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Jidenna – The Chief

22 Mar

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Jidenna’s chief gimmick of dressing up makes it tempting to write him off as a one-hit wonder, but that would be unfair. He’s had at least two. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to carry a full album.

He gets points for variety, but not many for imagination. There are some interesting snippets, like learning that he refused Harvard, some decent stunting, and some clever lines, but nothing really compelling anywhere.

As a whole, The Chief is just not really worth a listen. I look forward to hearing Jidenna drop a verse on the occasional Kendrick or Janelle Monae track, but that is probably the most we should hope for from him.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2016

1 Jan

2016 has not been a kind year for musicians. We lost many greats this year, starting with David Bowie in January, to Prince in April, to the double-whammy of Leonard Cohen in November and George Michael on Christmas Day. However, a year that has seen the death of so many singer-songwriters has also been a year that has let loose some of the greatest solo music in recent years: a silver lining, if any. Without further ado, we present below our top five albums of the year.

5. Sept. 5th: dvsn

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dvsn have been shrouded in mystery from the start. When the band first signed on to Drake’s OVO Sound record label, it wasn’t even revealed who the singer was. Since then, they’ve lifted the shroud a little – the voice belongs to Daniel Daley and the beats and words belong to Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jefferies). The mysterious nature suits them, creating an allure that perfectly compliments their sparse, lusty R&B.

And lusty it is. Sept. 5th is essentially about doing the deed with your significant other. Popular music is rife with this topic, but dvsn takes a very respectful approach to the subject matter. “In + Out” (yep, it’s exactly about what you’re thinking it’s about) refers to the partner’s body in royal terms: thrones, highnesses and crowns. On “With Me”, Daley respectfully asks his partner to come over to quench his lust.And on the titular track, Daley knows he messed up and pleads to make it up through – yep, you guessed it – sex.

Beyond the tone of their lyrics, dvsn really excel at creating music that’s sparse and dense at the same time. On “Too Deep”, Nineteen85 layers subtle handclaps, funk sounds, downtempo beats and Daley’s lusty croon, with enough space to co-exist and build off of each other. “Hallucinations” also features just a handful of sounds, but there’s also immense gravity in the negative space – in what isn’t said or heard. It’s almost like dvsn have taken a leaf out of the xx’s book.

Sept. 5th is a highly enjoyable R&B album from a mysterious and highly talented duo. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.

Best tracks: “With Me”, “Too Deep”

4. Blonde: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean’s efforts to release Blonde are nothing short of a drama. The story begins in 2009, when the soft-natured, velvet-voiced Ocean – then inexplicably part of the violent rap crew Odd Future – signed with Def Jam Records. In 2011, Ocean released his critically-acclaimed mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Although its follow-up album Channel Orange was well-received, it was not comparable to the quality and cult following of Nostalgia.

Ocean seemed to have lost his mojo for a couple of years after Channel Orange, although rumors of a follow-up have been surfacing since 2014. Finally, on August 18th and 19th of this year, Ocean streamed a visual album called Endless, effectively completing his recording contract with Def Jam. The very next day – August 20th, 2016 – free of a record label’s controlling hand, he released his real offering: Blonde.

“Smoking good, rolling solo / Solo, solo” incites Ocean on “Solo”, yet another example of the endless battle between creative artists and corporate labels. The freedom suits him, though.

Blonde on the whole is more mellow and meditative than his previous two offerings. Moreover, although Channel Orange and Nostalgia had gospel tinges, Blonde is drenched in them. Nowhere is it more apparent than on “White Ferrari”, a dreamy R&B classic with psychedelic nods to the Beatles. The serenity of the white car offers a nice contrast to the orange Lamb on his mixtape, providing a clue into the singer’s growth since those days. “Sweet 16, how was I supposed to know anything?” he incites, perhaps speaking of the fame that was to follow Nostalgia.

On Blonde, Ocean uses minimalist, introspective music to frame his chocolate-smooth voice and troubled thoughts. Great for rainy, moody evenings.

