuring our favorite Rina Sawayama) has all the best elements of Britpop aided by Charli’s touch: a nostalgic disc scratch, Jamie XX-like bass, the sampled breakbeat and melody of Milk Inc.’s “Don’t Cry”, and a duet about heartache that is irresistible to avoid dancing to. “Used To Know Me” takes the recognizably ‘90s club sound of “Show Me Love” and transforms it into a Britney-esque danceable bubble-gum pop bop.

In 2020, Charli released the raw, vulnerable how i’m feeling now – an album that closely involved Charli’s fans (or Angels, as they’re known across the internet), including features in in her music videos. In comparison, the contrast to her new era as a main pop girl baddie couldn’t be more extreme. With its carefully manufactured mystery and allure, this album is nothing short of an enormous pivot.

Pop stars are part of a larger commercial music machinery: cogs in collaborative efforts from record labels to songwriters, singers, and producers. In contrast, Charli is known for her collaborations with other musicians and producers as much as for her signature glitchy sound. Long resistant to the singularity of the pop star, Charli’s new album dives headlong into the illusory concept of the lone pop star while serving the very finest pop music out there. Crash shows a departure for a musician who refuses to be boxed into a genre at the top of her game making timeless catchy pop.

Rosalía – MOTOMAMI

29 Mar

MOTOMAMI is the greatest reggaeton album ever made. Rosalía was already a superstar and yet she has found a way to be larger still, and even more impressively, to do so on her own terms. MOTOMAMI does not fall cleanly into any box, but instead draws from apparently every influence that Rosalía can bring to the table and the result is dizzying.

This shows up well in the fun “CANDY.” She brings great emotion and fascinating sounds from a range uncompromising in its scope and makes the song fun to boot. She is every bit as fun in “CHICKEN TERIYAKI.” The music is clever, lively and so very individual.

For all of that though, she is still capable of “HENTAI,” a slower indie rock cut. She does it well, even if I prefer the reggaeton and her versatility is stunning. This is what allows for the standout “LA FAMA,” not only the best track on the album, but also The Weeknd as good as he has ever been, but somehow in Spanish.

MOTOMAMI is everything you could ask for and yet does not have a single fragment of pandering from Rosalía. This is her album entirely and we are all the better for it.

Nilüfer Yanya – PAINLESS

20 Mar

PAINLESS is an imperious album. It’s effortless in its ability to capture. you. Many of the other great albums of the present work with intricate details. PAINLESS just finds the right grooves, adds the right textures and is rightly confident in their ability to keep you captivated. Yanya then adds to this with insistent and undeniable storytelling that runs as a dark whisper underneath the shimmering dream pop.

In something like the standout “L/R”, the narrative both powerful and sparse. “Sometimes it feels like you’re so violent, autopilot” is a strong line for the chorus and contrasts very satisfyingly with the languor of the music.

Similarly “anotherlife” is buoyant, dreamy and resonant and then it will absolutely lacerate you the moment you let it in. “try” is very compelling and very relaxing music and Yanya’s voice is perfectly restrained and sublimely emotive.

PAINLESS is a consistently cohesive album. There’s nothing here that detracts from the vision or compromises the quality and both are unparalleled.

Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

5 Mar

Big Thief has always been a band for whom I’ve had more respect than liking and there have been plenty of albums where I’ve had neither one. This is the first album of theirs that I really enjoy. It is somehow both deeper and more detailed than their previous work. It’s more intelligent and a little off-kilter as in the spectacular “Simulation Swarm.”

More enjoyably though, it’s also much more fun than their earlier work. The two hands clapping in “Time Escaping” is hilarious and on just the right side of camp and the song itself is nothing short of excellent. The country twangs that never move too far into the background of “Spud Infinity” are similarly just funny.

With this humor and humanity, they are more poetic than their usual and more resonant as well. This is really good music with none of the remoteness that often plagued their earlier albums. In fact, it’s hard to think of any real flaw to hold against the album at all.

Saba – Few Good Things

20 Feb

I certainly didn’t expect such a relaxed Saba on Few Good Things. I’m used to a rapper more caught up in the throes of emotion. Here, we see him stretch out a little. He broadens his musical range as a result. “If I Had A Dollar” has him channel Kendrick and “Soldier” brings in something of an Outkast feel. He does well enough with both of them and with the album as a whole. There’s nothing here with much heft, but also nothing here that misses the mark.

Where CARE FOR ME was passionate and heartfelt, Few Good Things is much more muted. Saba is talented enough to make solid music nonetheless, but the album still ends up unfocused and unmemorable.

Mitski – Laurel Hell

14 Feb

Laurel Hell will cut you if you let it. It’s a quiet album and that just makes the cuts deeper still. “Working for the Knife” is painfully sharp and very resonant. It’s great indie rock and pairs clever, evocative rock with clever, evocative lyrics. Her storytelling is top-notch throughout and unmatched in its subtlety. There’s something persistently elusive in the story of “Should’ve Been Me.”

Her music also doesn’t particularly worry about being noticed. The details are often stunning though. She tries sounds that are just a little off-kilter and puts a lot of care into some very small pieces. It’s unfortunate then there are also broad swathes of music that just don’t do anything particularly interesting and not all that much that truly transcends into the magnificent. However, there is still a lot that is quite good and some parts so clever they cannot help but linger.

FKA Twigs – CAPRISONGS

31 Jan

FKA Twigs has made a habit of going from strength to strength over her career, a fact made even more incredible by how much she adds with each iteration and how strong she started in the first place. A mixtape like CAPRISONGS is naturally not going to be her strongest or most consistent work, but it is a space for her to stretch out and experiment a bit and it’s delightful for that.

To start with, she brings Afrobeats into the mix. “papi bones” is a lot of fun and has a lot of infectious energy to it reminiscent of Rihanna in her peak Barbados phase. However, there’s lots of innovation even in the more straight-edged pop. She brings in a fascinating high pitch for “minds of men” that elevates the track from merely good pop to something memorable. Similarly, while “ride the dragon” does have a slightly cliche flute and name tag, it’s mostly very intriguing music.

CAPRISONGS is also just good at being good music. “oh my love” is an excellent track and the chorus is a lot of fun. It is “tears in the club” though that is the real standout. Her collaboration with The Weeknd is a true superstar single. Both of the singers are absolutely at the top of their powers and they work so well with each other.

It’s far from a perfect album. The interstitials alone do more than enough to keep it from that. However, it is a lot of very good, very interesting music. FKA Twigs is always doing something new and always doing it very well and it’s a pleasure to try to keep up.

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