Best tracks: “Nikes”, “White Ferrari”, “Close to You”

3. “Awaken, My Love!”: Childish Gambino

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Donald Glover challenges the very idea of a triple-threat, a term usually reserved for singer-dancer-actors like Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. Glover, however, spreads his creative talents far further. He got his first break as a writer for Tina Fey on the legendary “30 Rock”. After whittling his comedic talents behind the scenes, Glover moved to the other side as Troy on the equally-legendary show “Community”. As if that weren’t enough, Glover released a critically-acclaimed album, Camp, in 2011. Whatever the Donald does, he does it to perfection (well, this Donald at least).

It seemed for a while that Glover would continue in a mildly-hipster route in music, as he did with writing and television. After Camp (and in between his myriad other creative commitments), Glover released Because the Internet, a Grammy-nominated ode to the World Wide Web – fitting of the world that Troy and his friends resides in. And thus it comes as a true surprise that “Awaken, My Love!” is, at its core, a thoroughly accessible album.

The creative impetus behind the album seems to be the recent birth of Glover’s first child, with a woman that the world knows next to nothing about. The baby seems to have mellowed out Glover, replacing the smug references with feelings and emotions. The deliberate and intense “Me and Your Mama” is a weed-infused love song for his baby mama, sung with the same passion that created his baby boy (“Girl you really got a hold on me / so this isn’t just puppy love”). At the same time, he seems to understand that his days with the baby mama are limited. On “Baby Boy”, Glover speaks alternately to his baby and to his baby mama.  (“I’ve never lied about us / we were never supposed to be together”), but expresses permanent, unconditional love for his child.

Apart from songs written for his baby, the other key notable theme on this album is Glover’s formidable tribute to old-school funk. On album stand-out “Redbone”, plucked staccato notes support Glover’s surprisingly adept falsetto. His lyrics, too, are top-notch. Redbone is slang for someone with mixed African, Creole and Native American ancestry, characterized by the reddish undertones in their skin. Glover calls his redbone woman a “peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid”: metaphorical, funnily accessible and sweet at the same time. “Boogieman” is a perfectly-named double-entendre: a musical homage to the Boogie but a lyrical homage to the Bogeyman.

Overall, “Awaken, My Love!” is a great new direction for Donald Glover the Musician. Glover’s other personas are doing incredibly well – he’s slated to star in a new Star Wars movie and play a part in the new Spiderman movie – so let’s hope he can still spend some time on his music. Because we love what we’re hearing.

Best tracks: “Redbone”, “Me and Your Mama”

2. Lemonade: Beyoncé

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of the elevator incident. In May 2014 at the Met Ball, Beyonce’s sister Solange physically assaulted Jay-Z with almost inexplicable rage. Few things seemed to explain the intensity of her rage, but the most plausible explanation was that Jay had cheated on her sister.

Beyonce and Jay-Z largely kept mum about the elevator incident. All seemed well in the household of the second-most powerful black couple on the planet (at least by omission). On April 23, 2016 – days shy of the two-year anniversary of the elevator incident – Beyonce broke her silence with a record heard around the world. Lemonade was born.

Accompanied by an HBO film of the same name, the visual album is an exploration of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s extremely high-profile and lucrative relationship. It’s unclear whether the album is a state-of-the-nation report or an “inspired-by-real-life” relationship drama. Whichever it is, Lemonade has got us hooked from start to finish.

The album starts off with a two-level prayer: Beyonce prays she can peep into Jay’s cheating world, and also prays that Jay understands that she knows he’s cheating. The first half of the album fleshes out these ideas. On “Hold Up”, she warns Jay that she’s the best he’s going to get – braggodocio and a plea at the same time. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”, the braggodocio takes over. In the former song (which features Jack White), Beyonce sneers at Jay as a weak man who had to cheat and in the latter, she goes full Queen Bey (“Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye”).

After the rage and fury of finding out about a cheating husband, Beyonce comes back to her family-centered values on the second half of Lemonade. On “Sandcastles”, she is willing to break her promise to leave him. “All Night” is a cease-fire: Beyonce has come to terms with Jay-Z and is willing to take him back, because she knows their love is deeper than that.

Lemonade is an exceptionally well-produced concept album that articulates complex feelings like few pop albums have. Its hooks are irresistible, and its lyrics are well-crafted. Clearly, Lemonade is what Beyonce made after life gave her lemons.

Best tracks: “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, “Formation”

1. The Life of Pablo: Kanye West

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In popular culture today, Kanye West is many things. First, he is a famed rapper, producing beats and albums that are way ahead of the rap game at the time. Second, he is the husband of the woman who is by far the most famous in the entire glittering category of women who are famous for being famous. Third, he is a budding designer, whose shoes and clothes capture the fine line between madness and genius: a line that is basically his home address.

In short, Kanye West is famous. Really famous.

Where does all that fame land him?

It lands him in bed (literally) with a host of other really famous people: Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump to name a few. These are the world’s foremost leaders at running the hype and fame game. (See: 2016 presidential elections.)

It gives him a fascination with several incarnations of Paul. Pablo Escobar, famed druglord with an alter-ego as a Robin Hood for Colombia’s poor. Paul the Apostle, carrying forth Jesus’ words and, in essence, his fame.

It provides him a deep, undying love for the thing that matters most: family. Even if that family includes a woman whose claim to fame is a sex tape with another black man. Kanye loves Kim and Nori and baby Saint very, very much – no matter what the naysayers may say.

It also shows him the underbelly of fame: cousins stealing laptops as ransom, acquaintances fronting as friends, friends fronting as real friends.

Life of Pablo is about all of these things. It is a greatly stripped-down album compared to the flamboyance of his previous albums. Much like Childish Gambino, Yeezy has been changed by the birth of his children. But in essence, Life of Pablo is a highly accurate painting of Kanye West as he is right now. It’s a masterpiece, as always.

Best tracks: “Famous”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”

Joey Alexander – Countdown

1 Dec

Joey Alexander’s second album continues the clean, proficient jazz that defined his previous one. The piano sparkles in tracks like “Smile” or “Sunday Waltz” with a sound that feels simple, but perfect. This holds true for “Soul Dreamer” where every note is individual and the music takes on a wonderful clarity. Even in the up-tempo “City Lights” and “Countdown”, the pace increases and the music constantly moves, but the sharpness of the notes keep you moving with it. This version of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” is also fantastic with superb work on the saxophone by Chris Potter.

This album lacks a little of the fire of the true jazz classics, but that’s really the only criticism that can be made of it. This is a fantastic album and worth a listen from anyone keeping up with present-day jazz. Joey Alexander is an incredibly promising young talent, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

@murthynikhil

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

10 Sep

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This is the album that moves Chance from outsider to establishment for me. He’s been doing well for himself, from opening Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo to being the centerpiece of 2015’s Surf and that’s great to see. His raps are so sincere and so joyful that he’s impossible to hate. He’s just a lot of fun to listen to.

Coloring Book takes all of him, adds a number of star collaborators and a ton of gospel and blends it together into an undeniably excellent album. He goes from running his verses with a laid-back Weezy verse over an upbeat vocal backing in “No Problem” to posturing with Thugger and Lil Yachty on “Mixtape” to heartfelt in the slower “Juke Jam” and highly personal tale of growing apart “Same Drugs.” Despite some more forgettable cuts to fill the album out, this is one of the best rap albums of the year and definitely worth a listen.

@murthynikhil

Drake – Views

2 Jul

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This album needed to be great. To Pimp A Butterfly is a landmark album and while The Life of Pablo is not Kanye’s best, it remains a very strong album. Things were looking good for Drake too, he comprehensively demolished Meek Mill in their beef and “Hotline Bling” was not only the best song, but also the best meme of the past year. Views however is the kind of album that collapses an empire.

The biggest issue is how repetitive it is. A cut like “9” could have survived on a different album, but here it just reinforces the faults of the album, namely that it is repetitive and just slightly boring. We’ve heard the petty Drake for far too long and by this point his mix of hurtful and hurting is no longer interesting. He raps “Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake/ You know I love to go there” in “Child’s Play”, but really who cares? This act has gotten tiring and his monotonous beats and flow in Views does not help. I can still listen to the incredibly petty “Marvins Room” indefinitely, but half of the music of this album is tedious from the first listen.

There are some strong pieces to this album though. “Too Good” with Rihanna is quite good and has enough self-awareness to become meaningful and “Hotline Bling” is still fantastic. I just cannot recommend that people track this album down however. Overall, it just lacks in ideas and in quality.

@murthynikhil

The Strokes: Future Present Past

10 Jun

The Strokes

Success came too early for the Strokes. The band’s first studio album, Is This It, is widely considered to be one of the most quintessential indie rock records of all time. Musical kingmakers like NME heralded the leather-clad quintet as the saviors of the entire rock genre. In an era marred by Linkin Park and Nickelback, the Strokes provided the soundtrack for the drunken heydey of an entire generation of now-nostalgic twentysomethings. What more could they achieve?

The threat of great expectations colored their next few albums. Sophomore record Room on Fire certainly had a handful of gems in the Strokes’ signature style; First Impressions of Earth had fewer. Disagreements often cropped up between the members, particularly against lead singer Julian Casablancas. In 2009, Casablancas noted to British daily The Sun that “a band is a great way to break up a friendship”. Demise seemed certain.

However, the band still owed two records to RCA, the label that won them in a bidding war during their prodigal days. The Strokes halfheartedly released Angles in 2011 and Comedown Machine in 2013, both to lukewarm reviews (at best). Their early days – immortalized in the carefree exuberance of Is This It – seemed to be gone forever.

Future Present Past

It is into this complex atmosphere that the band released the Future Present Past EP. Over a media-heavy two days in late May – uncharacteristic for the infamously aloof band – the Strokes released the four songs that make up the band’s first EP since January 2001. Finally unburdened from RCA’s stifling contract, the Strokes have breathed fresh air into their stagnant career.

“Drag Queen” is a dense piece driven by Nikolai Fraiture’s sludge-like bass line, almost reminiscent of mid-career Killers. The lyrics, oblique as with most Strokes songs, seem to hint at an anti-capitalist stance (“I don’t understand your fucked-up system, messing up the city/Try to sell the water, try to sell the air”). Could it be a message to RCA and the music industry?

“OBLIVIUS” hits closer to the band itself. “Untame me, it’s not my midnight yet” sings Casablancas on the opening line, speaking to the band’s fresh start after the five-record albatross. Musically, the song would fit right in on Room on Fire: not as crisp as their first songs, but certainly as driven by a clean click track. The song also features two enmeshed guitar pieces – one soaring, one pulsating – bedded under Casablancas’ condenser croon: all vintage Strokes. The EP also includes drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s remix of “OBLIVIUS”, wherein an electronic version of the bass line and guitar riffs are brought to the fore, atop a flattened version of Casablancas’ vocals.

However, “Threat of Joy” is the song that completely revives the Strokes. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr trade simple, crunchy guitar riffs over Moretti’s clean drums – straight out of Is This It. Casablancas opens the song with a Lou Reed-esque drawl but moves into an early 2001-version of himself, his voice filled with more joy than we’ve heard in years. “Place your bets this time/Just has to let it ride,” he ventures, perhaps talking of their newfound freedom. If you loved Is This It, you will love this song: it’s right up there with “Someday” or “Hard to Explain”.

In a way, Future Present Past is perfectly named. The three songs present a condensed version of the Strokes’ repertoire: from the unadulterated, old-school perfection of “Threat of Joy” to the soaring complexity of “OBLIVIUS” and finally to the more arcane “Drag Queen”. Unencumbered by record companies and with absolutely nothing to prove, the Strokes have all the choice in the world. We’re excited no matter what they do from here.

The Last Shadow Puppets: Everything You’ve Come to Expect

28 May

everything-youve-come-to-expectIn 2008, the world was a different place for Alex Turner and Miles Kane. Turner was a shy lad, still getting used to the stardom accosted onto him after two hugely successful Arctic Monkeys albums. Kane was exiting from the Little Flames, a venture that failed to produce even a debut album, and touring with his new band, the Rascals, alongside the Monkeys. Perhaps as an escape from their main storylines, Turner and Kane began playing together backstage: a pair of gentle, romantic boys almost clinging to each other in a turbulent and uncertain time of their lives. This side project, dubbed The Last Shadow Puppets, culminated in a baroque-pop testament of drama and nostalgia entitled The Age of the Understatement.

A lot has changed in eight years. As Turner said in an interview with British late night host James Corden, TLSP seems to serve as an octennial documentation of the duo’s personal and professional lives. After five successful Monkeys albums, Turner has taken on a stereotypical rock-star persona (whether affected or real is still a matter of contention among fans). Kane has transformed into a modish cad, dating an array of models on both sides of the pond and attiring himself solely in razor-sharp silhouettes. Even in a very literal sense, both men have moved away from their roots in northern England to hedonistic mansions in LA. In a sense, Everything You’ve Come to Expect feels like a reconciliation between the 2008 versions of the two men and their 2016 versions.

This sense of reconciliation can be seen (as is often the case with pop stars) in their songs about girls. In 2008, Turner and Kane mainly wrote songs about wooing girls, in a tone that can best be described as early-Beatles-esque naivete. In 2016, the duo mainly writes songs about girls that have done them wrong, girls that are ill-advised pursuits, girls that are no more than that night’s entertainment, and so on.

In first single “Aviation” (about getting high, get it?), the narrator tries to convince a druggie girl with colorful eyes to start a casual relationship with him. In the eponymous title song, the narrator speaks of getting cheated on by a girl who liked him only because he was part of TLSP. “The Element of Surprise” takes a slightly different route; Turner talks about his rustiness at the wooing game, after meeting a girl who has caused him to fall in love after a long string of seemingly casual relationships. “Sweet Dreams, TN” is the thematic next step: an ode to his current girlfriend Taylor Bagley, who’s a Tennessee native with a septum piercing just like the girl in the song. Even though Turner’s friends and fans think of Bagley as a Yoko Ono of sorts in the Arctic Monkeys universe, Turner feels that he’s truly in love with her. It’s only on the album closer, “The Dream Synopsis”, that we see a glimpse of the old Turner. On that song, he reminisces to his new girl (probably Bagley) about his simple, pre-fame life in Sheffield – and immediately takes a self-conscious step back into nonchalance (“Isn’t it boring when I talk about my dreams?”).

Even though they have changed dramatically, one cannot underplay Turner’s signature lyrics. The Transylvanian descriptions on “Dracula Teeth” (“The full moon’s glowing yellow and the floorboards creak/C’est horrifique!”) paint a horror-movie setting for a girl that haunts the narrator like a ghost. On “She Does the Woods”, Turner speaks of a “spirograph of branches” behind the girl he’s shagging in the woods. On “Pattern”, he describes his complicated relationship with an ex as a spider slipping and sliding on an icicle. It’s the kind of intuitive imagery that we’ve come to expect from Turner’s words.

On a practical note, Everything You’ve Come to Expect does have everything you’d expect from a Puppets album: lyrics that smoothly roll off the tongue, the genius of Owen Pallett’s arrangement, the famed Turner-Kane chemistry. On a philosophical level, however, The Last Shadow Puppets no longer exists. What exists in its place is another side-project by an eight-years-later version of the same two men: a real-world example of the Ship of Theseus. The Age of the Understatement was a collection of lushly orchestrated novellas, created by two boys who wrote tender love letters in the age of Tinder and text message hookups. Turner and Kane are no longer those boys. In fact, they are now the very playboys that represent the “understatement” of modern-day romance. Understatement felt like a natural outlet; this album feels like more of a forced output. Still, it’s worth a listen, if only for Turner’s lyrics.

Best song: “Dracula Teeth”

 

 

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